"KELLY’S HEROES" (1970) Review
When one thinks of acclaimed movies about World War II, titles such as 1962’s "THE LONGEST DAY" or 1998’s"SAVING PRIVATE RYAN" come to mind. But an offbeat movie about a group of U.S. Army soldiers that go AWOL behind enemy lines to rob Nazi gold from a bank in a small French town does not conjure up images of Academy Award statuettes in one’s mind. In fact, I doubt that 1970’s "KELLY’S HEROES" had ever received a prestigious award or nomination.
"KELLY’S HEROES" began on a stormy night in 1944 France, in which a U.S. Army private named Kelly was ordered by his sergeant to find a German officer for information on the best taverns, restaurants, hotels and whorehouses in the nearby town of Nancy. Do you see where this is going? Instead, Kelly managed to nab a German officer who, in a state of alcoholic bleariness, revealed the location of a cache of Nazi gold being held at a bank in the German-held town of Clermont. Kelly then convinced the rest of the men in his squad and their gruff sergeant – Big Joe – to take advantage of the three-day furlough being offered to go after the gold. After all, their less-than-competent company commander, Captain Maitland, is rarely around to lead them and he had plans for a trip to Paris. Kelly also recruited an acid-tongued and avaricious supply sergeant named Crapgame, and a proto-hippie tank commander named Oddball for support in his little caper. What followed was a hilarious, caustic and epic journey for a group of weary soldiers, determined to benefit somehow from a brutal war.
One aspect about "KELLY’S HEROES" that struck me as . . . interesting was that the majority of the cast seemed to be between the ages of 30 and 45 during the movie’s production and looked it. Including the film’s main star, Clint Eastwood. The Army uniforms wore by most of the cast seemed historically questionable. One of the characters, namely Oddball, behaved like a slightly aged 1969/70 hippie with a questionable New York accent, instead of a 1940s Army sergeant. There are NO female characters in this movie whatsoever. The pacing threatened to bog down two-thirds into the film. And yet . . . and yet I LOVE this movie. In fact, I never get tired of watching it.
What do I love about "KELLY’S HEROES"? Well, I could start with the screenplay, written by Troy Kennedy-Martin. It is a first-rate war story/caper that went into detail over Kelly’s discovery about the gold, his recruitment of his squad for the mission, the journey to Clermont . . . everything. Another aspect of the movie I had enjoyed was the witty dialogue. And who had received the cream of it? Who else but the King of Insults, Don Rickles. The movie also had some first-rate action that included a firefight near a field booby-trapped with mines, an attack upon a Nazi fuel depot by Oddball and his tank unit, and the final assault on Clermont that ended with a humorous and ironic twist. My favorite action sequence centered on the tank unit’s attack upon the Nazi fuel depot. There was something surreal and bizarre about Oddball’s tanks blowing nearly everyone to hell, while country-western music blasted from their speakers.
What did I love most about "KELLY’S HEROES"? The characters, of course. Clint Eastwood portrayed the caper’s brainchild, Kelly - the former officer who was busted down to private. There was nothing particularly unique about Eastwood’s performance. Well . . . I must admit that I found his reactions to the lunatic characters around him rather funny. Especially when he interacted with the likes of Oddball. There are times – especially in this movie – when I feel that Eastwood might be one of the best reactors in Hollywood. Telly Savalas gave Eastwood a run for his money in terms of screen presence as Kelly’s sardonic, yet practical squad leader, Big Joe. After all, Kelly needed Big Joe’s cooperation to convince the rest of the squad to join him in on the caper. Whereas Eastwood reacted to the lunacy around him with facial expressions, Savalas responded with some very funny and caustic remarks.
Don Rickles. What can I say about his performance? He surely earned his moniker as the King of Insult Comedy in this movie. The man seemed to have twice the number of witticisms as the rest of the cast put together. And his performance as Crapgame, the caustic and avaricious supply sergeant was spot on. Donald Sutherland’s portrayal of the loopy tank sergeant, Oddball, is probably my favorite performance in the entire movie. On the surface, Sutherland’s Oddball seemed out of sync in a movie set during World War II. If "KELLY’S HEROES" had been set during the Vietnam War, his Oddball would fit in beautifully. Ironically, Sutherland’s performance is one of the reasons why I love this movie. I really enjoyed watching Eastwood, Savalas, Rickles and especially Gavin McLeod (who played Oddball’s machine gunner and mechanic) react to his lunacy and hippie-style dialogue. A year before he had shot to fame as Archie Bunker in "ALL IN THE FAMILY", Carroll O’Connor appeared in this movie as the squad’s gung-ho division commander, Major General Colt. O’Connor literally infused the screen with a raw energy in his portrayal of the aggressive general with a tendency to refer to military action in football terms.
"KELLY’S HEROES" also had the good fortune to be filled with some memorable supporting characters that were portrayed by some first-rate actors. Stuart Margolin first made his presence known as Big Joe’s pragmatic and witty radio operator, Little Joe. Jeff Morris and Harry Dean Stanton provided plenty of comic relief as a pair of Southern-born soldiers that also happened to be best friends. Richard Davalos (grandfather of Alexa Davalos of "ANGEL", "DEFIANCE" and"MOB CITY") gave a memorable performance as the squad’s trigger happy marksman, Private Gutowski. Four years before "CHINATOWN", Perry Lopez was hilarious as the slightly dim-witted Private Petuko. Karl-Otto Alberty made a brief, but memorable appearance as the German tank commander in Clermont who ended up standing between our "Heroes"and the gold inside in the bank. And Gavin McLeod turned out to be a perfect straight man to Sutherland’s loopy Oddball as the latter’s exasperated mechanic and gunner.
While perusing the Wikipedia website, I discovered that "KELLY’S HEROES" had placed at #34 on the 100 Greatest War Movies list. Frankly, I would heartily agree. In fact, I consider it to be one of my top ten favorite World War II movies of all time. That is how much I love it.