Monday, April 29, 2013

Capsule Film Reviews: The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard

I have liked most of the films of Robert Aldrich that I have had the opportunity to see since I started avidly watching films back in the 1960s. Since at least the 1970s I have made an effort to seek out Aldrich films because a number of auteurist oriented critics I read at that time wrote that they were worth seeking out. And they were right. Over the years I sought out, watched and enjoyed Aldrich’s Vera Cruz (1954), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962), Four for Texas (1963), Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), The Dirty Dozen (1967), Ulzana’s Raid (1972), Hustle (1975), and Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977).

The most recent Aldrich films I watched, or more accurately re-watched, are his 1967 film The Dirty Dozen and his 1974 film The Longest Yard. The first time I saw both films was when they were on television probably sometime in the early 1970s, in the case of The Dirty Dozen and in the late 1970s or early 1980s in the case of The Longest Yard. This was the era when television still showed Hollywood films, past and present, by slicing and dicing widescreen films like The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard from their original aspect rations to the television ratio of 1:33:1 (the aspect ratio listed for The Dirty Dozen at Amazon.com is an inconsistent 1:85:1 for the single disc version and 1:77:1 for the two disc version, while the aspect ratio listed at Amazon.com for The Longest Yard DVD is an incorrect 1:33:1), and cutting minutes out of the film, particularly those deemed unsuitable for American audiences by the guardians of family television morality, so it could fit into a usually 120 commercial laden time slot. No wonder Pauline Kael hated American television and what it did to the movies.

Even in their sliced and diced forms I liked The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard when I first say them, a lot. This time I was fortunate enough to watch good transfers of both films on DVD in their original theatrical versions with the correct original aspect ratios if not in all of their big screen glory. Watching films on DVD is a radically different experience from watching them on the big screen regardless of the quality of the transfer.

I am glad I watched both films one after because when you do this you can see how similar they are in so many ways. Both The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard are male action-adventure prison films. Both, for substantial part of their running times, take place in prison settings, The Dirty Dozen in a prison built especially to house the "dirty dozen" (Telly Savales, John Cassavetes, Donald Sutherland, Jim Brown, Charles Bronson, Clint Walker, Trini Lopez, Tom Busby, Ben Carruthers, Colin Maitland, Stuart Coooper, and Al Mancini), a prison built by the prisoners themselves, The Longest Yard in a literal prison, the Citrus State Prison in Florida.

Both The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard are combat films, that manliest of film genres along with the Western and the action-adventure film. Both films centre on a group of anti-authority and anti-establishment individualist types with less than sterling backgrounds who, over time, are molded into semi-professional but still anti-authority fighting collectives. In The Dirty Dozen a group of society's dregs, an idiot, a psycho, a malignant dwarf, a Southern religious fanatic, racist, misogynist, and rapist, and a gentle giant when pushed to anger, all of whom are imprisoned are molded into combat soldiers and sent on a suicide mission deep behind enemy lines in 1944, a mission from which they are not expected to return, by some "raving lunatic" at headquarters in order to take out a large portion of the German high command. In The Longest Yard a group of inmates, murderers, thieves, and con men, are molded into a "combat" football team, the self-proclaimed "Mean Machine", that is sent on what also seems like a suicide mission by another raving lunatic, the prison's warden who makes them play a semi-professional football team made up of the guards, the very people who, often with the support of the warden, undermine the dignity and pride of the inmates everyday. Both teams are led by semi-authority figures with a streak, a very large streak, of the anti-establishment in them, Major Reisman (Lee Marvin, brilliant as usual) in The Dirty Dozen and Paul "the Wrecking Crewe" Crewe (Burt Reynolds) in The Longest Yard.

The genres The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard play in are, as I noted, male dominated genres. It should be no surprise, therefore, that the worlds of The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard are men's world. The only women, beyond the French maids in the French chateau in the last act of The Dirty Dozen are the companions and ladies of the night of the "dirty dozen" and the German officers at the chateau. There are only two women in The Longest Yard. The first, Melissa (Anitra Ford), who appears at the beginning of the film, is the woman who is keeping our anti-hero ex-professional football player kept man protagonist who shaved points off of an NFL game, the ultimate in un-American behaviour (so one of the prisoners tells us) to most of the convicts Crewe will soon be incarcerated with, and who has been drummed out of the league as a result. Melissa and Crewe are fighting when the film begins. When Crewe takes Melissa’s Maserati as compensation for his services rendered she calls the cops and once caught he is sentenced to hard time in the Citrus State Prison. The other is the warden's secretary (Bernadette Peters) who, while she doesn’t fall for Crew’s crude if subtly crude flirting early in the film, knows what she wants, Crewe for casual sex, and knows how to get it. She exchanges film of the prison guard football team in action for a little one on one Crewe "personal service" action.

Both The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard end with bad guys who are really kind of good guys ultimately winning their battles against the authority figures who rigged the "game" for their, not the inmates, benefit. In The Dirty Dozen the "dirty dozen" successfully complete their mission behind enemy lines but only one of them, along with Reisman and Sergeant Bowren (Richard Jaeckel), survives to receive, irony of ironies, the accolades of the military brass who once thought them too undisciplined for the mission. In The Longest Yard the inmates, with the odds stacked against them including a deal the warden has made with Crewe to throw the game in order to avoid more prison time just like he threw the NFL game that got him thrown out of the league and branded for life, manage to defeat the guards giving everyone in the prison dignity and pride for a probably far too brief moment.

The anti-establishment and anti-authority streaks in both The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard are almost certainly, at least in part, a reflection of director Robert Aldrich's rather cynical iconoclasm, a cynical iconoclasm already present in films like Attack, Vera Cruz, and Kiss Me Deadly, and a reflection of the counterculture and the culture war the counterculture stimulated that were in full bloom by the mid-1960s. The Dirty Dozen was shot at a time when the counterculture was making itself felt in the American cinema, an impact that would particularly be felt in the wake of Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), which was released in the same year as The Dirty Dozen, and Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969) a film released a couple of years later. Nothing, after all, speaks louder than money in Hollywood. The Longest Yard was filmed at the height of the Nixon era, when the Nixon administration was coming apart at the seams thanks to Vietnam, Watergate, and the president's abuse of executive power. The Longest Yard's power hungry warden, Warden Hazen (Eddie Albert in a great performance) is a very Nixonesque figure. Aldrich, who apparently was never a big fan of "Tricky Dicky", and Albert, apparently modeled Hazen on Nixon. Hazen’s attempt to use his power to undermine the "pride and dignity" of the inmates, even more than he already has, comes back to haunt him by film's end just as Nixon's decision to use his power to coverup the break in of individuals associated with CREEP, the Committee to Re-Elect the President, did during the sunset of the Nixon presidency. By film's end Hazen has a full scale rebellion on his hands even from among his toadies and guards just as Nixon faced rebellion within his own ranks thanks to the Watergate coverup.

Despite their countercultural qualities both The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard have a lot of yet another male macho genre in them, the Western, a connection made concrete in The Longest Yard thanks to the visual quote from John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) that ends the film. Action-adventure films like The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard with their outlaws, their bad guys turned kind of good guys (compare John Ford's Stagecoach, 1939), their fist fights, and their gun fights, were successors to the Western when the Western went out of style thanks, in large part, to the iconoclastic 1960s counterculture which saw the Western as the ultimate representation of the American individualistic and good guy myth, two myths that, many thought helped lead the country into the muddy imperialist muck of Vietnam. This connection between the action-adventure film and the Western is sometimes transparent as in Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988) when Hans (Alan Rickman), the bad guy terrorist turned bad guy bond robber, references John Wayne and Grace Kelly to John McClane (Bruce Willis), the anti-bureaucratic anti-hero of the film, at a crucial moment only to be corrected by by our latter day cowboy who knows his Westerns and notes that it was Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly not John Wayne and Grace Kelly who rode off into the sunset of a happy ending in High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952) and when McClane, gleefully intones his "yippee-ki-yay” mantra just before the big final shoot out at the Nakitomi Corral.

But The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard, not to mention Bonnie and Clyde and the The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969), are latter day Westerns with a difference. All four of these films, like the superb Westerns of Anthony Mann before them--they have precedents--were impacted by the film noirs of the 1940s with their damaged men (damaged men, interestingly, come roaring out of the fiction of Jane Austen and the Brontës) and their hearts of urban and even rural darkness. Aldrich, like Mann, worked in both genres in the 1950s and directed films like Baby Jane and Hush...Hush which played with the horror thriller genre to great effect in the 1960s. Aldrich, of course, did for the war film what he did for the horror thriller in The Dirty Dozen when he played with the conventions of the combat film to great effect, turning genre expectations, upside down, as he once said he intended to do, and killing almost all of the anti-heroes we, the audience, came to identity with in the first two acts of the film. Noir damaged men, Aldrich anti-establishment iconoclasm--a send up of West Point pomp and circumstance and the US prison system--and Aldrich genre blending--action adventure meets comedy meets satire--are all present and accounted for in both The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard.

It is interesting aside that all four of these "Westerns" with a twist were quite controversial upon their release. The Dirty Dozen was criticized for its sadistic violence and brutality by influential New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther. Many found the ending of the film when the "dirty dozen" dropped grenades down an air vent and then poured petrol/gas down it before setting it all off with even more grenades killing not only the German officers but women in the bunker below brutal and disturbing. Crowther was also critical of the supposed sadistic and brutal violence in Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967). The Wild Bunch was criticised by some for its violence particularly its also brutal and violent ending. The Longest Yard’s R rated brutality, violence, and foul language was the subject of much criticism from critics and the guardians of public morality for its violence and its foul tongue when it came out as I well recall. Needless to say all these films reflect an America at home and an America in Vietnam and the world that was seeing what seemed like ever greater levels of violence, particularly violence perpetrated by the American state itself on protestors and critics at home and men, women, and children in Vietnam. It was apparently Aldrich's intent in The Dirty Dozen to make explicit the connection between the "dirty dozen's" grenade and petrol bombing of German soldiers and civilians" with the napalm bombing of women and children in Vietnam by American air forces. Welcome to the real world of warfare.

Today I suppose some critics, particularly critics within the academy, might and probably would criticise, if they paid attention to Aldrich and his films, the macho culture at the heart of The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard (and The Wild Bunch for that matter) with their female stereotypes and caricatures of the whore, the ball breaker, and the nymphomaniac, as misogynistic. Post World War II male high anxiety? But aren't the male stereotypes and caricatures in both The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard pushed to satirical breaking point? Doesn't Melissa start the verbal and physical abuse with Crewe at the beginning of The Longest Yard? Can't the warden’s secretary in The Longest Yard be read as an early version of Samantha from Sex and the City, a liberated woman who knows what she wants and gets it, a woman liberated by the sexual revolution of the 1960s who has sex with Crewe on her terms? And what are we to make of what I saw as the rather positive portrayal of drag queens in The Longest Yard?

I Ron Eek’s take on The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard? Great films. Check them out. One film, by the way, I won't be checking out, is the 2005 remake of The Longest Yard starring the almost always dreadful Adam Sandler, a film that is yet another example which conclusively shows yet again that Hollywood has been taken over by a bunch of suits who mistake artistic creativity with nostalgic remakes of old movies and old television shows and comic books whose sole reason to be is little more than we want your mammon. No wonder Susan Sontag proclaimed the death of Hollywood cinema.

The Dirty Dozen, MGM (Warner Brothers DVD), 1967, directed by Robert Aldrich, written by Nunnally Johnson and Lukas Heller, 149 minutes, 1:78:1

The Longest Yard, Paramount, 1974, directed by Robert Aldrich, written by Tracy Keenan Wynn, 121 minutes, 1:85:1

Postscript: I recently watched the 1955 British film Cockleshell Heroes on Antenna TV, unfortunately in 1:33:1 pan and scan rather than the original 2:35:1, during its wall-to-wall Memorial Day war film marathon. One of the things that struck me as I watched Jose Ferrar's film about how a group of ill-behaved rag tag individualist Royal Marines are turned, thanks to training, into a disciplined collective fighting machine that goes behind enemy lines on a successful suicide mission to destroy German ships carrying secret radar equipment in Bordeaux, bears a likeness to The Dirty Dozen. In both an ill disciplined group of men are trained and sent behind enemy lines on what is a suicide mission. I don't know whether this is due to the influence of Cockleshell Heroes on The Dirty Dozen or the fact that both of these films can be classified as part of that sub-genre of the war film, the men sent on secret missions behind enemy lines film, a sub-genre that includes not only Cockleshell Heroes and The Dirty Dozen but also The Heroes of Telemark (Anthony Mann, 1965), which, like Cockleshell Heroes, is based on an actual WW II raid.

Despite these similarities there are also several interesting differences between Cockleshell Heroes and The Dirty Dozen. Cockleshell Heroes is, as I noted above, based on an actual World War II raid. The Dirty Dozen is very loosely based on the antics and accomplishments of America's WWII filthy thirteen. Proper Royal Marine discipline proves essential to the cockleshell heroes success as the iconoclastic Major Stringer (José Ferrer) comes to realise, thanks to the more by the book Captain Thompson (Trevor Howard) in a way that it never does in The Dirty Dozen. American individualism triumphs in The Dirty Dozen. British discipline triumphs in Cockleshell Heroes, just as it did in WWII, or just as it does in the popular British image of British victory against all odds in World War II. Cockleshell Heroes has more of that British stiff upper lip than the brash individualism of The Dirty Dozen. Cockleshell Heroes seems, though I can't substantiate this because I haven't explored primary source material relating to the making of Cockleshell Heroes, the product of a post-World War II nostalgia in a Britain experiencing the twin losses of empire and economic position. The Dirty Dozen, though again I haven't done the primary research necessary to confirm this, seems very much the product of American can do individualism and the revival of up yours American individualism in the 1960s. Finally, one very minor difference, only two of the "cockleshell heroes" survive compared to three of the "dirty (more than) dozen". The other "cockleshell heroes" either die before the raid or are executed after it just as the ships they mined blow up in dramatic film fashion.

By the way, there are very few women in Cockleshell Heroes just as there were in The Dirty Dozen. Of the two women who have talking roles in Cockleshell Heroes one seemed to be very masculinised to me, the other was the wife of one of the cockleshell heroes and she was committing adultery with another man. Major Thompson let down his by the book mentality down long enough to allow the cockleshell hero of this wife to give the man she was having an affair with a good thrashing. Food for thought.

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