Slaughterhouse Twelve: Robert Aldrich’s ‘The Dirty Dozen’

Written by Tim Pelan. The Dirty Dozen movie poster illustration by Frank McCarthy © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), MKH, Seven Arts Productions

By Tim Pelan

In the mid-1960s, director Robert Aldrich was coming up for air after the thick stew melodramas of Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? casting his net around for a new project. It landed with E. M. Nathanson’s latest WWII set novel The Dirty Dozen: anti-authority, throw the rulebook out, nihilistic—not your daddy’s war story, daddio. Veteran screenwriter Nunnally Johnson did a first draft for him, before Aldrich approached Baby Jane, Charlotte, and Flight of the Phoenix collaborative screenwriter Lukas Heller for a do-over, feeling the original script “would have made a very good, very acceptable 1945 war picture. But I don’t think that a good 1945 war picture is a good 1967 war picture.” Nathanson supposedly got 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,” demolitionists in Headquarters Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st, who earned their nickname by not washing or shaving during training prior to the Normandy invasion. Another alleged inspiration came via future shock filmmaker Russ Meyer, who during the war was a combat cameraman. He’d shot footage of inmates at an American military prison who were under sentence of death or hard labour for such crimes as murder, rape and other violent offences, and supposedly also selected for 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 if they survived, their records would be expunged. They were known as the “Dirty Dozen” because they also refused to shave. He later returned to enquire as to their fates, and were told none came back. Meyer relayed this (tall?) tale to his friend Aldrich, who lapped it up.

Via Trash Trailers, the cast and narrator cornily precis their parts: “There’s a little of Major Reisman in every man,” Lee Marvin says of his wrong un’s wrangler, a hard-headed square peg tasked with selecting this motley crew: “tough and unyielding, yet compassionate.” Jim Brown, African American NFL fullback turned actor: “Jefferson is any man fighting against the odds. I think I understand him pretty well.” In the film he tells Reisman he fought back against some “cracker bastards” who were trying to castrate him. Polymath artist John Cassavetes on his scene-stealing Franco: “Franco is a petty hoodlum forced into heroism by circumstances beyond his control.” Trini Lopez is Jimenez: “He’s crawling with hate.” Charles Bronson is Wladislaw: “The last guy in the world you’d expect to be a hero.” He lasted three days with a promotion in the field, shooting another officer in the back who panicked under fire and ran with the medical supplies. In Riesman’s opinion, the only thing he did wrong was, “You let somebody see you do it.” Telly Savalas on his Maggot: “Maggot is a maniac. His religious fanaticism can never be moderated or quelled.” (Jack Palance was previously considered, but balked at the character’s racism.) Clint Walker as Posey: “An Indian with war paint smeared on his soul!” (Like Rambo, he’s a quiet giant who doesn’t like “being pushed.”) Excite them! Arm them! And turn them loose on the Nazi high command! the trailer cries (the rest of the Dozen, apart from Donald Sutherland’s dopey “General” Pinkley, promoted from the back row for his clowning charisma, are largely forgettable cannon fodder. There is also Richard Jaeckel’s MP Sgt. Bowren, who christens the Dozen with their team tag). Many of the older cast members such as Marvin, Walker, Ernest Borgnine as Maj. Gen. Sam Worden and Robert Ryan as Colonel Breed were war veterans.

Aldrich’s words later in life reflecting on the common threads of his career chimed with Brown’s above. “If my films have any central theme it is that a man is bigger than the things around him. You can measure him not by his success but by the way he struggles.” Reisman is a Major long passed over for promotion because he rubs his superiors up the wrong way. In his correspondence with producer Kenneth Hyman, Aldrich considered that he should be the “most cynical, suspicious, sophisticated, anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment, mean, miserable, son of a bitch that anybody has ever seen in a movie.” Hard to credit John Wayne was considered at one point, but he was turned off by the draft he saw, where Reisman has an affair with the wife of an officer on the front line. Thank God we got Lee Marvin, the real deal. He may have considered The Dirty Dozen to be a “dummy money maker,” as he told critic Roger Ebert, finding greater satisfaction later in, to him, the more authentic war reportage of Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One, but along with Point Blank, it’s probably his most iconic role. Reisman doesn’t have time for his superior Worden’s consideration of his patchy record: “I’m not interested in embroidery, only results.” He’ll do what he’s told, but his way. If he’s gonna get a squad of condemned misfits, at the behest of some crazy loon up the chain, to parachute into France to wipe out a bunch of German Generals kicking back in some fancy chateau before the D-Day landings, he wants guarantees of a commuted sentence, should any survive. But as he tells his men, any intentional screw ups or attempts to escape will result in him personally “blowing your brains out.”

At times Bronson probably felt like doing the same to Marvin. The pair often clashed over Marvin’s drinking holding things up (once he got going though, Marvin was professionalism personified). Hyman recalled, probably to Dwayne Epstein, the climactic sequence in the grounds of Borehamwoods Studios where Marvin and Bronson were to drive a huge half-track across the chateau bridge whilst explosions and merry hell rain down around them. Lee was nowhere to be found, so the producer drove into London, “straight to the Star Tavern in Belgravia. Lee was hanging on the end of the bar apparently as drunk as a skunk. Now, he is the man who has to drive that vehicle across the bridge. I get him into the car and feed him like a child from a flask of coffee. We arrived on the set and got out of the car. Bronson was standing at the back of the chateau where he’d been waiting for Marvin to show. We pulled in and Lee sort of fell out of the car. Charlie says, ‘I’m going to fucking kill you, Lee!’ and I go through my routine: ‘Don’t hit him, Charlie, don’t punch him.’” According to Hyman, as always, Marvin came through. “There were several moments in the production when he probably couldn’t have articulated his own name. But you’d never know it from the sure way he moved.”

Aldrich had an eye for the underdog, hiring Cassavetes after he was blackballed in Hollywood for punching producer Stanley Kramer during a heated argument over Kramer cutting director Cassavetes’ film A Child Is Waiting. Appreciating the favor, Cassavetes turned in a star performance, earning an Oscar nomination for best actor in a supporting role. He’s brilliant butting heads against Marvin, often improvising his sneering, what’s this cock-a-mamie bullshit? reluctance to be brought to heel during the lengthy training sequence where Reisman figures out how to push his squad’s buttons and get them to function as a team, not a bunch of aggrieved a-holes. During a rope climbing exercise, Franco yaps, “I thought you said Mayonnaise was the only one supposed to get on top of that chateau?” Reisman bats back, prissily mocking, “But suppose Jimenez gets killed before he gets to the top of that chateau?” Each man has to know the others’ jobs. That includes a spot of improv too, as the team attend paratroop training, Reisman regretting he told an underlying to relay that a General was attending incognito, to maintain security. Instead, a brass band is laid on, Colonel Breed’s troops spick and span for inspection. Clint Walker was originally to pretend to be the inspecting “General,” but didn’t want to do it, so instead we got the brilliant Donald Sutherland walk up and down the ranks, stopping dead in front of some random soldier, as Generals are want to do, Reisman barreling into him. “Where are you from, son?” he enquires. “Madison, Missouri, sir!” the sap snaps back, pleased as punch. Pinkley slowly shakes his head sadly. “Never heard of it,” the soldier visibly deflating. Pinkley snaps around to Breed. “Very pretty, Colonel, very pretty. But can they fight?” to the Dozen’s raucous delight. They just made an enemy out of Breed, and Sutherland became a star, cast on the strength of this by Robert Altman in M.A.S.H.

Reisman’s mushy side has him secure some “comfort” for his ragtag bunch who are finally beginning to gel, rounding up some prostitutes (not for Maggot though–he’s kept well out of the way on sentry duty, raving about “sluts” and “damnation”). Why on earth did anyone think he’d be a solid link in the chain later? Word gets back up to command and the whole enterprise threatens to derail, until Reisman commits to pitting his squad against Ryan’s elite paratroopers in a war game exercise. This is pretty much played for laughs, I would have preferred to see much more dirty underhanded tactics at play. I could also do without the obligatory singing guest star musical number from Lopez (same thing happened in True Grit with Glen Campbell, stops the movie stone dead).

In a two and a half hour run time, the real action doesn’t truly kick in until the Chateau assault which takes up about the last forty minutes. Before then, we have a “last supper,” Reisman and the men all seated on one side of a long bunch of trestle tables, Maggot seated to Reisman the saviour’s left as Judas. Reisman unveils a model of the target and runs them through each step as in a football playbook, the Dozen gleefully reeling off the steps like psychotic children (“Three! The Major’s men are on a spree”) finishing with Reisman’s “And then we kill every German in sight.”

Even in this action sequence there is some sly humour. As some of the Dozen crest a rise and the chateau is revealed, Deutschland Uber Alles erupts on the score, tailing off in music box notes, as if in some surreal dream. When a disguised Reisman and Wladislaw (He’s a German-speaking Silesian originally) pull the door pull chain, the bell rings the first notes of Beethoven’s “5th Symphony”—also the notes that represent the Allied V for Victory D-Day alert in Morse code. Fans of BBC sitcom Allo Allo, a spoof of serious wartime drama The Secret Army, will recognise the comical German sentry as Richard Marner, Allo Allo’s Col Kurt Von Strohm. The German private looking forward to some leave before his inevitable death is roundly sent-up in Quentin Tarantino’s beer cellar sequence from Inglorious Basterds.

Then we get nasty. Maggot of course discovers a woman in an isolated wing and attempts to rape her, stabbing her with a blade. Jefferson blows him away in an antebellum revenge callback when Maggot goes berserk, firing wildly at the “degenerates” partying below. The plan is blown. Wladislaw shoots a German in the back. Everyone blasts away with machine guns on both sides (there’s only one guy with a rifle, a German sniper on the roof). David Mamet might call it war, “The Chicago way.” The French staff are released, but are seen to disappear somewhere in the chateau, which later blows to smithereens. 17! Collaborators or no, they have to go! (Construction of the faux chateau at Borehamwood was so solid that 70 tons of explosives would have been needed to achieve the effect. A section was rebuilt from cork and plastic.)

The officers, their wives and mistresses are “evacuated” into the chateau’s cavernous cellars, then entrapped, whilst grenades and gasoline are tipped down the air vents, their grasping fingers trying to block the holes and push against the doors deliberate Holocaust echoes. Brown lays on the finishing touch, dropping the last live grenades down each vent as he runs for the half-track in a tragic final touchdown. Aldrich said this was intended to remind viewers of the napalming they were seeing each night on their television news about Vietnam. Brown’s earlier line to Reisman: “That’s your war, not mine,” was a Vietnam-era sentiment from Mohammed Ali implanted in a World War II movie, although by the finale he’s gleefully letting loose.

The director later poo-pooed the idea there was an intentional Vietnam allegory to the action. “When we planned The Dirty Dozen in 1965,” he said before his death in 1983, “do you think for one moment we knew that by the time the film came out, the French kids would be in revolt and Americans would be sick of Vietnam so the mood would be just right for our picture? Rubbish.” He also said, “I wanted to make the point that violence is just as disagreeable when it comes from Americans as when it comes from Germans.”

Reviews at the time were of course mixed. Most critics reacted with horror. The New York Times’s Bosley Crowther called it a “slaughterhouse film” that would allow its audience to “come away…palpitating with a vicarious sense of enjoyment in war.” Richard Schickel in Life Magazine contrarily felt that “it seems to be one of the most interesting films about the brutalizing effects of war that we have had from American filmmakers in the past decade.”

The Dirty Dozen inspired a host of copy-cat type films, most impressively and nihilistically in Quentin Tarantino’s gleefully ghoulish Inglorious Basterds (2009), with its three-way revenge plot—the comically violent “Basterds,” behind-the-lines Jewish American Rangers led by Brad Pitt’s “Aldo the Apache;” the “stiff-assed Brit” contingent of Lt Archie Hicox (“Paris when it sizzles,” toasts Michael Fassbender) and Shoshanna / Emmanuelle (Mélanie Laurent) the Jewish escapee living under an alias, who plans to burn the Nazi High Command down in her Paris cinema at the premiere of Nation’s Pride, her “face of Jewish revenge” coinciding with the Basterds and Hickox’s “Operation Kino” to do the same. All led a merry dance by self-serving SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz)—“That’s a bingo!”

The soundtrack as Shosanna prepares for the premiere plays David Bowie’s theme for the 1982 remake of Cat People: the lyric “putting out the fire with gasoline” suggests the revenge she will exact is one of brutal, no holds barred excess. For Shosanna, her lifeblood, the cinema’s stock of highly flammable nitrate film, will be the instrument to send them all to hell, her with them. Inglorious Basterds goes even further than The Dirty Dozen, cutting off the head of the snake, stamping on it, riddling it with bullets and burning it to hell. Both films, to different degrees, ask, what price vengeance to a person’s soul?

Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »

Screenwriter must-read: Nunnally Johnson & Lukas Heller’s screenplay for The Dirty Dozen [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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A short film looking behind the scenes at the making of The Dirty Dozen. Showing many scenes being filmed just north of London, the short focuses mostly on star Lee Marvin enjoying his pursuits on his one day off a week. He enjoys watching motorcycle racing and spends some time in “swinging sixties” London with his fellow actors.

In Peter Bogdanovich’s book Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors he point out that Aldrich helped get John Cassavetes back into mainstream Hollywood as an actor by casting him in The Dirty Dozen.

John told me that. It wasn’t Aldrich, cause Aldrich didn’t brag on himself. John told me he owed it to Aldrich because nobody would hire him, because of the fracas between Cassavetes and [Stanley] Kramer [on A Child is Waiting, 1963]. That was a big thing for John, doing The Dirty Dozen. He’s brilliant in that movie.Peter Bogdanovich

Our brief conversation happened on August 12, 1965, near sound stages at Fox, where Aldrich was preparing to shoot; I began by asking him what it was about the book The Flight of the Phoenix that most interested him in making his latest feature.
It’s much more than an adventure story, but it has all the wonderful entertainment ingredients of an adventure story; superimposed on that is the survival dilemma of what men will and will not do to stay alive under pressurized conditions; third is the twist that I don’t think has ever been done in film before, which makes the surprise ending not just a gimmick. It makes it a whole, almost reasonable, ending. There are no parallels. You can’t say it’s like some other kind of picture, and you hope it isn’t.

You’ve dealt before with the theme of men under pressure: Ten Seconds to Hell, Attack!, et cetera.
Yes, how men will combat those excessive pressures to stay alive, and how they will weaken, and how they won’t crumble.

Is the picture very violent?
No, strangely, not very. There’s only a brief episode of violence and it’s neurotic, not physical. It’s only physical in that they have to overcome [Ernest] Borgnine, who’s tremendously disturbed by an incident. But as such there is no violence in the picture at all. There’s an offscreen killing—you never see that.

Did you improvise a lot, or at all?
I’ll tell you what really happens—and it happens often with big films: you end up with a film that is a little longer than you would normally want, and probably a little fuller than you originally expected. Because you do improvise. The screenwriter, Lukas Heller, takes liberties with the book that help the film, and you take liberties with the screenplay that you think help the film, and to that degree a great deal has been added since the original conception.

Did you improvise with the actors on the set?
Oh, yes—always. We had a three-week rehearsal period before the picture. We talked about different approaches than you would expect from the script.

More than on, say, your last two pictures?
I would think more, just because of the personalities of the people involved; there were seven or eight nationalities represented, and some things—no matter how well you write them in English—just don’t sound that well when they come out in a thick French accent, or a thick Italian accent, and the actor would say: “I know the point of the scene— wouldn’t it be a lot funnier if I said, ‘Zaba-zaba-zaba’ instead of the other way around?” And you say, “Of course it would.” Obviously. If you were French or Italian, you would have thought of it first.

You didn’t do as much extemporaneous stuff as you did, say, on Vera Cruz, on which I understand you improvised an awful lot.
No, because the script for Vera Cruz had many sections that would say: “And the Arabs took the town,” and we would shoot for seventeen days.

Were you glad to get back to a world of men after two of your last films [Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1965) both had two female leads]?
That implies that—

That you weren’t happy on those—no, I didn’t mean that.
But it was a big relief to work with an all-male cast. And we only had one bit of trouble on the whole picture—it was the day we had the one female in front of the camera. So, it is different: there are certain latitudes you can take with men. It’s just not possible to wake up and say, “I think the whole thing stinks—let’s reverse the scene and go off to the other side.” Not very many women are capable of that kind of inversion—they like to stick to what they’ve practiced and rehearsed.

Not every man welcomes that either—but you take less of a chance.

Borgnine and [Dan] Duryea are the only two in the cast with whom you’ve worked before.
Yes. My son [William Aldrich] has a part in the picture, but it’s very small. Everybody else I’d never worked with.

After all your recent studio work, were you happy to be back on location?
Location was wonderful. We had wonderful weather; it didn’t get as hot as it was supposed to—got to 120 degrees, but it should be 130 degrees down there that time of year. And you have much more latitude outdoors—you’re not so confined; I get along wonderfully well with [cinematographer] Joe Biroc and it’s not so confining—you feel much more at ease.

With this film, were you purposely trying to get away from the horror/shock kind of thing you’ve done lately?
Yes—I don’t want to be a middle-aged Hitchcock. I think any director gets better by doing a variety of films. I don’t think he should do any one kind. For my personal taste, Charlotte and Jane were a little too close together. If there had been two or three films in between, I’d have been a lot better off.

How did you come to do them one after the other?
I get along wonderfully well with Bette Davis and I really enjoyed working with her. She’s a terribly exciting personality, and that reflects in your work as well as hers; I found the story for her and it seemed kind of pretentious to postpone on the grounds that you didn’t want to do two pictures alike too close together, because the story was there and she was there and I was there. In retrospect, I probably should have had more in between—but there was really no reason to wait to do it.

I liked de Havilland.
Oh, she was wonderful.

She was better than Crawford would have been.
Oh, much better. I think probably the casting damaged the picture commercially, but it helped the picture enormously in believability. Crawford was Crawford and very good, but she’d never have given that kind of role the nuances de Havilland did.

Well, I felt that de Havilland seemed intrinsically more of a bitch somehow.
Also, if de Havilland steps out of the cab, we’re not sure the butler did it. Anyone else steps out of the cab, you know the butler did it, and the story’s over.

How did the cast of The Flight of the Phoenix [1966] get along?
Everybody says “no problems,” and it’s never, never true. As long as I’ve been around—almost twenty-five years—I’ve never been on a picture that there wasn’t a beef. This picture, which is a tragic tale, is without one single, personal abrasion. Because these guys [all-star cast: James Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Ernest Borgnine, Hardy Krüger, Peter Finch, etcetera] are terribly individualistic and they couldn’t be more un-alike. I was prepared, just by the nature of things, that there would be unpleasant days—maybe quite a few of them. And I don’t know what happened. They just had an enormous regard and respect for each other around that table while we were rehearsing, and we went on location at just about the right time. We only rehearsed about a week and a half together and it was pleasant together; everybody got the same kind of treatment; nobody was favored.

How was Jimmy Stewart?
Marvelous. I thought there might be some kind of collision because some of these are—not different kinds of actors, but they have a different set of standards concerning what are good films, what constitutes a good film, than probably Stewart does and I thought there could be a variety of collisions. Being more film-conscious than most major American actors, these guys all have known every single one of his pictures, and seen them, and just honestly flattered him as opposed to kissing his ass. He couldn’t believe that many people knew that much about his own pictures and other pictures. And they just got along wonderfully well.

While casting the picture, were you specifically looking for them to be very different from each other?
No, the key to the casting of the whole picture was an idea that the young, intelligent engineer-type be German. And there was a great deal of resistance in my own little group whether this was wise or not, because you take on many things people will read in—more than anything the script may refer to—by this man being German; you take on many problems of political and social theory. Then, having thought about that for a long time, I didn’t think the worries were valid. Having decided on the idea, we agreed only two guys could play the part, maybe three. I thought the ideal was Krüger and we were lucky enough to get him. Having gotten Krüger and having gotten Stewart—that already changed the complexion of the kind of picture it could be. Then I said—having been a fan of Attenborough’s for a long time—wouldn’t it be sensational if we got Attenborough for the other big, big part. And we were lucky enough to get Attenborough. Now, having gotten Stewart, Attenborough and Krüger, then, gee, why not have a much broader-based film? A picture with more international aspects.

Originally, the cast was supposed to be all one nationality?
Well, in the book they were all British, and we had changed that to predominantly American with a sprinkling of others. That kind of snowballed. Krüger was the key—once we decided to make the young engineer a German…

Had you decided from the outset you wanted Stewart for the part?
No, here’s what happened: we found this book because we got a big break—I have a guy in England who reads galleys for me; he told me about it—and we got in the bidding very early. Then, about a month later, Life came out with a rave review of the book: the price skyrocketed and everybody got terribly involved in trying to buy it. We managed to prevail and we got the book. No sooner had we signed the contract than I got a call from Stewart’s agent: “Is it really true that you own Flight of the Phoenix?” I said, “Yes, why?” He said, “Well, I’ve been trying to buy it for the last two weeks for Jimmy Stewart.” I said, “Well, I presume he wanted to buy it because he wanted to play it. He could play it; he’d be marvelous, he’d be just wonderful.” But we hadn’t started the screenplay and the arrangement we would make here is that he would agree to play it on the basis of the book. I didn’t want to get into a long negotiation where now he’d have to see the screenplay and approve the other cast. And he was most cooperative, loved the part. And that’s how we got Stewart.

Did you prepare the role for Stewart, change it in any way?
Once we knew he was doing it, we certainly wrote the part for what Stewart seems to be. We took his characteristics as an actor into account.

Watching The Garment Jungle, I felt I could tell which parts you had directed and which you hadn’t. Did you ever see the film put together?
No. It was a very sad experience.

Did you direct most of it?
I’m told that’s what happened. The Directors Guild asked if I wanted arbitration, I said no.

It looked as if you directed a lot of it. I mentioned this to Lee J. Cobb the other day and he said, “How could you tell?” I think he was kidding, though.
He wasn’t kidding. Cobb was one of the sore points on that film. He had an old, long-standing relationship with [Columbia chief] Harry Cohn; Cobb and I didn’t get along. He’s a very strong-willed actor—a wonderful actor, but… That could have been a wonderful picture. It just ran out of guts in the middle. Strangely, I’ve always been sorry I didn’t reconcile with Cohn because I do think he made an awful mistake, and a fair mistake, but he was quite a man. We never spoke again—after.

You said a lot was cut from Ten Seconds to Hell.
Yes. I was producer on that and took my name off because about a half hour was cut, and it doesn’t make any sense to me now. The reasons why these men behave the way they do were all deleted out of the beginning of the picture—that was the whole opening. Because this is pretty factually what happened when people came back to cities like Berlin. There was just no way to get enough to eat. And to keep their families from starving they took these dangerous jobs.

It’s fascinating that so many bombs didn’t detonate.
The British really shook up the Germans: they devised a detonating device for which there was no timetable—it could sit there a week, two weeks, or two days, or two hours. You never knew when the bomb was going to go off once it was there.

You used that in Ten Seconds to Hell.
We didn’t say it was the British, but it was them—a Mercury bomb; it could sit there for two months.

Under what circumstances did you make your second feature, World for Ransom?
Working night and day on a six-day week, and then a five, and we made World for Ransom in eleven days. We made it for ninety-five thousand dollars or something—but nobody got paid.

And you made Baby Jane very inexpensively.

Because you did it fast?
We did it fast and everybody took no money and got a piece. Davis got sixty thousand dollars and Crawford got twenty-five thousand. And Charlotte, by the time we throw in Crawford’s illness and everything, I think Davis took $125,000; well, Jesus Christ, that’s some difference.

As a result of Baby Jane, haven’t you had much more ease and freedom in getting financing?
It always goes back to the same problems: who’s in the picture? how much is it going to cost?

Really? You don’t find as a result of Baby Jane that you…
Well, I made a career mistake I’m just about recovering from. After The Big Knife [1955], Kiss Me Deadly [1955] and Attack! on top of Apache [1954] and Vera Cruz—I really had more latitude with that unbroken string than now. Because, remember, after Attack! I made my three dogs in a row.

Are you talking about Autumn Leaves?
Well, Autumn Leaves did nothing to embellish my reputation.

I quite liked it, thought it was funny.
I didn’t mind it either—I liked a lot of things in it that were really corny—I’m not unproud of it. But, you know, Garment Jungle was a disaster, and The Angry Hills [1959] was a catastrophe. Then, you know, given a different leading man, I think we did a goddam respectable job with Sodom and Gomorrah [1961]. I don’t think you could do any more with that. If you had a guy you believed was Lot, I think the picture would’ve worked. Also, a half hour was cut out. Everybody should do a biblical picture—once.

Is that why you did it?
Hell, yes.

I didn’t realize that Attack! and The Big Knife had been that successful.
They were economically successful: Attack! was a very profitable picture, but it didn’t cost too much money. The French liked Kiss Me Deadly so much, the Hollywood community liked The Big Knife, Europeans generally liked Attack! All this made a lot of things come easier: actresses, actors. It was a whole kind of wave—you know, snowballed—good opportunity. But that was all negated by the things that followed. Because the films I wanted to do, I just couldn’t get to do, and I spent three years on a marvelous group of projects. That’s a sad history.

Are any of these the pictures you are planning now?
Yes, we have great hopes for these particular projects—one called The Legend of Lylah Clare—which we hope to do with Jeanne Moreau—and Paul Bowles’ novel The Sheltering Sky. Lylah Clare should be done in this country; Sheltering Sky should be done in Morocco.

Did you direct any of The Ride Back [1957], which lists your company as producer?
No—a lot of people ask me that—but Oscar Rudolph, who was a friend of mine, does all of those second units. That came the last two days. It was not that it wasn’t directed well—it was directed wonderfully well—but he [director Allen H. Miner] just ran out of money and had to finish the picture in X amount of days. There was a lot left to do and we just had to bring Oscar in.

Have you planned to do that again—produce a film with another director?
Yes, but with a different kind of operation: you’ve got to be close to it —you can’t be away from it—somebody’s got to watch the store. They never should have gotten me in that position in the first place, then it wouldn’t have happened; you can’t be doing a picture while somebody else is, and expect to watch the other picture carefully.

I guess I’m one of the few in America who saw the foreign version of The Angry Hills, with that great dance scene, which was so much better in its original version. A lot of lines in the American version now make no sense.
They don’t work now. And Mitchum, you know, has a wonderful capacity for drinking. It was hot as hell that summer. He wanted to drink some beer—it wasn’t beer—I don’t know what the hell it was, but he was drinking something. [Actor] Leslie Phillips drank along with him— and remember, we had to cover two different versions—by the time all this was finished, poor Leslie was loaded. Not Mitchum, but Phillips.

You wrote a magazine article about financing.
There’s no way to finance films that deal with the American scene that are controversial that may not be built-in moneymakers, that alienate certain portions of the American public. The financier’s in the business to make money. If he sees in this case that his capital is in jeopardy, he’s not going to make the picture. We have yet to develop a way to finance those kind of pictures.

You had this problem on Baby Jane.
Baby Jane proved the point that it was entertaining, it wasn’t even controversial. The problem really was whether you liked the subject matter or not. What happens if you want to make a picture on Vietnam? I don’t necessarily mean it’s my position, but what happens if I don’t like our government’s position on Vietnam and I want to do a film about that? I don’t like it—the government’s position on Vietnam—and there’s not a chance to make a film about that. Now, other countries have ways in which they make films on unpopular subjects.

Do you think, as a result, that American filmmakers are falling behind foreign filmmakers?
There isn’t a doubt in the world. It’s nonsense to think our culture, our education, our exposure is such that we can’t knowingly deal with these subjects—we can. Nobody’s found a way to finance these kinds of pictures. The market’s there; I’m sure it is. It’s like proving the world is round. Until you do it, nobody’s going to find out.

Is there some intrinsic difference between American filmmakers and European filmmakers?
I think the problem is, they don’t have much hope. Where can they look to say, “If I really was clever and I did that, I could do a real picture”? What chance do you have to get an unpopular picture made? You just haven’t. You go back, I’m sure, and you say, “I have to do a picture in two and a half days for TV for so much; you finish by six o’clock …” Everybody’s entitled to dream, but that’s kind of a hopeless dream; I don’t see any chance of fruition.

But how did people in the old days—like John Ford, Howard Hawks—make great films? Didn’t they have the same problems you have today?
No, not quite true because then the distributor said we can average out; you can no longer average out. Every picture is a bookkeeping entry. Either it loses its money or it doesn’t lose its money. They used to make thirty pictures of which twenty-seven make money and three lose; they didn’t care because it averages out—you take the house’s gamble. But the house can’t gamble anymore.

Interviewing Stanley Kramer, Robert Aldrich, and Richard Brooks, host Elwy Yost looks at the business of directing. They focus on the blending of creativity with film direction’s commercial, physical, and logistical components.

Muhammad Ali visits the film set of The Dirty Dozen at Markyate, Bedfordshire, Aug. 5, 1966. Photographed by Thomas Hoepker.

Lee Marvin interviewed by John Gallagher (1986). In a rare and comprehensive interview conducted one year before his death, the legendary star reminisces about John Ford, John Wayne, Robert Aldrich, Fritz Lang, Michael Curtiz, Sam Fuller, and John Boorman, and such classics as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Donovan’s Reef, The Big Red One, The Dirty Dozen, Point Blank, his TV series M Squad, and winning the Oscar for Cat Ballou.

Walter Hill on Robert Aldrich. Originally published in Filmmakers & Aldrich (Italy), by Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan.

I first met Robert Aldrich some 35 years ago. Not that they ever changed much, but I have total recall of my initial impressions of Bob: physically vital, brusque, massive, seething, darkly funny, explosive, direct, and very smart. I loved the permanent offices he kept over on Larchmont near his home in Hancock Park. Bob had a penthouse suite with a sunken floor-sofa configuration set off by a massive desk at one end that looked down on the conversational area. The lights were kept very dim, the windows blacked out—the whole effect being straight out of some film noir classic. I’m told the offices were modeled on those of Columbia’s Harry Cohn, a man Bob Aldrich both respected and despised.

Lukas Heller, my good and much-missed friend, was the favored writer for the latter period of Aldrich’s career. Although Aldrich was enormously loyal to his co-workers, this was a tricky job. Bob liked a lot of rewriting and didn’t appreciate a lot of debate. But when he got the script where he wanted it to be, that was it. Peter Falk told me that when he suggested a series of dialogue changes to Bob, he got an icy smile and then: “Let’s stop. Because if we continue this conversation I’m going to fucking throw you right out the window.”

Bob Aldrich and I met rarely, but through Lukas I got constant reports on the great man’s activities and attitudes as well as his greetings and good wishes. Wearing his producer hat, Bob proposed several projects to me but, sad to say, they never worked out. As to why I should direct the movie under consideration rather than him, the answer was always the same. The project needed X as the perfect casting to properly realize the film and Bob “couldn’t stand the son of a bitch and didn’t want to spend months talking to the bastard.” Nowadays, it is fashionable to valorize the idea that one is, or should be, “non-judgmental.” Robert Aldrich was judgmental and unapologetic about it.

As directors, we are obviously evaluated by the work, the results, not the excuses as to why things didn’t go better or weren’t more completely realized. But in years past, under the old studio system, many times the final results reflected the taste of others without the director being given a reasonable chance to demonstrate his/her point of view. No one resented this hard truth more than Bob—but he did something about it. I don’t think any director of the first rank has ever done more to improve the working conditions for those of us who do the job. As president and, earlier, as chairman of various committees for the Directors Guild, he was unsparing in his devotion of time, energy, and intellect to the task. It made him a lot of enemies. It hurt his career. And it should earn him our enduring gratitude.

After all these years, Kiss Me Deadly is still probably the masterpiece. At the very least, a director who goes out to a Malibu beach house and then blows up the whole world is someone to be reckoned with. At the boldly imaginative level I don’t believe this apocalyptic vision of the consequences of human avarice has ever been quite equaled.

The best of his movies have a great interior tension—torn by a wide separation between intellect and emotion. At the calculated level, Bob espouses left-liberal progressive politics. But at an instinctive level, he is anti-authoritarian to a near anarchical degree, seeing violence as a natural result of the misuse of power. Even more than that—violence as a natural result of the human condition.

He once said to me something to the effect that the system we work under was not only unjust and corrupt—on top of that, it simply didn’t work. He was talking about Hollywood and the studios, but I think it was the same way he saw the world. And, again, he did something about it. He made marvelous films that demonstrated his ideas, entertained lots of people, and, at least in the stories, momentarily defeated his enemies.

This seems to me a life well spent.

“A director is a ringmaster, a psychiatrist and a referee.”

Robert Aldrich (August 9, 1918—December 5, 1983)

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), MKH, Seven Arts Productions. Muhammad Ali visits the film set of The Dirty Dozen photographed by Thomas Hoepker. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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