The history of the WWII movie as a genre is an interesting one. In the decades immediately following the conflict, Hollywood sought to mythologise the U.S. G.I. in the same way it had mythologised the cowboy. Indeed, it's no coincidence that many of the actors who found fame playing cowboys began playing heroic soldiers. Films were unashamedly patriotic and full of action, adventure, daring acts of bravery, camaraderie and cigar-chomping, square-jawed heroes. Political correctness, stark realism and historical accuracy took a backseat to good old-fashioned fun and entertainment.
Kelly's Heroes is most definitely a product of its time. Filmed in 1970, it's very much in the classic Hollywood WWII adventure mold, but it's shot through with anachronistic 60's references and a lot of humour. The story centers on Private Kelly (Clint Eastwood), who, while fighting in war-torn France, learns that $16 million in gold is sitting in a bank behind enemy lines. He persuades the rest of his platoon, including his own Sergeant, "Big Joe" (Telly Savalas), and a number of recruits pulled from other divisions and departments of the US Army, to aid him on his mission to steal the gold. Among these recruits are fast talking Supply Sergeant "Crapgame" (Don Rickles), and beatnik tank commander "Oddball" (Donald Sutherland).
I first saw this film when I was about 7 or 8 years old, and I recall that the "boys own adventure" style of the film appealed to me greatly. I loved the characters, the humour and, above all, the action. After acquiring a VHS copy, it quickly became a movie I found myself watching quite a bit. Even now, it's one of those films that, if I happen to come across it on TV, I simply have to watch to the end. I've lost count of how many times I've seen it. It's certainly enough times for me to be able to geek out by quoting large portions of the script.
A sizable part of this film's charm is due to the characters and performances. Eastwood is as icy-cool and likable as always. Amusingly, there's a sequence in the final act of the film that riffs on his "Man With No Name" Spaghetti Western persona, Morricone-style music and all - just one of the many anachronisms in the film. Savalas' tough-talking, cynical character is lightened and humanised by some funny dialogues with Rickles' "Crapgame", who provides much of the comedy in the movie along with Donald Sutherland. Ah yes, Donald Sutherland - you can't talk about Kelly's Heroes without talking about him. His "Oddball" character is, in my opinion, one of cinema's greatest creations. From his hippy mantras and beatnik pearls of wisdom to his dog imitations, he's just utterly brilliant. The personality clash between Oddball and Kelly is wonderful to watch. Eastwood is not normally known for his comedic ability, but he shows great skill as a straight man in his scenes with Sutherland. Lots of recognisable faces fill smaller roles in the film - Harry Dean Stanton (who even looks old in this - was he ever young?), Jeff Morris, Carroll O'Connor... It's a great ensemble cast.
Despite its WWII setting and trappings, I suppose you could class this as a heist movie. It contains all the hallmarks of a standard heist caper - the plan, the formation of the team, the build up and then the job itself. Indeed, it's no surprise that the heist elements of the film are so well handled as the script was written by Troy Kennedy-Martin, who also wrote the classic "The Italian Job". Director Brian G. Hutton, who had worked with Eastwood a few years previously on "Where Eagles Dare", builds the film to a great crescendo. The final action sequence, where Kelly and his men attack the German forces guarding the gold, is a brilliant piece of action cinema. The tension is ratcheted up slowly (with more than a little help from Lalo Schifrin's superb score) as our heroes position themselves for the attack. When it eventually does come, the battle doesn't disappoint, containing, as it does, some genuinely impressive (even by today's standards) stuntwork and pyrotechnics. An earlier sequence, where Oddball's tank division attacks a German outpost, is equally impressive and inspired - the sounds of Hank Williams blast out from speakers attached to their Sherman tanks as the bullets fly and shells explode. As Oddball so succinctly puts it, "When we go into battle, we play music very loud."
On the subject of music, I must talk about Schifrin's score in more detail. He does some great work here and offers up yet more proof that he is one of cinema's finest composers. It's a suitably muscular score, with hints of his trademark jazzy groove. The score is particularly effective during the build up to the final battle. One of the cues from this part of the film, "Tiger Tank", was used by Quentin Tarantino for Inglorious Basterds (2009). Schifrin also wrote the wonderful song "Burning Bridges", performed by The Mike Curb Congregation, which features in the film.
It's interesting to note that Kelly's Heroes was made and released during the Vietnam War. Robert Altman's M*A*S*H, released in the same year and also starring Sutherland, cleverly used the setting of different conflict to comment on the events of the time, and although Kelly's Heroes is nowhere near as political, I feel that the same idea is employed. Some of the anachronistic references to 60s counter culture and the idea of soldiers looking for a purpose in the confusing arena of war were a direct reference to the Vietnamese conflict, I think. In one scene near the end of the movie, Savalas's "Big Joe" rather poignantly comments, "We're just soldiers, right? We don't even know what this war is all about. All we do is we fight and we die, and for what?"
Despite moments of pathos and satire, Kelly's Heroes is, first and foremost, designed to entertain, and it does that extremely well. However, this is by no means a perfect movie. Although I love this film dearly, it is flawed. Some sections of the film feel a bit flabby and many of the characters feel underdeveloped and underwritten. This may be the result of alleged, enforced studio cutting - Eastwood expressed his frustration about this in the years following the movie's release. I do hope a director's cut of this film surfaces one day.
The release of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998) marked a sea-change in the way WWII movies (some would argue all war movies) were made. Suddenly, it seemed disrespectful or distasteful to make war movies as pure entertainment. While I applaud movie studios for attempting to show the horrors and realities of war, the effects it has on the lives of the soldiers and their families, I feel it's a shame that movies like Kelly's Heroes are not made anymore.
If you've never seen this film, I would heartily recommend it. Sutherland's performance alone makes it a must see. It's shown on TV quite regularly and is available in a nicely restored condition on DVD and BluRay.