Dirty Little Behind-The-Scenes Facts About The Dirty Dozen

The 1967 war film The Dirty Dozen introduced moviegoers to a new kind of soldier: convicted criminals. But there’s more to this World War II film than the brutal, brazen, and violent scenes.

Between continuity errors and one of the main characters hating the film, here are some dirty behind-the-scenes facts about The Dirty Dozen.

The Doorbell Has A Hidden Meaning

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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The Dirty Dozen has one scene in which Major John Reisman and Joseph Wladislaw ring a doorbell. But only eagle-eyed fans probably caught the hidden meaning behind the quick rings.

They hit the bell in such a way that it plays as though it’s the first four notes of Beethoven’s “5th Symphony,” a composition used by the Allied forces during WWII.

The Fake Château Was Built Too Well

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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

In one scene, a château is seen being blown up. But that section of the building wasn’t the original. The original structure was actually built too well, and the special effects team would have needed about 70 pounds of dynamite to get the desired shot.

In the end, they reconstructed one side of the building using cork and plastic for an easier and cheaper BANG!

Charles Bronson Thought The Movie Was Too Violent

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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The Dirty Dozen changed the war genre, coming to theaters with guns a-blazing in a violent onscreen depiction of World War II. Interestingly, one of the leading men, Charles Bronson, thought the movie was too violent, even though he’d appeared in films such as The Magnificent Seven and Death Wish.

He was so unsettled by all of the blood that he actually wound up walking out of one of the screenings.

John Wayne Was The First Choice For Major John Reisman

John Wayne
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Western cowboy actor John Wayne was actually the casting director’s original choice to play the leading character of Major John Reisman in The Dirty Dozen. He wound up turning down the role for a specific reason: he disapproved of the character having a romantic relationship with a married woman.

So, the role ended up going to Lee Marvin.

Jim Brown Chose The Film Over His NFL Contract

Jim Brown Running with Football
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Bettmann/Getty Images

When Jim Brown was picked to portray Robert T. Jefferson in The Dirty Dozen, he was still under contract with the Cleveland Browns. Unfortunately for Brown, filming and training camp for the upcoming NFL season conflicted.

Cleveland owner Art Modell threatened to fine Brown $1,500 each week he missed camp. Not appreciating the threat, Brown retired from the NFL.

Several Of The Dirty Dozen Were Actually Real-Life Military

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Some of the actors in The Dirty Dozen didn’t just play soldiers onscreen. They were actually in the military during World War II. Some of the men who served in the United States Army include George Kennedy and Telly Savalas, while Charles Bronson served in the United States Army Air Forces.

Lee Marvin, Robert Webber, and Robert Ryan were in the Marines, Clint Walker was a US Merchant Marine, and Ernest Borgnine served in the Navy.

The Movie Was Based On A Best-Selling Novel

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Like many great movies in Hollywood, The Dirty Dozen is a film adaptation of a best-selling novel. E. M. Nathanson’s 1965 novel of the same name sold more than two million copies and was translated into ten languages.

It told the story of the 101 st Airborne Division called the “Filthy Thirteen.”

Charles Bronson Has A History With Coal Mining

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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

In The Dirty Dozen, actor Charles Bronson’s character, Joseph Wladislaw, discusses his family and how his father worked in a coal mine. This isn’t far off from Bronson’s own family history.

His father actually worked in a coal mine in both Lithuania and Pennsylvania. At ten years old, Bronson even began working in the mining offices and then the mines, earning $1 for each ton of coal.

Bad Weather Led To Production Going $1 Million Over Budget

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Filming for The Dirty Dozen took place in the United Kingdom during the summer of 1966. But the summer weather wasn’t exactly working with the production schedule.

There were so many days of heavy rain that filming was delayed for several months at a time. In the end, the reshoots had the studio $1 million over their original budget.

The Opening Credits Were Moved Back 12 Minutes

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In the 1960s, it was normal for post-production to insert the opening credits right at the beginning of a movie. Director Robert Aldrich had something else in mind, though. Instead of credits, he wanted to start the film off with action.

So, he pushed the opening credits back a solid 12 minutes!

Lee Marvin Didn’t Think It Depicted Real War

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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Lee Marvin was one of the lead actors in The Dirty Dozen. In the film, he portrayed Major John Reisman, the man assigned to training criminals who were going to cross enemy lines.

While the movie did well, Marvin didn’t think it actually depicted real war. In an interview, he actually called the film “Just a dummy money-maker.”

The Cast Were Much Older Than The Characters They Played

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Hollywood is no stranger to casting people who are way older than the characters they’re portraying onscreen (just look at pretty much everyone portraying high school students). As it turns out, The Dirty Dozen was no different.

At the time of casting, many of the lead actors were in their 40s, even though they were playing characters about half their age.

Robert Aldrich Made The Actors Get Military-Approved Haircuts

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The Dirty Dozen was shot in the late ’60s, meaning the actors had modern hairstyles for the time. Director Robert Aldrich wanted the movie as realistic as possible, though. And since it was set in the ’40s during World War II, that meant the men getting haircuts.

Needless to say, the actors weren’t too thrilled with the request and were reluctant to cut their hair. Aldrich said he would sue them if they didn’t! So, they went to the barber.

Some Of The Scenes Were Improvised

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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Academy Award-winning screenwriter Nunnally Johnson took on the extreme task of adapting E. M. Nathanson’s novel to the silver screen. While the actors were excited and honored to be working with a master and taking his script very seriously, Johnson also allowed them to improvise some scenes.

One such scene showed Ernest Borgnine’s Major General Sam Worden choking in anger after hearing about the Dirty Dozen’s antics on the front lines!

Lee Marvin Took Inspiration From His Best Friend

Close-up of Lee Marvin
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Mondadori via Getty Images

For his role as Major John Reisman, Lee Marvin drew inspiration from a few places. The first was from his own experience in the Marine Corps during World War II. But the second was from his best friend, John Miara.

Miara and Marvin served together during the war, and the actor drew inspiration from his friend’s personality for the character.

Charles Bronson Didn’t Like Being The Short Guy

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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

While filming the credit scenes at the American military prison, director Robert Aldrich decided to play a practical joke on the main men of The Dirty Dozen cast.

When originally lining up the actors for the shot, he placed a shortish five-foot eight-inch Charles Bronson between the much taller six-foot six-inch Clint Walker and the six-foot four-inch Donald Sutherland. Bronson had a few choice words about the lineup, making Aldrich laugh.

There Were A Few Spin-Offs

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The Dirty Dozen was such a success that it paved the way for numerous spin-offs. Three years after the film was released, Play Dirty made it to theaters, a pseudo-sequel to the original film.

In 1988, Ernest Borgnine reprised his role as General Worden in The Dirty Dozen: The Fatal Mission. Even in 2021, The Suicide Squad is a modern adaptation of the original film, using supervillain convicts.

Another Director Almost Landed The Project

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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

When MGM landed the rights to The Dirty Dozen back in 1964, they had a particular director in mind to spearhead the project. George Seaton was the number one choice for the studio.

Amazingly, Seaton had little experience, with his one claim to fame being Miracle on 34th Street. In the end, Robert Aldrich was hired.

A Behind-The-Scenes Short Was Made

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It’s hard to imagine a ’60s film having a behind-the-scenes featurette. But The Dirty Dozen was no ordinary film!

In fact, the same year as the movie’s release, 1967, a behind-the-scenes short came out called Operation Dirty Dozen, showcasing the actors and cast as they were filming the movie and traveling around England during the ’60s.

Aldrich Didn’t Care About Winning Best Picture

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Unlike many directors, Robert Aldrich didn’t necessarily care about getting an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. Interestingly, he was told that if he took out one scene, he’d most likely get a nomination.

He didn’t listen. The scene was when Sergeant Clyde Bowren tosses grenades into a bunker. Aldrich cared more about authenticity than an award nomination.

Jim Brown Wasn’t Supposed To Have A Big Role

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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

In the original script, Jim Brown’s role as Robert T. Jefferson was supposed to be minor. The good news for the former Cleveland Brown NFL player was that director Robert Aldrich was a major football fan.

Solely because of Brown’s status as a professional player, the director extended his role in the film.

Trini Lopez’s Character Was Killed Off Early For A Reason

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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Due to a whole lot of summer rainstorms, the filming schedule of the Dirty Dozen was delayed for months. This wasn’t great for Trini Lopez, who, at the time, had a booming music career.

Rumor has it that Frank Sinatra told Lopez to leave the production early and get back to the stage, while another says his agent didn’t secure a pay raise, so he left. Either way, his character was killed off pretty quickly.

The Dirty Dozen Is Based On The Filthy Thirteen

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While The Dirty Dozen is based on E.M. Nathanson’s novel of the same name, the actual men of the dozen are based on a real-life military gang that was known as the Filthy Thirteen.

World War II paratroopers, the Filthy Thirteen, were given the nickname because they didn’t shower or shave leading up to D-Day.

Continuity Error: Guitar Edition

Trini Lopez
Stanley Bielecki/ASP/Getty Images
Stanley Bielecki/ASP/Getty Images

For those eagle-eyed fans, a certain scene might have confused them. In the movie, J. Pedro Jimenez brings along a guitar to entertain the Dirty Dozen. During some downtime in one scene, he plays The Bramble Bush.

The thing is, while viewers can hear the guitar in one shot, in the very next, Jimenez is seen moving his fingers over the strings, but there is no sound!

Muhammad Ali Stopped By The Set

Muhammad Ali Displaying Title
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Bettmann/Getty Images

Not one, but two sporting legends wound up on set during filming! While in England, one of Jim Brown’s friends happened to be in town. Well, his friend just so happened to be the legendary Muhammad Ali.

Ali was in the area for a fight against Brian London but decided to swing by the set of The Dirty Dozen during his downtime.

It Was An Oscar-Worthy Cast

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The Dirty Dozen wound up winning the Academy Award for Best Sound Editing during the 40th ceremony in 1968. But the film wasn’t the only Oscar-worthy aspect of the production.

Some of the actors were Academy Award nominees for other projects, such as Robert Ryan, Telly Savalas, John Cassavetes, and Richard Jaeckel. Cassavetes actually earned a nomination for Best Supporting Actor for The Dirty Dozen! And Lee Marvin was already an Oscar-winner by the time the film rolled around.

The Dirty Dozen Pretty Much Solidified Sutherland’s Career

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Before The Dirty Dozen, actor Donald Sutherland landed small and supporting roles in television and film. Everything changed for him when he landed the part of Vernon L. Pinkley in the 1967 film.

In fact, many people believe that this role solidified his career in Hollywood and helped him land roles in huge projects such as M*A*S*H.

It Was One Of The First Films Showing American War Crimes

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The Dirty Dozen has been widely noted as being a film that doesn’t shy away from the violence of war. Director Robert Aldrich wanted it to be authentic as possible.

In fact, he was one of the first directors to show Americans doing what could be considered war crimes.

It Made $45.3 Million At The Box Office

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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

For a war film, The Dirty Dozen wound up doing spectacularly well at the box office. Going off a $5 million budget, the film earned a solid $45.3 million.

The film secured the number one place as MGM’s highest-grossing movie in 1967 and the fourth highest-grossing film of the year.

Continuity Error: Whiskey Edition

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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The Dirty Dozen has a few continuity errors strewn throughout the film. One such error is a mysterious whiskey bottle and tumblers that seemingly pop up out of nowhere!

The scene has Lee Marvin’s Major Reisman and Ralph Meeker’s Captain Stuart Kinder discussing the dirty dozen. One moment a whiskey bottle is nowhere to be seen, then, the next, it’s on the table. The tumblers also move around without anyone touching them.