You have all probably seen the movie, The Dirty Dozen. Seems like it ran every month on one of the cable channels back in the 90s. It was a movie like The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape that would feature an ensemble cast of male actors doing manly things.
I picked up a beat up copy of the paperback book that the movie was based on last month. I have been reading way too much 1950s science fiction this year and needed a change of genre.
I am not familiar with the author, E. M. Nathanson (1928-2016). Some online biographies mention him editing “pulp” magazines including Daring Detective by 1959. If I am correct, the only pulp magazine left by 1959 was Ranch Romances and I can find no Daring Detective from the 1950s in the Fictionmags Index.
The novel is from 1965 and it is a product of its time. February, 1944 – Captain John Reisman (the Lee Marvin character in the movie), an OSS agent is back in England after a mission gone bad. He is sent to a military prison in Somerset, England to witness the execution of a prisoner. Why? His superiors were given orders for a program to use military criminals for very dangerous missions. Reisman is to put the plan into effect.
Reisman is half Jew-half Italian originally from Chicago. He was a mercenary in some Banana Wars, China, and with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Nathanson spends considerable space on Reisman’s background, torn between the cultures of his Jewish father and deceased mother’s Italian family. Lee Marvin does not fit the description. Telly Savalas or Ernest Borgnine come closer to the book.
Twelve prisoners on death row or with long sentences are given the choice of their sentence or a chance to get out of it. There are some differences from the book. The Charles Bronson character in the movie is an amalgamation of two characters, one a soldier who had fought in Italy who was part of a robbery of a taxi driver. Archer Maggot, Telly Savalas’ character is a tall, thin, blond Georgian portrayed in the most ham handed ethnic stereotyping. He is an enforcer for the Dixie mafia in the book who slapped up an English prostitute. Myron Odell is a weak physically and in character orphan from Cleveland who has some real hang-ups with females. He killed one!
Napoleon White is the Jim Brown character. In the book, he is a college-educated officer who was beaten and almost castrated in Louisiana by two enlisted soldiers. He finds one of them and kills him in a troop ship on the way to England.
Samson Posey, a giant Ute illiterate Ute Indian takes a far bigger part in the book than Clint Walker’s portrayal in the movie. Victor Franko played by John Cassavetes is a major character in the book, more than what I remember of the movie. He is a petty criminal scum-bag who is a total coward.
The novel is 539 pages in mass-market paperback. The vast majority of it is the transformation of the Dirty Dozen from totally untrustworthy criminals to dangerous commandos not to be trifled with.
Thirteen pages are spent on the actual mission. I always thought the mission was around April or May 1944. It takes place on the night of D-Day. A big departure in the book was the Dirty Dozen were dressed in German uniforms for their mission. The infiltration into the chateau ends with Myron Odell losing it when he kills a German officer’s wife and running down a hall screaming, “I’m guilty!” The last few pages are in the form of an OSS intelligence report of the operation. The information is gathered from Sgt Bowren (Richard Jaeckel in the movie) who was found by Allied troops. Six are killed, the others are wounded but still missing in action. Samson Posey, the Ute Indian, dies manning a machine gun taking on the alerted Fallschirmjager who provide security. Victor Franko is killed attempting to surrender the Dirty Dozen to the Germans.
Nathanson leaves it open ended. Are Reisman and the others alive or are they dead? Reisman obviously lives as Nathanson wrote another novel in the late 1980s about him.
The brief amount of space given to the mission did surprise me. Was this a case of the movie being better than the book? Depends on what you are looking for. This was not a dull book. It was a study in character transformation. The movie is one of the great all-time shoot ‘em ups. I just may track down the sequel, A Dirty Distant War, which takes place in Asia.