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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.

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 soldier asks if ordinary insults are acceptable. Frederick has to turn away from the men to laugh.
  • Anyone Can Die: In the assault on Monte La Difensa, multiple leading members of the brigade are killed including Greco, Bronx, O'Neill, Peacock, and Crown.
  • Appropriated Appellation: Maj. Crown claims that one of the German officers he interrogated referred to them as "The Devil's Brigade", calls it a compliment and then cheerfully toasts Frederick as the devil.
  • 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.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: Compared to the rest of the unit, Pvt. Ransom's offense of committing adultery is downright innocent.
  • 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.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The assault on Monte La Difensa was a success in terms of the military goal, but the 1st suffered heavy casualties and losses.
  • 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.
  • Disproportionate Restitution: After the Bar Brawl that turns the unit into Fire-Forged Friends, Frederick gives a token punishment to the men: He sequesters their pay until all damages to the bar are paid for (a significant sum for one man, but a minor fine per head when divided across the brigade), and confines them to base for eight hours (starting in the middle of the night, meaning that he's telling them to go to bed and stay there until breakfast).
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Mountain Warfare: The film's climactic battle sees the brigade scale the cliffs of Monte La Difensa, in order to attack the German positions near the summit from above and behind.
  • 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.
    • Maj. Crown spends much of the 1st's training clearly disapproving of the international rivalry between the men and reining in the Canadians. However, towards the end of a 30-mile hike with all the men wearing rucksacks filled with rocks, he encourages the Canadians to start running the home stretch to the base for seemingly no other reason than to further annoy the struggling Americans.
  • 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.
    • Rocky and Peacock (once they become friends) also end up becoming this.
  • Winter Warfare: The unit is seen engaging in ski training in preparation for their (ultimately canceled) commando raid in Norway. Additionally, in real life the 1st Special Service Force was initially deployed to the Aleutian Islands as part of the landings on Kiska.


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The Devil's Brigade

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

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