"War is a criminal enterprise. I fight it with criminals."
That line. God dammit, I do love that line. It's spoken by the great, great, great British character actor Nigel Green to the equally great Michael Caine (can we all agree that he's one of the finest actors in screen history?) discussing the ragtag platoon of killers and criminals he's assembled for a suicide mission behind enemy lines (is there any other kind?) in Andre De Toth's PLAY DIRTY. Now of course, THE DIRTY DOZEN had the same idea behind it and came out one year earlier, but unlike the Aldrich classic, that's not what PLAY DIRTY is really all about. THE DIRTY DOZEN, an absolutely terrific movie in its own right, is about how these guys are all criminals and the mission they find themselves on is secondary to that, whereas PLAY DIRTY is about that mission and how the fighting men get fucked over by the officers above them. The entire essence of the movie is right there in that line. PLAY DIRTY is a movie that celebrates the solider but also questions the necessity of war and extends its finger at the powers that be. It's one of the best WWII movies and one of the best anti-war movies, too. God damn, do I love this movie.
On paper, PLAY DIRTY doesn't really sound all that exciting or original, and even during the first twenty minutes or so you're not expecting it to pack the punch that it does. The mission is to destroy German fuel tanks in North Africa, just as Rommel is starting to retreat; that's a pretty standard WW II movie plot. It's once the mission gets underway that PLAY DIRTY reveals that its title is indeed quite apt. Turns out that Caine's crew (which also includes an awesome Nigel Hawthorne) is, in fact, a decoy meant to be caught or killed, leading the way for a more established crew to actually complete the mission and take all the glory. But things don't turn out the way they're planned and the way that they don't is pretty damn shocking, even to an audience today. Caine, chosen to head the mission only due to his experience with petrol, learns the hard way of the realities of war; men on both sides are killed for the slightest wrong move and no one is spared any indignity. Even routine moments of the squadron traveling are shown as being difficult and treacherous; tires have to constantly replaced due to the rocky North African terrain, mines can be buried anywhere in the desert, and the enemy can be found lurking anywhere. PLAY DIRTY is a true "War is Hell" made about a supposedly noble fight made at a time when war was proving itself unpopular and it's not much of a surprise that it hits home even today.
But like almost all great war movies, there's a level of excitement to it that cannot be avoided and with an expert action/suspense director like De Toth behind the camera (it's his final completed film) you know for sure that's going to happen. PLAY DIRTY's most memorable sequence isn't even a battle scene but rather a fantastically intense (no, really - it's fantastically intense!) scene where they pull their trucks up a mountainside. Conceptually, it seems like a kind of standard WW II "behind enemy lines" scene and as it begins you think "What's the point of this?". But once it's over you've invested so much in it that you know this is the moment when the film becomes something special and not just another WW II movie. It takes up about 10 minutes or so, but what you see is a beautifully handled exercise in suspense, which then becomes dramatically powerful as it continues on and it really makes the movie. From this moment on, PLAY DIRTY has you.
War movies don't come as cynical as PLAY DIRTY. This is an angry film about war and it's interesting that it came at a time when other similar films, such as Jack Cardiff's DARK OF THE SUN, were also getting made. Just as GRAND ILLUSION was the film that noted that the "honorable" warfare of WW I was a thing of the past in a new world order, PLAY DIRTY announces better than any film of its time that the nobility of a war like WW II was a falsehood. Unlike many other anti-war films, it's also a terrific action picture, one that knows that the best way to get a message across to an audience is to smuggle it in an entertaining package. I think it's a subversive little masterpiece and it keeps growing as a personal favorite. And yes, it's on DVD.