by Jack Deth
Greetings, all and sundry! Being more than a fan and somewhat short of a student of cinema, it is not often that I have been granted the opportunity to wax poetic and in detail about the many building blocks and structures of the fine art of visual storytelling. Directors ride herd and guide projects. Writers, of course. supply the words and the mood. Lead actors are often the heroes and the focus of attention. But what about the myriad other familiar faces in the background?
The faces we recognize either right away, or within a few minutes, after one of their limited number of lines. Not necessarily the fresh-faced, too-young-to-shave kid who gets killed in the last reels of a war film, but the other guy.
The guy who nods sagely to the Sergeant’s or Lieutenant’s words of advice. The kid brother who tries to stop his hot-headed older sibling from seeking revenge on a cattle rustler. The always-smiling Army GI who’s young enough and smart enough to jump at the offer to spend some time off the front lines of the frozen Ardennes forest during the Battle of the Bulge. The quiet blacksmith in a dusty, middle-of-nowhere Texas town. Or one of two twin brothers who sign up for the Marine Corps after Pearl Harbor to fight the “heathen Japanese” in the Pacific islands theater of WWII.
Yeah. That guy! Stocky, Not too tall. Blonde hair. Blue eyes. Sometimes a quick wit, though more often not. A little headstrong. With good hands that can also be fast and righteous. Made for any number of uniforms. Or jeans, a flannel shirt, and a sweat-stained Stetson or baseball cap. You’ve seen him in many films. And remember him fondly in one or two, but can’t place his name. Well, let me tighten up your memory receptors and critique one of his best and most memorable roles.
Richard Jaeckel: Sgt. Bowren. Top Kick of ‘The Dirty Dozen’.
First seen in full Garrison uniform, pistol belt, sidearm and white MP helmet liner. Jaeckel’s Sgt. Bowren brooks little nonsense when lining up twelve diverse convicts for his new boss, Major Reisman (Lee Marvin). Then introducing the good Major to each after the twelve have dressed and covered according to height. Reading names and sentences that range from decades of hard labor to death by hanging. After a failed attempt at close order drill, caused by upstart Victor Franko (John Cassavetes) and an appropriate thumping by the Major. The remainder show a renewed attention to commands. Giving the first glimmers of light to the possibility that the Major may just be able to pull this cockamamie idea off.
Reinforced a bit more as the Major conducts face to face interviews and asks what Bowren thinks. Sgt. Bowren answers the way he thinks the Major wants, And the Major tells him to try again. Bowren replies, ” I think the first chance one of those lovers gets, he’s going to shoot the Major right in the head… sir.”
The two understand each other a bit more. As Bowren later chastises one of his own MPs for an off color remark made to R.T.Jefferson (Jim Brown). An African-American awaiting the gallows for killing a white man who had tried to lynch him. Then responding to a ruckus between the convicts in the prison gym. Brought on by Maggot’s (Telly Savalas) use of the ‘N word’ regarding Jefferson. Only to be delayed by Major Reisman, who explains that those involved are discussing seating arrangements and place settings. Sgt. Bowren picks up on the implied message and starts an impromptu discussion about baseball as the convicts noisily work their aggressions out.
And Sgt. Bowren begins to slowly evolve into the Major’s bodyguard. Official watcher of the convicts during training and off site compound’s layout and construction. As well as taking on the role of Major Reisman’s unofficial enforcer and Executive Officer. Always close by with his hand covering his flap holstered .45 should things get a little tense between the Major and his convicts. Or to add strength to his boss’s directive that the convicts will no longer shave, bathe or have hot food or hot water, courtesy of Victor Franko. Pointing out that the saved time will be devoted to training and sarcastically coming up with the colloquial, ‘Dirty Dozen’.
About the only time Sgt. Bowren falters is when the convicts are sent to another base for parachute training and Pinkley (Donald Sutherland) embarrasses Colonel Everett Dasher Breed (Robert Ryan). West Point graduate and ring knocker during an inspection of his troops. The Colonel wants to know more after three of his biggest and baddest fail to get answers from Wladislaw (Charles Bronson) alone in a latrine. Jefferson and Posey (Clint Walker) intercede. Jefferson breaks one of the goon’s hand and jaw with his helmet. While Wladislaw and Posey
leave the other two unconscious. The explanation for Wladislaw’s bruises? “He slipped on a bar of soap”.
Infuriated, Colonel Breed and a squad of armed paratroopers storm the convicts’ compound and disarm Sgt Bowren at its drop gate, Though he does get some satisfaction after Major Reisman infiltrates the compound. And stops Breed and his men in their tracks with aimed bursts of fire from an M-3 Grease Gun. Bowren unleashes his convicts to get some payback. Admiring their measured use of force and working as a team as paratroop are left muddied, hurt and their weapons piled neatly out of reach. All prelude to a ‘Graduation Party’ for the convicts, a live fire exercise, attached as an independent unit. Whose objective is capturing Colonel Breed and his staff. And their final mission…
What does Jaeckel’s Sgt. Bowren bring to the film?
A much-needed and well-executed dash of maturity and adherence to rules. As displayed in his well-turned-out Garrison uniform, tie, Ike jacket and bloused, and polished boots. Someone who is proud of his profession and rank. And shows it. Not exactly a ‘Lifer’, but one who adapts to changing situations and keeps ahead of the curve. Until Major Reisman shows up and the twelve convicts are led out to the prison’s small exercise yard.
Sgt. Bowren does what he can to maintain order among the lackadaisical convicts. Who think they have the upper hand until Franko makes a jail house lawyer fool of himself before the unamused OSS (Office of Strategic Services. Forerunner of the CIA) Major Reisman. And every thing changes. Unit cohesion starts to make itself known and Bowren can use that and build on it as he is given more autonomy. Progress is slow and Bowren remains aloof until at least an effort is made to rise close to his and the Army’s standards. Which begins with Franko’s
revolt and its resulting lack of hot food and water. And ends with the take down of Colonel Breed and his troopers.
A small role, but an essential one, to be sure. With time well divided out amongst a grounded, diverse and memorable ensemble cast. In one of the better character driven WWII films of the 1970s. That added another notch on the resume and body of work of one of the late, great, grand masters in the firmament of character actors!