EMMET MEARA

A cynical WWII movie review

Posted Sept. 09, 2011, at 11:41 p.m.

I simply assumed that I had seen every single movie about WWII, the last “good war.” I was wrong.

Half asleep, I caught the middle of “Play Dirty” on television last week. It looked incredibly cynical. Naturally, I researched it, then rented the 1968 sleeper from Netflix. I never expect to be disappointed in anything featuring Michael Caine. I wasn’t.

Think “The Dirty Dozen” with a little “Eye of the Needle,” “Gunga Din” and a touch of “Clear and Present Danger.”

The scene is North Africa in the early stages of the war with Nazi Edwin Rommel dueling with Bernard Montgomery across desert sands.

The English army occasionally uses a band of mercenary drug dealers, murderers and rapists sprung from various prisons for very special missions. This semi-dastardly band (they are on our side, after all) of guerrillas is led by the highly pragmatic Col. Masters (Nigel Green) assisted by the totally dastardly Capt. Leech (Nigel Davenport). They are sort of under the control of Brigadier Blore (Harry Andrews).

Think “The Dirty Dozen.”

The opening is terrific with Leech in a German uniform careening across the desert with German music on the jeep radio. He has a dead English officer in the passenger seat. As he approaches a checkpoint, he casually changes his uniform to English army gear and turns the radio to “You Are My Sunshine.”

You just know it’s going to be a great ride.

When Leech finally returns to camp, the dead officer is peeled out of the jeep. It seems he has been shot in the back. This is all in the first two minutes. Not a word has been spoken.

Col. Masters expresses deep concern to Leech about losing money, jeeps and still another English officer on another mission. People are starting to notice — and complain. Their money supply is threatened.

Various spies have told Masters that Rommel has a huge gasoline dump hidden in the desert, 400 miles behind enemy lines. Masters tells Brigadier Blore that, “Only two men can stop Rommel. Hitler, because he cannot give him enough petrol and me” by blowing up the petrol dump. Blore hates Masters because of the heavy loss of English officers on his exploits. He reluctantly orders Masters to blow the petrol dump, but sends a “real” army unit to do the job, using the guerrilla band as a diversion.

To control the guerrillas, Brigadier Blore assigns full-time oil company expert and part-time soldier Capt. Douglas (Caine) to lead the mission. To control the dastardly Leech, Masters offers a 2000 pound bonus for the captain’s safe return.

One can imagine the spit-and-polish Douglas “commanding” this group of cutthroats across the desert. It is revealed that Leech was in prison for sinking his own boat for the insurance money, neglecting to tell the rest of his crew.

No John Waynes here.

The guerillas are forced to watch from the hills as the Germans ambush and slaughter the “real” army unit sent to blow the petrol dump. Leech stops Douglas from sending a warning to his comrades. “Our business is blowing the fuel dump,“ Leech said.

Think “Gunga Din.”

The guerrillas strip the dead English soldiers of watches and valuables. Not your regular war movie.

After a series of adventures including the slaughter of an Arab group at a watering hole — “I didn’t like their tea,” Leech said — the guerrilla band finds the depot and attacks. Capt. Douglas stabs a German sentry only to find that he is a straw dummy. The entire depot is a ruse, manufactured to throw off an attack on the real depot.

Think “Eye of the Needle.”

Naturally, a woman has to be introduced into this stag opus, so the guerrillas capture a German ambulance, complete with a fetching nurse. (Is there any other kind?)

In the final irony, Montgomery starts to attack and drive Rommel back, with the English lines approaching the petrol dump. The order is given to protect all petrol dumps, to supply English forces. Since they cannot communicate with the guerrillas and stop the mission, Col. Masters and Brigadier Blore decide to sell out the crew and through spies, tell the Germans when and where the attack is planned.

Think “Clear and Present Danger.”

The officers congratulate themselves for saving the depot with cigars and brandy.

I would not spoil the enjoyment of “Play Dirty” with any more details, other than to say the ending is suitably cynical.

You’re welcome.

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