The Devil's Brigade

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The Devil's Brigade is a typical 1960's Hollywood "war movie."  The war movie evolved throughout the 20th Century, and the films of the 1960s represent a large part of that evolution.  America was consumed by the Vietnam War by this period, and for the first time, widespread opposition to the actions of their own military was occurring throughout the United States.  Yet this was the period in which war films in the US reached their zenith, the majority of them about the Second World War.

Jay Hyams tells us, in his book "War Movies" (W.H. Smith Publishers, 1984) that this was also a period in which movies and television were fighting for the attention of viewers.  Film-makers felt that in order to draw paying audiences to the theatre, "the best way to do that was to offer what television could not: lengthy, wide-screen spectaculars with all-star casts."  By 1968, also, a popular subject among film-makers were commandos, for, according to Hyams:

Commandos do not experience the misgivings or fear that plague GI Joes; commandos are professionals, and they usually enjoy their work.   Cynical and anti-heroic, they have no respect for officers (who usually send them on suicidal missions) and are not profoundly concerned with the reasons for the war they are fighting.  They are detached from the vagaries of ideology, and their nationality is of no importance.  Indeed, the most destructive groups of commandos are frequently composed of a mixed bag of nationalities, the best killers...from several nations, men who share something more than a language or a fondness for the same cuisine: killing.   Commandos are the ultimate symbol of war detached from moral or historical concerns: in a world of specialists, war is something that commandos do.

The Devil's Brigade was produced by United Artists and David L. Wolper  in the wake of The Dirty Dozen, based on a novel of the same name and dealing with the fictional story of 12 US soldiers, sentenced to death or hard labour, who are molded into a commando unit.  Robert H. Adleman and Colonel George Walton had written a book called "The Devil's Brigade", first published in 1966.  The book dealt with the history of the First Special Service Force, a joint American-Canadian unit that saw service in the Second World War, and which became perhaps the world's best special operations unit, being trained in mountain fighting, amphibious warfare, and use of explosives and weapons of all types.  The book was written more in the style of a novel than as a history, and was marketed with this fondness for commandos that Hyams speaks of  in mind; the cover of the Bantam paperback edition (which was already boasting "Coming Soon As A Magnificent Motion Picture") shows a group of tough looking men in red berets, and bills the book as "The hell-for-leather saga of the wildest, toughest fighting men of World War II - the special force now called The Green Berets."  Some film writers, such as Edward F. Dolan Jr in his book "Hollywood Goes To War" (Bison Books Ltd 1985) even dismiss The Devil's Brigade as simply an imitation of The Dirty Dozen.

William Roberts, who had also been given credit for The Magnificent Seven (along with Akira Kurosawa), is credited with the screenplay for The Devil's Brigade, and the movie was billed as being based on the Adleman-Walton book.   It is not clear how much reference was made to the more scholarly history of the Force by Robert D. Burhans, called "The First Special Service Force: A Canadian/American Wartime Alliance: The Devil's Brigade."

The film was released in the United States on 15 May 1968, and in Europe later that year and into 1969 (in Sweden, for example, on 26 Dec 1968, West Germany on 14 Feb 1969 and Finland on 28 Mar 1969).

The Canadians in Montana

The Devil's Brigade takes a standard Hollywood approach to the telling of its story; only four main characters have been drawn from real life; Lord Mountbatten (who only appears in one scene), General Mark Clark (who is almost as scarce), Pat O'Neill, and the commander of the First Special Service Force, Colonel Robert T. Frederick.  The Force second in command in real life was Lieutenant Colonel John G. McQueen of the Calgary Highlanders (until he broke his leg in a parachute jump).  In the film, Cliff Robertson plays Major Alan Crown (and does not wear any specific unit insignia on his Canadian uniform).  The fictional officer in charge of the American half of the Force, Major Cliff Brycker, is played by Vince Edwards.

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William Holden, left, as he appeared in The Devil's Brigade, portraying the real life Robert Tyron Frederick (in a photo taken when he was a Major General).

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Most histories of the Force go into elaborate detail about the impetus for the creation of the unit - a civilian scientist named Pike and his creation of a vehicle that could travel over snow.  The movie avoids such an uncinematic prelude, and opens with Colonel Frederick (played by William Holden) explaining to Lord Mountbatten why the plan to organize and equip a unit of Canadians and Americans in four months and then drop them into Norway with the new snow machine will fail.

In actual fact, Frederick did author a memo in which he stated that the project be abandoned.  But it was General Eisenhower, for whom Frederick's report was originally prepared, that vented his wrath on Frederick, not Mountbatten.  Frederick attended several meetings at which not Mountbatten and Eisenhower were in attendance.  When a Force commander was selected, Frederick worked with him, and the two Americans did meet with Mountbatten.

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The film's depiction of Lord Mountbatten

Unlike the movie, however, it was the other American, and not Frederick, who addressed Mountbatten.  It was after this meeting that Frederick was selected to command the Force.

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While the film uses the difference between the Canadians ("handpicked volunteers of the best Army in the world") and the Americans ("scum of the stockade") for comedic and dramatic effect, the reality was of course that the differences between the two groups were much more subtle.   In the book "The Devil's Brigade" a Forceman recounted that the Canadians "had some funny ways.   When you passed them food in the Mess Hall, they would let you hold the platter or bowl while they helped themselves.  The only way we broke this habit up was to just let the dish drop in their laps.  It worked."  Canadian sergeants and warrant officers, used to eating in their own Mess seperate from corporals and privates, also had to get used to messing with the troops.

Jeffrey Williams, in his book "The Long Left Flank" (Stoddard Publishing Co. 1988) recounted the experience of the Third Canadian Division in Europe in late 1944. "It was the first time that General Spry's men had had direct dealings with Americans.   They were intrigued by their language which was familiar but seemed non-military - torches were flashlights, petrol was gasoline.  They were fascinated by their equipment, their robust 'deuce-and-(a)-halfs' and four-wheel drive 'threequarters' (2 1/2 and 3/4 ton trucks), their weapons and rations.  They liked the U.S. .30 calibre carbine but wouldn't swap a Browning automatic rifle for a Bren.  In fact, there was little that the Americans had that they envied, certainly not their rations nor their clothing.  Everyone shivered in that damp November but the Americans 'looked' colder.   As one battalion commander put it 'They were great guys, good soldiers who had fought well.  We gained a great respect for them but their ways were not our ways.'"

The bulk of the American contingent, in the movie, is drawn from military prisons.   In reality, enlisted men for the force were recruited by advertising at Army posts, stating that preference was to be given to men previously employed as lumberjacks, forest rangers, hunters, game wardens, and the like.  Many post commanders did indeed rid themselves of discipline problems by volunteering them for the Force, but according to one history, many Forcemen "of course, were not felons.  There were also ex-college men, teachers, farmers, and the former bodyguards of movie stars and political bosses.   But it would be difficult for an observer to separate the two categories on the basis of their subsequent combat records."

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Vince Edwards as Major Brycker

The Operations and Training officer, Major John Baird Shinberger, seems to have been the model for the fictional Major Brycker.  Like the fictional character, Shinberger kept live rattlesnakes under his cot in order to rid himself of his aversion to reptiles.  And like Brycker, Shinberger had a reputation for getting things done, to the point of forging requisitions in order to obtain supplies.   Shinberger had other character traits that his movie counterpart did not, such as a penchant for talking on the telephone.  While the fictional major went on to fight in combat with the Force, Major Shinberger, noted for irrational behaviour, was transferred before leaving the US.  The final straw for Frederick had been an episode in which Shinberger had been told that his snakes were loose.  Excusing himself from the lunch table, he coolly returned shortly after, reported that he had killed all the snakes, and resumed lunch as if nothing had happened.  Nicknamed "The Prussian" he went on to command an engineer unit in France after D-Day, vowing to become a priest after a near-death experience.  Living up to his commitment after the war, he eventually suffered a nervous breakdown and killed himself at the Virginia State Hospital where he had been admitted as a mental patient.  He had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in World War Two, a decoration second only to the Medal of Honor.

The senior Canadian characters, as in so many Hollywood films, speak with accents from the United Kingdom.  Major Alan Crown speaks with an Irish accent, while Richard Dawson's character, Private Hugh McDonald, not only speaks with a Scottish accent but also plays the bagpipes.  Jack Watson (who played a Scottish soldier in The Hill with Sean Connery) plays Corporal Wilfred Peacock with a Scottish accent as well.   While half of the Canadians to serve overseas in World War One had in fact been born in the British Isles, the majority of soldiers to serve in the Canadian Army in the Second World War had in fact been born in Canada.  Even as early as 1916, according to historian Desmond Morton, British accents amongst Canadian soldiers were giving way   to the "clipped tones" that Canadians use to this day.

Fort William Henry Harrison outside of Helena, Montana was as confused in real life as it was in the movie.   Adleman and Watson tell us that "The arriving men were bewildered."  Unlike the movie, however, where the Canadians march in the front gate as a unit and to the accompaniment of a pipe and drum band, the Canadians were just as confused.  "Told little by their government except that they had been detailed to serve in an elite force,...these picked men were astonished by the strange and apparently totally unco-ordinated scene that confronted them."  That these men were hand picked, as alluded to in the film, is attested to by the recollections of William C. Knutson, who recalled that when a recruiting team came to his base in Canada, 85 men signed up, and after medical and IQ tests, as well as the advice that married men should drop out, only sixteen men were left to join the Force.

The Canadians arrived in the US to begin training in two large drafts, one from Calgary and one from Ottawa, but unlike in the movie, the Americans (who arrived in small bunches from across the United States and from all brances of the Army) had already started their training as the Canadians arrived.  Training for all ranks was demanding, as the film alludes to, but the differences between Canadians and Americans were not as pronounced in real life.  Not long after arrival, the Canadians and Americans even took to wearing each other's uniforms.

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The Salt Lake Scots, a civilian pipe band, performed duty in the movie as pipers and drummers. Unlike in many military movies, the fingers of the pipers and hands of the drummers are synchronized with the soundtrack, making it obvious these are actual musicians and not just extras.


The Canadians originally arrived in Montana wearing Summer Dress, either shorts (worn with long puttees) or long trousers in light coloured khaki, and either shirt sleeves or jackets.  Harry Carey Jr., playing Captain Rose, wears a proper officers' KD uniform.  Canadian Other Ranks wore uniforms of the same material, but the contruction varied considerably.  In real life, the Americans did not like the buttons on Canadian KD Jackets, because they had to be polished, whereas American buttons were not made from real brass.  In the movie, all Other Ranks wear Battle Dress (of the postwar 1949 Pattern) or Service Dress. 

dev4.jpg (11555 bytes) Cliff Robertson at left wears a very finely tailored KD Jacket, with an odd looking cloth button tab on the lapel and a red ascot.  Harry Carey, at right, wears a standard KD uniform that is completely within WWII regulations.  The cap badge is that of the Royal Canadian Artillery.  Other Ranks wear the post war 1949 Pattern Battle Dress.  BD worn during World War Two did not have an open collared front.  Several of the extras in this scene also wear steel helmets, which would be incorrect for this order of dress and is probably due to shortages in the costume department.  Jean Paul Vignon, playing the character Henri Laurent, wears a post war Bush Dress cap, as well as postwar shoulder titles for the Royal 22e Regiment.
William Story was one of several men from the Winnipeg Light Infantry who volunteered for the First Special Service Force.   The WLI was one of several Canadian regiments that did not mobilize a battalion for overseas service, which no doubt accounts for the large numbers of men from that regiment who joined the 1SSF with him.  He remembered that "As we became accustomed to Helena, we found we could buy bits of uniforms downtown.  I bought a hat, a (US) garrison cap, and promptly adorned it with my cap badge - a large maple leaf wreath in the center of which was a beaver.  This was tastefully backed by a piece of red felt.   Looked fine on the garrison hat, but it left the post MP's more than somewhat confused.  I wore it for months; even wore it home on our first leave sometime in December or late November (1942)."

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peacock.jpg (16580 bytes) While troops from Highland and Scottish units did wear their kilts while in Helena, there was probably not the uniformity seen in the movie.   Corporal Peacock wears the shoulder title of the Calgary Highlanders, yet his tam o'Shanter does not conform with any Canadian military unit.  The cap badge is a civilian clan badge, and the red hackle was a special distinction of the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) and its Canadian counterpart.  Richard Dawson's character, who also wears the Calgary Highlanders shoulder title, wears headdress more in keeping with that unit's traditions; a plain khaki tam o'shanter and a bronze regimental cap badge with white metal overlay.  Neither one wears the Government Tartan kilt worn by the Calgary Highlanders, nor are their sporrans correct.

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CANADA shoulder titles are liberally applied to all uniforms, even though, in many cases they would not have been worn in conjunction with the unit titles also being worn, such as the PPCLI or Calgary Highlanders titles.  The green uniforms worn by the Canadians in the field are also postwar bush dress.  Cliff Robertson wears khaki backed major's crowns on his uniforms, although KD uniforms called for metal rank insignia.  He also, very oddly, wears the worsted CANADA badge normally worn on battle dress sleeves sewn to the epaullette of his green bush dress jacket.  The red rectangular formation patch of First Canadian Division worn by Sergeant O'Neill is also out of place.

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Cliff Robertson as Major Crown

According to the Adleman-Walton book, there was indeed an incident in a local bar similar to the one recounted in the movie.  Upon receiving their first pay, some Canadians did go to an establishment called The Gold Bar.  Unlike the movie, in which lumberjacks come in and try to goad the Canadians into fighting, it was actually miners who "mumbled insulting remarks about the Canadians, who, frequently lectured on the fact that they were guests of the U.S., glumly swallowed the insults."   And as was portrayed in the film, "American Forcemen in the bar were under no such restraint and went after the miners."  The film shows truck and busloads of drunken Forcemen being returned to camp; in actuality, the MPs arrived at The Gold Bar and refused to intervene, allowing the American soldiers to throw the miners out of the bar "until it became quiet."  While the scene plays well on film, the truth was that relations between the majority of civilians in Helena and the men of the Force was especially warm.  Helenans took Forceman into their homes routinely, and while the Force was at Fort Henry Harrison, approximately 200 local girls married Forcemen. 

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One noticable historical inaccuracy was revealed during this sequence in which Richard Dawson mounts the bar in his kilt, and delivers a flying kick.   As is now common knowldege, underpants were not part of the uniform of a Highland soldier when wearing the kilt (and certainly not white cotton briefs!)

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Jeremy Slate, as Sergeant Patrick O'Neill.

The character of Dermot Michael ("Pat") O'Neill was fictionalized for the film.  He appears wearing the uniform of a Canadian Army sergeant, with the cap badge and shoulder titles of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry.  ppatmin.gif (1049 bytes)

While Dermot O'Neill in real life had indeed been nicknamed "Pat" and was in fact obtained for the Force as a hand-to-hand combat instructor, he had actually been an Irish civilian who had previously been a detective, a riot squad member, and an officer of the Shanghai International Police.  Living in the Orient for fourteen years, he also worked for the security force at the British Embassy in Tokyo for a time. 

He mixed several disciples such as jujitsu, karate and judo, and was made a member of the OSS (the precursor to the CIA) who loaned him to the Force.  When the head of the OSS, Colonel William "Wild Bill" Donovan tried to get him back, Colonel Frederick had already obtained for him a US commission in order to keep him.

Adleman/Walton tell us that O'Neill proved so effective a teacher that later, in combat, a Forceman offhandedly reported, "I killed the Kraut with an O'Neill in the nuts."

O'Neill himself recounted in the Adleman/Walton book that "I recall hearing of clashes between the miners and our men that showed, at least in the early days, that a gang of miners were more than a match for the untrained Commandos; however, this quickly changed as the hand-to-hand training got under way.  Some of the incidents that resulted were serious enough to prompt (one of the Force commanders) to bring this to the attention of the officers, esepecially when officials of neighboring towns complained about the severe way their law enforcement officers were handled."

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None of the histories consulted for this page indicate that O'Neill's introduction to the Force was as dramatic as this mess hall scene from "The Devil's Brigade."

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