Friday, October 28, 2011

The Dirty Dozen - E. M. Nathanson

 I first read E. M. Nathanson's classic novel The Dirty Dozen way back in 1989 as a snot nosed 18-19 year old. The same copy then sat among my prodigious amount of books with me intending to read it again. Well I managed to do so recently. I read it at work instead of listening to the banal smoko talk of my colleagues involved in the slave trade called employment. It took me a month just reading a few pages each break. It was a real pleasure to revisit this great novel even though much of it had been forgotten in the mist of time.

 First of it has, as you are probably aware, been adapted to film. It was done so in 1967 a year after the novel's best selling release. Sadly though the adaptation is well....just total crap. It is another instance of a fine novel being butchered by its film counterpart. The film's biggest failing is that it has taken a novel that is probably 10% war novel and turned it into 90% war movie. In the process everything that made the novel so great was lost.

 The novel is called a 'war' novel and yet I think that too simplistic. Sure it is based in 1944 Britain on the eve of D-Day, but it is more a psychological drama within a military setting. The plot involves a tough American soldier, Major John Reisman who has undertaken behind enemy lines missions, given another. But this is one with a real difference. This time he has to train twelve men from within American military prisons awaiting trial for various misdemeanors, from theft, to rape, and murder. What follows is an extraordinary novel of his attempts to meld this disparate bunch, full of hatred and prejudices, into a fully fit, functioning military unit.

 As stated the novel is not a war novel per se. 90% of it is involved in the training of this so called 'dirty dozen' and the trials and tribulation the Major faces. But whilst the training is one huge part of the novel it really is the twelve individual characters and personalities of the men that is the central focus. It is almost part crime novel wrapped around a military setting. The dozen are all from different back grounds and situations. But they are not all former civilian world criminals. Each has their own story to tell as to how they ended up in the stockade. Nathanson tells each man's story through out the narrative. His characterisations are superbly realised with each becoming all too real for the reader.

 Some of them are straight out repulsive. Others we have a shred of sympathy for. And one the reader feels sure is innocent, until the finale reveals he isn't. As their training for their suicide mission starts the reader is instantly thrown into how difficult a task it is going to be. To make the mission a success the dozen must work as team and trust one another. All good military units must do this to be successful. What happens is the twelve splinter off into groups that snipe and grizzle about each other. God they behaved like little children!!

 We swing from a red-neck, an intelligent and educated negro who is there after a race fueled man slaughter, a sex offender, a young boy like man who is up on a charge of rape and murder ( he is seemingly innocent but finds out during the mission he isn't, as his own flash backs are revealed under the stress of combat ). A quiet but hugely built Red Indian, and several compulsive thieves and liars. But the two main protagonists out of the group are the red-neck and the negro. The red neck attempts to alienate him, all the while the Major tries to induce him into a leadership role. Suffice to say whilst the dozen hate and despise each other they hate and despise the authority of the Major!!

 The psychological battles are superbly written. This battle of wills is the reason behind the name 'dirty dozen' . At one stage the group all agree not to shave in response to one of Reisman's orders. He lets it go and the twelve quickly become dirty and smelly. But they finally do shave just on the eve of the mission. The dozen during training overall swing between individuals wanting to fit in, do the mission and gain their pardons. Whilst others just have no social skills or understanding and are real pains in the arse. Sounds just like real life and what we all face in the work force doesn't it?!! The Major has his work cut out and the way he coerces , threatens, conjoles and kicks the twelve into shape is brilliant. But he has his doubts as to their final abilities to do the job. After all he has been given a very short period of time in which to lick the twelve into shape.

 The most interesting parts for me was when Major Reisman finally teaches the men hand to hand combat. These ruffians take to it like a bull to a red flag. Their almost animal instincts come the fore and they excel at beating each up using martial arts!! The funny thing is that as they get more proficient at it they don't start on each other after training is over. They realise they have been well taught and are fairly evenly matched. This is the slight turning of the corner and the next test is actually being given real weapons. The Major teaches them how to use various firearms such as pistols and sub-machine guns. But due to the fear they will  turn on him and the guards, they are strictly monitored, and carry around the weapons unloaded on exercises. They are only issued personal live ammunition for the mission!

 Yes if they all weren't such dubious, to repulsive characters, it would be funny. But these are grown men behaving like little children. Even though this is a novel I found my temper rising as did Major Reisamn's!! How he didn't kill any of those shits is beyond me! But this is the novel's core. He uses psychology to win them over whilst trying to get through to them that it is either, see out their individual sentences, or pull together and do the assigned mission. It is incredible that even with such a simple fact hanging over their heads some of them just wouldn't let it penetrate.

 Suffice to say the dozen with Reisamn are packed off to France on the eve of D-Day. Here the mission is played out. And yet it isn't narrative driven as such, more in the form of an after action report. It isn't particularly long taking up only about 40 out of the novel's 600 pages. As stated this isn't a war novel, and if you have seen the film and not read the novel, it will give you a false impression as to what the novel is about. This is a novel that is very much psychology based. it is an unsettling look into the disparate minds of those who fall to the bottom of societies rung, where they have delved into theft, murder, rape and other unsavoury ways.

 I highly recommend this novel. If you don't read war novels as such don't be put off by this a because it isn't strictly speaking a war novel. Just as the recently reviewed The Crusader wasn't strictly speaking just a novel about the Crusades The Dirty Dozen uses the back drop of WW II for this masterful novel. At 607 pages it is good, satisfying, meaty, read. I just wonder why it is that more modern novelists can't seem to write novels of such breadth and epicness like this anymore.

 This is a true classic that is crying out for a decent film adaptation. The film is OK as a war film but I object to it being called The Dirty Dozen. It takes the premise of twelve condemned prisoners and butchers the best part of the novel. I found Lee Marvin mis-cast as Major Reisman because the novel's Reisamn, whilst hard in front of the prisoners, was actually an articulate man with doubts, anxieties and lingering memories from his behind enemy lines missions.

 The last word here is that the novel is very loosely based on an American soldier and his unit which served in the famed 101st Airborne, the famous Screaming Eagles. He was involved in numerous scrapes with authority even though having a distinguished fighting record. Click below for a link to him, his unit, and how he came to be the basis of  E.M. Nathanson's fine, commendable, classic novel.


  1. Don't hate on me but I never even realized this was based on a novel. I am torn whether I should now pick it up as I actually enjoy this film. Would I suddenly dislike it? Nice Post :-)

  2. Hahahaha...there are many people in that boat! To be honest the book is far far superior, but I doubt if you'll suddenly ' hate ' the'll just look at it differently. Seriously though read it as it is a great novel that the film does NO credit to.

  3. I read this book a couple of years ago. I absolutely agree with everything you wrote, but I think you shouldn't have put in the spoilers that you did, such as the soldier who we think is innocent but we find out otherwise. I also agree that it was butchered as a movie and Marvin was miscast. When I read the book I pictured Martin Landau as Reisman. I think he would have been perfect. If you haven't read it, I would like to recommend the sequel he wrote, A DIRTY DISTANT WAR. It too is a great novel.

  4. I would also like to add that this will never be made into a movie similar in anyway to this book or any book like it, not by the current people running the movie industry. I'm sure you've seen the endless parade of imbecilic roller coaster rides they're trying to pass off as movies these days. They've been going this action adventure silliness route for a long time now. Another great book they ruined was David Morrell's 1971 novel FIRST BLOOD, a classic novel. Less said about the FIRST BLOOD movies the better.

  5. You keep saying "Major Reisman".....Only in the movie is he a major. In the book, he is "Captain Reisman"...

  6. Is it true that novel was inspired on OSS agent Waller Booth?