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Sunday, October 5, 2008

FILM REVIEW OF ''PLAY DIRTY'' (1968)

Anybody that dismisses director Andre De Toth's amoral World War II adventure thriller "Play Dirty" (**** out of ****) with Michael Caine as just another "Dirty Dozen" clone entirely misses the point of this first-rate combat epic. First, "Play Dirty" overflows with irony that is sorely lacking in "The Dirty Dozen." Second, the surprise ending of "Play Dirty" is nothing like the semi-happy ending of "The Dirty Dozen." Third, "Play Dirty" paints a negative image of the British military that Hollywood would never have done in the 1960s with "The Dirty Dozen." Fourth, characters in "Play Dirty" are seen puffing on the demon weed of marihuana. Fifth, "Play Dirty" has two homosexual characters. Sixth, aside from the Michael Caine protagonist, none of the characters in "Play Dirty" is sympathetic. Seventh, the least objectionable character in "Play Dirty" who found the men for his expedition speaks plainly when he advocates the use of criminals: "War is a criminal enterprise. I fight it with criminals." Eighth, the British criminals that Caine leads into combat are prepared to sacrifice their own professional counterparts to the German enemy without a qualm. Furthermore, regular British officers are just as willing to sacrifice Masters' men for the greater good of Queen and country. Ninth, the men that our hero supervises during the mission plunder the corpses of English soldiers after the Germans have ambushed them. The earliest big-screen American World War II movie with an Allied character that plundered war casualties was in John Guillerman's "The Bridge at Remagen" (1969) and the corpses were dead Germans, not his own countrymen. Altogether, De Toth and his writers depict warfare as unglamorous. One seasoned criminal character advises the hero: "You want to forget the noble sentiments if you want to live."

Indeed, "Play Dirty" and "The Dirty Dozen" are similar in that each occurs behind Nazi lines with unsavory Allied personnel perpetrating acts of sabotage against an unsuspecting enemy. Unlike the death row inmates that Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin) recruited for his suicidal mission to kill a ch√Ęteau of dissolute Nazi generals, however, the convicts that Colonel Masters (Nigel Green of "Tobruk") uses for his mission have been on his payroll for some time and his dubious outfit with its record of one failure after another (eight, to be precise) is about to be disbanded by his superior officer, Brigadier General Blore (Harry Andrews of "633 Squadron"), while he plans to reassign Masters as warden of a P.O.W. camp. Mind you, Masters is no spit and polish officer. Unkempt, unshaven, and circumspect with regard to military decorum, Masters approaches his task with the mind of a university scholar and relies on unconventional methods that have yet to yield results. Masters reminds Blore: "The principles of desert warfare have not changed." Blore retorts: "The principles of getting value for your money haven't changed either." Here, Blore refers with sarcasm to the 17 jeeps, 24 trucks, 3 British officers, and 43-thousand of Her Majesty's pounds squandered in Masters' futile efforts.

Masters convinces Blore to postpone disbanding his outfit after he outlines a provocative plan. Says Masters: "Two men are going to stop Rommel. One of them is Adolf Hitler who cannot give him enough fuel, and the other is me who's going to blow up the little he has." Masters shows Blore a series of photographs that African tribesmen have taken of an enemy fuel depot with Brownie cameras that he supplied them. Blore has little confidence in Masters, but he allows him one last chance to make good. However, he forces Masters to use a regular British Army officer, Captain Douglas (Michael Caine of "Alfie"), while Masters demands that Captain Cyril Leech (a mustached Nigel Davenport of "Nighthawks") bring Douglas back alive (as opposed to dead) unlike his numerous predecessors. Masters provides the incentive of two thousand British pounds to ensure Leech's cooperation.

Captain Douglas, a conventional officer on loan from British petroleum, isn't overjoyed about being posted to Masters' outfit. Initially, Douglas argued that he wasn't a field officer, but his protests get him nowhere when his superior points out that he is dressed in the uniform of Her Majesty's Army. Reluctantly, Douglas embarks on this new mission with misgivings. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Masters, Blore appropriates Masters' plan as his own plan. Moreover, he has arranged for another group of regular army led by Captain Alan Watkins (Patrick Jordan of "You Only Live Twice") to shadow Douglas and Leech. Blore refers to Masters' group as a decoy that he considers expendable.

The 400 mile journey of hardship behind enemy lines through the Sahara toward their objective amounts to a test of wills between Douglas and Leech. Douglas cherishes the misguided notion that he commands the mission, but Leech gives the real orders. Later, when Masters' men pose a threat not only to Hitler's army but also to the British, Blore compels Masters to commit treason in the name of the Queen and inform the Nazis that commandos have infiltrated their oil depot. Principally, things have changed and the same Nazi oil that the Allied had planned to destroy has since become valuable to the British. Ironically, even when the Germans inform Masters' group that they have been betrayed, our anti-heroes carry out their mission with spectacular but fatal results.

"Play Dirty" contains several memorable lines of dialogue. The older, wiser, as well as wolfish Captain Leech advises naive young Captain Douglas about the rudiments of staying alive in wartime. "The way to survive here," he indicates, "is to watch, listen, and say nothing."

Altogether, "Play Dirty" qualifies as an excellent World War II actioneer dripping with irony and sarcasm. World War II buffs with a jaundiced eye about patriotism will enjoy it. James Bond producer Harry Saltzman shot this exciting saga in Spain and the Iberian scenery provides a suitable substitute for the sun-drenched Sahara.

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