Setting the record straight on ‘The Dirty Dozen’

Can you name them? Not these guys, the ones in the book...

Can you name them? Not these guys, the ones in the book…

I love it when I find out that someone somewhere has, at least for a brief moment, obsessed about something trivial that had obsessed me.

It makes me feel… almost normal. Or at least, human.

In the past, as an illustration of the perverse way that my brain works, I have bragged/told on myself for remembering the names of all the characters in The Dirty Dozen, which I read when I was about 13.

The book, mind you. I wouldn’t expect anyone to be able to name the 12 in the movie, because the movie doesn’t fully introduce them all.

Oh, and the list is different. This is partly because, for whatever reason, Archer Maggot — played by Telly Savalas — was a mashup of three very different characters from the book. Maggot was a redneck career criminal from Phenix City, Ala., a really malevolent, violent guy. Calvin Ezra Smith was a prison convert who constantly quoted Scripture. Myron Odell was a shy little rabbit of a man who was scared of women, and supposedly had killed a woman who came onto him sexually (which he vehemently denied).

I’m not sure why they combined those three into one, but somehow Savalas pulled it off, so hats off to him. But then they had to make up a couple of names of characters to replace Smith and Odell. Then there was the fact that Jim Brown’s character was nothing like the one black character in the book, so they changed his name from Napoleon White to Robert Jefferson. White had been an officer and an intellectual (he and Capt. Reisman have debates about the writings of T.E. Lawrence), which I guess they thought didn’t fit Brown, so they made Charles Bronson the ex-officer.

They went on to change several other characters’ names — sometimes just the first names — for reasons that would only be understandable to a Hollywood producer.

Anyway, I’m going on about this because today, while looking for something totally unrelated, I ran across this Los Angeles Times story from way back in 2000. And it contained this paragraph:

Can you name all 12? Roll call: Charles Bronson as Joseph Wladislaw; Jim Brown as Robert Jefferson; Tom Busby as Milo Vladek; John Cassavetes as Victor Franko; Ben Carruthers as Glenn Gilpin; Stuart Cooper as Roscoe Lever; Trini Lopez as Pedro Jimenez; Colin Maitland as Seth Sawyer; Al Mancini as Tassos Bravos; Telly Savalas as Archer Maggott; Donald Sutherland as Vernon Pinkley; and Clint Walker as Samson Posey.

Wow, I thought. There’s someone else on the planet who has wasted gray cells memorizing the names of the Dirty Dozen! Worse, memorizing the names of the ones in the movie, not the real ones!

It gave me a fellow-feeling, if only for a moment, for this Donald Liebenson who wrote the piece…

Anyway, the real names, from the 1965 E.M. Nathanson novel:

  1. Victor Franko
  2. Archer Maggot
  3. Calvin Ezra Smith
  4. Myron Odell
  5. Glenn Gilpin
  6. Ken (not Seth) Sawyer
  7. Napoleon White
  8. Samson Posey
  9. Roscoe Lever
  10. Luis (not Pedro) Jimenez
  11. Vernon Pinkley
  12. Joe Wladislaw


3 thoughts on “Setting the record straight on ‘The Dirty Dozen’

  1. Jim Catoe

    It’s understandable that Maggot was a product of Phenix City. The burg had a terrible reputation in the 40’s and 50’s. My dad was a career serviceman stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery for the last eight years of his career. Every summer he and mom would pack us into the Hudson Hornet for the trek up to his hometown of Kershaw. As we approached the city limits of Phenix City, he would order us, in a very stern manner, to “roll up the windows and lock the doors.” The city’s reputation was well earned.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yep. I think you’d enjoy the book. It goes into the rackets in Phenix City in some detail. Maggot was “muscle” in that mob, and was involved with prostitution, drugs, gambling, and any other way they could fleece GIs of their pay.

      In fact, it goes into a number of American subcultures in ways that I found very eye-opening when I read it at such a young age.

      Samson Posey is a Ute Indian who knew little of life outside the reservation when he went into the Army to honor his people as a warrior. There are extensive flashbacks to his life there. Posey earned his living playing poker, which according to Nathanson was a big thing among the Utes.

      One of the more interesting incidents in the book is when Reisman lets the men play poker, toward the end of their training, and Maggot — who figured HE was the expert on gambling — is infuriated that Posey is beating him, which leads to a fight between the two when Posey catches Maggot cheating…

      Napoleon White was a particularly complex character who provided insight into a lot of facets of society at the time. The only thing he had in common with Jim Brown was that he WAS a football player — in fact, a football hero at his Ivy League (I think) college. As a college athlete at a northeastern college he had acceptance among whites that he thought was the norm, insulating him from a lot of black experience in America. He went into the Army when the war came and became an officer, taking great pride in the all-black unit he commanded. But then he was attacked, beaten, mutilated and nearly killed by some redneck soldiers while on leave in town, just for being a black officer. After he recovered, he became a vigilante, living only to get even with those soldiers. He ended up finding one of them and stabbing him to death, which is how he became one of the Dozen. The book also goes into what it was like for black soldiers in England before the invasion — stuff I’d known nothing about before reading the book.

      It’s a good book, with a lot of depth in different aspects of life at the time.

      I wish more people would read it…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        The book provides interesting backstories on most of the guys. There’s not much about Gilpin, Pinkley and Wladislaw, although there’s a little.

        This was probably my first really grownup modern novel, so I was deeply impressed by all the detail on characters….

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