50 Years of War at Its Dirtiest

50 Years of War at Its Dirtiest

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Feb 19th 2019

Its working title was Written on the Sand, referring to its North African Sahara Desert setting, but as it was going to evolve into a brawny, brazenly cynical adventure about a World War II cadre of soldiers with criminal histories on a suicide mission, renaming it Play Dirty (1969) to glean some sort of brand recognition in connection with the megahit The Dirty Dozen (1967) of recent memory seemed like a canny commercial move at the time. The gambit didn’t work: not much respect was paid by either audiences or reviewers when the film charged into New York Area neighborhood showcase theaters 50 years ago today. But across the sands of time, more detailed evaluations, both clear-eyed and fiercely partisan, came to be written about this taut, terrific action tale that unblinkingly shows war as the hellish business it is.

Brogan Morris, Paste Magazine: “You’d be forgiven for thinking that Andre De Toth’s Play Dirty would be nothing more than a fruitless cash-in attempt on Robert Aldrich’s classic The Dirty Dozen. After all, it shares 50% of the title and the whole ‘rogue leader takes criminals on a suicide mission’ plot does seem a little familiar. In fact, Play Dirty’s a tighter and vitally less-bloodthirsty film: whereas Aldrich’s Dirty Dozen are taught to love the army and hate the German, the men of Play Dirtyled by the dashingly amoral double act of Michael Caine and Nigel Davenport, never see their mission as anything other than FUBAR. With enemy tribes freely roaming the borderless desert landscape and morally lax hired guns positioned as the ‘heroes,’ Play Dirty can feel closer to a Western than a war movie – and one of Peckinpah’s at that. The pointlessness of man murdering his fellow man is noted in a whimper of a finale, a melancholic stroke that caps off one of the more entertaining men-on-a-mission movies.” “Following in the footsteps of The Dirty Dozen, Play Dirty is a real gem. The film overcame a troubled production (supposed co-star Richard Harris never turned up for work, and original director René Clément, of Oscar® winner Forbidden Games, was fired early into shooting) to become a complex and subversive take on the genre, stylishly made and very well acted. Based loosely on events in the North African front during the war, the film focuses on Michael Caine’s Capt. Douglas, an oil company worker with an honorary military commission who, despite his lack of combat experience, is ordered by the harried Col. Masters (Nigel Green) to lead a team 400 miles behind enemy lines to blow up a fuel depot. And that unit is a pretty rum bunch: his number two is convicted insurance fraudster Capt. Leech (Howards’ Way star Nigel Davenport, who was originally cast in a smaller role before taking over the part when Harris didn’t show), and the rest include a Greek drug smuggler, a Tunisian rapist and two gay Senussi tribesmen. Unlike many of its contemporaries, this film doesn’t glorify war in the least, with a sense settling in early that Douglas and Leech’s mission is pretty much a futile one, caused more by bickering among higher-ups than any sense of justice. And the men pretty much know they’re screwed, and feel no loyalty to their commanders or each other. As a result, the film feels closer to Kelly’s Heroes [1970] or even the much later Three Kings [1999] than most men-on-a-mission movies, not least when it reaches its incredibly bleak conclusion. But it’s also thoroughly enjoyable at the same time, with a wry, sarcastic humor and some crackling extended wordless action sequences (Andre De Toth, best known for directing the 3D horror House of Wax [1953] despite having only one eye, was second-unit-director on Lawrence of Arabia [1962] and knows how to shoot the hell out of the desert). It’s a lost classic, worth tracking down.”

Matthew Kiernan, “Play Dirty is a movie that celebrates the solider but also questions the necessity of war and extends its finger at the powers that be. It’s one of the best World War II movies and one of the best antiwar movies, too. War movies don't come as cynical as Play Dirty. This is an angry film about war and it’s interesting that it came at a time when other similar films, such as Jack Cardiff’s Dark of the Sun [1968], were also getting made. Just as Grand Illusion [1937] was the film that noted that the ‘honorable’ warfare of World War I was a thing of the past in a new world order, Play Dirty announces better than any film of its time that the nobility of a war like World War II was a falsehood. Unlike many other antiwar films, it’s also a terrific action picture, one that knows that the best way to get a message across to an audience is to smuggle it in an entertaining package. I think it’s a subversive little masterpiece and it keeps growing as a personal favorite.”

At his own curated blog site Pulp Curry,  author/cultural historian Andrew Nette pays a personalized 50th-anniversary tribute that is best encountered in its entirety here: Featuring Harry Andrews, Daniel Pilon, Vivian Pickles and a score by the late, great Michel Legrand, Play Dirty is the most potent and compelling spokesman for itself on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.