Run the filthy, dirty numbers…
- 13 filthy paratroopers.
- 12 dirty soldiers.
- 2 magazine articles.
- 4 related books.
- 1 Theater movie.
- 3 TV movies.
- 1 TV series.
That’s the backbone progression for the popular Dirty Dozen book-to-movie, then movie-to-book evolution, and a concept then followed and reworked into dozens of other TV shows, movies and books. Here’s the genesis and the follow-up genetics of the Dirty Dozen landmark.
It all started in 1944 when The 101st Airborne Division issued a press release on a demolitions sub-unit. Then war correspondent Tom Hoge started the embellishments, some call myths, when he wrote the first article about these paratroopers. Hodge coined the name “The Filthy Thirteen” in an article for the Stars and Stripes, June 9, 1944. Then magazine writer and author Arch Whitehouse wrote another article in True Magazine in the 1950s, which military historians claim contained even more levels of embellishment. Whitehouse wrote they “took pride in the reputation they had of being the orneriest, meanest group of paratroopers who ever hit this base.” Whitehouse also said the original 12 members were full-blooded Indians who had sworn not to bathe until they jumped into combat and they demanded that their new lieutenant beat each one in a fight in order to win their respect. Photos published of the men wearing Native American-style mohawk haircuts and applying war paint to one another excited the public’s interest in this unit. The inspiration for this came from their leader Sgt. James McNiece, who was part Oklahoma, Choctaw Indian.
The “Filthy 13” unit remain a legend within the ranks of the 101st Airborne. This small demolition, unit attained legendary status, persisting among veterans over the decades. This demolition section first consisted of thirteen enlisted men and they actually refused to bathe during the week in order to use their water ration for cooking game that they poached from the neighboring British manor.
Surviving 13-ers and their families revealed that The Filthy 13 were not convicts. They were men prone to drinking and fighting and did often spent time in the stockade. They were indeed involved in various missions and battles in World War II, all of which can be found and researched in the Filthy 13 book listed here below. Eventually due to death and injury, 30 men passed through the unit. Oh, and they were not all Indians. Hardly.
Enter author E. M. Nathanson. He was informed by a friend and Hollywood Hills, CA. neighbor, an American film director, producer, screenwriter, cinematographer and editor Russ Meyer, who’d worked on war documentaries. Meyer heard that there was a unit of condemned military prisoners who were sent on a suicide mission (which was more likely one of the many Filthy Thirteen myths.) Inspired by his neighbor’s conversation, Nathanson dug deep into the condemned, imprisoned soldier, story line for a book, but found no such unit. Instead, he did find plenty of interesting stories to build the 1965 Dirty Dozen novel. The book was bought by Dell well before it was finished and Hollywood wanted it very early too. When published, it became a super bestseller, selling more than 3 million copies to date and translated into 10 languages, meanwhile, unusually early on, the MGM movie was under early construction.
The movie! Released in 1967 and directed by Robert Aldrich, it made about 46 million dollars and has become a pop culture landmark with such a healthy mix of Hollywood stars like Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan, Trini Lopez, Jim Brown, Donald Sutherland, John Cassavetes, Telly Savalas, George Kennedy, Charles Bronson, Robert Ryan and Richard Jaeckel.
In case you live in a cave, here is the published synopsis of the film.
“As D-Day approaches, Colonel Breed hands the roguish Major Reisman (Lee Marvin) an important assignment: He must train a team of soldiers to parachute across enemy lines and assassinate German personnel at a French chateau. The soldiers, recruited from murderers, rapists and criminals on death row, are promised commuted sentences. In spite of their history, the 12 men prove a spirited and courageous unit. Led by Major Reisman, they complete a death-defying mission.”
The New York Times recalls that “The movie was nominated for four Oscars, and it was listed at No. 65 on a list of the “100 most thrilling American Films,” compiled by the American Film Institute.” (Lee Marvin, a WW II Marine war vet, didn’t think the action in the film was realistic and was glad to later make The Big Red One.) A reviewer Ralph Echtinaw surmised this – “the movie is 20 percent training and 80 percent mission. The book is 80 percent training and 20 percent mission.”
I was 12 years old when I first saw this film in a theatre and I was totally engrossed. Re-watching it several times through the years I still think it stands the test of time, as they say. I still watch it when I see it’s on TV. There has never been, or possibly will be again, another Lee Marvin. Many rising stars were in this movie. For one example, Donald Sutherland. When Clint Walker did not want to do a scene written for him and pretend to be an inspecting US Army general, Sutherland stepped in to replace him. Recognized for his unique quirkiness performing this, he was later cast to star in MASH and the rest is Sutherland history. One of my childhood heroes was Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown, who due to a conflict of scheduling, retired from the Browns in his record breaking prime, to finish the movie (see the awkward details in the below link). 1967 was an incredible year for movies but that is a whole other subject essay.
Movie Sequels? Can anyone say “sequels?” Yes, there were. They were passable, fun to watch and made for TV, along with a forgotten TV series.
- 1: The Dirty Dozen: Next Mission is a 1985 made for TV movie, directed by veteran director Andrew McLaglen. It reunites Marvin, Borgnine and Jaeckel. Marvin returns to lead an all-new dirty dozen on a mission to assassinate an SS General. (Lee Marvin, died in 1987, but not before continuing in yet another military team leader role in 1986’s Delta Force with Chuck Norris.)
- 2: The Dirty Dozen: The Deadly Mission Learning of a Nazi plot to attack Washington, D.C. with a deadly nerve gas, Major Wright (a sane Telly Savalas character not related to the original movie role) leads twelve convicts on a suicide mission deep into occupied France to destroy the secret factory where the poison is made. (See the trailer link below)
- 3: The Dirty Dozen: The Fatal Mission. Another TV movie made in 1988. During WW2, American General Worden (Ernest Borgnine) orders Major Wright to pick 12 condemned soldiers from the brig and parachute into occupied France where they must destroy a Nazi nerve gas facility and extricate the foreign scientists working there. In a way, it’s a formula remake of the first film.
- 4: Dirty Dozen -The Fox TV Series. 1988. Ben Murphy, as a Lt. Danko, starred in this one-year, canceled, and mostly forgotten series that seemed very expensive to produce. Same format-concept as the original movie. “Filming of the 13 episodes including a 2-hour pilot movie began in January 1988. ‘United Press International’ reported at the time, “It is the first major TV series ever shot in its entirety in an Eastern Bloc nation with (the former) Yugoslavia’s diverse scenery doubling for France, Italy, Germany, a Scottish island, and such cities as London and Brussels.” Some of these episodes can still be watched, a tad blurry on Youtube. (See the link below for a rundown on the “lost” series.)
And Back to Books. We must end with the proper chronology of these related books after the 1965 origin book and 1967 movie.
- The Dirty, Distant War. In 1987 Nathanson wrote this sequel. It picks up the story of John Reisman, the OSS officer who recruited the Dirty Dozen just three months after the first novel. He parachutes into French Indochina (Vietnam) to help local guerrillas against the Japanese. It is described by Publisher’s Weekly as a “surprisingly rich sequel,” and an “outstanding read” (see the review link below).
- The Filthy Thirteen: From the Dustbowl to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest – The True Story of 13, nonfiction by Richard Killblane and Jake McNiece came out in 2004. I read it. Interesting history. And then…
- Fighting with the Filthy Thirteen: The World War II Story of Jack Womer, Ranger and Paratrooper, rolled out, in 2013 and “redone” on through 2018 (long story).
For More Info!
Dirty Dozen movie trailer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ff1V6ywnWcY
Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission Details https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dirty_Dozen:_Next_Mission
Dirty Dozen: The Deadly Mission trailer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Phnmsi0TcVQ
Jim Brown versus The Cleveland Browns https://theundefeated.com/features/jim-brown-retires-while-on-the-set-of-the-dirty-dozen/
Dirty Dozen: The short-lived TV series http://destinedtodenver.blogspot.com/2016/02/dirty-dozen-series.html
A Dirty Distant War – sequel review https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-670-80334-7
Look for these books elsewhere on this page…