The Dirty Dozen (1967) is a classic war film that features a number of the biggest Hollywood stars of the time: Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, Donald Sutherland, George Kennedy – honestly, we could go on! Following 12 members of a penal military unit who are trained by the Allies to conduct a Commando mission ahead of D-Day, it’s a smash from beginning to end. The following are some facts about The Dirty Dozen that you might not have known.
The Filthy Thirteen
We’ll start off our article about The Dirty Dozen with some facts about the group that inspired its source material. Known as the Filthy Thirteen, the men who inspired E.M. Nathanson’s novel were real-life paratroopers who served with the 1st Demolition Section, Regimental Headquarters Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division during World War II.
The group received their unusual nickname while stationed in England, where they refused to bathe more than once a week. Once deployed to mainland Europe, they were tasked with sabotaging targets behind enemy lines. Their major engagement was D-Day, with members also participating in Operation Market Garden.
Donald Sutherland almost didn’t appear in The Dirty Dozen
It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Donald Sutherland portraying Vernon L. Pinkley in The Dirty Dozen, but that was almost the case! He was actually the second person cast in the role, with the original actor dropping out last minute because he felt the part was beneath him.
We bet whoever it was regretted their decision, considering how popular the movie was (and still is).
One of the largest sets ever built
The French château featured in The Dirty Dozen is pretty grand, but did you know it’s considered one of the largest set pieces ever built? The brainchild of art director William Hutchinson and his 85-man crew, it spanned 240 feet and rose 50 feet. When it was complete, gardeners were brought in to plant six weeping willows, 450 shrubs, 30 spruce trees, 5,400 square yards of heather and 400 ferns.
What’s more, the château was so well-built that 70 tons of explosives would have been needed to blow it up. As such, a replica made from plastic and cork was built of one section.
Jim Brown retired from the NFL while filming The Dirty Dozen
Actor and football player Jim Brown starred as Robert T. Jefferson in The Dirty Dozen, and while he enjoyed making the movie, it got him into trouble with the National Football League (NFL).
Production ran longer than expected, meaning the fullback risked missing training camp for the 1967-68 football season. In fact, things got to the point where the owner of the Cleveland Browns, Art Modell, actually threatened to fine and suspend Brown if he didn’t report to the camp. That’s when he did something no one expected: he held a press conference to announce his retirement from the sport.
That’s one way to stick it to the man!
Serving as an anti-war allegory for Vietnam
While a war movie, The Dirty Dozen is, in fact, meant to serve as an anti-war allegory for the Vietnam War, as was the intention of director Robert Aldrich. This can be seen in its anti-military and -authority tones.
At the time of the film’s release, the United States was smack-dab in the middle of the conflict in Vietnam, and many consider it to be one of the earliest public outcries against the conflict, despite it taking place during the Second World War.
Lee Marvin’s alcoholism was a major problem during filming
It’s a known fact that Lee Marvin struggled with alcohol during his lifetime, and his addiction became a big problem during the production of The Dirty Dozen. It’s said his issues stemmed from his wartime service, having served with the US Marine Corps throughout the Pacific Theater during the Second World War.
One scene required Marvin’s character, Maj. John Reisman, to drive an armored truck, with Joseph Wladislaw (Charles Bronson) sitting in the passenger seat. However, when the time came to shoot the part, the actor was nowhere to be found. Crewmen later found him at a pub and brought him back to set, where they had him drink coffee to try and sober up.
Upon his arrival, Bronson came up to him and said, “I’m going to f*****g kill you, Lee.”
John Wayne as Maj. John Reisman?
Similarly to Donald Sutherland, Lee Marvin wasn’t the first person approached to portray Maj. John Reisman in The Dirty Dozen – in fact, another big-name actor was offered the part. Who, you ask? The Duke himself, John Wayne!
While Wayne was no stranger to military films, having appeared in the likes of The Longest Day (1962) and The Alamo (1960), he wound up turning down the part of Reisman because of his moral compass. The actor didn’t approve of the character’s affair with the wife of an enlisted man while her husband was fighting overseas.
Another reason the Duke turned down the part was that he wanted to work on a project that would turn public favor back toward the Vietnam War, as support Stateside for the conflict had begun to decline by this point.
Several members of the cast served during World War II
As with many military movies released in the post-war era, The Dirty Dozen featured a number of veterans:
- Lee Marvin, US Marine Corps – He saw action as a scout sniper and was injured during the Battle of Saipan.
- Robert Webber, US Marine Corps – He served as a 776-Radio Operator (Low Speed) in Guam and on Okinawa.
- Charles Bronson, US Army Air Forces – He flew 25 combat missions over Japan aboard a Boeing B-29 Superfortress.
- Ernest Borgnine, US Navy – He was dispatched to the Atlantic coast aboard the patrol yacht USS Sylph (PY-12).
- Telly Savalas, US Army – While never deployed overseas, he was stationed out of Camp Pickett, Virginia from 1941-43.
- George Kennedy, US Army – He served under Gen. George Patton and saw action during the Battle of the Bulge.
- Robert Phillips, US Marine Corps – He was a self-defense instructor with the service throughout WWII.
- Clint Walker, Merchant Marine – He quit school and enlisted in the Merchant Marine when he was just 17 years old.
- Robert Ryan, US Marine Corps – He served as a drill instructor at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendelton, California.
- Richard Jaeckel, Merchant Marine – He enlisted close to the end of the war and remained with the service until 1949.
- Ralph Meeker, US Navy – He only served for a few months before being discharged for an injured neck.
Four of the actors reunited over 30 years later
It’s rare to see two actors reunite for a future project, let alone four of them, but that’s exactly what happened 31 years after The Dirty Dozen was released. Ernest Borgnine, Clint Walker, George Kennedy and Jim Brown were among those to lend their voices to the 1998 film, Small Soldiers, directed by Joe Dante.
The movie centers around toys that become sentient following the installation of a military microprocessor – think Toy Story (1995), but not so kid-friendly.
From The Dirty Dozen to M*A*S*H
As aforementioned, Donald Sutherland portrays Vernon L. Pinkley in The Dirty Dozen, but did you know that the role is the very reason he was cast in 1970’s M*A*S*H? It’s true!
More from us: Behind-the-Scenes Facts About ‘Crimson Tide’
The scene where Pinkley pretends to be a general to inspect Col. Everett Dasher Breed’s (Robert Ryan) troops wasn’t intended to feature the character. It was initially written for Clint Walker, but the actor felt too uncomfortable and it was given to Sutherland. It’s said this scene was the main reason why the Canadian actor was given the role of Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce in M*A*S*H.