“Kelly’s Heroes” is part of the commando mission subgenre that includes “Guns of Navarone” (1961), “The Dirty Dozen” (1967), and “Where Eagles Dare” (1968). It put a new spin on the subgenre by adding a heavy dose of humor. It also added a heist element to the plot. It was directed by Brian Hutton and filmed in Yugoslavia to take advantage of the Yugoslavian army’s Sherman and T-34 tanks. The T-34s were modified to look like Tigers. The amount of military hardware appearing in the film is truly impressive. It has an all-star cast led by Clint Eastwood who had made “Where Eagles Dare” with Hutton two years earlier. Telly Savalas had appeared in “The Dirty Dozen”. Donald Sutherland had also starred in that movie and made “MASH” the same year as KH. 1970 was a great year for war movies as “Patton” was also released that year. Like “MASH”, KH is set in one war, but commenting on another time period. “Kelly’s Heroes” has obvious references to the Vietnam War and the sixties. We get some portent of this with the opening song which is the ridiculously out of place “Burning Bridges”. Listen to the lyrics and explain what the hell they have to do with the movie.
“Kelly’s Heroes” was set in 1944 France. The 35th Infantry Division is fighting outside Nancy. Pvt. Kelly (Eastwood) is in a jeep in the middle of a German force. He narrowly escapes when they recognize him (not the jeep!) and gets to American lines with a captured German colonel. A drink fueled interrogation of the colonel reveals that the German’s have hidden $16 million of gold bars in a bank thirty miles behind enemy lines. Being an American, greed immediately takes precedence over patriotism, duty, yadda yadda yadda. Kelly will need help so he enlists a rifle squad of equally greedy individuals. Their sergeant, Big Joe (Savalas), reluctantly goes along due to peer pressure.
Our anti-heroes will need lots of support. They bring a supply sergeant / fence named Crap Game (Don Rickles) on board. They get tank support by way of a commune of Shermans led by one of the most anachronistic characters in war movie history. Odd Ball (Sutherland) is a hippie. He and his men say things like “negative waves”, “dig”, and “baby”. The tanks are rigged up with loudspeakers to blast music (ala the helicopters in “Apocalypse Now”). Odd Ball is so out of time that it’s pointless to target the anachronisms. Just roll with it.
The mission begins as a lark, but things get serious when a friendly fighter plane attacks Kelly and his crew destroying their vehicles and much of their equipment. To remind us the movie is only partly a comedy there is a scene involving a mine field that results in some poignant deaths among the group. Guys don’t mind shedding some tears if it is balanced with lots of explosions. For instance, Odd Ball’s three tanks attack a rail way station and to the blare of country music proceed to blast the crap out of the Germans.
|One is a hippie and the other eats hippies for breakfast|
Since this is a 1970 movie, there must be a subplot involving the cluelessness of the brass (unless they are George Patton). Gen. Colt (Carroll O’Connor) has been chafing over lack of forward momentum until he finds out about this small unit that has broken through enemy lines. He can’t wait to pin medals on these courageous GIs and of course take credit for their success. (If the movie was not made at the same time as “Patton”, you would swear Colt is a parody of Patton.) Now Kelly and crew are racing to the gold and racing from the medal pinnings.
The squad and the tanks meet up outside the town with the bank. Besides a German garrison to provide plenty of Germans to kill, there are three Tiger tanks for the Shermans to duel with. All hell breaks loose and in a twist of the caper aspect of the film, it’s not after they rob the bank. It comes down to a showdown with the remaining Tiger and its Aryan commander. In an homage to Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns, Kelly, Big Joe, and Odd Ball come forward (sans white flag) to parley with the Nazi. It turns out Nazis can put greed before their country also. We’re all rich now! Don Rickles ad libs “you win a cookie”. Odd Ball rides off in the Tiger. Good luck returning to American lines with your gold! Don’t shoot, P-47s - we're AWOL, thieving American hippies.
KH is very entertaining if you can suspend disbelief and it winkingly expects you to. It is a deft blend of action, suspense, and humor. It’s the humor that separates it from its peers. It is populated with colorful characters and the casting is masterful. You have actors who could not crack a smile to save their lives (Eastwood and Savalas) paired with sitcom stars (Rickles and O’Connor). Throw in Sutherland, a counterculture icon, who the audience would assume is playing himself. Dropping a hippie into a WWII movie is so bizarre it works. The acting is good across the board and they appear to be having fun.
|the high, the laconic, and the bald|
The plot is no more far-fetched than similar action films and the flow between action and movement is
good. The violence is over the top, but realistic to WWII. There are some excellent set pieces. In fact, some of the themes are appropriate for a standard war film. The soldiers are war weary. There are incidents of the “fog of war”. The movie naturally adds the incompetence of command angle. What is a little outside the box is the theme of greed trumping survival instincts. That is not the motivation in any of the other members of the subgenre.
How does it stack up with the others of its subgenre? It’s in the upper half.
1. Where Eagles Dare
2. Inglorious Basterds
3. Kelly’s Heroes
4. The Dirty Dozen
5. The Guns of Navarone
6. The Eagle Has Landed
7. The Devil's Brigade
Does it crack the 100 Best? Probably.
grade = B+