Starring Michael Caine and Nigel Davenport
Directed by Andre de Toth
This gem of a film was made in the late Sixties when Caine was at the peak of his coolness powers, coming after "Zulu" "Alfie" "The Ipcress File" and just before "The Italian Job" and "Get Carter"; so it's something of a surprise that it is not better known. Produced by Harry Saltzman (of the Bond series fame), directed by Andre de Toth from a script by Lotte Colin and Melvyn Bragg (yes, that Melvyn Bragg), "Play Dirty" takes a hundred war film staples and twists them into a unique, memorable, refreshingly cynical epic.
The plot, seemingly echoing that of another "Dirty" WW2 picture of the late 60's, "The Dirty Dozen", sees a squad of disparate reprobates and criminals selected to undertake a dangerous mission behind enemy lines. However this is much more than a simple remake or British take on that Robert Aldrich Hollywood classic. In this instance we find that in the North African sphere of the war, Colonel Masters (Nigel Green), operator of subversive operations units, has been singularly unsuccessful for a number of missions, and is given one last chance by commanding officer Brigadier Blore (Harry Andrews) to prove his worth. The latest mission is to destroy a Nazi fuel depot, in order to cripple the supply lines of the German army under Field Marshal Rommel. A squad is selected, but the powers-that-be insist it be led by a British officer with expertise in the relevant field; enter Caine, whose Captain Douglas is a BP employee with the requisite skills. Teamed with mercenary Leech (Nigel Davenport), whose contempt is evident from the outset, Douglas sets off on the mission. "War is a criminal enterprise. I fight it with criminals", says Masters. Leech has been given an incentive - bring Douglas back alive and he gets a two thousand pound bonus. Unknown to all aboard is that this patrol is intended as a decoy, ahead of a better equipped unit. The Command's thinking is that if there's any flack to be taken along the way, let it happen to this rag-tag group first, to clear the way for the real soldiers following.
What ensues is a fairly episodic but remarkably tense adventure. Douglas tries frequently to exert his authority on the basis of rank and mission briefing, but his lack of experience in the field is often exposed by Leech, to the amusement of the collected band of "operatives" with them. Disguised as Nazis in order to infiltrate enemy occupied territory, a chance encounter with a local tribe ends in disaster when Douglas inadvertantly gives away his true identity, forcing Leech to have to murder the locals. Finding themselves trapped in a valley with no way out other than ascending the steep slopes, the team has slowly to pull their vehicles up to the higher ground. An extended, but nail-biting scene sees them do so, culminating in a disaster which escalates the tension between Douglas and Leech. From their eventually entrenched position atop the ridge, they witness the ambush and complete destruction of the convoy which was following them. So, the completion of the mission is solely up to them.
Along the way there is another lengthy but extremely tense scene in which Douglas inadvertantly steps on a mine, and needs one of his team to diffuse it. They then encounter a German Ambulance and kill the drivers. "You're learning" says Leech, archly, to Douglas. A nurse, riding in the back of the ambulance provides some resistance - "It's alright, it's only a nurse" says Douglas, but he couldn't be more wrong. Fierce fightback ends in a thankfully avoided rape attempt. Under cover of a sandstorm the team proceeds to infiltrate and destroy the fuel depot - ignorant of the fact that ironically the powers that be had subsequently decided it should be left intact for when they pushed back the German lines...
There is a fantastic and suitably unexpected cynical twist at the end of this film. It stands out for me because as mentioned, "Play Dirty" takes a number of elements from different films but melds them into a beautifully unique, dark take on the politics of war. It is never pleasant, and as the men on the mission treat badly their surroundings, so they are treated badly by their superiors. The film conjurs memories of many desert-set films and war films, from "Ice Cold in Alex" to "Lawrence of Arabia" to "The Dirty Dozen". But it does so in a wholly original manner. Caine, needless to say, is fantastic in the role of Douglas; initially aloof, but gradually letting his pride drip away as he realises the necessity of being out on the road on a real-life mission. This is an understated and brilliant performance. Davenport too is wonderful, his initial and long-lasting contempt gradually giving way to a begrudging respect for his valuable charge, and the double act with Caine is a constant pleasure. The direction is tight and suspense-fuelled. There's a possible argument that the particular scorn it pours on the very idea of warfare could be seen as a comment against the American involvement in Vietnam, which was in full swing at the time of this film's release. I think that is valid, although I'd rather still consider the film in isolation and on its own merits.
All said, this is a fantastic film, which should be much more widely viewed than it has been. I'd thoroughly recommend it for any fans of Michael Caine, World War 2 films, 60's films, or thought-provoking films...