When he was persuaded by producer Harry Saltzman to take over direction of the nihilistic World War II North Africa campaign action saga Play Dirty (1969) from original assignee René Clemént, the veteran André De Toth made no bones about his goal. He told De Toth on De Toth interviewer Anthony Slide: “Genteel René Clemént wanted to make a ‘poetry of war.’ Harry Saltzman wanted blazing guns and roaring tanks. ‘Action!’ he screamed, and Clemént shuddered. I wanted to rub our noses in the mess we have created and how we shy away from our responsibilities. I showed what I wanted, the naked truth, the truth of life and war; it was not a scene for blindly pussyfooting marshmallow-brains. If you believe in something, go for it; ultimately you’ll break through – I’m an optimist drowned in hope.” The hope on Saltzman’s part that this British-offshoot tale of a suicide mission into German-occupied territory manned by criminal cutthroats would follow in the successful box-office footsteps of The Dirty Dozen (1967) and The Devil’s Brigade (1968) went unrealized. But it stayed true to the code of the man who made top noirs (Pitfall, Crime Wave), expert Westerns (Springfield Rifle, The Bounty Hunter, The Indian Fighter, Day of the Outlaw) and one all-time-great horror gem (House of Wax); Slide asserts: “Play Dirty is probably the most important film by André De Toth that deserves a major reevaluation. It contains many of the negative qualities that one has come expect from a De Toth production, with its antiheroes and a brutal rape sequence treated with the frenetic humor of a Mack Sennett comedy. There are no sympathetic characters in the production and yet, ultimately, all have the sympathy of the audience. Like all André De Toth films, no matter how over-filmed their genre may be, Play Dirty is unique.”
The grit-minus-glory approach was hailed by The Playlist’s Oliver Lyttleton and Jessica Klang, who wrote: “One of a string of Dirty Dozen knockoffs, Play Dirty is actually a real gem, one that overcame a troubled production (supposed co-star Richard Harris never turned up for work, and original director René Clemént was fired early into production) to become a complex and subversive film. Based loosely on events in the North African front during World War II, 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: convicted insurance fraudster Capt. Leech (Nigel Davenport), a Greek drug smuggler, a Tunisian rapist, and two gay Senussi tribesmen. It’s an enormously enjoyable film, with a wry, sarcastic humor and some cracking wordless action sequences from House of Wax director André De Toth, but what makes it most memorable is its firm antiwar stance, a noticeable break from its contemporaries, up to and including its bleak conclusion.” Cinema Sojourns blogger Jeff Stafford’s had a similar reaction in his 2014 consideration here: https://cinemasojourns.com/2014/05/04/desert-rats/. Also featuring Harry Andrews, Daniel Pilon and Vivian Pickles, photographed in Panavision and Technicolor on rugged Almería, Spain, locations by The Dirty Dozen’s Edward Scaife, and scored by three-time Academy Award® winner Michel Legrand, Play Dirty would find its most appreciative following only later, removed from the shadow cast by the all-too-recent Robert Aldrich crowd-pleaser. As De Toth put it: “Critics have power, but most lack understanding. The Dirty Dozen was a good and entertaining motion picture. A movie on the wide and well-paved avenue to the box office. How could it be compared to Play Dirty, a bitter slice of real life and certainly not entertainment? Had I wanted to entertain with Play Dirty, the demi-gods would’ve been right to tear me limb from limb.” Instead, the “optimist drowned in hope’s” Play Dirty plays war for real, and its sardonic, hardened view of combatants in over their heads and out to save their skins under extreme conditions makes for a scalding and gripping ride into the dusty desert fields of battle October 17 on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray. Preorders open October 4.