Kelly’s Heroes(1971), directed by Brian G. Hutton, and starring Clint Eastwood, Donald Sutherland, Don Rickles and Telly Savalas is a satirical take on wartime heroism, with Eastwood leading a band of soldiers on a private mission behind enemy lines to steal Nazi gold.
In 1968, Clint Eastwood teamed up with director Brian G. Hutton to create the ultimate WWII adventure, Where Eagles Dare. The film, co-starring Richard Burton, featured a group of allied soldiers going behind enemy lines to infiltrate an impregnable German castle to rescue an American General. The film filled with double crosses and fantastical stunts was more a James Bond film in the backdrop of WWII, and featured some improbable stunts like Burton leaping from one cable car to the next, and Clint setting a world record for number of kills in a movie- even all the killings he did in Dirty Harry and Spaghetti Western films together wouldn’t come close to the number of people he dispatched in the film. The massive success of the film meant that the director and actor would team up again , and it happened soo enough, and that too for another WWII ‘Men on a mission’ adventure, the 1970 film, Kelly’s Heroes. But in this film, written by Troy Kennedy Martin, the actor and director would go about subverting everything they had so successfully established in “Eagles”. While “Eagles” showed the Allied war effort as a combination of well orchestrated missions and military maneuvers, Kelly’s heroes shows war as utter chaos in which the the high command has no idea where and what the soldiers down the chain are up to. We have American artillery raining fire on American infantry; an American General mistaken for Charles de Gaulle; we have a battalion of American tank crew men settling down to an idyllic life with local women in France after their commanding officer is killed; we have American soldiers going on a “treasure hunt” leaving the war behind, and also cutting secret deals with German soldiers. Even the characters have funny names like “Crapgame”, “Oddball”, “Big Joe”, “Little Joe”, “Cowboy”, “Barbara” etc., and the main mission featured in the film is led by a private and not a colonel or a Major. In short, the film intends to turn everything on its head to what we know of as a serious, action-packed WWII drama\adventure. This is definitely not “Guns of Navarone” or “Where eagles Dare” , even though, the film originally intended to be a 3 hr. roadshow presentation, but cut down to 145 minutes under studio pressure, still packs in spectacular production values worthy of a roadshow picture. The pyrotechnics are on a huge scale; there are action scenes featuring, tanks, fighter-planes, trains, minefields; everything that you expect in a war film, with director Hutton proving his skills yet again in managing a large scale WWII- action picture. But this also leads to some of the problems in the film; the marriage between a traditional pyrotechnics-filled war spectacle and the irreverent tone that the film strikes in its other portions, not to mention its intention to showcase the pain and suffering of soldiers through some big “death scenes”, keeps kicking the film into different directions, and there are times when the film fails to find a consistent tone. But what still keeps the film afloat through its tonal shifts and its lengthy running time is the terrific cast that has been assembled for the film, and a very quotable and funny script.
The film begins in September 1944, near the German-occupied French town of Nancy. The opening scene perfectly sets the tone for the film to come: it’s a big sequence in which the camera briskly glides through a lot of German soldiers, ammunition and vehicles in a thunderstorm at night; the Germans are retreating, and, as a commanding officer is coordinating the retreat, his eyes fall upon a Jeep stationed right in the middle of the traffic that’s filled with American soldiers. The Jeep is commandeered by Private Kelly, a former lieutenant scapegoated for a failed infantry assault and now demoted. He had broken through the German flanks and abducted a Colonel Dankhopf of Wehrmacht Intelligence. Before the German officer could raise an alarm, Kelly speeds through the traffic and reaches the safety of the American camp. “Safe” is too harsh a word to describe their circumstances because the Americans are facing fire from their own Artillery. Kelly’s infantry division is led by the cynical, screaming, Sergeant “Big Joe”, who’s at his wits end trying to co-ordinate with the Artillery division and fend off the attacking Germans. Kelly gets down to interrogating the German colonel, and under the influence of alcohol, he gives away that there are gold bars worth $16 million hidden in a bank in Clermont– which is 30 miles behind enemy lines. Soon enough, the Germans overrun the American positions, and in the battle Col. Dankhopf is killed. Kelly’s infantry division is ordered to fall back ‘in line’ and is given a three day pass, but Kelly has other ideas. He decides to go after the gold by recruiting a team from his fellow disgruntled soldiers. Their commanding officer, Captain Maitland, is preoccupied in enriching himself, and the soldiers are eager to go along with Kelly. Kelly manages to get his crooked supply sergeant, Crapgame, to join the mission with the promise of equal share in gold, but their conversation is overheard by an oddball tank platoon commander, appropriately named “Oddball”, who offers the services of the three Sherman tanks in his possession for the mission. Kelly inspects the tanks, only to realize that, after the death of their commanding officer, Oddball’s platoon has settled down into a sort of hippie community in the middle of 1944 France. Kelly decides to take them in for the mission, but order them to proceed by a different route to Clermont. After ensuring the participation of his superior, Big Joe- with great difficulty, and under the cover of heavy artillery fire, which almost gets them killed, Kelly and his warriors set forth on their clandestine mission.
But they hadn’t even managed to go ten miles, before they are attacked by an American fighter-plane. In the attack, Kelly suffer heavy causalities: all modes of transportation are blown up by the fighter; they somehow manage to salvage the ammunition and equipment. Now, they’re forced to travel by foot, and they have to cover 20 miles in 9 hours. On the course of their journey, they encounter several obstacles that slow them down: first, they unknowingly walk into a minefield, and then, force to engage in a firefight with a German patrol. Kelly loses several comrades on the way, but somehow manages to make it through to Claremont. Meanwhile, Oddball’s progress gets stalled because the allied bombers have blown up the bridges on his route, so, he takes the help of an engineering unit promising them a share in the gold. By the time he joins up with Kelly’s men, he is leading a huge contingent of soldiers who are all after the gold, and now, it has becomes a race between the allied soldiers as to who will take the bank first. To break through to the location of the bank, Kelly and his gang has to endure fierce battles with German panzer divisions, and their mutual conversations are captured on the air by their Division commander, Major General Colt, who misinterprets them as the efforts of aggressive patrols pushing forward on their own initiative. Colt assembles the army and races to Clermont to be there when the city falls. It goes without saying that Kelly and his men will ultimately succeed in their mission, but the film does offer some really good surprises and exciting set pieces before it reaches its expected conclusion.
Kelly’s heroes is one of those rare films where Clint played as part of an ensemble cast. It will not be until “Space Cowboys” in the year 2000 (which incidentally reteamed him with Donald Sutherland) that he would get back into this all-star cast setup. Clint’s image has always been that of a loner\maverick who’s not a team player, and his image and his superstar status will be solidified with the next year’s iconic “Dirty Harry”. From then on, all Clint Eastwood films will be one-man shows; he wouldn’t even share screen space with any A-List actress, until Bridges of Madison County (1995) with Meryl Streep. In this film, Clint is playing an unlikely hero with a mixture of humor and pathos; he’s a soldier unfairly demoted, and he enjoys sticking it to the military top brass by running off on a private mission of his own. Clint was always good at playing the subdued dark humor, as evidenced in the Leone Westerns, here he gives a smooth, subtle, yet commanding performance, which convinces why the soldiers, including his sergeant, will follow him on this crazy mission; his subdued comic timing is most evident in the initial scenes where he is interrogating the German colonel, as well as in the final portions in which he confronts a German tank commander. But Clint’s more of a straight man to the bunch of oddballs around him, and they actually get the more scene-stealing stuff. Telly Savalas is the best of the bunch. He’s superb as the strict, hard-talking “Big Joe”, and his screen presence eclipses even Clint sometimes. As the crooked one of the bunch, Don Rickles as Crapgame, keep the funny lines coming throughout the film. and Carroll O’Connor is splendidly broad and idiotic as the Maj. General mistaken for De Gaulle. Donald Sutherland as Oddball is the odd man out and just doesn’t gel with the rest of the group; his proto-hippie is out of time and out of place in the setting, and his wild over the top performance just irritated me. Come to think of it, i hate Sutherland in these hammy performance; i disliked him in M.A.S.H, as well, where he was no match for the brilliance of Elliot Gould. I like Sutherland most in his subtle, serious performances like “Don’t look now” and “Ordinary People”. This whole narrative thread involving Oddball is an ill-advised attempt to infuse this WWII story with the 1960s ethos, and it’s something i didn’t like at all. It also leads to historical anomalies like girls in 1960s mini-skirts and hairstyles. Obviously, the men’s hairstyles too are problematic too; by this time, filmmakers had given up paying attention to these things in WWII films.
The main issue with the film is that it not only wants to be an ensemble adventure film, but also an all-encompassing adventure film. On one hand it wants to be a traditional, old-fashioned film like “Guns of Navarone”, and on the other, a modern, revisionist take on a popular genre, like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “M.A.S.H.” It’s a heist film, a caper, an action film set in the backdrop of WWII, an anti-war film, and a counterculture WWII film in the mold of “The Dirty Dozen”, with its anti-authoritarian politics, where the soldiers are mainly fighting their top brass rather than Germans. This is obvious from the casting of Savalas and Sutherland, who both starred in “The Dirty Dozen”. I guess the depiction of the “hippie” culture was part of that agenda; to make a connection with the time in which the film was made, but that was unnecessary and looks out of place in a film filled with such realistically violent and spectacularly staged battles; a film that genuinely mourns the fallen comrades and loss of human life. The first one and half hour of the film is a tussle to manage all these conflicting tones, and the film does suffer on account of that; the most interesting scenes in this portion of the film is the more straightforward adventure story: the getaway from the town of Nancy under heavy artillery fire, the thrilling walk through the minefield, the gunfight with the German patrol etc. The interactions between Kelly’s men are also very entertaining, especially with Big Joe and Crapgame around, it’s great fun. The entire portion dealing with Oddball’s artillery attack on a railroad depot with country music blaring from the tank speakers just doesn’t work. It’s just so excessive and tonally so off that it seems to be a different movie altogether.
The film comes into its own in the final hour; once Kelly and his men reaches the city and surrounds the bank, the film hits its stride. The mixture of action and humor, adventure and absurdism, serious and irreverence that the film was attempting up until this time comes together perfectly in the sequence. The bank is protected by three German tiger tanks; Kelly’s men manages to eliminate two of them, but before they could take down the last one, the last of Oddball’s tanks breaks down. Kelly, Joe and Oddball walk out directly towards the last tank, which is positioned in front of the bank; we get a tribute to Clint’s spaghetti Western persona in this final stand off sequence: Ennio Morricone’s music from the Mexican stand-off climax of “The Good the bad and the ugly” are remixed and played above the sequence, as the threesome of Kelly, Big Joe and Oddball- representing the good, the bad and the ugly of the film- slowly and courageously advances towards the German tank, even as it appears that it’s preparing to fire at the threesome. After a tense standoff, the German tank commander opens the door and confronts them. Kelly offers him a share in the gold, which the German accepts, after initially showing some reluctance. The performance of Karl-Otto Alberty as the Tank Commander is brilliant- his performance hits the right note between the serious and the absurd that the film has been struggling for so long, and his distinctive features: his broad face, broken nose and distinctive white-blond hair, stands him apart from the American heroes, even eclipses them. Thus the counterculture, anti-authoritarian subtext of the film is taken to its logical conclusion in this climax, where the American soldiers are not only ‘not fighting’ the Germans, but are also making deals with them to steal and share the bounty. In the end, The Tiger blows the bank doors open; the Germans and Americans divide the gold, and go their separate ways, just moments before General Colt arrives in the city with his army.
Thus, the film propagates a liberal, leftist point of view of wars in general: The ‘working class’ soldiers joining hands, cutting across national boundaries, to stick it to the bourgeoisie generals and fuehrers. Unlike a film like Patton, which detailed the heroism of the three star general George S. Patton, and was released in the same year, this film is more concerned with the travails of the foot soldiers, and the superiors are presented as broad caricatures who are only interested in their personal advancement and glory. Also, the final “Kilroy” graffiti is a big ‘F U’ to the Allied high command. The film’s enduring popularity and cult status is mainly due to these factors more than anything else, because as an overall film, Kelly’s heroes pales in comparison to Hutton and Eastwood’s “Where Eagles Dare”; that’s overall a much better film, it was a film of very limited ambitions, and it achieves it successfully. Kelly’s heroes is much more ambitious film and it does not achieve all its ambitions, but it’s definitely the more interesting of the two. It’s also a really good looking film, thanks to the beautiful Yugoslavian locations and the work of cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa, who was the regular DP of the great director Luis Bunuel. The film is also scored well by Eastwood regular Lalo Schifrin. I do feel that Hutton was not the right director for this film; he’s an old-fashioned director, good at shooting massive actions scenes and telling a straightforward story. Mixing and matching different tones and film aesthetics is not his forte. Maybe, someone like George Roy Hill would have done a better job. Clint had tried to get Don Siegel for the film, but he was busy. The film also fell victim to studio politics; it was released during the reign of James Aubrey as the president of MGM studios. Aubrey was a notorious philistine, who hated highbrow, high budget blockbusters and concentrated on cheap, low brow films that would return a quick return on the investment. He wanted a regular Clint Eastwood action-vehicle, and hence ordered cuts to suit his vision; about half an hour was excised from the final cut. Maybe, he should have cut out a further half an hour more, then it would have ben a straightforward, crisp Clint Eastwood action\war adventure. Or he should have left the removed half an hour in the film, then this would have been a fully rounded satirical anti-war film that Clint was initially interested in making. In the end, the film falls precariously in the middle of these contrasting ambitions. Clint was appalled by the final cut, and is rumored to have made his own alternative cut and presented it to the studio, but they rejected it. It was the back to back bad experiences on “Paint your Wagon” and “Kelly’s heroes” that soured Clint on big-budget, studio-produced blockbusters. Kelly’s Heroes was not a flop like “Paint your Wagon”; it made a solid profit of a million dollars, but Clint was not satisfied. From here on, he produced all his films himself through his Malpaso company; and he made them economically and efficiently. Pretty soon, he started directing all his films as well, and would go onto have a legendary career that’s still going on.