The Dirty Half-Dozen
Scott Coulter — German soldier
John Hager — Fighter pilot
Warren Ennis — Hero with the free forces
Ron Fujino — Confused Japanese soldier
Gordon Jones — Commandant in the style of Col. Klink
Chris Kelly — German soldier
Bruce Tillen — Cigar-chomping captain
Neville Millar — Cameraman
Tom Parkin — Cameraman
In April 1969 I decided to make a war movie. I’d never seen The Dirty Dozen, had no idea whatsoever how to make a film, nor did I even own a camera! However, once the title, The Dirty Half-dozen, was spoken, the thing seemed possible because that number didn’t seem too large to manage. The concept caught the imagination of Grade 12 boys of Revelstoke Secondary School. Support began to flow in, and to this day I can scarce believe what followed.
Fathers who had been at war loaned us their leftover kit and souvenirs of defeated enemy. We got the usual ammo boxes, uniforms, medals, etc. Amazingly, in came German WW II helmets and a sniper’s rifle. We came up with an old Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifle and a .22 as well. Log-haul contractor Jack Tillen loaned us a Super 8 movie camera, a grant of $150, and then, of all things, use of his 12-meter tug, M.V. Pentagon, operating on Upper Arrow Lake! With that, our imaginations knew no bounds. Soon a convoy of stars and roadies were driving south to Beaton with all our props and lots of booze for a weekend ‘shoot’. We boarded the tug, and with Bruce Tillen at the wheel, headed to a remote beach. That night, we sat around a bonfire and drank too much.
Next morning, I’d arranged a rendezvous with a small plane piloted by John Hager. Fellow cameraman Neville Millar would be in the cockpit to capture some action sequences. They were delayed, so we filled time shooting introductory ‘portraits’ for each character. These clips were to be used with titles such as “Starring . . .,” with the name of the guy imposed over his moving image. Each actor was shot in a solitary pose, reflectively staring into the distance, imagining the pending battle, etc. Just what the plot was, was uncertain, because nothing was written down.
We were drifting in the middle of Arrow Lake so to be easy to spot from the air when Hager showed up. From the beginning, things didn’t go ‘according to script’. The first sequence called for a Cessna 150 to fly a low ‘strafing run’ in over our stern, which I figured would allow an easy first shot, and a flaring close-up as they zoomed up and over us. Hager, ever the daredevil, dropped out of the sun like a real fighter pilot, which was the worst possible camera angle. Chaos ensued. The pre-planned semaphore system failed because he couldn’t see our arm signals due to the crowded deck, and his need to keep eyes on the water, which was very close at wing. This has possibility of a dramatic action sequence, I thought.
The dive-bomber climbed away and circled. Inside, the pilot was asking woozy Millar if the angle was good for his visibility. Of course it wasn’t, what with his need to shoot out the side window and all the action happening through the prop. I hadn’t thought of that.
“At a distance, all I could see were stick figures,” said the bespectacled Millar recently. And having never operated a movie camera before, and no prior practice, he was “terrified I hadn’t turned the camera on, or had pushed the wrong button.”
Their imaginary Stuka lined up for a second run; this time straight in over the water. Most of us on deck stood aghast, mouths open, at its low approach. I don’t think I shot any film at all—we were convinced they were going to hit us. At the last moment they zoomed back up into the sky, but Cap’n Tillen wasn’t giving that German another chance. He shoved the throttle forward and the tug surged for shore. Shooting wasn’t yet finished, but everyone was in ‘action mode’, each now having his own idea what the plot needed. We rolled forward on an agenda driven by adrenaline.
The next scene called for the boat to beach itself, and for guys to leap off the bow and run up the sand with all their gear—like storming the beaches of Normandy. But when we struck the muddy shore, it was a two-meter drop off the tug’s bow. There was momentary hesitation, but this was war, and we had a film to make! Marines to a man, they jumped over each side, rifles in hand. Someone tried to leap lower along the gunwale, but ended up in water, heavily laden. The beach was mostly muck, which was a good thing, for it softened their landing and provided grimy authenticity. Injury-free, the platoon headed for the distant forest. Our enemy didn’t miss his chance. Hager came down again, guns blazing—the good guys were caught in the open. I’m sure none attempted to fire back. Survivor Warren Ennis said, “If I hadn’t ducked, I’d have taken a wheel to the head.”
This got to be annoying because Hager wouldn’t quit while he was winning the war. Unfortunately we had no radio communication, nor did he have any written instructions, so he repeatedly tried to ensure I got the shot. Millar never managed a foot of film through it all, and was mightily relieved when they finally turned home.
That was as far as we progressed before discovering that our cameras weren’t designed for the black and white film I was shooting. Long loops of celluloid came back from the lab extremely overexposed—none of it of any use, so everyone lost the heart. By then, graduation and summer jobs were upon us, plus our release into the wide, wide world. All any of us retained from the film that never developed were a few tales of well-spent youthful misadventure.
But wait, dear reader!
Not all was lost—shortly after the debacle with the B&W film, four of us shot a roll of colour film doing improvised vignettes. Now posted to YouTube™, you can view these seminal moments in the motion picture industry of Revelstoke! Via the link below, you’ll be taken directly to a theatre lost in time: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=szqeA5vefPk
Scene 1 Soldier Scott Coulter comes to call at HQ, but is surprised by his superior’s German shepherd guard (Jenny Jones), who chases him like a scene from Hogan’s Heros.
Scenes 2&3 German commandant (Gordon Jones) wishes to exit his office, but the dummkopf guards (Coulter and Neville Millar) insist on a lengthy presentation of arms, which delays his departure. Note Jones’ medals, monocle, and swagger stick.
Scenes 4-6 Herr commandant commands his men to march, but coordination and discipline are lost on rough ground. Urging them along a ridgeline, they drop off a six-metre cliff. Jones is then shot and throws his stick to his dog before rolling over himself.