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Film / The Devil's Brigade

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A 1968 World War II film directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, starring William Holden, Cliff Robertson and Vince Edwards.

The year is 1942. Lt. Col. Robert T. Frederick (Holden) is called to answer to Lord Mountbatten for his rejection of a planned American-British commando raid into occupied Norway. Seeing his willingness to call out the plan's flaws as a sign of worth, the British decide that Frederick is precisely the man they need to lead the new joint American-Canadian unit, the First Special Service Force. Frederick is tasked with combining the rough and rowdy Americans with the prim and proper Canadians.

Released a year after the better-known The Dirty Dozen, The Devil's Brigade is loosely based on the real exploits of the 1st Special Service Force.


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This film provides examples of:

  • Action Film, Quiet Drama Scene: Just before the assault on Monte La Difensa, Fredrick makes his way through the men and makes sure they're prepared for the assault. The Americans, still relatively green, don't understand what was happening.
    Bronc: What's wrong with him?
    MacDonald: Haven't you ever seen a man say goodbye?
  • Actually Pretty Funny: During the ruck march, the Canadians are ordered to cease making derogatory insults about the Americans. A Canadian soldiers asks if ordinary insults are acceptable. Frederick has to turn away from the men to laugh.
  • Artistic License – History: As noted by former member Bill Story, the Americans in the unit were not the ill-disciplined stockade grabs as depicted in the movie.
  • Army of Thieves and Whores: Well the Americans at least, ranging from accused hustlers to layabouts to accused rapists.
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  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: Compared to the rest of the unit, Pvt. Ransom's offense of committing adultery is downright innocent.
  • Bald of Awesome: Greco is a a bald headed man whose acrobatic skills help out a lot.
  • Bar Brawl: The 1st Special Service Force gets into the thick of it as one unit when a group of lumberjacks decides they don't like Canadians in their local bar.
  • Big Entrance: Just as the American troops embarrass themselves with a unruly brawl, the Canadians arrive marching in perfect formation, complete with a band playing "Scotland the Brave", as a proper army. With one move, the Americans learn the standard they suddenly have to live up to.
  • Break the Haughty: First the Canadians break the Americans by showing off their hand-to-hand combat skills after the Americans continue causing trouble. The second is when the unit proves itself to their commanders in Italy by capturing an entire German garrison, tanks and all.
  • The Chains of Commanding: Frederick feels this heavily before ordering his men to assault Monte La Difensa.
  • Captain Oblivious: The German garrison commander who goes through his entire morning routine without even realizing that he and his men are under assault.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Pvt. Greco is a former circus acrobat, which comes in handy for getting through to places that the Nazis wouldn't expect their enemies to come from.
  • Elites Are More Glamorous: Subverted: The Canadians match the image of a proper elite military force, but the American contribution makes it clear that being in an elite unit doesn't translate into an easy military career.
  • Everything's Louder with Bagpipes: Used in the opening credits, and then later as the Canadians march proudly into the training camp.
  • Fake Nationality: Cliff Robertson (a Californian) plays the senior Canadian as an Irishman (in actuality, the senior Canadian was Major John McQueen of the Calgary Highlanders). Richard Dawson (an Englishman who emigrated to the United States) plays Canadian Corporal MacDonald with a Scottish accent. Corporal Peacock is played by an actual Englishman, Jack Watson, and though audiences might be confused by his kilt, that is a reflection of his unit (the Calgary Highlanders) and not his nationality. The other Canadians (Jeremy Slate, Harry Carey) are played by Americans and speak with a neutral English accent. Jean-Paul Vignon, who plays the only Francophone Canadian, was actually born in Ethiopia to a French father and Italian mother. In short, there are no Canadian actors in the film.
    • The use of English, Scottish, Irish accents among Canadians qualifies as a trope. This liberal mixing of accents is probably more indicative of the view Americans had of their cousins to the north, than of the actual proportion of soldiers raised in the UK serving in the Canadian Army in 1943. While in 1914, the proportion of UK-born soldiers in Canadian combat units was about 50%, that number declined during the First World War in favour of Canadian-born soldiers, and by 1939 the majority of soldiers in the Canadian Army would have used a flatter "Canadian" or possibly mid-Atlantic accent. Historical accuracy would have involved the actors portraying Canadians to sound no different than someone from Michigan or Montana (where the first third of the film takes place), and there would have been little to distinguish them from the American characters.
    • American General Mark Clark was portrayed by English actor Michael Rennie while German General Knapp was played by American actor James Craig.
  • Great Escape: Greco tries to escape with his acrobatic skills while being brought in.
  • Hot-Blooded: More than half of the bursts at temper towards Americans come from Private Macdonald. It isn’t that he isn’t somewhat justified but it’s notable that everyone but him can remain stoic.
  • It's Personal: Maj. Crown still nurses anger over the retreat from Dunkirk, and carries it with him to his death.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Maj. Gen. Hunter makes several solid points regarding the 1st: They're a green unit that is half made up of derelict soldiers on the American side, and led by a commander who hasn't yet seen any combat.
  • Man in a Kilt: Several Canadians, and a source of cheap shots by the Americans until the bar brawl.
    • During the bar brawl, it is revealed Corporal MacDonald doesn't know the correct manner to wear a kilt, as a set of white cotton briefs are shown when he takes a flying kick at someone. Soldiers (particularly at that time) were expected not to wear anything under the kilt. By the same token, it is later made obvious the actor doesn't actually know how to play the bagpipes.
  • Majorly Awesome: Canadian Maj. Crown, survivor of Dunkirk with the most combat experience of the unit's officers.
  • Military Maverick: Fredrick doesn't care about rank advancement or how he's perceived by higher ranks, and after their first successful combat operation turns down a promotion.
    Lt. Gen. Clark: Full-bird colonels aren't expendable colonel.
    Lt. Col. Fredrick: How high up can a man go and still be "expendable"?
  • Misfit Mobilization Moment: Ties in with the bar brawl. It marks the point where the Americans and Canadians finally realize they can both fight together as one.
  • Naked People Are Funny: The Brigade manages to capture a squad of Germans during their morning shower, and marches them out in their towels.
  • Not So Above It All: Frederick has several moments where it's clear he's just as much of a misfit as the rest of the Americans.
  • Obligatory War Crime Scene:
    • The German commander on La Difensa shows a white flag as a ruse, and uses the brief cease fire to kill one of the officers sent to accept his surrender.
    • Incorrectly reported as a war crime: Sgt. O'Neill dresses as a German soldier. The Hague Convention actually permits enemy uniforms to be worn as a legitimate ruse d'guerre. The rules state, however, that soldiers are not allowed to fight in them. Similar to a false flag ruse used by naval vessels, once contact with the enemy is made, one has to fight in the insignia of their own side.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Both the operations shown in the film. No one on the American side expected the unit to perform so well in their first mission, and later when they accurately predict that the German defenses on Monte La Difensa would be pointing away from the sheer cliffs expecting no one could make the climb.
  • Rule of Cool: Surviving members of the unit note that while the film was just barely based on real life, they did admit it was an entertaining movie to watch.
  • Sergeant Rock:
    • Canadian Sgt. O'Neill subverts this. His first appearance is as a bespectacled, trash-talking wimp. He quickly hands Pvt. Rockman his own rear, commenting on the human body's weaknesses with every blow and deflection.
    • Sergeant Peacock, also of the Canadians is a husky guy capable of whipping men into attention with a few words, but he's also friendly enough most of the time.
  • Suspiciously Small Army: during the Force's graduation parade scene, it is obvious there are only a couple of companies of extras. The real life Force commander had chosen the title "Brigade" to mask its true size from the enemy. In actual fact the First Special Service Force was made up of three regiments of about 600 men in each, or about 1800 men in total. The most ever depicted on screen at once are 200 or so.
  • Those Two Guys: Greco and Bronxc befriend each other. early on and do a lot together during training.
 
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The Devil's Brigade

A WW2 portrayal: Slovenly American soldiers meet pernickety Canadian soldiers.

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