Film nostalgia writer Paul Welsh remembers the stars - and big bangs - of the Dirty Dozen

Paul Welsh

Paul Welsh

First published in Paul Welsh by

Films set in the Second World War have grown thin on the ground but used to be a staple diet of cinema along with westerns, science fiction and, up until the 1960s, musicals.

I guess westerns and science fiction died out in the 1960s as there were many TV series covering the same ground and musicals became too expensive to make.

They say Second World War movies have bitten the dust as cinema audiences tend to be under 30 as a majority and they are not really interested in stories based around events of nearly 70 years ago.

However, in the 1960s war films were still going strong and one of the most successful was shot here in Borehamwood at the old MGM Studios. It was called The Dirty Dozen and was filmed at the studio and on various locations in 1966.

The story revolved around a group of 12 misfit soldiers being “volunteered” to go behind enemy lines and blow up a French chateau full of high-ranking German officers.

A very impressive set was constructed on the MGM backlot, not far from the Toby Carvery and where houses now stand. Older residents like myself may still recall the loud explosions that echoed around part of Borehamwood on a couple of nights on that long ago summer when England actually won the World Cup.

It was the type of “shoot them up” movie in which people are mown down with machine guns and blown up without too much thought. Of course, in the world of make believe nobody was actually killed.

Indeed, one of the German guards stabbed to death came back to life a decade later as a high ranking German officer in the TV series ’Allo, ’Allo, constantly trying to hide the valuable painting known as “the fallen madonna with the big boobies” in that lovely era of politically-incorrect television.

The Dirty Dozen was certainly a star-studded affair, including the officers who stayed behind that were veteran stars Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine and George Kennedy.

The mission was led by real life hard-drinking, gravel-voiced Lee Marvin, who also starred in movies such as Paint Your Wagon and had a hit record called Wandering Star. Lee died in 1987.

His second-in-command was Richard Jaeckel, who later went on to play a senior lifeguard in the TV series Baywatch and died in 1997.

The dozen misfits were played by some well-known and some unknown actors. Charles Bronson is probably best remembered now for the series of Death Wish films he starred in before his death in 2003.

Jim Brown was an actor who had been what some describe as the greatest player in America’s National Football League history before he became a thespian and is still going strong aged 77, as is the singer and actor Trini Lopez, now aged 75 whose hits included If I Had A Hammer. He had to leave the film early due to concert committments so his character dies off-screen during a parachute jump.

Telly Savalas went on to worldwide TV fame in the 1970s thanks to the cop show Kojak and his bald head and lollipop sucking. Telly died in 1994.

John Cassavetes was a method actor who enjoyed later success in films such as Rosemary’s Baby, also working as a director before his death in 1989.

Clint Walker had already been a TV star in Cheyenne and is still with us now aged 85, as is Donald Sutherland who is still acting aged 77.

The lesser members of the Dirty Dozen were Tom Busby, who died in 2003, Ben Curruthers, who died in 1983 and Al Mancini, who passed away in 2007.

Still with us are Stuart Cooper, now 72, and Colin Maitland, now 70, so they were the “babies” of the cast.

Of course, the real Second World War was a horrendous experience for those involved and the loss of life across the globe was staggering.

Nearly 20 million Soviets and 6.6 million Poles perished. The Germans lost 5.5 million and the Japanese 3.75 million.

By comparison, the UK losses were lighter at 570,000 and the Americans lost 300,000 military personnel and only ten civilians.

For most people living today the Second World War is history, not even a distant
memory, and the death of a single soldier or a handful of civilians will make the news.

It is an interesting study of the human psyche that The Dirty Dozen, full of make-believe death, had people queuing at the box office when most of them would have lived through the real horrors just 20 years earlier.

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