Robert Aldrich’s great war film “The Dirty Dozen” wasn’t the first men-on-a-mission movie, but it is generally held up today at the apotheosis of the form. The tale of the U.S. Army’s most vicious convicts getting assigned to a suicide mission deep behind enemy lines during World War II, with the promise of a pardon should they survive, is stocked with the toughest of the tough guys of the late 1960s. Lee Marvin heads up the brass-knuckle ensemble as the no-nonsense Major John Reisman, who’s stuck with the unenviable task of shaping up a unit of anti-authoritarian malcontents or straight-up psychopaths. With troublemakers and nose-breakers like Charles Bronson, George Kennedy, Jim Brown, Robert Ryan, Telly Savalas, and John Cassavetes along for the ride, “The Dirty Dozen” became more than just the perfect “men-on-a-mission” movie: it was the ultimate guy flick.
We call them “Dad Movies” nowadays. They’re the dependable action or sports drama the old man dials up on a Sunday afternoon when there isn’t a ball game worth watching. “The Dirty Dozen” has it all: macho male bonding, carousing, and a hugely exciting finale that, as Tom Hanks notes in “Sleepless in Seattle,” tears our hearts out every time.
How could “The Dirty Dozen” be any more of a Dad Movie? Perhaps if they’d cast John Wayne as Reisman, which, interestingly, was the plan at the outset of the casting process.
John Wayne would never commit adultery… in a movie
According to Randy Roberts and John Olson’s “John Wayne: American,” MGM and producer Kenneth Hyman gave the Duke first crack as Reisman. Wayne liked the script, and was close to boarding the project. There was just one problem: the original screenplay opened with Reisman carrying on an affair with a woman whose husband was deployed elsewhere in Europe. Wayne was opposed to playing an adulterer regardless of the situation, but he especially abhorred the notion of a man knowingly sleeping with an enlisted man’s wife.
Hyman had Reisman rewritten at Wayne’s behest, but the star, who engaged in at least three extramarital affairs throughout his life, ultimately turned down the role. Marvin, who, unlike Wayne, served in World War II with valor (he’s buried at Arlington National Cemetery), seized the role and further cemented his status as one of Hollywood’s baddest motherf******.
To be fair, Wayne walked from “The Dirty Dozen” in part because he wanted to make a morale-boosting Vietnam War movie to combat the declining stateside support for the conflict. This film, “The Green Berets,” wound up being the worst of Wayne’s career. It’s brainlessly jingoistic, shamelessly xenophobic, and less convincing in its portrayal of war than a bad episode of “Combat.” Wayne stuck to his right-wing convictions, and was ridiculed for it. And thank god because, really, Marvin was the only man for this grimy job.