Kelly's Heroes

Nazis, gold, tanks and Clint Eastwood. Sorted.

Released in 1970, certified UK-PG. Reviewed on 01 Apr 2005 by Craig Eastman
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Grrr. There was a time, somehwere between 1945 and Saving Private Ryan, when all you needed to win a war was a rag-tag band of square jaws, some Thompson machine guns, chewing tobacco and a philosophical view of global carnage as manifestation of man's instinctual desire to kill man. Spray the Gerry scum with liberal sprinklings of lead and they would freeze; eyes closed, mouths open and arms clutched to chest before collapsing to the floor in highly sanitised fashion. Job's a good'un. Of course now we know better, and since Spielberg popularised the hyper-real "guts without glory" approach you'd be hard-pushed to find a war movie where grown men don't cry and die screaming for their mothers. Bugger. I was quite enjoying all that Boy's Own malarkey.

Like most of his fellow combatants, Kelly (Clint Eastwood) has the nagging suspicion that there's very little point to all this World War II nonsense, and even less in it for him personally. When a captured German officer plied with Jack Daniels lets slip the details of a German gold bullion haul holed up in a small village bank somehwere in the vicinity, The Squint decides to mobilise his platoon in order that he and his men make some personal gain from all this madness, precipitating an adventure romp that plays like Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom with Nazis. Hang on. Isn't that the other two Indiana Jones movies? Oh, never mind. Along the way Kelly enlists the help of Donald Sutherland as a spaced-out Sherman tank commander and Telly Savalas as...well, a bald man with a gun. Game on.

Sandwiched between the adventure/drama period of such fare as Where Eagles Dare and the beginnings of the "meditative" Apocalypse Now period (see also Platoon, The Thin Red Line etc.), Kelly's Heroes represents the logical cinematic conclusion for a generation forced to come to terms with their wholesale slaughter of fellow men, women and children. It was all a big adventure, wasn't it? Well, no, not really. Still, as hugely irresponsible as the movie now seems with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, there's no shaking the feeling that Kelly's Heroes is a riotously effective slice of entertainment. Coming from the post-Italian Job pen of Troy Kennedy Martin, the movie wisely steers clear of that effort's in-yer-face humour, opting instead for lantern-jawed leading men and leaving the subsiduary laughs to the thinly veilled stoner antics of Sutherland and his fear of "negative waves", and the likes of constantly fretting supporting players like Don Rickles.

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While the laugh quota doesn't exactly run off the end of the guage marked "riotous" (that'd just be irresponsible), the action most certainly does it's best, with nary a minute passing without the accompaniement of rocket fire, bomb blasts or hot lead in the air, and it's the sheer kinetic pace of the affair that keeps it above water for the duration. With nary a bettlefield encounter to be seen, the thrust of Kelly's Heroes' lies in a series of rural setpieces that showcase some surprisingly vicious skirmishes betwixt Clint's chaps and the scattered units of bothersome Bosch that lie between them and a tidy withdrawal at the cash machine. Indeed the sincerity of this combat is something of a surprise given the movie's PG rating in the UK, and while there aren't exactly any insides being shown on the outside it's still intense enough to make one think twice about showing it to younger members of the audience. Performance-wise Kelly is a mixed bag. Eastwood never looks comfortable in the lead role, his awkward glare and steely demeanour theoretically essential for anchoring the movie, yet somehow at odds with the rest of the cast. That he still manages to be the single most iconic element of the picture really isn't such a surprise.

Savalas on the other hand is clearly more involved in the process, and even more clearly feels he, not Eastwood, is carrying the movie's emotional gravitas. Unfortunately for him, nobody else is paying any attention. Donald Sutherland on the other hand isn't paying attention to anything else at all, waxing lyrical about freaking out the enemy by filling his tank shells with different colours of paint and making "pretty pictures" with them. On paper his character should be the least necessary addition to the whole cast, but the fact he's having a whale of a time as the only guy on screen immediately aware of the pointless nature of all this war malarkey makes him by far and away the most endearing member of the cast.

Still, at the end of the day Kelly's Heroes isn't about macho posturing, soul-searching or the glorification of man's inhumanity of man; it's about having a jolly good stab at making us all feel that our fathers and grandfathers might have slaughtered their fellow men en masse, but at least they did it for money. Er, no. Wait a minute. That's not right. It's about them not following orders and stealing gold. No, that's not it either. It's...oh bugger it. Who knows what the point of it all is? Maybe that's the point. At the end of the day it's a right old hoot from start to finish, has plenty of tommy gun action, lots of stuff gets blown up by tanks, and our boys even make friends with a German at the end. Oh, and it has a funky, curiously fitting score by Lalo Schiffrin. Job's a good'un.

Smoke me a kipper if this bad boy aint worthy of 4 out of 5 Disko Units.

Brian G. Hutton
Cast list:
Clint Eastwood (Pvt. Kelly)
Telly Savalas (MSgt. Big Joe)
Donald Sutherland (Sgt. Oddball)