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48 things we didn’t know about the Dirty Dozen – Charles Bronson was going to punch Lee Marvin for always being drunk on set

Sam Dickson

Lee Marvin referred to this movie as “junk” and “just a dummy moneymaker”, although he enjoyed the film. The movie has nothing to do with war, he stressed, and he was very pleased that he got to do The Big Red One (1980), which mirrored his own wartime experiences.

Production on the film ran for so long that Jim Brown was in danger of missing training camp for the up-coming 1967-68 football season. As training camp and the NFL season approached, the NFL threatened to fine and suspend Brown if he did not leave filming and report to camp immediately. Not one to take threats, Brown simply held a press conference to announce his retirement from football. At the time of his retirement, Brown was considered to be one of the best in the game and even today is considered to be one of the NFL’s all-time greats.

The scene where one of the dozen pretends to be a general inspecting Robert Ryan’s troops was initially written for Clint Walker’s character. However, Walker was uncomfortable with this scene, so Robert Aldrich decided to use Donald Sutherland instead. The scene was directly responsible for Sutherland being cast in M.A.S.H. (1970), which made him an international star.

Charles Bronson’s character says his father was a coal miner from Silesia (an area of Poland known for its coal mining). In real life, this is true. Bronson’s (real name: Charles Buchinski) father was a coal miner from Lithuania, and Bronson himself worked in the mines as a boy in Pennsylvania.

Lee Marvin’s chronic alcoholism was a problem during filming.

Construction of the faux chateau proved *too* good. The script called for it to be blown up, but the construction was so solid that 70 tons of explosives would have been needed to achieve the effect! Instead, a section was rebuilt from cork and plastic.

“The Dirty Dozen” author E.M. Nathanson may have gotten the idea for the title (if not the plot) of his best-selling novel from a real-life group of World War II 101st Airborne Division paratroopers nicknamed “The Filthy Thirteen.” These men, demolitionists in Headquarters Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st, supposedly earned their nickname by not bathing or shaving for a long period of time during training prior to the Normandy invasion. Members of The Filthy Thirteen can be seen in famous vintage film footage and still photos, their faces painted with Indian “war paint,” before boarding their planes for the D-Day jump. Another idea source for Nathanson’s book may have come from future director Russ Meyer, who was at the time a combat cameraman. He had shot some footage of a group of American soldiers–inmates at a military prison who were under death sentence for such crimes as murder, rape and mutiny–who were training at a secret location for the D-Day invasion, for which they would be parachuted behind German lines to commit acts of sabotage and assassinations. Prison authorities told Meyer that the men, who volunteered, were told that if they survived and returned their sentences would be set aside, their records expunged and they would be set free. Guards told him that the group was called “the dirty dozen” because they refused to bathe or shave. After the invasion, Meyer made inquiries as to these men’s fates, and was told that none of them came back. After the war, he related this story to Nathanson, who was a friend of his.

Charles Bronson was so angry with Lee Marvin for constantly turning up dead drunk that he threatened to punch the star.

Donald Sutherland was a late casting decision, replacing an actor who dropped out because he thought the role was beneath him.

Jack Palance turned down the Telly Savalas role because he disapproved of the character’s racist overtones.

Director Robert Aldrich intended the film as an anti-war allegory for what was happening in Vietnam.

When Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson ring the doorbell at the castle, the bell rings da da da dah (…-) 3 times in rapid succession. In Morse code this is the letter V (Victory) and the 4 notes represented by the code are the first notes of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “5th Symphony”, but again, even though by the German Beethoven, it was an Allied anthem signifying victory. Someone in dubbing the sound was having fun.

George Kennedy, Clint Walker, Ernest Borgnine and Jim Brown were reunited to play the voices of the soldiers some 31 years later in Small Soldiers (1998).

During WW2 the American forces did indeed “borrow” a prison in the UK for housing US servicemen convicted of criminal acts. This was Shepton Mallett prison in Somerset, which operated as a prison from 1625 to 2013. During the war nine US military personnel were executed there–three by firing squad, six by hanging. The hangman used was the British Albert Pierrepoint, who in his career hanged approximately 450 people, including some 200 Nazis convicted is the Nuremburg war crimes trials.

John Wayne was first offered the part of Maj. John Reisman, but he declined. The part was then offered to Lee Marvin, who took it. Wayne’s refusal was due to his disapproval of the original script, in which Reisman has a brief affair with a married woman whose husband is fighting overseas.

The film was controversial when it was released, as it depicted Allied soldiers as no different than Nazis.

MGM’s biggest moneymaker of 1967.

The character of Reisman (Lee Marvin) was based on John Miara of Malden, Massachusetts, who was a close personal friend of Marvin’s while both were serving in the Marine Corps during WW II.

According to Ernest Borgnine in his biography, during the shooting Lee Marvin once talked about the black actor Jim Brown with much disrespect–in Brown’s absence, of course–because of his skin color. According to Borgnine, Marvin was lucky that Brown was not there to hear it.

Jim Brown later recalled: “I loved my part. I was one of the Dozen, a quiet leader and my own man, at a time when Hollywood wasn’t giving those roles to blacks . . . I’ve never had more fun making a movie. The male cast was incredible. I worked with some of the strongest, craziest guys in the business.”

Lee Marvin provided technical assistance with uniforms and weapons to create realistic portrayals of combat, yet bitterly complained about the falsity of some scenes. He thought Reisman’s wrestling the bayonet from the enraged Posey to be particularly phony. Robert Aldrich replied that the plot was preposterous, and that by the time the audience had left the cinema, they would have been so overwhelmed by action, explosions, and killing, that they would have forgotten the lapses.

The French château that appears in the film was constructed especially for the production by art director William Hutchinson and his crew of 85. One of the largest sets ever built, it stood 240 feet across and 50 feet high. Gardeners surrounded the building with 5400 square yards of heather, 400 ferns, 450 shrubs, 30 spruce trees and six full-grown weeping willows.

When the film was released there were complaints that the training scenes went on for too long and that the actual mission should have started earlier.

Reisman was a captain in the novel. He was made a major for the film as Lee Marvin was 42.

Many of the actors were too old to play World War II soldiers.

Lee Marvin later recalled how Robert Aldrich instructed his cast to get their contemporary hair styles changed to ones more fitting for the time and setting. Marvin immediately got a crew cut, but many of the others merely got trims to their existing styles. After telling them twice their looks weren’t acceptable, Aldrich finally told them they needed either to come in with their hair cut correctly or else call their lawyers.

Lee Marvin had high praise for all the men in the film, commenting that everyone was ideally cast “and even when they ad-libbed a scene, invariably it was in character, so all it could do was to help the film.”

Six of the Dozen were well-known American stars, while the “Back Six” were actors resident in the UK: Englishman Colin Maitland, Canadians Donald Sutherland and Tom Busby and Americans Stuart Cooper, Al Mancini and Ben Carruthers.

Jim Brown’s character is credited as “Napoleon Jefferson” in the original US trailer.

One of the German guards killed at the checkpoint ended up with a promotion, Richard Marner is the guard saying he has leave. He went on to play Col. Kurt Von Strohm in the British sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo (1982).

The film was shot in various locations in England, primarily in Hertfordshire. The major part of it (the training sequence) was shot at Hendon Aerodrome, about 15 miles north of London, while the besieged chateau was built at MGM’s British studios in Borehamwood.

The training segment of the story took two months to film.

Lee Marvin had worked with Robert Aldrich before, on Attack (1956). He found the director “a tremendous man to work with. You knew when you went to work with him you were both going for the same object–a good final print.”

Lee Marvin related a joke Robert Aldrich pulled on Charles Bronson, who was only about 5’9″ and wore low boxing shoes during rehearsal. When it came time to set up the first inspection scene, he placed Bronson between the 6’6″ ‘Clint Walker’ and the 6’4″ Donald Sutherland. According to Marvin, Aldrich laughed for about ten minutes over Bronson’s perturbed reaction.

Gen. Worden choking his drink upon hearing of the Dozen’s party was ad-libbed by Ernest Borgnine.

Although Robert Aldrich had tried to purchase the rights to E.M. Nathanson’s novel “The Dirty Dozen” while it was still in outline form, it was MGM that successfully acquired the property in May 1963. The book became a best-seller upon its publication in 1965.

Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland would later appear in Kelly’s Heroes (1970), another World War II film.

In a TCM short about Lee Marvin and the filming of this movie, the working title of the film is shown as “Operation Dirty Dozen”.

The film cast includes three Oscar winners: Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and George Kennedy; and four Oscar nominees: Robert Ryan, John Cassavetes, Telly Savalas and Richard Jaeckel.

Jim Brown, Ernest Borgnine and Donald Sutherland appeared the next year in The Split (1968).

Had unit left for Allied lines, they could have connected with Airborne pathfinders after mission.

Sam Dickson

Sam Dickson is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News