Wednesday, September 4, 2013

CRACKER? Kelly's Heroes (1970)

            “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+


  1. I have seen it a couple of times and enjoyed it more each time. As you said, a serious suspension of disbelief is required, but once that is done, the movie flows really well. I usually don't like Donald sutherland, but I love Odd Ball. I even quote "stop sending negative waves" to the annoyance of friends. Glad to see that it will crack the top 100.

  2. It's hard to believe it did not make the 100 Greatest. In my opinion, it is better than "the Dirty Dozen" and much better than "Guns of Navarone".

    Here's my favorite line:

    [Oddball sees that the bridge he wants to cross is intact and is pleased with himself]

    Oddball: It's still up!

    [a plane flies over the bridge and bombs it... direct hit]

    Oddball: No it ain't.

  3. Eastwood was very unhappy with the way the movie turned out. He complained that MGM cut key scenes, diluting the anti-war message and obscuring the character development. He said he eventually saw three or four different cuts of the movie, and none of them was the version he wanted. I first saw it in a re-release shortly after "All in the Family" had become a big hit, and the ad campaign played up Carroll O' Connor ("World War Three is about to start! Archie Bunker is a general!") I did like the walkdown scene near the end, with the imitation spaghetti western music, but it was only funny because Clint was the star and it was self-parody. Eastwood's comedy "Every Which Way But Loose" had a similar in-joke in a showdown scene, and (at least in the theater where I saw it) it brought down the house.

  4. Thanks. Some good stuff. You make an interesting point about the movie not being very anti-war. It is one of the few war movies that isn't. If you look at my list of its subgenre brethren, only KH and Where Eagles Dare do not have a main character dying.

  5. I have no opinion as I have not seen it. Nor the Dirty Dozen.
    I'm suspicious of the humour. You write it has a heavy dose of humour. I'm afraid it has a dose of heavy humor,
    I'll have to find out. Great cast.

  6. I am pretty sure you would not like it. It is very much a guy movie.

    1. It is very much a guy thing. Supposedly, Ingrid Pitt was signed to be in it, but her part was cut out at the last minute. A love story subplot probably would have been incongruous and would have slowed the pace too much.

    2. Thanks. I think I had read that somewhere. As I recall, not a single word is said by a female in the movie.

  7. The guy thing comment is totally uncalled for - if that was a reason for my not liking a movie I find it hard to explain why Black Hawk Down is one of my all-time favourite movies. Duh to the both of you.

    1. No offense intended. I did not say that no women would like this movie, just that it is the kind of movie that is traditionally thought of as a "guy's movie." FWIW, my late mother liked Kelly's Heroes, Dirty Harry, and Hang 'em High. Mom was very much a Clint Eastwood fan.

  8. It's quite enjoyable. As a war/heist combination it could only be compared with Three Kings or the French comedy Les Morfalous, and in my opinion KH is much better than those two.

    But I agree with your linking it with a broader 'commando' subgenre - probably born with Gung Ho! as soon as 1943 - except it is pushing the envelope to the limit: the individuality of the men and their skills lead to their changing entirely the goal of military action for private purposes.

    That did not happen in previous commando movies: they were of course glorifying the power of a small group of skilled, autonomous individuals (no wonder so many were produced as soon as the 50s) but the goal was always for the greater good, which meant the frictions with the 'classical' hierarchy were only the cost of doing business.

    So indeed, KH contains a subversion typical of the late 60s Calif counter-culture. Yet, if this subversion can be justly deemed as carrying an 'anti-war' message, the final movie is certainly not anti-violence... hence its ambiguity.

  9. Very interesting. I will look into that French movie. I think I would have to say that 3 Kings is better than KH because 3K is not just trying to entertain. They are great bookends to that war/heist subgenre.

    1. I wouldn't expect too much from Les Morfalous if I were you (unless your French is in mint condition, for the only good thing in it are a few lines written by Michel Audiard). :)

      As 'Anonymous' pointed out, I'm not sure Eastwood's intention was only to entertain, even if the result wasn't achieved. You're right about 3K of course - but I can hardly remember any of it.

  10. I can't get Les Morf anyway so I won't be upset about it.

    We have to remember that there was a time when Eastwood was simply an actor and had no control over the finished product.

    1. Hum. As the n°2 bankable actor (right after Paul Newman) at the time, he could have had his say.

      He seriously argued in favor of a re-cut by Hutton, which would have meant re-scheduling the release. But the new studio head was completely reorganizing MGM after Kerkorian's takeover, which is probably why the request wasn't granted.

      The next year, Eastwood would make his directorial debut with his own production company.

  11. Replies
    1. See page 98 of Daniel O’Brien, Clint Eastwood: Film-Maker, London, BT Batsford, 1996. :)

  12. I've always thought that "KELLY'S HEROES" had a strong anti-war message to it. I suspect that either Eastwood missed it or wanted the message to be more heavy-handed. All one has to do is listen to the jokes and notice the situations they were in.

    1. I have to admit that most war movies are anti-war, but although there is the one scene where some GIs are killed in the mine field, "Kelly's Heroes" is one of the least anti-war movies ever. I cannot imagine people leaving the theater talking about how war is Hell.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.