A group of murderers, psychopaths and other offenders are sent on a mission during World War II to destroy a chateau which has become a hotbed for Nazi officers. Its location is so far behind enemy lines that few of the prisoners turned military men are expected to survive, so the twelve undesirables are shuffled off to war with the promise of pardons if they manage to make it out alive. It's a motley crew of characters featuring the likes of some of cinema's favorite tough guys -- many of them relative unknowns at the time: Charles Bronson, Donald Sutherland, Telly Savalas, Jim Brown and the always weird and wonderful John Cassavetes (who would have been 81 on December 9). They've been dubbed the Dirty Dozen, because of their less than savory bathing habits (the group refused to bathe in protest against their living conditions). Ernest Borgnine's Major General Worden commands the crew, alongside Lee Marvin's Major John Reisman and Robert Ryan's Colonel Everett Dasher Breed.
Marvin was known for playing war heroes and action baddies, and his experience as a Marine sniper during World War II (as well as his commanding screen presence) made him more than perfect for the part in 1967's 'The Dirty Dozen.' However, Marvin's character had to earn the Dozen's respect in Robert Aldrich's film, because he's had some disciplinary problems of his own. If he fails to complete the mission, he'll be booted out of the army. The crew of problematic prisoners isn't exactly happy to take orders from anyone, and that's where our scene takes place.
As the Dozen line up for a drill exercise and are instructed to sound-off, they shout out their numbers in ascending order. When it comes time for number 11 (John Cassevettes' Victor Franko -- who has been sentenced to death by hanging for killing someone in a botched armed robbery) to identify himself, he's clearly not taking this as serious as the others. Reisman gives pause, but instructs the men to move in close order formation. Franko's feet appear to be made of cement blocks, as he stands there hunched over while the other men march. At first, Reisman's good natured about the whole thing, even laughing with the men over Franko's smart-ass responses, but that changes when Franko shows just how ornery he can be as he seethes his way through some of the dialogue.
While there are several great performances across the cast, Cassavetes' wild and unpredictable Franko is a real standout (the kind of character he made a career out of playing), which isn't easy to manage when you're working with Lee Marvin. He's a cocky and sullen troublemaker, but he's sharp and it's hard not to be almost charmed by him (Cassavetes earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for the role). Aldrich definitely plays with our notion of who the good guys and the bad guys really are overall. While many people point to various (and strange) plot holes and inconsistencies in 'The Dirty Dozen,' it remains one of the most popular pieces of Hollywood action-adventure/war cinema. With performances like this, it's easy to see why.
Buy 'The Dirty Dozen' on DVD or Blu-ray, or rent it from Netflix.