Friday, June 4, 2010

"Kelly's Heroes" and the blurring of greed, duty and simple-minded anti-war statements

Title: Kelly's Heroes
Released: 1970
Genre: Anti-war war movie
Notable for: Ensemble cast overshadows Clint
Coolest thing Clint does: Gets a Nazi colonel blind drunk as an interrogation technique

"Kelly's Heroes" is without doubt the leading Clint Eastwood movie of all time for featuring 1970s TV stars. This led to frequent annoying interruptions in our viewing pleasure.

"Hey! Do you know who that is?" Brad asked excitedly. "No," Andy answered. Why, that's Archie Bunker! That's Kojak! That's Don Rickles, you hockey puck. That's the captain of the Love Boat. Even Donald Sutherland -- Jack Bauer's daddy, as Brad explained -- deserved honorable mention as the original Hawkeye Pierce from "MASH."

Clint received top billing, but it was not his movie. It's not even his style of movie, despite the pleasure of frequent action scenes.

"Kelly's Heroes," set in World War II, is one of those anti-war movies like "MASH" and "Catch-22" often described as offbeat. What makes them offbeat is comedy originally meant to highlight the absurdity of war and, we suppose, condemn the Vietnam War.

Message aside, the creators of "Kelly's Heroes" also attempted to deliver a good dose of mainstream appeal with frequent battle scenes and a leading man, Clint, who played it straight.

We like battle scenes. We like large explosions. We like this movie. It is entertaining, despite one significant problem.

The story revolves around Clint's discovery that $16 million in German gold is kept in a bank behind German lines in France. He organizes a caper to break through and steal the gold.

Recruiting volunteers is easy because almost every soldier is swayed more by personal greed than stamping out Nazis. His particular band of brothers has fought hard since D-Day and feels mistreated by the Army brass, which is portrayed as unrelentingly incompetent and foolish.

Moral underpinnings of the gold caper (and the movie) are established early on when the soldiers declare they might die any day, so they might as well risk death to get something for themselves.

Between battle scenes, the movie is a comedy, but without Clint's participation. He is his usual, tight-lipped self. If he had a single joke, we missed it. This makes Clint seem out of sync with his own movie. Sutherland steals the show with a his portrayal of an eccentric tank commander who is, inexplicably, a hippie.

Clint's boys eventually get their gold, of course, leaving piles of dead Germans in their wake. Even the incompetent commanding officers notice all the fighting, and a blustery general rushes to the front lines to give medals to the thieves.

The plot has several holes -- for example, how do front-line soldiers expect to carry or conceal 14,000 gold bars for the duration of a war? -- but that's OK.

Here's the biggest problem: World War II was not Vietnam. We all know that now, even if it confused movie makers in 1970.

Near the end of the film, one lone but unbeatable German tank stands between Clint's guys and the gold. Don Rickles saves the day by suggesting the German tank commander should be bribed to stop fighting and join the heist.

"We're all soldiers," Telly Savalas tells the German. "We don't even know what this war is all about."

That's just idiotic. Almost a whole generation of Americans risked their lives fighting World War II and they knew what it was about. To have Rickles, a Jew playing a character who appears Jewish, suggest going into business with a Nazi soldier is worse than simple-minded.

Clint's message in this movie is that a real man looks out for himself instead of being a tool of others in power. That's fine, except a real man should also know that once in a while the people in power are not wrong.

Next up: "Two Mules for Sister Sara."


  1. A really good, perceptive review of a movie that annoys the hell out of me for precisely the reason you identify.
    Looking forward to Two Mules - it's actually my favourite Clint western...

  2. I grew watching this movie. Its what made me an Eastwood fan. I LOVE this fim, matter of fact, its is now my favorite all time movie, being the orignal Star Wars was which I saw in the theater in 1977. As much as Mr. Eastwood was disapointed in this film, I am not. This along with Good, Bad Ugly, Dirty Harry, Firefox, Escape from Alcatraz, and others are why he is my favorit male actor. But THIS film, Kelly's Heroes takes the cake for me. Whenever its on, I watch it, even though I have it on DVD. My very best of friends and I constantly quote this movie, be it Crapgame, Kelly, Big Joe or of course ODDBALL, for which I named one of my cats after. Mr. Eastwood, as one of your biggest fans, THANK YOU for this movie. I know its not what you wanted but I am MORE than happy as a fan. Great cast, fun too watch.. But the best, WWII JEEPS, TOMMY GUNS, HALF TRACKS and SHERMANS!!! TOO COOL!!!

  3. First, my take on it was that no one had to carry any gold around with them for the rest of the war. The robbers all went AWOL. Did you guys miss the part where everyone piled the gold bars into German and Us trucks and halftracks, and made for the Swiss border? The only guy who didn't go, Oddball, traded his share of the gold to the Germans for their last serviceable Tiger tank, which he was last seen repainting with US insignia. Once a tanker always a tanker.

    And, I found it humorous, not funny, that Rickles' character would be willing to make a deal with the Nazi officer, and quite plausible. This was at the tail end of the war, when the outcome was decided and further fighting was pointless.