Kelly's Heroes Review

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by Chris McEneany Jun 19, 2010 at 12:00 AM

    Kelly's Heroes Review

    “I have orders. This bank isn't to fall into the hands of the American army.”

    “Sergeant, this bank's not gonna fall into the hands of the American army. It's gonna fall in our hands. You see, we're just a private enterprise operation.”

    After riddling the Austrian Alps with bullets in his austere and rather stern-faced Boys Own adaptation of Alastair Maclean's Where Eagles Dare, actor-turned-director Brian G. Hutton waged another clandestine war in the completely different Kelly's Heroes (1970). Once one of the stalwart breed of bank holiday and festive movies on TV, in the same ranks as The Great Escape, Zulu, The Magnificent Seven and the aforementioned Where Eagles Dare, Hutton's WWII heist-caper was an anachronistic and tonally skewed action spectacular that kept its tongue wedged firmly in its cheek and one eye winking at the audience. Upon release it was greeted very warmly - its go-getting, shark-like roster of established icons and soon-to-be icons made for a splendidly engaging ensemble - but it was a film that deliberately tried to subvert the genre at the same time as slavishly celebrating its core ingredients.

    Hutton hit paydirt with Clint Eastwood, returning to his direction after Eagles, and Telly Savalas, already an established star after his alarming turn as the psycho loosely under the command of Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen, and it was clear that he had learned a lot from his debut tenure with the mountain-raiding escapade from a couple of years before, and that his confidence with a large cast, a big budget and a vast, indulgent scope had grown immeasurably. Working from a hugely episodic screenplay written by Troy Kennedy-Martin (who was, perhaps, seizing an opportunity to reinvent the mechanics of his own script for another cult favourite caper in The Italian Job with this fictionalised take on an apparently true gold heist perpetrated by both US and German soldiers), Hutton's explosive second foray behind enemy lines tells us of a motley band of battle-hardened American GI's who learn of a cache of Nazi confiscated bullion secreted in a heavily defended bank in a German occupied French town. Rounding-up everyone and everything he thinks he'll need to take the gold - including enough initial hardware to form a second Allied front - busted-back-to-the-ranks ex-officer Kelly (Clint Eastwood) mounts a guerilla mission that starts out rough and ready, but becomes a satirical odyssey of male bonding, mass irresponsibility and courage under fire. Eschewing the norm, each and every member of the squad gets a share of the limelight as well as a share of the gold. The action comes thick and fast and is given a massive scale that is gloriously wide-screen and thoroughly entertaining and, above all else, each successive vignette builds impressively upon the last, giving the film a forward momentum that rolls along with brevity and verve and aims for a denouement that guarantees satisfaction. Kennedy-Martin would go on to scribe the TV adaptation of Andy McNab's now celebrated Bravo Two Zero experiences, returning to his concept of a small band of troops raising hell behind enemy lines, just like his return to the bank robbery vibe of The Italian Job would do with this.

    “A Sherman could give you a very nice ... edge.

    Comparisons to Robert Aldritch's The Dirty Dozen are unavoidable. We have the men-on-an-illicit-mission angle thoroughly exploited. The bicker-banter of a squad of tough GI's is vivid and humorous. We get to know most of the “Heroes” and to sympathise with them, coming to appreciate the dangers that they are putting themselves in. And the story is structured in the same blackly comic manner as Dozen, with keen attention paid to belittling the Top Brass, in the form of Caroll O'Connor's bumbling war-hungry low-rent Patton, Major General Colt and Hal Buckley's useless Paris-shopping Captain Maitland and getting the job done for more, ahem, ulterior motives than out of any tactical necessity. That both missions still come to feel valiant and victorious is notably formulaic, of course, but Kelly's Heroes and The Dirty Dozen deviate wildly in terms of execution. The Dozen flaunted moments of comedy during the training sequences, but quickly darkened and hardened once the suicide mission was commenced. Kelly's Heroes, on the other hand, starts off satirical and anarchic and maintains the same degree of subversion all the way through, only it has the guts to temper such irreverence with much casual death, destruction and the odd touch of pathos.

    “He may be nuts ... but he's not crazy enough to put Shermans up against Tigers!”

    This was a period of long, long movies within the genre. Dozen, Eagles, Patton and The Green Berets all felt epic even if their respective tales didn't actually need to be. But out of all the war-time spectacles that were pushed out in the late sixties and early seventies, Kelly's Heroes is, without doubt, the most self-indulgent. A common complaint made against it is that Hutton allows the pace to become uneven due to several longeurs that seem to stretch the point and permit the movie, in places, to lapse into stage-bound farce. Although these arguments do hold some water, I find that the sequences in question are part and parcel of the overall satirical glimpse into this semi-parody of consequence. Persuading Big Joe (Savalos, as the platoon's official leader) that Kelly's quest for gold is worthwhile could have been wrapped-up in a quarter of the time, but this is a chance for Savalas to showboat and his grave concerns over his men risking their necks on such a hair-brained scheme, and his barnstorming arguments and eventual caving-in becoming actually quite poignant. The pantomimic confusions and misdirections involving Carroll O'Connor's bull-headed buffoon believing, via the impact of some intercepted and misunderstood radio exchanges from Kelly's vagabonds, that his men have seized the initiative and accelerated a campaign he has long been cursing his officer for allowing to become stalled, may essentially be there for mere comedic value, but they also explore the fact that Kelly and his mob really can't just float through enemy territories, cool and untouchable, and that cause-and-effect will, ultimately, have some ramifications. But most of the indulgence seems to occur with one character in particular. And, as we shall see, this is no bad thing either, so just quit with those negative waves, baby, and go with the flow!

    Donald Sutherland's Luger-sporting, bearded hippy tank commander, Oddball, is the exquisite and, indeed, exotic element in the film's DNA that is like the mutant gene every X-Man has as a mark of his authenticity. This rogue strand of alarmingly misplaced characterisation shouldn't work - he is twenty years and two wars before his time - but in this hybrid of detailed period set-dressing, typically gung-ho WWII derring-do, and trippy 60's sensibilities, Oddball becomes the heart and soul of the piece, transcending his own anachronism to reflect the fantastical lunacy of war. Languishing in a camouflaged kibbutz with his harem of gypsy maidens and his spaced-out gunners, drivers and mechanics, Oddball is the epitome of the warrior resting on his laurels and praying that nobody notices that he's “dropped out” of the war. But, for $1.6 million, he is more than willing to take up arms once more and remove the marijuana plants from his tank barrel ... and allow his maverick unit “to be heroes for three days.”

    Sutherland had, himself, earned his war-time spurs with Robert Aldridge during his stint on The Dirty Dozen (BD reviewed separately), but had really just blended in with the crowd. Here, he was promoted (and not least via the decapitation of his commanding officer) to one of the chief supporting roles in the ragtag assortment of army misfits. In fact, even in broader terms, it is refreshing to find that this mob are not in the least bit stereotypical, even the lowliest character in the gold-seeking crew with the least screen-time is someone distinct from the run-of-the-mill GI stockpile that Hollywood never tired of raiding. But whereas Eastwood's laconic Kelly really just serves as a plot instigator, and has very little colour of his own to add other than the odd exasperated or withering glance at Oddball's antics, Sutherland eagerly devours every scene that he is in, hogging the camera and throwing almost everyone else off-track with his unforeseen mannerisms. It is quite obvious that a lot of his dialogue is adlibbed and this just bolsters the unpredictable and devil-may-care attitude of the tank-track-surfer all the more. Hooting and chunnering, growling and scowling, Oddball fights off those “negative waves” at every turn, which must, in part, have been a form of defensive mechanism too, for it was during the making of the film that his then-wife, actress Shirley Douglas, was arrested for attempting to buy hand grenades for the radical underground movement The Black Panthers back in America! Sutherland would magnify and reinforce this glorious counter-culture turn in Robert Altman's M*A*S*H, another subversive, anarchic and blackly comic exposé of ill-thought-out military action and hilarity in the face of atrocity, that also appeared in 1970. But the following years would see Sutherland deliver a succession of magnificently nuanced performances in Klute, Don't Look Now and the remake of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, enabling audiences to discover an actor who was growing in talent and variety with each role he took on. Nothing would be as much impromptu fun as Oddball, though.

    "Why don't you knock it off with them negative waves! Why don't you dig how beautiful it is out here? Why don't you say something righteous and hopeful for a change?"


    Eastwood, as I have implied, is content to sit back for much of the time and allow those around him to shine, the superstar having totally embraced his own screen persona and his laid-back, man-of-few-words shtick was now honed to perfection. With his self-launch into directing as well as starring just around the corner (Play Misty For Me would be released the following year) it may be that he was already more interested in watching and studying the interaction of the cast with their director and the logistics of marshalling them all through a movie that preoccupied him the most. It is also true that Eastwood only took the part of Kelly because his friend and director on Coogan's Bluff and Two Mules For Sister Sara, Don Siegel, was initially earmarked to helm the film. Pre-production problems with scheduling saw his removal from the project, though the two would reunite for Dirty Harry very soon afterwards and history would, once more, be re-carved with Eastwood's craggy visage. He is certainly much better in this than in Where Eagles Dare. The previous outing for Hutton would see him playing second fiddle to Richard Burton, or rather Richard Burton's double, Alf Joint, and the Eastwood who shot to fame in the Spaghetti Westerns of Leone seemed largely stripped of charisma. The basis for his long-standing anti-authoritarian, “outside the rules” mode of operation would essentially begin, in earnest, with Kelly's Heroes.

    “There's no booze, there's no broads, there's no action!”

    In something of a trend, Telly Savalos brought along another family member to strengthen his ranks, his brother George, as the imbecilic and bumbling artillery chief, Mulligan. You've just got to adore the moment when, split-second timing being essential, the snoring Mulligan has to awaken to give the order for a shelling barrage to provide Kelly's Heroes with cover and, dreaming of riches beyond measure, he picks up a gold bar and, thinking it is the field telephone, yells “Fire!” into it. And the lollipop-sucking icon cuts a sweaty, sad-eyed dash as the irascible, yet sympathetic Sgt. who must reluctantly relinquish command of his men to Kelly if they are to take the gold. Watch out for the throwaway moment when Big Joe returns to his squad's blasted farmhouse quarters with a supply of adult films for their R&R entertainment - “You wait here, padre” he says to the passenger in his jeep who is clutching the dubious assortment of vintage porn-cans.

    Don Rickles, the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story trilogy, is fantastic as the mealy-mouthed quartermaster, Crapgame. Taking the pilfered baton from James Garner's Scrounger in The Great Escape, but modifying such acquisitional skills for supremely personal gain, the once good-time pal of Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope, moans, bitches and shouts his way through a series of encounters that his rear-echelon ass has never been previously exposed to. But if he wants his share of the loot, he's going to have to earn it. His continued sparring with Big Joe is highly personal, but you just know that the two of them will reach some level of combat-forged understanding by the end of the caper. An experienced stand-up comedian, Rickles is about the only one who can fit in with Sutherland's unorthodox timing as Oddball. It is also wonderful to see The Love Boat's own merry Captain Stubing, Gavin MacLeod, here as the narky, easily put-down and long-suffering tank mechanic, Moriarty, the provider of all those negative waves that Oddball is so frustrated by. And we must not overlook the small, but pivotal role that Karl Otto-Alberty plays as the fiercely loyal Tiger-tank commander during the big battle for the bank. Looking like slobber-lipped TV chef Jamie Oliver, Otto-Alberty became something of a gasp-inducing crowd-pleaser with his starched Aryan appearance, inscrutable scarred face, glowing blonde hair and demonic black Panzer uniform. Even with only a couple of lines, he virtually steals the show, especially when we see his chopsy face light up in the gleam from the gold bars.

    After a few exciting stop-offs along the way, the final third of the movie, set in and around the town that holds the bank, is possibly one of the best structured large-scale set-pieces in a genre that is stuffed with battles, sieges and contacts. The edge is different, the result is not necessarily one that demands victory over the enemy, although that would obviously be a nice bonus, and the tactics employed, however greed-orchestrated, prove that these guys are, indeed, exemplary soldiers. With tactical savvy, distinct courage and a crucial capacity for desperate deal-making, the ensemble rally-together to create a momentous sequence that combines suspense, action and laughs. Creeping around the rubble and taking up positions in all manner of hidey-holes and vantage points, the Heroes become strategic chess pieces in a vast and deadly game. Hutton and his DOP Gabriel Figueroa (who had worked with Eastwood on Two Mules For Sister Sara) create a wonderful sense of sweeping movement as the trap is slowly put into place, their combined grasp of the logistics and the visual narrative of what is happening on such a packed and complicated playing field quite extraordinary. Of all the big battle scenes that you see these days - what with their frame removal, ferocious editing, hand-held photography and often bleached-out appearance - only the likes of Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down actually manages to keep this sort of coherence amidst the chaos.

    “These tanks are faster than any other tanks in the European theatre of operations. Forwards or backwards, you see man, we like to feel we're able to get out of trouble quicker than we got into it."

    The cat-and-mouse game between the Tigers and the lone Sherman is absolutely riveting. The panic that sets in when Oddball pelts one of the larger war-machines with a paint-shell instead of an explosive one, and the thing tries to smash its barrel through the walls and trees that hem it in to get back its own back, and then the terror of Crapgame, Cowboy (Jeff Morris) and Willard (Harry Dean Stanton) when one of the Tigers thunders down the road after them is genuinely palpable. Hutton is able to inject these rumbling metal monsters with definite personalities and his gifted 2nd Unit, although nowhere nearly as brought into play as extensively as they were on Where Eagles Dare which, it could be argued Hutton hardly directed at all, construct some fabulous mini-dramas within the debris. The Germans do tend to just dance with American bullets, but there is something a lot more believable about this ambush than most battle-scenes from the era, aided so brilliantly by the lengthy build-up that makes the resulting maelstrom go, largely, according to Kelly's off-the-cuff plan.

    “Hey look, you just keep them Tigers busy and we'll take care of the rest.”

    “The only way I got to keep them Tigers busy is to let them shoot holes in me!

    I love the way that Karl Otto Alberty's indomitable commander steers his Tiger back in front of the bank and then just pumps shells and bullets indiscriminately into all the surrounding buildings, hoping to flush out the Sherman. It reminds me of when the Predator, standing on a huge tree branch after a mud-camouflaged Arnie has hurled a spear at him, just fires laser-bolt after laser-bolt in every direction in anger at having been caught napping by his prey. The size of this thing, coupled with its relentless ability to spin on a dime, and its sheer monstrous countenance makes this particular piece of steel a terrific screen villain in its own right.

    Much has been made of the production's authenticity. Filming in Yugoslavia meant that the large number of US military machinery retained there could be handily incorporated, plus the use of the Yugoslav army and its own vehicles and planes. The inclusion of real Sherman Tanks, of course, is well known, but almost all the hardware looks genuine and, crucially, is used with genuine proficiency. Again, compare this with Where Eagles Dare, in which almost everything looks like a prop or a mock-up. Here, the rifles and machine-guns, the jeeps, tanks, half-tracks, artillery, bayonets and even the damn khaki vests look real, used and lived-in. And yet, if you look closely, in what may just be a little joke, there is something that looks just like a Highway Patrol Electra-Glide cruising down the road during the early sequence when Big Joe's squad are resting-up beside the massive convoy and awaiting their next orders.

    Hutton claims that he made Where Eagles Dare as a spoof and can't quite believe why no-one, especially American audiences, didn't grasp the fact. Well I take that claim with a pinch of salt, myself, but there is no denying that Kelly's Heroes is a send-up of the chaos and liberation that such a large-scale invasion can offer up with constantly shifting front lines and opportunist troops forever on the make. And yet the film is also very serious and even quite moving regarding the deaths of a couple of the “heroes”, Big Joe's last lingering glance at their stricken bodies through the binoculars a lovely touch that reveals the respect and love he has for his platoon. The film is also startlingly violent, comparatively speaking. For a movie that was so often hauled onto TV screens during Bank Holidays and festive periods, there is a darker element to the cartoonic carnage that is quite effectively jolting. Germans are, as usual, slaughtered en masse, but there are a few agonised kills that stick in the mind of troopers hanging over the sides of their tanks or spasming with bullet hits. To wit, the genocidal verve of the squad as they plough through the shelled town occupied by unwitting Germans. Plus, you've got the grenades being lobbed onto the backs of some huddled enemy soldiers (only dummies get blown asunder, but it does look quite meaty), and the torn and bloody corpse of a Hero who has inadvertently stepped on a mine. Gutowski's (Richard Davalos) sniper shots from the bell-tower obviously seem like a precursor to Barry Pepper's pot-shots from a very similar bell-tower in Saving Private Ryan, but Hutton manages to develop some fine visuals and a tensely wrought atmosphere of pre-battle anticipation as well as the eerie might of telescopic power. The sight of Germans running for their lives into doorways only to get blown back out of them is a dangerously amusing one, but Hutton even pauses to give us the vision of a slain Nazi's body getting swept away in the muddy tide from a blasted water-tower.

    “You get the time straight with Mulligan?”

    “Yeah, I got the time straight with Mulligan. Whether or not Mulligan can tell time is another question ...”

    Lalo Schifrin gets the joke, all right. His mighty score is injected with just the right amount of lazy hedonism, breezy counter-culture militarism, satirical Western nods, and tense action build-up. His funky urbanised vibe is evident, and he delivers a payload of infectious, urgent and dramatic motifs to the lead-in to the final battle, his emphatic beat becoming a deep, chugging pulse as men manoeuvre themselves into position. With cadences, rib-rattling drum sizzles and even some massed humming and kazoo-work that sounds like the dreaded World Cup vuvuzela, his crazy melange is as twisted and joyous as Oddball, himself. But just listen to his tongue-in-cheek take on Ennio Morricone's famous Spaghetti Sound for the famous cue entitled Quick Draw Kelly. As Sutherland, Savalas and Eastwood hoist their guns and strut down La Rue in a showdown with a Tiger Tank, Schifrin ladles on the eclectic guitars, the jangling harmonica, the quasi-Mexican lilt and the triumphant brass, but his mimicking of Morricone's animal and human sounds is actually a sly parody of Oddball, himself. In fact, I would go as far as to say that Oddball's frequent dog impersonation is actually utilised in the piece. Woof, Woof, Woof! Schifrin would actually compose a lot of Western-style face-off cues such as this, with a great many of them for Eastwood, to boot. His most similar moment to this would have to be in Sudden Impact, when Dirty Harry, seemingly back from the grave, strides down the pier to confront a trio of despicable varmints. And we get the immortal song “Burning Bridges” from The Mike Curb Congregation that hums through your skull for a long time afterward the end credits have rolled.

    “Ughhh, that nut's got to be nuts!”

    It was also during his stint as a production assistant and extra (he played a nun) on Kelly's Heroes that cult filmmaker John Landis got the initial idea for An American Werewolf In London when he observed a bizarre and heavily superstitious head-first burial taking place at a crossroads outside a rural village during the shoot. And trivia fans may also like to know that the ominous noise made by the electric motors for the movements of the Tiger turrets was later used by James Cameron for the power-lifters in Aliens and then embellished again for Avatar. The film also must have served as something of an inspiration for its Iraq War counterpart, Three Kings, with George Clooney. Hutton certainly made good on his promise with Where Eagles Dare, boosting the scale and the tone of the story into a much more “credible” direction, focussing much better on dialogue, characters and set-piece construction and realising that derring-do needed be so damn po-faced.

    What you need to remember about Kelly's Heroes, and it is another reason why it is so unique in the genre, is that it came along during the most nihilistic period for Hollywood productions. Sam Peckinpah had ripped the guts out of the Western after almost a decade of innovative and extreme Italian rule, and would do the same for the War Movie with Cross Of Iron. Bullitt, Dirty Harry and The French Connection were hard at work rewriting the rulebook on the cop thriller whilst Romero rammed social rage down the collective throats of a nation with Night Of The Living Dead. And even James Bond had been awarded his most aggressive and emotional mission in the awesome OHMSS. Kelly, in spite of the home-grown anger at US involvement in Southeast Asia and the almost exponential gloom, doom and downbeat cinematic response to resulting public outcry as well as the increasing distrust towards the government over racial discriminations and right-wing societal policies, was a breath of fresh air. It didn't take itself seriously. It reflected the Summer of Love. And it deliberately undermined the War is Hell ethic. It left you with a smile on your face and provided that all-essential feeling of having got one over on the Man.

    Kelly's Heroes, then. It's beautiful, baby.

    The Rundown

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