"The Dirty Dozen" HD DVD review - Home Theater Forum and Systems - HomeTheaterShack.com

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post #1 of 5 Old 06-18-08, 07:33 AM Thread Starter
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Richard W. Haines
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"The Dirty Dozen" HD DVD review

I had screened the standard special edition version of Robert Aldrich's 1966 action film when it was released and purchased the HD disc cheaply a while ago and finally
got around to screening it on my Optoma HD70 DLP. This review would also be
applicable to the blu ray release.

As I've mentioned in other posts, movies made between the years 1966-1967 are
quite interesting to watch today. In 1966, the Production Code was completely
reformed to allow virtually any subject matter and a far greater amount of sex,
nudity and violence than previously granted providing it was done 'in good taste'.
What on earth did that mean? It meant that the bigger the budget, the more
likely the producers and director could get away with a lot and still be granted the
MPAA 'Seal of Approval'. For those who are unfamiliar with the latter, there were
about 20,000 theaters in the US in the sixties. A quarter were drive ins which
tended to ignore the seal and would play anything including graphic exploitation
movies made by AIP and other indies. Out of the other 15,000 cinemas, about
a quarter of those were enormous movie palaces with upwards of 3000 seats.
The rest were single screen independent theaters or parts of theater chains
that had between 600-1000 seats per cinema. The 15,000 theaters in this
group would not book a movie with out the seal. Why? Because there was no
way of filling those seats without general attendence. There couldn't be
any restrictions in terms of children if they wanted to stay in business. That
created a rather dicey situation since many big budget studio films that were
obtaining the seal had a lot of controversial material that really wasn't suited
for young viewers. Naturally the directors pushed the envelope as far as they
could in pictures produced in this two year period. Films like "Bonnie and
Clyde" which had graphic violence and "The Graduate" which had a sleazy story
were booked in theaters that allowed all ages to attend. Critics and parents
began to complain and in 1968 the late Jack Valenti who was president of the
MPAA abandoned the production code completely
and replaced it with the ratings system. Anything could be shown in movies
but they had to be rated for suitability for minors. At the time it seemed like
a win/win proposition. No more self censorship of content in the industry.
But there was a trade off. Within a few years there were more restricted
films produced (R and X) than G or M/GP/PG. The end result was a dramatic
drop in attendence which was never completely restored and the movie palaces
and large screen cinemas began to close like dominoes and were replaced by
small screen multiplexes with rather poor showmanship and quality. They couldn't
stay in business without general attendence and most movies were marketed
for a limited and specific demographic. It changed the very nature of the
medium permanently. Today, only a tiny fraction of the American populace goes to the cinemas any more and even those that do only do so on an infrequent basis. No more families going out to the movies or drive ins every week as I did as
an adolescent.

"The Dirty Dozen" was made in that strange two year period which dates it
somewhat. While "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf" made the previous year broke
new grounds with having profanity on screen, the criminals in this movie
rarely use swear words which would've been appropriate for the story. You
get things like Cassavetes calling Bronson "You Slav, you Slob" or 'that creep'
which will probably get a laugh now instead of the stronger language you would expect from this character. The other thing that dates the film is the infrequent
use of squibs. Prior to 1965, you never saw a bullet impact on a body. A
person would just fall dead or cluch an invisible wound before dying. Sometimes
they would show some blood in the area the person got shot afterwards but
it wasn't until Peckinpah's "Major Dundee" that the bullet impact was actually
shown on screen. Unfortunately, the producer and studio cut all but one before
release but at least that special effect was created. In 1966, "The Sand Pebbles"
and "Dirty Dozen" use them for some bullet wounds but in other cases, people
just fall down without any blood or hole in them. It's a bit disorienting as a result.
In "Bonnie and Clynde" in 1967, every bullet hit used a squib and that established
it for later pictures like "The Wild Bunch".

The other problem with the movie is the cinematography. They shot it in England
which was notorious for rain and overcast skies. They tended to give the color
negative a somewhat murky and underexposed look. Add to that sloppy Metrocolor
processing and terrible opticals (fades, dissolves, titles) and much of the film looks
fairly grainy and muddy which is made worse in high defnition rather than improving
the sharpness. The only section of the movie that looks good is the final sequence
in the German hotel which was fully lit and looks very sharp and colorful. The movie
was shot flat with a 1.75 hard matte in the aperture plate and it shown in the 16:9
format here. Incredibly, MGM even blew it up and cropped it further for 70mm in
1967. It must have looked pretty poor in that format on a large screen. So, be
prepared for a disappointing transfer even though I have no doubt it's the best
they could get from the Metrocolor negative. Too bad it wasn't processed and
printed at Technicolor which would've at least generated camera negative dissolves
and avoid the graining duplicating stock used at the competing labs.

The 5.1 remix of the 6 track magnetic stereo sound used only in the 70mm version
is pretty good. The music score is excellent and there is some limited sub woofer
effects with the thump thump of the drums and explosions at the end.

As for the film itself, it's a very entertaining action movie with some problems. Lee
Marvin is top notch in the defining role of an undisciplined Major given the unlikely
assignment of training 12 condemned prisoners into a combat unit to blow up a
German retreat behind the lines. The problem is that not all of the 12 criminals
are fleshed out. Three are given sympathetic portrayals including Charles Bronson
(given a death sentence because he shot a deserter stealing medical supplies),
ex-football star Jim Brown (given a death sentence because he was defending himself against white crackers who were going to castrate him for unknown reasons) and Clint Walker (condemned for not knowing his own strength and accidently killing a man in a bar fight). Of the remaining 'bad' criminals, John Cassevetes is given
a lot of screen time. He's good but occasionally a bit over the top. The rest are either given very little character development or portrayed in a hammy manner like Telly Savalas's religious fanatic or Donald Sutherland's anachronistic beatnik soldier (a warm up for his Hawkeye role in MASH). That aside, most of the movie is fun to
watch with the bulk of the running time their training period and a very detailed
commando operation in the climax where all but one of the Dirty Dozen are killed.
Marvin survives for some mediocre sequels.

The film gained a notorious reputation at the time as being overly brutal and sadistic
but it's blood level is rather tame by today's standards. What is still controversial is the demise of the Nazi brass and their prostitutes. Hiding in
an underground cellar, Marvin and Brown find air vents and pour gasoline on top
of them and then toss grenades inside to blow them up. Some critics found this
very offensive and certainly not suitable for an 'all ages admitted' movie. I thought
it was an appropriate climax for this type of cynical, anti-authority story although I can see why some parents would find that objectionable. Had the film been released a few years later, it probably would've gotten an "R" classication for that scene.

To summarize, I do recommend this movie to action film fans providing you make some allowances for the dated aspects of it and less than thrilling Metrocolor image and high definition transfer. There isn't a lot of difference between the special
edition standard DVD and the high definition version so consider it when purchasing
a copy.

Last edited by Richard W. Haines; 06-21-08 at 07:45 PM.
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post #2 of 5 Old 06-21-08, 03:46 PM
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Re: "The Dirty Dozen" HD DVD review

Richard as always... an excellent review with lots of inside information that I personally find very interesting!

I also like this movie but was a bit unsure about getting it in high def. I read some ratings reviews of the quality, but it seems par for the year and film stock/shooting style. I don't have this on SDVD, so I think I'll give it a chance on high def!

"Make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler." - Albert Einstein

"If all else fails, spin the cat."- Grzboken
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post #3 of 5 Old 06-21-08, 04:04 PM Thread Starter
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Re: "The Dirty Dozen" HD DVD review

Thank you for your comment.

In terms of the high defnition version, it's marginally better than the special edition standard version but don't expect too much. The fleshtones are also a bit ruddy in this movie. Not the typical saturated tan fleshtones of the era. They have a slightly orange tinge which is not fading.
That's the way they looked in the original prints. It's an entertaining movie but not a good looking one. I cannot imagine blowing up this image and cropping the tops and bottoms to 70mm but that's what MGM did in 1967 and it was a hit. Another good MGM action film with poor Metrocolor photography and labwork is "Where Eagles Dare". The same problems with grainy opticals and murky sequences, especially the beginning where the commando team lands in the snow. On occasion, MGM still did some films at Technicolor like "Raintree County", "Ben Hur" and "Mutiny on the Bounty" but in most cases, they used their in house Metrocolor lab. Stanley Kubrick didn't trust it for processing so he had the negative of "2001: A Space Odyssey" processed at Technicolor. The 70mm prints were made at Metrocolor but each one was pre-screened and approved by the director so they looked very good even though they faded over the years. The negative was well processed and preserved however.

Through 1970, Techicolor was the only good color lab. The rest were mediocre or downright
poor with substandard quality control and processing.
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post #4 of 5 Old 06-21-08, 07:00 PM
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Re: "The Dirty Dozen" HD DVD review

Great review and a much appreciated "history" lesson.
Although this will sound very fan-boyish, I always find your back round information fascinating.

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post #5 of 5 Old 06-21-08, 07:42 PM Thread Starter
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Posts: 792
Re: "The Dirty Dozen" HD DVD review

Thank you. Glad you like the trivia. I find it interesting to know the background
of old movies and put them in their historical context.
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