Play Dirty (1968); dir. André De Toth

<Note: This is for the 4th Annual White Elephant Blogathon>

Capt. Attwood:  “You’re not going to change, sir?”

Col. Masters:  “Into what?”—Play Dirty

Riding the thin line between derring-do and brutal, boring realism, Play Dirty answers an interesting question: how does one show action in an anti-war war film without glorifying it?  The film is interspersed with palpably long, wordless set-pieces that say more about the importance of engineering and endurance during wartime than Audie Murphey heroics.  Murder (and I do mean murder; the movie is very clear in its opinion of warfare) occurs quickly, usually with the perpetrators scavenging the bodies and possessions of the dead.  And, though it’s a war movie released in 1968 (and not on DVD until 2007) starring Michael Caine, it’s neither about Vietnam nor crappy (both very real possibilities).  It is British, however, which means it stars two Nigel’s.

The movie takes place during World War II and concerns the efforts of British forces in Africa.  Col. Masters [Nigel Green] has a plan: dress as Italian soldiers and blow-up a German fuel dump.  With that it’s time to assemble the (un?)usual group of experts/psychotic-criminal-mercenaries (led by Cpt. Leech [Nigel Davenport] and Cpt. Douglas [Caine]) we’re already done with Act I.  Though specific historical touches abound, the movie makes clear  (hilariously, the plan is derived from Roman tactics used during the Second Punic War).  The bureaucratic finagling Masters (who might actually have the most lines in the movie and is quite the professorial war-profiteer in his army cardigan) must go through is quite squirmy in the same way In the Loop was; the realization that what you’re watching might actually be how big stuff happens.  The mercenaries aren’t very fleshed out, all near-silent and almost all recruited from prison (some with cute matching specialties/crimes [i.e. the guy who “got into narcotics in a big way” handles supplies and transport] others with strange, baffling pairings [i.e. the guy who shot people trying to invite him to a wedding is in charge of communications]).  Of note, however, is the portrayal of the two local guides homosexuality, which is never used for shock value or laughs.

The character drama derives from the power struggle between Douglas and Leech.  Douglas is resourceful but green who is brought in to lead the team because of his fuel line expertise (he works for British Petroleum [and believe me, I tried to think deeper on that, but it mostly just set up easy targets] in peacetime).  Leech, as the ruthless, amoral leader of the mercenaries, mostly laughs off Douglas’ attempts at control (its also implied that the mercenaries or Leech have killed the other officer’s before Douglas).  Though Douglas has good ideas, its hard to win over the respect of a crew that just giggle at your orders and blindly follow Leech (who, it should be noted, looks exactly like a Clark Gable/George Clooney mix).  Caine plays Douglas as mostly clipped and high-class(though he does get a nice Alfie-meeting-Moneypenny moment with a secretary).  The only thing motivating Leech is the promise of £2,000 if he brings Douglas back alive.  Though a lot of bodies get stacked, and Douglas comes to trust Leech, the rivalry between the two is less Col. Kurtz and more the witty one-upmanship from Sleuth (Douglas even gets high-points for his Italian-looking cravat; shades of Milo Tindle).

If the plot is largely derivative of The Dirty Dozen, then André de Toth’s (who proves that in the land of 3-D, the one-eyed Hungarian is king) directing owes as much to Blowup and Bonnie and Clyde.  The blasting music (augmenting the Michel Legrand score) of the trucks’ radios (and the ease with which they turn from “Lili Marlene” to “You Are My Sunshine”, the better for sneaking with, my dear) is followed by silent scenes of people driving through deserts and sandstorms and the beautiful montage of flat tires.  The make-up effects in general make the characters look covered in dust and dead, and to see them shamble around like Romero’s zombies is quite strange.  One of the longer sequences concerns the problem of getting three trucks up a mountain (without using shirt-baskets, like Hannibal did), and watching the entire process of finding and implementing a solution (even the mercenaries get excited when they see its working).  Later, watching a hand pushing sand away from a trip mine in order to defuse a bomb or cutting barbed wire seems pretty intense when the scene is held out for so long.  Don’t get me wrong, there are explosions (and an amazing shot where Leech and Douglas walk calmly through a house as a fireball is seen through the window), but they don’t have the figurative punch as the quieter moments (and in the grand finale, some parts are oddly and confusingly edited).

There is nothing even approximating a characterized enemy (except for, you know, each other); its about men, their target, and the obstacles in between.  Actual firefights are over nearly as soon as they begin, with surprise and overkill winning out.  Early on a meeting with Arab traders goes sour when Douglas accidentally shows off his British ID tags, but instead of a suspenseful attempt to draw out the ruse (a la every scene in Inglourious Basterds) Leech just shoots them all in the back.  Then in the back some more.  After looting all the corpses (the guides dig watches, and wear them up and down their arms), Douglas thinks they should bury them, which gets laughs.  Later he demands it for British soldiers (and that fills the quota for class commentary), all the while not realizing that everyone is perfectly willing to kill him, too.  The only actual German (and only the second woman) that gets any screen time is a nurse they take hostage, who stays mostly professional and quiet (with some exceptions).  Douglas attempts to subdue her with wrestling, but Leech insists sucker-punches work better, and we see the two men have the same goals but different methods, albeit ham-handedly.

There are more things to talk about, but I wouldn’t want to spoil it (the ending in somewhat infamous [if a tad overrated]).  Some people get what’s coming to them, and some don’t.  Things going well for the mercenaries start to hinge on powers outside of their control or awareness, but its all leading to nature winning out in the end.  Nature is ever-present in this movie, and not just the harsh conditions.  When Douglas first meets Leech, there’s a large insect swimming in his whiskey. Later we watch men betting on a scorpion surrounding by a ring of flame.  Trying to sting with its tail the fire won’t get the scorpion out, but that’s really its only reflexive move.  Even the men never act as anything more than their natures (even being defined by the one thing they’re good at).  Human beings are, after all, effective and efficient human-killing machines; it’s getting trucks up mountains that’s unlike us.


One Response to “Play Dirty (1968); dir. André De Toth”

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