Play Dirty


1h 57m 1969

Brief Synopsis

An inexperienced captain leads his men against a Nazi fueling station in the Sahara.

Film Details

Also Known As
Written on the Sand
MPAA Rating
NR
Genre
War
Action
Release Date
Jan 1969
Premiere Information
Washington, D. C., opening: 15 Jan 1969
Production Company
Lowndes Productions
Distribution Company
United Artists
Country
United Kingdom

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 57m
Sound
Mono (Westrex Recording System)
Color
Color (DeLuxe)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
2.35 : 1

Synopsis

During the North African campaign of World War II, Douglas, an inexperienced British Army captain, is assigned to lead a band of mercenaries into the desert to dispose of a vital German oil depot 650 miles behind Rommel's front lines. From the moment Douglas assumes command, he is treated with open hostility by the men, all of whom are ex-convicts, and especially by their unofficial leader, Cyril Leech. What Douglas and the mercenaries do not know is that the Commander of Special Forces, Brigadier Blore, has sent a regular army unit on the same mission in case the mercenaries should be annihilated. Ironically, the second unit is ambushed and slaughtered as Douglas and his men press forward. After capturing and attempting to rape a German nurse, the mercenaries reach their destination but discover that it is only a decoy. While Douglas and Leech argue over whether or not to continue their search for the real depot, word arrives at command headquarters that Montgomery has broken through the German lines. Brigadier Blore, realizing that the British now need the depot fuel for themselves and unable to stop the mercenaries, secretly gives their location to the Germans through a double agent. Despite this betrayal, the mercenaries, wearing German uniforms, succeed in blowing up their objective. But the waiting Germans shoot them down one by one, and only Douglas and Leech survive. Carrying a white rag on a stick and still wearing enemy uniforms, the two men approach the British forces and are shot down.

Film Details

Also Known As
Written on the Sand
MPAA Rating
NR
Genre
War
Action
Release Date
Jan 1969
Premiere Information
Washington, D. C., opening: 15 Jan 1969
Production Company
Lowndes Productions
Distribution Company
United Artists
Country
United Kingdom

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 57m
Sound
Mono (Westrex Recording System)
Color
Color (DeLuxe)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
2.35 : 1

Articles

Play Dirty -


Within the first few seconds of Play Dirty (1969) you can tell that this isn't going to be a predictable war drama by any stretch of the imagination. The camera captures a jeep racing across the desert with a grimly determined British officer at the wheel and beside him, flopping about listlessly, a corpse in uniform. As the jeep races through the barren landscape, we hear the radio playing the romantic strains of "Lili Marlene." For the entirety of the film, this bleak and bitter image is maintained in both mood and dialogue by director Andre de Toth, who has taken a standard "assemble the team" plot, partially inspired by the success of The Dirty Dozen (1967), and imbued it with an ironic sense of humor and a relentlessly unromanticized view of war.

Set in the North African desert during World War II, Play Dirty stars Michael Caine as an inexperienced British army captain who has been assigned to lead a group of ex-convicts behind enemy lines to destroy a Nazi oil repository. His mission is complicated by a veteran colonel who insists on using old history books for battle strategies and a jaded mercenary who constantly questions Caine's authority. Along the way Caine discovers that their mission has merely been a decoy for the British High Command - a discovery that leads to the film's truly surprising climax, one that is laced with black humor.

Play Dirty was dismissed by most critics upon its release as being little more than a clone of The Dirty Dozen, but now it seems infinitely superior to that film, more mature and accomplished on every level. Michael Caine, however, doesn't relish his memories of working on Play Dirty. In his autobiography - What's It All About?: Michael Caine - he wrote: "The moment that I signed to do the film, (director) Rene Clement had a row with Harry (Saltzman) and left the film. There was a much-vaunted rewrite of the script, which in my opinion was not as good as the original, but we used it anyway....Rene Clement was replaced by Andre de Toth, with whom I had worked briefly when young in A Foxhole in Cairo. Andre came onto the picture so late that even he had no time to do his best work." Caine also hated the punishing climate and isolated location of the film shoot - Almeria, Spain, the place where David Lean shot the train-crash sequence in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and where dozens of "spaghetti Westerns" were filmed. Caine wrote that the Play Dirty set in Almeria was "only about four big sand dunes, which made for disaster when several units were shooting there simultaneously. One day we had a shot where the tanks of Rommel's Afrika Korps were advancing across the desert towards El Alamein, only to be greeted as they rounded a hill by a stagecoach being chased by American Indians coming in the other direction. At the sight of the tanks, of course, the horses panicked and threw their riders, and we had to wait while they were caught and the scene was cleared, and then in would go our local unemployed with brooms and shovels to wipe out the horses' hoofprints and pick up the horsesh*t, of which there was always plenty as the result of the sudden appearance of the tanks on the horses' digestive system." Despite Caine's low opinion of Play Dirty, he gives one of his best performances in the film, proving that actors aren't always the best judges of their work.

As for Andre de Toth, he realized in advance that Play Dirty would be unfairly compared to other more commercially successful war thrillers. In his book, De Toth on De Toth, he wrote, "The Dirty Dozen was a good and entertaining movie....How could it be compared to Play Dirty, a bitter slice of real life and certainly not entertainment?...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." Certainly he had some regrets about the film as well, particularly some studio-imposed changes. "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." Yet despite the cuts, Play Dirty is an unforgettable experience and one that is ripe for a major re-evaluation.

Producer: Harry Saltzman
Director: Andre De Toth
Screenplay: Melvyn Bragg, Lotte Colin, George Marton
Cinematography: Edward Scaife
Editing: Alan Osbiston, Jack Slade
Music: Michel Legrand
Art Direction: Thomas N. Morahan, Maurice Pelling, Elven Webb
Cast: Michael Caine (Captain Douglas), Nigel Davenport (Cyril Leech), Nigel Green (Colonel Masters), Harry Andrews (Brigadier Blore), Patrick Jordan (Major Watkins), Daniel Pilon (Captain Allwood), Aly Ben Ayed (Sadok), Enrique Avila (Kalarides), Takis Emmanuel (Kostos Manov), Vivian Pickles (German Nurse).
C-117m.

By Jeff Stafford
Play Dirty -

Play Dirty -

Within the first few seconds of Play Dirty (1969) you can tell that this isn't going to be a predictable war drama by any stretch of the imagination. The camera captures a jeep racing across the desert with a grimly determined British officer at the wheel and beside him, flopping about listlessly, a corpse in uniform. As the jeep races through the barren landscape, we hear the radio playing the romantic strains of "Lili Marlene." For the entirety of the film, this bleak and bitter image is maintained in both mood and dialogue by director Andre de Toth, who has taken a standard "assemble the team" plot, partially inspired by the success of The Dirty Dozen (1967), and imbued it with an ironic sense of humor and a relentlessly unromanticized view of war. Set in the North African desert during World War II, Play Dirty stars Michael Caine as an inexperienced British army captain who has been assigned to lead a group of ex-convicts behind enemy lines to destroy a Nazi oil repository. His mission is complicated by a veteran colonel who insists on using old history books for battle strategies and a jaded mercenary who constantly questions Caine's authority. Along the way Caine discovers that their mission has merely been a decoy for the British High Command - a discovery that leads to the film's truly surprising climax, one that is laced with black humor. Play Dirty was dismissed by most critics upon its release as being little more than a clone of The Dirty Dozen, but now it seems infinitely superior to that film, more mature and accomplished on every level. Michael Caine, however, doesn't relish his memories of working on Play Dirty. In his autobiography - What's It All About?: Michael Caine - he wrote: "The moment that I signed to do the film, (director) Rene Clement had a row with Harry (Saltzman) and left the film. There was a much-vaunted rewrite of the script, which in my opinion was not as good as the original, but we used it anyway....Rene Clement was replaced by Andre de Toth, with whom I had worked briefly when young in A Foxhole in Cairo. Andre came onto the picture so late that even he had no time to do his best work." Caine also hated the punishing climate and isolated location of the film shoot - Almeria, Spain, the place where David Lean shot the train-crash sequence in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and where dozens of "spaghetti Westerns" were filmed. Caine wrote that the Play Dirty set in Almeria was "only about four big sand dunes, which made for disaster when several units were shooting there simultaneously. One day we had a shot where the tanks of Rommel's Afrika Korps were advancing across the desert towards El Alamein, only to be greeted as they rounded a hill by a stagecoach being chased by American Indians coming in the other direction. At the sight of the tanks, of course, the horses panicked and threw their riders, and we had to wait while they were caught and the scene was cleared, and then in would go our local unemployed with brooms and shovels to wipe out the horses' hoofprints and pick up the horsesh*t, of which there was always plenty as the result of the sudden appearance of the tanks on the horses' digestive system." Despite Caine's low opinion of Play Dirty, he gives one of his best performances in the film, proving that actors aren't always the best judges of their work. As for Andre de Toth, he realized in advance that Play Dirty would be unfairly compared to other more commercially successful war thrillers. In his book, De Toth on De Toth, he wrote, "The Dirty Dozen was a good and entertaining movie....How could it be compared to Play Dirty, a bitter slice of real life and certainly not entertainment?...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." Certainly he had some regrets about the film as well, particularly some studio-imposed changes. "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." Yet despite the cuts, Play Dirty is an unforgettable experience and one that is ripe for a major re-evaluation. Producer: Harry Saltzman Director: Andre De Toth Screenplay: Melvyn Bragg, Lotte Colin, George Marton Cinematography: Edward ScaifeEditing: Alan Osbiston, Jack Slade Music: Michel Legrand Art Direction: Thomas N. Morahan, Maurice Pelling, Elven Webb Cast: Michael Caine (Captain Douglas), Nigel Davenport (Cyril Leech), Nigel Green (Colonel Masters), Harry Andrews (Brigadier Blore), Patrick Jordan (Major Watkins), Daniel Pilon (Captain Allwood), Aly Ben Ayed (Sadok), Enrique Avila (Kalarides), Takis Emmanuel (Kostos Manov), Vivian Pickles (German Nurse). C-117m. By Jeff Stafford

Play Dirty - Michael Caine in Andre De Toth's Overlooked War Drama - PLAY DIRTY on DVD


"War is a criminal enterprise. I fight it with criminals." - Col. Masters (Nigel Green), in Play Dirty

Everyone plays dirty in Play Dirty (1969) - the characters, the screenwriters, and the director, too. "Forget the medals, Throw away the rule book," ordered the posters, and sure enough, that command applies not just to the men on screen but to the audience watching. The result is one of the great under-known combat pictures, one which no less than Martin Scorsese has called a guilty pleasure.

Right off the bat, Play Dirty tells us things will be different. A German-uniformed man (Nigel Davenport) drives a jeep across a rickety desert landscape with a dead body in the passenger seat. A German song, "Lilli Marlene," blares from his radio. As he approaches a checkpoint, he switches his German hat for a British one and changes the music to "You Are My Sunshine." It's a British checkpoint and the man responds to the soldiers suprisingly sarcastically, though he is clearly British and is let through... Very quickly, then, what we think we know to be the case is undermined by what actually happens, and we learn not to believe or trust everything we see - a quality which will keep us on edge throughout the entire movie and will ultimately convey much of the film's meaning.

Because Play Dirty deals with a group of fighting men who are all despicable former criminals and convicts, the movie was and still is often compared to The Dirty Dozen (1967). It's an unfair comparison; the two pictures are more different than similar. Not only does Play Dirty not develop the convicts' characters anywhere near as much as The Dirty Dozen, but it conveys a degree of cynicism and nastiness that The Dirty Dozen never really tries to approach. Further, as film historian Jeanine Basinger has pointed out, the men in Play Dirty never come together to form a cohesive group, instead remaining unsympathetic loners. More generally, The Dirty Dozen unspools as a fairly traditional, albeit superb, Hollywood action flick, while Play Dirty is far more edgy and disturbing, right on through to its final frames.

Play Dirty gives us the traditional elements of a WWII combat movie - hero, group, military objective - but turns all three upside down in a big way. The story, possibly inspired by the real-life Popski's Private Army (a British reconnaissance unit in northern Africa during WWII), has the underqualified Capt. Douglas (Michael Caine) being plucked from his cushy job to lead a unit deep behind enemy lines to blow up a Nazi fuel depot. The group is made up of thoroughly amoral, vile men operating outside of the mainstream military. They look to their own Capt. Leech (Nigel Davenport, outstanding in a role originally meant for Richard Harris) as their true leader, and Davenport and Caine spend the film at odds over power until Caine gradually succumbs to the group's "dirty" tactics and is accepted. The objective [SPOILER ALERT!] turns out to be a fake, a decoy, until the men decide for themselves to find and destroy the real one. What they don't know, however, is that their superiors back at base have decided that the real objective is now no longer an objective at all, and the tables are now turned against the group in a deeply cynical way.

The characters in Play Dirty act out of greed or selfishness instead of national pride or military correctness. The iconography of military uniforms is subverted, too; several times in the movie, characters wear the uniforms of the enemy, which Jeanine Basinger has written "is considered a despicable thing to do" in war and war movies. Even a harrowing attempted-gang-rape sequence, astonishingly enough, is successfully capped by a humorous, ironic - and thus totally unexpected - image. All these and more are examples of a movie that twists, subverts, and comments upon what we all already know from countless other war movies - and it never loses its entertainment value in the process.

Director Andre de Toth would have argued with the word "entertainment." Asked about Play Dirty's comparison to The Dirty Dozen, he said, "The Dirty Dozen was a good and entertaining motion picture. How could it be compared to Play Dirty, a bitter slice of real life and certainly not entertainment? 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. I wanted to disturb, to open closed eyes and scramble brains, hoping they'll think."

Think we do, even as we enjoy one fantastic scene after another. Two memorable examples: a drawn-out affair in which jeeps are hauled up a steep cliff by means of pulleys and cables, and a well-edited burial montage which, according to de Toth, was originally scored with "the happy voice of a children's choir. The harsh contrast to the macabre scene disturbed [the producers] 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."

MGM, in association with Fox Home Entertainment, has issued the DVD at a good, low price and in a pristine, anamorphic (2.35:1) transfer. Don't miss this one.

For more information about Play Dirty, visit MGM. To order Play Dirty, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jeremy Arnold

Play Dirty - Michael Caine in Andre De Toth's Overlooked War Drama - PLAY DIRTY on DVD

"War is a criminal enterprise. I fight it with criminals." - Col. Masters (Nigel Green), in Play Dirty Everyone plays dirty in Play Dirty (1969) - the characters, the screenwriters, and the director, too. "Forget the medals, Throw away the rule book," ordered the posters, and sure enough, that command applies not just to the men on screen but to the audience watching. The result is one of the great under-known combat pictures, one which no less than Martin Scorsese has called a guilty pleasure. Right off the bat, Play Dirty tells us things will be different. A German-uniformed man (Nigel Davenport) drives a jeep across a rickety desert landscape with a dead body in the passenger seat. A German song, "Lilli Marlene," blares from his radio. As he approaches a checkpoint, he switches his German hat for a British one and changes the music to "You Are My Sunshine." It's a British checkpoint and the man responds to the soldiers suprisingly sarcastically, though he is clearly British and is let through... Very quickly, then, what we think we know to be the case is undermined by what actually happens, and we learn not to believe or trust everything we see - a quality which will keep us on edge throughout the entire movie and will ultimately convey much of the film's meaning. Because Play Dirty deals with a group of fighting men who are all despicable former criminals and convicts, the movie was and still is often compared to The Dirty Dozen (1967). It's an unfair comparison; the two pictures are more different than similar. Not only does Play Dirty not develop the convicts' characters anywhere near as much as The Dirty Dozen, but it conveys a degree of cynicism and nastiness that The Dirty Dozen never really tries to approach. Further, as film historian Jeanine Basinger has pointed out, the men in Play Dirty never come together to form a cohesive group, instead remaining unsympathetic loners. More generally, The Dirty Dozen unspools as a fairly traditional, albeit superb, Hollywood action flick, while Play Dirty is far more edgy and disturbing, right on through to its final frames. Play Dirty gives us the traditional elements of a WWII combat movie - hero, group, military objective - but turns all three upside down in a big way. The story, possibly inspired by the real-life Popski's Private Army (a British reconnaissance unit in northern Africa during WWII), has the underqualified Capt. Douglas (Michael Caine) being plucked from his cushy job to lead a unit deep behind enemy lines to blow up a Nazi fuel depot. The group is made up of thoroughly amoral, vile men operating outside of the mainstream military. They look to their own Capt. Leech (Nigel Davenport, outstanding in a role originally meant for Richard Harris) as their true leader, and Davenport and Caine spend the film at odds over power until Caine gradually succumbs to the group's "dirty" tactics and is accepted. The objective [SPOILER ALERT!] turns out to be a fake, a decoy, until the men decide for themselves to find and destroy the real one. What they don't know, however, is that their superiors back at base have decided that the real objective is now no longer an objective at all, and the tables are now turned against the group in a deeply cynical way. The characters in Play Dirty act out of greed or selfishness instead of national pride or military correctness. The iconography of military uniforms is subverted, too; several times in the movie, characters wear the uniforms of the enemy, which Jeanine Basinger has written "is considered a despicable thing to do" in war and war movies. Even a harrowing attempted-gang-rape sequence, astonishingly enough, is successfully capped by a humorous, ironic - and thus totally unexpected - image. All these and more are examples of a movie that twists, subverts, and comments upon what we all already know from countless other war movies - and it never loses its entertainment value in the process. Director Andre de Toth would have argued with the word "entertainment." Asked about Play Dirty's comparison to The Dirty Dozen, he said, "The Dirty Dozen was a good and entertaining motion picture. How could it be compared to Play Dirty, a bitter slice of real life and certainly not entertainment? 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. I wanted to disturb, to open closed eyes and scramble brains, hoping they'll think." Think we do, even as we enjoy one fantastic scene after another. Two memorable examples: a drawn-out affair in which jeeps are hauled up a steep cliff by means of pulleys and cables, and a well-edited burial montage which, according to de Toth, was originally scored with "the happy voice of a children's choir. The harsh contrast to the macabre scene disturbed [the producers] 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." MGM, in association with Fox Home Entertainment, has issued the DVD at a good, low price and in a pristine, anamorphic (2.35:1) transfer. Don't miss this one. For more information about Play Dirty, visit MGM. To order Play Dirty, go to TCM Shopping. by Jeremy Arnold

Quotes

Trivia

Notes

Location scenes filmed in Almería, Spain. Opened in London in December 1968. The working title of this film is Written on the Sand.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States Winter January 1968

Released in United States Winter January 1968