Play Dirty (1969)
Gritty, grim and fatalistic are just a few of the ways I would describe Play Dirty. Made at a time when cinema was becoming more realistic and cynical, it eschews the traditional depiction of World War II heroism and paints a singularly unglamorous picture. Due to some minor plot similarities, it is frequently compared to The Dirty Dozen but they are far from identical movies. Robert Aldrich’s film despite having an offbeat plot and a cast of quality characters actors still followed a traditional action based formula and had a relatively upbeat ending. Play Dirty is content to pursue its dour storyline to its inevitable conclusion.
Michael Caine plays Captain Douglas of the Royal engineers, who is press-ganged from his cushy position with Anglo-Iranian Oil, into a shady squad of mercenaries who freelance for the British Military. The group is mainly made up of criminals and disgraced soldiers and over seen by Colonel Masters (Nigel Green). Due to Douglas’ lack of field experience he is heavily dependent on Captain Leech (Nigel Davenport), whose only real concern is the £2000 bonus he will be paid if he brings Douglas back alive. Disguised as Italian soldiers the group cross the desert to strike at a fuel dump, hundreds of miles behind enemy lines.
The dialogue in Play Dirty is minimal and succinct. The squad comprising of a Greek narcotics smuggler, a Tunisian terrorist, a convicted rapist, a Turkish smuggler and two homosexual Senussi tribesmen have precious little to say but this does not impede the viewer from understanding the dynamics of the group. The wry looks, sardonic smiles and derisive laughter are more than enough to demonstrate what each man is. The main tension lies between Douglas and Leech, with the former clinging to outmoded notions of gallantry and etiquette. The latter frequently undermines his superior and is sceptical of his abilities. However both become dependent on each other. Douglas uses his engineering savvy to winch their vehicles up a steep incline. Leech saves Douglas when his British dog tags blow their cover.
Veteran director Andre De Toth, who took over when René Clément left the project, does a fine job in driving the movie forward. There is a well implemented battle scene which shows a convoy of trucks and accompanying Jeeps being efficiently dispensed with by entrenched German troops. It plays out wordlessly as the main protagonists look on. The director doesn't balk either at showing the ragtag group of criminals for what they are as they loot all corpses, enemy and allies alike. The arrival of a German nurse also leads to an attempted rape. It all proves to be very challenging for Captain Douglas who still feels bound by the notion that war has rules.
Perhaps the biggest plot element that makes Play Dirty such a product of its time is its ending. The late sixties and early seventies saw a great deal of change in film making and many sacred cows were put to the sword. Play Dirty avoids schoolboy patriotism and opts for something far more bleak. The military goals of the mission prove to be fluid and the chain of command eventually deem the rogue group to be a liability. Betrayal eventually comes from unexpected quarters and hammers home the point that war frequently has little or no honour. Overall the British military of the time are shown to be governed by petty politics and class prejudice. It’s not necessarily a palatable conclusion but it most certainly is credible.