Film Discussion

Michael Caine’s Play Dirty – Fighting War as a Criminal Enterprise

Lee Marvin, talking to Roger Ebert, once dismissed The Dirty Dozen, in which he played a gruff major leading a band of cut-throats on a suicide mission to wipe out Nazis, as a “dummy money-maker”. Play Dirty (1969), unfairly castigated as being a rip-off of said convict commando caper, is a much grittier and grimmer film: one where Michael Caine’s stooge officer and piratical cohorts are subject to vagaries of strategy as fluid and deadly as the rippling, sand-blasted dunescape they must traverse to their mission goal.

Caine’s Captain Douglas is a kind of brother to his other screen alter-ego, Harry Palmer – two chancers who look for an easy life within the system, until dragged, or dragooned, into doing their duty. Douglas is a British Petroleum engineer drafted into the British army during the sweltering North African campaign of WWII. He’s introduced playing chess in the shade with an offshore opponent by means of signal lamp, whilst idly “supervising” the offloading of dockside supplies below.

Summoned by Brigadier Bloor (Harry Andrews) to work under Colonel Masters (Nigel Green), an unorthodox, scholarly, cardigan wearing special ops type, Douglas conducts a sort of pas de deux as he squeezes past a pretty secretary in the doorway, much like Palmer does in The Ipcress File (“Thank you for a wonderful evening.”). Masters gets to conduct this last chance behind the lines raid on Rommel’s secret fuel dump on condition he has a “proper” officer with petroleum experience “run the show”. In reality, the rascally Captain Leech (Nigel Davenport) sees himself in charge.

“What unit?” Douglas enquires airily of him. “Late of the Eighth Panzer,” Leech drily replies. We first meet him at the film’s opening, driving a sand-blasted jeep through the desert back towards British lines, a dead officer sprawled beside him (the unit has a habit of getting through a lot). As he passes from zone to zone, he flicks the radio from Lily Marlene to a British tune (“You Are My Sunshine“), adjusting his Afrika Korp headgear accordingly to a British peaked cap. The absurdity of this barren theatre of war is laid bare as he shows his papers to an MP guarding a rough track, the tent and barrier the only sign of life for miles around.

Leech would sooner dispose of Douglas at the first opportunity, but a financial incentive from Masters stays his hand (“You just bought yourself an Englishman.”). Leech and his men are little more than mercenaries, pirates sallying forth across the vastness of “the blue” – irredeemable, save only for their deadly skillset. Masters notes dryly that “War is a criminal enterprise. I fight it with criminals.” His war party is comprised of a Greek drug smuggler, a Tunisian fanatic, a convicted rapist, a Turkish smuggler and two Senussi tribesmen, lovers.

We see them gun down native non-combatants who one minute were sharing tea with them, and then routinely looting the corpses of either side. One man attempts to rape a German nurse. Douglas is appalled by Leech’s cavalier, insouciant attitude, and the two butt heads as he feebly attempts to stamp his authority. What neither know is, Bloor considers them all as expendable as one of Douglas’s chess pawns, likely to be ambushed on a chimerical fool’s errand, clearing the way for a second, more “professional” band of soldiers to get the job done, whilst Bloor takes the credit himself. War is laid bare as a poor game, with little consideration for niceties or rules of engagement. The trouble is, that cuts both ways…

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After shooting up a bunch of Axis sympathiser Arabs who rumble their identity despite their Italian army uniforms, the squad come up against difficult terrain. Douglas redeems his error (it was his dog-tags the Arabs saw) by rigging a winch system to drag their vehicles up a perilous incline. The careless Leech, however, content to take a back seat, neglects to unload a truck, snapping the tow rope and sending it careening back down in ruins. There then follows an ambush that unfolds wordlessly below their pitiless gaze, as another Arab, who spots the “proper” mission burying the bodies Leech and co. left behind, informs on them to a German convoy. The Germans proceed to lay in wait and wipe them out at the base of the hill, whilst at the summit Leech prevents Douglas from giving a warning by putting a stiletto blade to his throat. Our cut-throats then scarper, undiscovered.

It’s the minutiae of detail that impresses in this film. Dialogue is sparse, curt, and dryly sardonic. A minimal score rarely intrudes on efficient sound design. Action is punctuated by long spells of navigating hazardous terrain, by turns endless sand dunes like undulating waves, or dry beds of tyre shredding rocks, the pitiless heat captured in gritty Panavision widescreen by cinematographer Edward Scaife. Douglas is observed adjusting a sun compass, the only means of navigation in such a wilderness. The men cheat death by judicious means of a screaming sand storm exposing previously buried mines. A long drawn out almost wordless sequence where Caine’s character steps on a mine and has to be freed generates the kind of suspense evoked by the hazardous journey in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear. When they finally reach their target and proceed to silently eliminate the sentries, they find only straw men – scarecrows in uniforms, that is. The oil tanks are merely plywood and hardboard, exposed like gaping teeth, slapping against timbers in the biting wind, laughing at them.

Leech has had it. He’s headed for the dock at Benghazi, for a ship out of this mug’s game. He tells Douglas how he got into this mess – he sank a ship for the insurance money, neglecting to inform the rest of the crew. Caught, he had a choice of jail, or this. Douglas feebly attempts to force the men to press on for the real target, but can’t go through with shooting them as they refuse.

On a recce at the docks Leech and Douglas realise the real dump is there. They decide to blow it as a diversion, then steal a boat in the confusion. However, by now higher priorities are at play. The allies have made a big push, and are now in need of Rommel’s fuel dumps. Masters is ordered over the clink of whiskey tumblers to withdraw his men (he’s lost contact) or betray them through a double agent. When they come for the fuel with satchel charges, the Germans on loudspeaker know their names and serial numbers. Douglas, finally chafing at the duplicitousness of “desert rules”, doesn’t like it: “It’s the principle of the thing.” “You sound like the man who gave me 15 years,” Leech replies sardonically.

Veteran director Andre De Toth took over from original helmer Rene Clement – handily, he was on location in Almeira, Spain, in his capacity as executive producer alongside Harry Saltzman, who had previously worked with Caine on The Ipcress File. Saltzmann and Clement haggled a long time over details. “Neither of them was sure what the picture was about,” De Toth recalled in his memoirs, De Toth On De Toth. “Clément wanted to shoot whatever ‘his’ picture was about in Morocco or Algeria…Harry, a headline-man and Zionist, wanted to shoot ‘his’ picture in Israel. Harry refused to scout North Africa, Clément refused to go to Israel.”

The biting script was by Melvyn Bragg and Lotte Colin, based on a real life desert war incident with Palestinian Jewish commandos betrayed by their British superiors. Nigel Green’s Col. Masters was supposedly based on Vladimir ‘Popski’ Peniakoff, who ran his own little unit, Popski’s Private Army, operating alongside other similar special forces such as the Long Range Desert Group and the SAS (Special Air Service) in the Western desert of Africa during WWII.

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Clement was not the only casualty. Leech was originally to be played by Richard Harris, who at the time had recorded the song MacArthur Park and was behaving “like a bit of a pop star” (read – diva) according to Davenport. Davenport was to have originally played Masters. As long delays built, with Harris often a no-show, Saltzman sacked Clement and Davenport was bumped up to co-star, his first major leading role, with Nigel Green, who’d played opposite Caine in Zulu and The Ipcress File, taking on Masters. Caine was delighted to work with him again, and had an easy rapport with Davenport, who credited him as a very generous ally.

Much of what had already been filmed had to be scrapped and started over. “We were working in very adverse conditions,” Davenport recalled. “For one of the sequences we were supposed to be in a sand-storm. We worked in a sand-storm for real. There was this howling wind, sand flying around and it was bloody uncomfortable. We started off with ten cameras covering it and there was one camera fit to use by the end of the day. It took much longer to shoot than it should have done because of adverse weather and all sorts of problems.”

De Toth’s vision for the film was emblematic of its title: “I wanted to rub our noses in the mess we have created and how we shy away from our responsibility to clean it up. I showed what I wanted, the naked truth, the truth of life and war. The Dirty Dozen was a good and entertaining motion picture. A movie on the wide and well paved avenue to the box office. How could it compare to Play Dirty, a bitter slice of real life and certainly not entertainment. Had I wanted to entertain with Play Dirty, the demi-gods would’ve been right to tear me limb from limb.”

He didn’t have final cut though. A macabre touch as allied soldiers were being buried was altered: “Michel Legrand wrote a wonderful score for the scene where the ambushed soldiers are being buried and above them the vultures are circling. The happy voice of a children’s choir. The harsh contrast to the macabre scene disturbed them so much that after I delivered what I thought was the finished picture, the children’s voices were taken out the day before the release-prints were ordered. Nothing I could do.” 

Martin Scorsese considers the film something of a guilty pleasure, in the May-June 1998 issue of Film Comment. Play Dirty isn’t a sadistic film, but it’s mean. The characters have no redeeming social value, which I love. In one sequence, they pretend to be Italian soldiers to fool some Arabs; one of the Arabs spots something on them, so they take their guns and shoot all the Arabs. They don’t think, they just act. They have a job to do, and they’re going to do it. The nihilism, the pragmatism — it’s frightening.”

Caine and Davenport between them came up with the cynical ending. After blowing the dump and laying low, the two men, the sole survivors of the mission, are awoken by the sound of British armour ploughing through the town. Douglas suggests a surrender, but they are mown down by a Tommy – “Sorry sir, I didn’t see the white flag.” Having seen action in Korea, Caine didn’t want a happy ending: “I couldn’t have those two men go through all that and then be treated like film stars at the end…coming back and getting their medals.”

It’s a sour end to a sour film, a fitting sign o’ the times reflection on the end of the short lived idealism of the ‘60’s. Getzen Carter?

Play Dirty is not currently streaming on any UK services, but can be bought on Amazon on either DVD or BluRay.

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