Dwayne Epstein is the author of the New York Times bestselling biography, Lee Marvin: Point Blank (2013), and his latest book is Killin' Generals: The Making of 'The Dirty Dozen, the Most Iconic World War II Film of All Time', a wonderfully entertaining, educational and extensive read. Prior to writing biographies, Epstein contributed to film chronicles on a regular basis, writing for Filmfax Magazine and also about American films chosen for rediscovery for Cahiers Du Cinema's 'Serious Pleasures', which had a high profile in Europe. I spoke to Epstein about all things DIRTY DOZEN.
Your last book was an extensive biography of Lee Marvin. When did the idea of writing a book about the making of THE DIRTY DOZEN start percolating? What was it about this movie, out of all the Marvin movies, made you want to commit to writing a book about it?
The short answer is it's always been a favorite film of mine. A more involved answer has to do with the suggestion of my agent, Lee Sobel. Once I signed with him we bandied about ideas for a subject and THE DIRTY DOZEN was like the second title to come up and we went with it. A cobbled together a proposal and in a surprising record time, it was sold to Kensington Press!
What is your strongest memory of seeing the film for the first time? What effect did the movie have on you?
My earliest memory was seeing it on TV when I was a kid and they'd show it in two parts over two successive nights. I vividly remember exactly where they'd cut it, which was just before the war games sequences. Could not wait until the next night to see the rest and that happened every time it was aired.
Upon researching the book, what was the first bit of information that you unearthed that made you feel like you had a bona fide interesting book?
Ahh, there were many! Mostly I went by the amount of misinformation that existed about the film that I could correct. Fans think it was based on a true story (it wasn't); a story on social media says Lee Marvin hated the film (he didn't); the belief that director Aldrich lost out on an Oscar nomination because he wouldn't change the finale (not true), and a whole lot more of similar misinformation that I was able to disprove.
Entering the project you must have had a general idea of what the making of the film encompassed. To what extent did your preconceptions change as your research furthered?
Much of what I already stated, for one thing. The changes from the novel to the script to the finished film were also quite revelational which I detail in the book. I was also surprised to find some of the people involved in the film were still alive and available to be interviewed, such as producer Ken Hyman, actors Colin Maitland, Dora Reisser, and others. Their remembrances, which are plentiful, are all in the book.
Which piece of information or interview in general was the most revelatory for you?
Without question it would have to be finding and interviewing the talented people I got to find (not an easy task in some instances) and appreciating their work. I always say the best part of my job is talking to people whose work I admire, about the work I admire. It's also the hardest as transcribing those interviews is a genuine pain.What attracted Marvin the most to his role and the movie do you think? Where do you think it fits in his rogues gallery of characters, and his oeuvre in general?
I would make the educated guess that it was probably the maverick character of Major Reisman that attracted Marvin. It certainly wasn't the premise of violent convicts being trained to kill Nazis. Also, his nightmarish experiences in WWII had a lot to do with his choices. His late son Christopher had told me that when I was working on Lee Marvin: Point Blank. As to where it fits in his oeuvre I would put it at the very top.
Why do you think he and Aldrich were such a perfect fit for this movie, and for their future collaborations?
They were both very much mavericks in their own way and it showed in the work. They also got along very well and were friends outside of work. Matter of fact, when Aldrich was in the hospital and knew he was dying, Marvin visited him and asked if he needed anything. Aldrich reportedly said, "Yeah, a better script."
How do you think the film affected the careers of Marvin, Bronson, Cassavetes and Aldrich afterwards?
The effect for almost all involved was tremendous! Marvin was named the number one male film star in the country. Bronson stayed in Europe and starred in some of the best action thrillers of his career. Aldrich made enough money to buy his own studio. Producer Ken Hyman took over Warner Brothers/Seven Arts. In other words, THE DIRTY DOZEN's success was specifically responsible for the rocket launch of their careers into the stratosphere.
Why do you think, in a film of many great performances, that Cassavetes was picked out for awards attention?
While I agree all the performances were great, I personally feel Cassavetes' performance was THE standout. Actually, Jim Brown was touted for a Best Supporting Oscar in the trades but it was Cassavetes who nabbed the nomination, only to lose, ironically, to his DIRTY DOZEN costar, George Kennedy, for COOL HAND LUKE. By the way, THE DIRTY DOZEN had the same effect on Cassavetes' career as it did on everybody else even though he didn't want to make the movie at first. Once he did, it set the pattern for the rest of his career: Make a popular film for the money and then use that money to finance his own independent project. It resulted in his becoming the father of American Independent Cinema.
The movie was a smash hit across the demographics. Why do you think young audiences responded to it? Older audiences?
I think it had a lot to do with the themes running throughout the film that younger audiences appreciated. It was anti-social and anti-establishment at a time when the Vietnam War was falling out of favor. Civil unrest against the war as well as racial tensions running high was something subtly addressed in the film. As for older audiences, many of whom had experienced WWII, they identified with many of the characters and the action. I've had many female acquaintances also tell me their appreciation for the macho, all-male cast. Seriously.
Why do you think the movie has such a great legacy?
Well, like all great films, it has stood the test of time while seemingly not being dated at all in the way it tells its tale. Proof is in the AFI listing it as 1 of the 100 Greatest War Films of All-Time. It's just gotten better with age, which all the best do when it comes to a lasting legacy.
What are some of your fave DIRTY DOZEN rip-offs or films influenced by it?
Funny you should ask that, as I devote an entire chapter in Killin' Generals to that very subject. I may have given it short shrift when I wrote about it in that chapter based on the reviews I quoted, but I actually liked THE DEVIL'S BRIGADE which came out a year after THE DIRTY DOZEN. Also enjoyed the original version of INGLORIOUS BASTARDS (1978) with Bo Svenson and Fred Williamson. I think that's about it.
What does the film mean to you personally? What kind of joy do you get each time from revisiting it?
Personally, it's just a terrific movie in the way movies are supposed to be terrific and don't seem to be anymore. Fascinating characters to root for or despise, being taken into another time and place that sucks you in from the get-go, which makes you wish you were part of the adventure is all missing from contemporary action films. I always thought the mistake many of the TV movie sequels made was emphasizing the outlandish plots instead of the in-depth character development of the original. Well, at least we'll always have the original.
Is there anything you don't like about the movie? Could it have been improved?
Interesting question. Maybe just a few things left unexplained that I did discover and then explained in the book. For example, during the war game scene, it used to drive me crazy not knowing what the dozen were passing to each other that Borgnine sees, laughs, and then decides to leave. At first, I thought they were thermometers or something. Well, I did find out and it was just bad editing on Aldrich's part not to explain it, and does make sense once I found out. Once again, gotta read the book.
Do you think the film has been misunderstood over the years? Are there still themes and nuances you feel people miss?
I think so. When it came out some critics debated the worthiness of a film that they thought glorified violence and brutality, which I believe is still debated to this day. As to themes and nuances that are often missed, I would say it's in the way the dozen slowly and believably bond as a group over the course of the film. Of course, not all do, specifically Maggot (Telly Savalas). I just think it's an overlooked theme in the film that works really well.
A number of the cast and crew have already passed on. Had you had the chance to ask the likes of Marvin, Aldrich, Cassavetes, and Bronson any questions at all about the film at all, what would you have asked them?
Interesting hypothetical. Naturally, I would ask any or all of them what they remember about making the film and specific anecdotes in particular. Also, any follow-up questions would be based on what they would want to tell me.
A very childish question. Who do you think would have won in a brawl? Marvin or Bronson?
Oh, you mean like, "My dad can beat up your dad!" It's funny because it actually almost happened once during filming, on the last day, no less. Marvin did something that really pissed off Bronson which producer Ken Hyman told me about as he had to play referee. It's in the book and is actually a pretty funny story.
Do you think Marvin and Bronson recognized a lot in each other?
Oh, I'm pretty sure they did, which is why they worked together so often and hung out on occasion. I once saw them interviewed together on YouTube after DEATH HUNT (1981) came out and they were very comfortable with each other and very funny.
Which movie (Marvin film or not) would make the perfect double bill with The Dirty Dozen? Feel free to make a triple!
Probably THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963), since it has a lot in common with THE DIRTY DOZEN in many ways, but seeing them together would be a real test of the bladder as they are both almost 3 hours long each. If it's a triple, I'd throw in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960). Yeah, it's a western but it also has a great ensemble cast of future superstars. Besides, when you have bad guys doing good things in a movie, it's always worth watching.
Do you think a similarly inspired cast could be put together for a DIRTY DOZEN remake, or are we living in different times? Are you hopeful for the David Ayer remake?
I'm not sure the remake is ever going to happen as it's been talked about for quite a while now but I do hope it does. What I had read was that Ayer wanted to update it to contemporary urban America. In which case it may have an all-black cast. Might be cool to see Denzel Washington as Reisman and some other black actors in key roles.
If you were to write another making of book on a Marvin movie, which one would it be, and why? (Please say POINT BLANK!)
I hate to disappoint you but my agent suggested POINT BLANK (1967) first and I passed. Actually, I'd write about one of his westerns which are quite deserving of reappraisal, like THE PROFESSIONALS (1966) or MONTE WALSH (1970). Great films but there are market considerations that would make it hard to sell to a publisher. Then again, it took me 20 years to get Lee Marvin Point Blank to find an interested publisher but when I did it went to #4 on the NY Times Bestseller List so you never know!
My interview with Epstein on Point Blank: Lee Marvin.
Killin' Generals: The Making of 'The Dirty Dozen, the Most Iconic World War II Film of All Time' by Dwayne Epstein is available from Citadel Press at all good retailers. Point Blank: Lee Marvin is available from Schnaffner Press.
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