Cast: Michael Caine (Captain Douglas), Nigel Davenport (Cyril Leech), Nigel Green (Colonel Masters), Harry Andrews (Brigadier Blore), Patrick Jordan (Major Watkins), Daniel Pilon (Major Allwood), Martin Burland (Dead Officer), George McKeenan (Corporal at Quayside), Bridget Espeet (Ann), Bernard Archard (Colonel Homerton), Aly Ben Ayed (Sadok), Enrique Avila (Kalarides), Mohsen Ben Abdallah (Hassan), Mohamed Kouka (Assine), Stanley Caine (German Officer).
Crew: André de Toth (director), Harry Saltzman (producer), Lotte Colin and Melvyn Bragg (writers), Michel Legrand (music), Edward Scaife (cinematography), Jack Slade (editor), Tom Morahan, Elven Webb and Maurice Pelling (art direction).
Synopsis: Colonel Masters runs an unconventional team of guerrilla warriors in North Africa during World War II. Brigadier Blore wants to close the operation down, but Masters gets one last chance. His men are to destroy a German fuel dump 400 miles behind enemy lines. An engineer on loan to the Allies from British Petroleum, Captain Douglas, is put in charge of the mission. He is shocked to discover his team is made up of murderers, junkies, homosexuals and thieves. The true leader of this rabble is Cyril Leech, who is offered £2000 to ensure Douglas gets back alive. The eight-man squad travels across the desert, surviving sandstorms, landmines and booby traps.
When they reach the fuel dump, it is just a decoy. The team heads for the nearest port disguised as German soldiers, planning to steal a boat. Douglas and Leech discover the real dump is at the port. They decide to blow it up as a diversion. Meanwhile, the Allied advance has broken through the German lines and wants to secure all the enemy’s fuel. Blore orders Masters to betray the squad’s location to the Germans. Douglas and his men attack the fuel dump but only Douglas and Leech escape. Next morning the Allies overrun the port. When Douglas and Leech try to surrender, they are gunned down by British soldiers…
Play Dirty started as a story by George Marton, inspired by a real life incident. Twelve Palestinians sent to blow up German fuel dumps during the Second World War, but were later betrayed by the British. The story was adapted into a screenplay by Lotte Colin and Melvyn Bragg. Producer Harry Saltzman already had Caine under contract and selected him to play reluctant soldier Captain Douglas. American actor Warren Beatty expressed in the other leading role, the guerrilla warrior Cyril Leech. After he pulled out Richard Harris was hired to play Caine’s antagonist. French director René Clément was chosen to shoot the gritty war drama, filmed on location in the south of Spain. Earlier plans to film in Israel were abandoned after insurance problems.
British actor Nigel Davenport was approached by Saltzman for the supporting role of Colonel Masters. In an exclusive interview for this book, Davenport recalled the troubled making of Play Dirty in early 1968: ‘Richard Harris was becoming a pop star, having recorded ‘MacArthur Park’ [a Top 5 hit single in 1968] and also been in the film musical Camelot. Because Harris never showed up for days on end, we shot all the scenes that could be shot without him. He arrived looking like a sort of pop-star, which was not really suitable for the subject. There were all sorts of to-ings and fro-ings. He finally left, as which point Harry Saltzman said to me, “Do you want to plan the part?” I said, “Sure.” He said, “Okay, we’ll have dinner later on, but now I’ve got to go and fire the director!”’
Nigel Green was brought in to take over the role of Masters and Davenport became Leech. It was a happy reunion for Caine, whose first major film appearances had been alongside Green, in Zulu (1964) and The Ipcress File (1965). Veteran director André de Toth was already on set as executive producer, so Saltzman had him take over helming the picture. Almost all the material already filmed had to be reshot with the revised cast.
Davenport had never met Caine before starting work on Play Dirty. ‘He was enormously supportive, an extremely generous man, very hospitable. We were working in very adverse conditions. For one of the sequence we were supposed to be in a sand-storm. We worked in a sand-storm for real. There was this howling wind, sand flying around and it was bloody uncomfortable. We started off with ten cameras covering it and there was one camera fit to use by the end of the day. It took much longer to shoot than it should have done because of adverse weather and all sorts of problems.’
In 1969 Caine told Films and Filming magazine about the troubled production: ‘I will never make another film in Spain, the conditions are so bad. I’ve got it in my contract from now on. André de Toth made an extremely good job of a very difficult situation. The script was never right, and a lot of it was done at the last minute, but it’s one of those things where I still think it’s a valid picture. No one was ever satisfied with the ending.’
Davenport said he and Caine discussed how best to conclude the film: ‘Between the two of us, he and I dreamed up the actual ending, that we should get shot, because of that irony in the film. Harry Saltzman thought that was a terrible idea, he said we should get saved. I remember talking to Michael about it and we both thought the ending we had dreamed up was a better one than marching off into the sunset.’
Caine had served in the Korean War during the 1950s. ‘One minute someone was there, then the next minute they weren’t,’ he told Films and Filming. ‘I couldn’t have those two men [Douglas and Leech] go through all that and then be treated like film stars at the end … coming back and getting medals.’ Caine and Davenport got their way.
The film was released to mixed reviews, with the BBFC requiring cuts before granting it an AA rating. In America the picture was rated M/PG. ‘It wasn’t particularly well received at the time,’ Davenport said. ‘I think the public were rather tired of war films. Since then I think it’s achieved a certain sort of cult position. All the people who have seen it that I’ve met think it’s terribly good. That was a great deal due to Michael.’ Play Dirty had to wait nearly 30 years for a video release, reclassified as a 15 in the UK. The tape has since been deleted. The film has yet to make its DVD debut.
Reviews: ‘It develops into a reasonably tightly made and suspenseful action film … Michael Caine and Nigel Davenport … play with their usual casual authority.’ – MFB
‘Play Dirty plods across the screen like a camel in a sandstorm.’ – Time
Verdict: Play Dirty is arguably the Get Carter of Michael Caine’s war films. Grim and gritty, the story is superficially similar to the likes of The Dirty Dozen (1967). But the movie’s relentlessly downbeat tone and abrupt, bleak ending mark it out as more than just an action romp. The idea that war is hell is hardly new but here the point is made with enough humour and excitement to maintain your interest. The script requires Caine to play the more passive role, while Davenport steals the show as the murderous, mercenary Leech. It is no surprise Play Dirty struggled to find an audience in the late 1960s, but this is a picture overdue for reassessment. Well worth a look, if you can find it.