Kelly’s Heroes

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KELLY’S HEROES gave Clint Eastwood covering fire to mop up the rest of the German Army that he didn’t polish off in Where Eagles Dare; in this big-scale 1970 WW2 action favorite he has substantial help from a likable cast, a foolproof plot and an even more irreverent attitude. To hell with a Second Front or saving some phony general: there’s sixteen million smackers to “liberate” this time. *

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1944, northeastern France, near Nancy, which as Sgt.’Big Joe’ (Telly Savalas) informs us “is a big town with a lotta passionate broads“. His hope of morale R&R with local maidens is put on hold when ‘Pvt.Kelly’ (Eastwood) discovers there’s a bank loaded with gold bars 30 miles away, behind enemy lines. With the fellow platoon members agreeing “why the hell not?”, Kelly and Joe stage a heist. Cutting them in for a share, help comes from Supply Sgt. ‘Crapgame’ (Don Rickles) and from the three tanks led by proto-mellow Sgt. ‘Oddball’ (Donald Sutherland). As Kelly’s heroes fight the battle of the bullion, back at HQ, their general (Carroll O’Connor) is under the impression his boys are leading a breakthrough advance rather than a breaking & entering operation.

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Brian G. Hutton, who’d directed Where Eagles Dare, has a much better script to work with here, written by Troy Kennedy Martin, and made the $4,000,000 invested look like twice as much with location filming in Croatia and Serbia, both at the time still part of what was Yugoslavia. The country had lots of WW2 era vehicles the production could employ, like Sherman tanks, and Russian T-34s mocked up to convincingly pose as the feared German ‘Tigers’, as well as plenty of available (and cheaply paid) extras and village settings. The pyrotechnics budget alone on this picture could have sent everyone in Croatia to college. At 2 hours, 23 minutes, it’s lengthy, but thanks to the cast, humor, action and production detail it works as a great “hangout” movie. There are seven elaborate action sequences. They don’t exactly comport to reality, but they’re lavish and excitingly staged (one doubts German audiences would appreciate the one-sided mayhem), and the sound effects crew really deserved an Oscar nomination for their superb noisemaking.

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Eastwood handles himself better than in the previous ‘Eagles‘ escapade, though he doesn’t have to more than Clint-squint and look good handling a Thompson. Savalas is forceful, playing it straight and tough, anchoring the anarchy as the most believable character in the bunch. Rickles does well, playing off his TV & nightclub persona, but not letting it get out of check. O’Connor blusters amusingly, similar to blowhards he’d done in What Did You Do In The War Daddy (another WW2 farce, from ’66)and the wacky ’67 western Waterhole #3, sort of rehearsing for ‘Archie Bunker’. Sutherland has a field day being hippie-esque: it’s all such an obvious put-on it’s hard to be upset over the anachronistic absurdity. No negative waving from this couch. ***

Mexico’s legendary Gabriel Figueroa was the cameraman. Epic expert Andrew Marton handled 2nd-unit direction of most of the copious battle scenes, and 19-year-old wannabe John Landis assisted in various capacities, taking notes for his future. Lalo Schifrin scored, including a satiric riff off Ennio Morricone for the go-for-broke Tiger-faceoff finale. The opening & closing song, “Burning Bridges”, sung by the Mike Curb Congregation, became a pop hit. Forever linked to the movie, it’s a strange and endearing tune that’s rousing and jaunty but also simultaneously wistful and sorrowful.

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Critics sniped (the hike they can take being a long one) but it did well with Boys of All Ages, and remains an oft-watched and quoted favorite. Box office in the U.S. amounted to $16,200,000, 22nd spot for the year. **

Adding their flair to the line of fire: Stuart Margolin, Gavin MacLeod (‘Moriarty’, “always with the negative waves“), Hal Buckley, Jeff Morris, Tom Troupe, Harry Dean Stanton, Len Lesser, George Savalas, Richard Davalos, Perry Lopez, Gene Collins, David Hurst and the indispensable Karl Otto Alberty (as the Tiger commander who wises up).

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* The script was inspired by (as opposed to “based off of”) a non-fiction expose published in 1984, following nine years of research by author and Nazi hunter Ian Sayer. “Nazi Gold: The Story of the World’s Greatest Robbery—And Its Aftermath” was co-written by Douglas Botting.

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** Warfare on screen in 1970, in order of box-office success: MASH, Patton, Tora!Tora!Tora!, Catch-22, Kelly’s Heroes, Cromwell, Waterloo, Soldier Blue, Sunflower, Hornet’s Nest, Too Late The Hero, The McKenzie Break, The Last Grenade.

Over the protests of Eastwood and Hutton, about 20 minutes of character interaction was cut from Kelly’s Heroes by MGM. Furthering that drag for fans of the film is the bummer item that Ingrid Pitt, who’d added spice to Where Eagles Dare, was up for a role.  She was dumped at the very last minute, or as she put it “virtually climbing on board the plane bound for Yugoslavia when word came through that my part had been cut”.

*** At 35, 1970 was Donald Sutherland’s breakout year. MASH was a huge hit, and he also had co-leads in Start The Revolution Without Me, Alex in Wonderland and Act Of The Heart. He related: “I got sick in the middle of shooting ‘Kelly’s Heroes’. I came to Yugoslavia for a day’s filming and I was out for six weeks. They took me to hospital – I had spinal meningitis. They didn’t have the antibiotics, so I went into a coma, and they tell me that for a few seconds, I died. I saw the blue tunnel, and I started going down it. I saw the white light. I dug my feet in. I didn’t want to go – but it was incredibly tempting. You just go: ‘Aw, s**t man, why not?’. ”

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