Play Dirty (1969)
I thoroughly enjoyed this little war drama/caper from 1969 starring Michael Caine. I admit I’d never heard of it before, but it came up as a Netflix recommendation, so I jumped. Jolly good show, as they say.
Yes, it is something of a British knockoff of “The Dirty Dozen.” A motley bunch of Allied criminals are tasked with an impossible mission during World War II for which even the commanders issuing the orders don’t think they’ll accomplish their objective. But they’re expendable, so it’s worth a go.
The X factor is Caine’s character, Douglas, a straitlaced if somewhat lazy British officer content to while away the war overseeing the loading of ships at an African port. He’s a captain in name only: He worked for British Petroleum before the war and because he has some tertiary experience with oil, he’s assigned to command a task force to blow up Rommel’s major oil dump, crippling the German desert war machine that has confounded the Allies.
Except Douglas finds that he’s hopelessly in over his head. The professorial colonel running the show (Nigel Green) has lost a string of English officers sent to “lead” his men into the field. The guy really running the show is Capt. Cyril Leech (Nigel Davenport), who was serving 15 years in prison for intentionally sinking his steamer ship for the insurance payoff when he was broken out and conscripted.
It’s a fine, memorable performance by Davenport, as a man who’s as calculating as he is black-hearted. He works for the Brits, but one senses that if the Germans offered him more money, switching sides would pose no dilemma for him.
The first half of the movie or so consists of Douglas attempting to command the strike force and Leech undermining his authority and disabusing him of the notion that he’s in charge. This culminates with Leech intentionally sabotaging Douglas’ efforts to haul their trucks up the side of a cliff using a clever pulley system. One of the trucks comes crashing down, and when the Germans discover the wreck, they prepare to annihilate the infiltrators.
Fortunately, the brigadier general in command of special forces didn’t trust Douglas’ crew, so he sent another, more professional outfit to do the job — essentially turning the first group into decoys. The Germans stumble upon this second group and prepare an ambush, with Douglas’ gang watching from the top of the cliff. Douglas attempts to alert the other British soldiers by firing his pistol, but Leech puts a knife to his throat and forcibly twists the gun out of his hands.
After the Brits are massacred, they come down to loot the dead. Douglas, outraged, picks up a machine gun and threatens to shoot his own men if they don’t bury the fallen soldiers. Leech points out that he would only have been able to kill one or two of them before dying himself, and Douglas agrees with his assessment. It’s only at this point that Leech begins to develop anything resembling respect for Douglas.
The rest of the outfit isn’t terribly memorable. There’s a big blond guy who was accused of rape, and a Greek demolitions expert, etc. The only fellows who are remotely interesting are a pair of Arabs who don’t speak any English and are pretty conclusively portrayed as being homosexual. They’re silly and girly, holding hands and such, but it’s notable that none of the other characters seems to have a problem with them being gay. For 1969, that was positively progressive.
At one point, they capture a German nurse and force her to care for one of their injured comrades. Several of them corner her and attempt to rape her, but then one of the Arabs shoots the big blond in the ass. I enjoyed the editing here, which slyly cuts to the nurse patching up her attacker’s posterior.
Things conclude in a typically nihilistic fashion for that era of war films. The Allies break through the German lines and begin a sweep across the desert. Suddenly the oil dump that needed to be destroyed becomes a crucial objective to be captured. Since headquarters is cut off from the men, they tip off the Germans about the impending attack, which ends successfully but with everybody except the two captains killed.
The ending is a bit abrupt and contrived. Leech and Douglas are hiding out in a village when the British army breaks through. Still wearing the German uniforms they’d use to infiltrate enemy lines, Douglas concocts a white flag of surrender and marches out to greet the liberators. Alas, they’re shot anyway. Why they wouldn’t have just taken off their uniforms is, of course, the unasked question.
“Play Dirty” was directed by André De Toth (his final film) from a script by Melvyn Bragg and Lotte Colin and was supposedly based on the exploits of some real-life special forces units like Popski’s Private Army. Yes, it’s a bit derivative, but well-done and satisfyingly cynical.