MOVIE REVIEW | Kelly’s Heroes (1970)

Kelly's Heroes

“Him? Name’s Kelly. Used to be a lieutenant, pretty good one, too, till they gave him orders to attack the wrong hill.  Wiped out a half a company of G.I.’s. Somebody had to get the blame and he got picked.”

Writing this blog has been great for making me finally get my finger out and watch classics I should have seen years ago.  It’s been great for making me watch new and different things, instead of re-watching old favourites again and again and again.  But the biggest surprise benefit has become going in blind, knowing nothing about a movie before I press play.  Usually, it’s because a title sounds kind of familiar, and that’s the extent of my knowledge.  It doesn’t result in something great every time, but I think I have pretty good strike rate with everything being at the very least interesting and unexpected.  Well, I got interesting, unexpected, funny and really great, with Kelly’s Heroes.

It’s the Second World War, and while complete victory is still a ways a way, the allies definitely have momentum on their side.  During a raid on a Nazi occupied town in France, Private Kelly (Clint Eastwood) manages to kidnap a German Colonel.  With the aid if some liquor fuelled interrogation, Kelly learns from the drunken kraut that there is a bank vault, not too far away, filled with $16million in gold.  That knowledge, added to the fact that Kelly’s platoon has just been sent to the rear to have a break from the action, is all Kelly needs to decide that gold is as good as his, with a little help from a rag tag group of movie friendly soldiers.

There’s Big Joe (Telly Savalas), the no nonsense staff sergeant, who is initially opposed to the plan, but realises he needs to be a part of it if there’s any chance of his men coming home alive.  There’s Crapgame (Don Rickles), the opportunistic supply sergeant who bank rolls the mission with his access to weapons and rations.  There’s Oddball (Donald Sutherland), the loosey goosey tank commander who casually destroys entire towns while espousing the benefits of positive thoughts.  With a dozen or so other soldier stereotypes, they head off in search of their fortune and a bit of the ol’ Nazi killin’.  All the while, the clueless Major General Colt (Carroll O’Connor, AKA Archie Bunker from All in the Family) mistakes reports of their self centred heist for acts of heroic patriotism.

Kelly’s Heroes is a really great movie.  The action is intense without ever getting too over the top, and the key characters are all amazingly watchable and likeable.  It has a light, fun feel, while still making me anxious about the precarious world these soldiers are living in.  But what I liked most, was its cynical look at war, the army and American jingoism.  If you’ve read this far and ever seen David O Russell’s Three Kings, then I’m sure the above synopsis sounded a little familiar.

I like Three Kings, and I agree with its message.  But after watching Kelly’s Heroes, the message of Three Kings seemed a little heavy handed and preachy.  There’s no big lesson to be learned here about the futility of war, or the aimlessness of soldiers without orders.  The characters of this movie are essentially selfish assholes out for themselves when they come up with the plan, and very little changes as things wrap up.  Again, the fact that you still want these selfish assholes to win, is proof of how amazing the cast is.  Especially Eastwood, Savalas, Sutherland and Rickles.   This lack of redemption or lesson learning from the characters makes this movie seem all the more impressively dark amongst some really great, broad humour.

There’s one weird thing about Kelly’s Heroes though.  And weird is the word, because I’m not sure it’s necessarily a bad thing, but I would never say it’s good either.  The decision to make Sutherland’s Oddball character a combination of 50s beatnik and 60s hippy.  Not only are the character traits overdone, cheap and easy, they’re also completely out of place in 1944.  Sutherland gets plenty of funny lines, and his delivery always makes them funnier, he just never felt like a real part of this world.

Clint Eastwood and World War II.  Nothing about that paring made me expect to see a really, really great comedy.  Yet that’s what I got with Kelly’s Heroes.  I also got a really cool, subversive anti-military movie that hit all the harder by never hitting too directly or obviously.

Kelly’s Heroes
Directed By – Brian G. Hutton
Written By – Troy Kennedy-Martin

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