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The Forgotten: Sons (of bitches) of the Desert

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Play Dirty (1969) is a nakedly opportunistic cash-in on Robert Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen (1967), produced by James Bond bankroller Harry Saltzman, but somewhere something went wrong and some actual filmmaking quality and wit and energy got into the mix. When star Michael Caine signed up for the ride, he thought he was getting René Clement as director, and was disappointed to be saddled with Hungarian cyclops André de Toth. Hard to see why, except that de Toth was tough to work with, and I guess by 1969 his name carried far less cache than the fashionable Clement. De Toth had just produced The Billion Dollar Brain, Saltzman's third Harry Palmer film with Caine, directed in inimitable style by Ken Russell. Here, more or less forced back into the director's chair, he adopts a notably unsentimental style, aided by screenwriters Melvyn Bragg (The Music Lovers) and an uncredited John McGrath (Bragg's collaborator on Billion Dollar Brain), which takes the premise of war as a criminal enterprise best fought by criminals far more seriously than the Aldrich, although it enlivens it with obsidian wit.

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In one early scene, pop-eyed eccentric colonel Nigel Green pitches his radical plan for blowing up Nazi fuel dumps in the North African desert to Harry Andrews, with his face like an incredulous skull. "Two men are going to defeat Rommel: one is Hitler, who can't give him enough petrol, and the other is me, who's going to blow up the little he's got." Andrews then steals all his best lines and present the plan to his own superior as if he'd thought of it himself. This must surely have been inspired by keen observation of Saltzman. I'm by no means anti-producer: as necessary evils go, they are arguably more necessary and in many cases less evil than directors; but in my experience they are the only class of people who regularly go in for this kind of blithe thought-stealing. To make the scene really accurate, they should have had Andrews present Green's plan as his own with Green standing right next to him, listening helplessly.

Then we get to the mission itself, with Caine as the only non-sociopath of his little troop/troupe. Nigel Davenport is smugly nasty as Leech, undermining and countermanding Caine at every turn, while the rest of the men are a bunch of cardboard cut-out bastards the movie has surprisingly little interest in. Impressively, the least horrible of the characters are the two gay Arab guides, one of whom saves a German nurse from being raped by the other men by shooting one attacker in his huge, hideously pallid behind.

With a delicious perversity, the movie serves up one "action set-piece" after another, each more grueling, ponderous and unpleasant than the last. Dragging trucks up a steep hill in a laborious bit of Fitzcarraldo business. Wading through a sandstorm. Driving over an endless terrain of tyre-wrecking rocks.  There's almost no exciting shooting and dying stuff, and a pall of dark irony descends whenever the risk of thrills is felt.

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De Toth does take a serious interest in the military hardware, with its gears and levers, emphasizing its similarity to the apparatus of filmmaking, which makes it all the more interesting when the mission's objective, once gained, turns out to be a phony decoy which disintegrates in the wind: a movie set mirage. The added wrinkle is that the "heroes" are themselves a decoy, sent to draw fire from the real expedition (who get themselves massacred almost at once). A decoy attacking another decoy.

It's simply not possible to discuss the film's ending, which strikes me as the boldest and most impressive of any war movie since All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). To spoil it would be unforgivable: it's not as poetic as the Milestone film's ending, but it's more savage and desperate and contemptuous of the audience's unclean desire to be entertained in easy ways by a film about war.

What can be talked about: the camels, who were inherited from Lawrence of Arabia, which De Toth had shot second unit on (De Toth tells an amazing, hilarious story about the purchase of these essential even-toed ungulates in his autobiography, Fragments); the filming in Almeria, where the armored tanks and trucks kept bumping into mounted cowboys and Indians shooting Edward Dmytryk's Shalako over the next dune; the remarkable Michel Legrand score, some of it cut from some prints, when the sight of bodies being buried to the cheerful trilling of a children's choir proved too much for somebody (but there are prints out there with the music intact: accept no subtitute).

It's a shame the director made no further films, but Play Dirty in many ways serves as a climax to his tough-minded oeuvre.

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The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

PLAY DIRTY is available currently on NetFlix instant streaming. I watched about 15 minutes of slow, broadly played and badly timed…what? Satire? Black comedy? Anyway, I found it turgid and turned it off. Does it get any better? It’s hard to tell from your article.
It’s terrific, from what I remember.
It reminded me also of Objective Burma. The paradox of grueling, tension-filled tedium that the mission involves was fascinating.
Yeah. Of course it doesn’t have the propagandist side that Objective, Burma! sports. The war having passed, a more disrespectful attitude crept in.

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