a strong film all around. don siegel directs a fantastic cast including: lee marvin, john cassavetes, robert ryan, charles bronson, ernest borgnine, jim brown, donald sutherland, ralph meeker and telly savalas.
the setup shows marvin (a major) witnessing the execution of a prisoner who claims innocence (more accurately he claims it was a mistake) until his death. from here he is ushered into a room full of generals plotting his next assignment. marvin is a rebel amongst proper officers and is given the unenviable task of assembling 12 men on death row in what amounts to a suicide mission behind enemy lines to coincide with d-day. it’s not until 12 minutes into the film that the title sequence begins and by then you’re likely hooked.
siegel, rather un-conventionally, edits on camera movement. generally directors wait for the camera to stop a pan or track before making an edit, but siegel breaks that rule early. it establishes an energy that lasts carries you through the setup. from there it’s mostly about characterization and themes of redemption. marvin must quickly establish himself as the leader of a group of misfits who have been unbroken by their previous officers. he’s got to be stronger and smarter than all of them while earning enough respect to ensure his survival and the success of the mission. it’s a great setup and the screenplay executes each character quite well. marvin’s response to each situation is impressive in every sense. you, like the men in the film, get the sense that he is a father figure; a true leader of the unleadable. he’s one of the more impressive leaders i can remember in cinema.
there’s plenty of religious imagery in the film, but it’s not used in the way you might expect from a war film. in the final scene before their mission, marvin is seen in the middle of a long table with six men on each side of him – a reference to the last supper. maggot (played by savalas) is a southern rapist/racist who speaks of god’s will throughout the film. in the end jim brown, in a moment of poetic justice, sends him to the afterlife. similarly, the final sequence features marvin and his men trapping german officers in an underground bomb shelter. they pour gasoline and throw grenades into the air ducts of the shelter. jim brown again gets the job of executioner – a minority meting out poetic justice on the perpetrators of mass death by means of their gas chambers. a great film.