Directed by Brian G. Hutton
Written by Troy Kennedy Martin
Kelly's Heroes is maybe the perfect 1970 movie, in specific ways involving its story and attitude, and which we'll get to shortly, and in ways more general, regarding its industrial manufacture and function in the cinematic marketplace of its day, which we'll get to right now. But I do mean the perfect 1970 movie, not 1970s movie, a movie balanced delicately upon the edge between the decade that was and the decade to come. It honors what came before, for the 1960s had been the golden age of the war film, particularly the World War II film, and the genre had benefited greatly from so many unique aspects of both that particular conflict and the environment of mid-century optimism in which its stories were being retold that I suppose I shouldn't be so surprised that this golden age could never be repeated. Still, the most important material factor here is probably just that functional World War II gear was new enough to still exist in quantity but old enough for nobody to care too much about a bunch of civilians dicking around with it. (Sociologically, you could say much the same thing about the history: new enough to still be the events that defined the world but old enough for people not to be precious about it. And even all these years later, though our approach to war cinema has had to change, World War II itself has never quite lost its luster as the good war America won, nor our adversaries lost their odium.) But the 1960s were many things: they were the golden age of the heist film, too, and they were the golden age of the long-ass megaproduction comedy. And so I can't imagine a more perfect film to close the 60s out than Kelly's Heroes, the World War II heist film megaproduction comedy with the 146 minute runtime, even if calling it a "megaproduction" isn't accurate, except in the experiential sense that, well, just look at the Goddamn thing, and be in complete awe of how far $4 million could go in Yugoslavia in 1970. And maybe that's an element of "being the perfect 1970 movie" itself, as the 1960s had seen savvy international film production come into its own.
This would only make it the perfect 60s movie, of course, yet Kelly's Heroes feels like the precise point that American war movies stopped being about World War II or anything else and could henceforward be only about Vietnam, a claim that is complicated solely by the fact that M*A*S*H came out several months before it, sharing a top-line co-star and something like the same fundamental idea, "this movie about a historical conflict is actually about the current conflict, which it shall obliquely mock by way of the most belligerently contemporary cynicism you've ever seen," only it's expressed here in ways as different as you can get within the apparently very accommodating boundaries of cartoonish, larky comedies about war. The salient difference is that Kelly's Heroes is pretty much a joyous bloodbath, which is the big way it is still "about World War II"; it's "about Vietnam," meanwhile, in that it can't detect a purpose to fighting World War II, which would be sort of horrendous if I thought it was about World War II, and in a sense this makes it even bolder than M*A*S*H, which had used Korea, and taken advantage of Korea's subordinate mythological status, for its stand-in. But using World War II gives Kelly's Heroes a truly delirious energy, a worldview held suspended in superposition for almost the whole duration of the film, a wonderful hypocrisy that it exploits with utter ruthlessness.
It's always a good thing when a movie understands that first scenes are important, and this extremely-1970 World War II movie announces its intentions as soon as it starts. We begin on a stormy night in the late summer of 1944, and Pvt. Kelly (Clint Eastwood) is behind enemy lines in France, having seized a high-value German prisoner, Abwehr colonel Dankhopf (David Hurst). Disaster almost strikes, but as Kelly peels out with his captive through a gauntlet of explosions, what lunges out of the soundtrack is the not-even-remotely-of-1944 sonic textures of the film's theme song, "Burning Bridges," written by composer Lalo Schifrin and performed by the gee-can-you-tell-they're-not-from-the-1940s Mike Curb Congregation. It's such a ballsy opening gesture, and asks you to grapple with not only some serious anachronism, but the woozy aesthetic juxtaposition of flower-child light rock flowing across some kind of dimensional rift into the more concrete reality of fleeing Nazis who are trying to kill you. (It also asks you to recognize that Quentin Tarantino didn't invent this shit, if, obviously, that wasn't its intention.)
Once Kelly gets back to his platoon, what it wants you to do is place a different valence than you might have otherwise on all the World War II movie cliches it's going to be getting up to with Kelly's unit, despite these cliches being about as old as World War II movies made during World War II, comprising all the standard boilerplate bellyaching about boring homosocial misery and serving under moron officers, risking life and limb for some nebulous cause, all of which it identifies as one of those old "war never changes" things. Troy Kennedy Martin's screenplay is, inevitably, a little bit more prone to swearing than a World War II movie made in World War II would've been, but not even as much as he could have gotten away with, and this is certainly not a movie with "realistic" dialogue in any sense of that term, as we'll soon see; this is maybe also a good place to note what's "missing" from Kelly's Heroes, for despite the modal complaint of its G.I.'s being "but what about the broads?", so that the plurality of the non-plot dialogue involves pondering where French prostitutes can be obtained, the movie has literally not one female speaking part, and virtually no female faces whatsoever. That works well on its behalf; for one thing just keeping it from getting sleazy, ever the danger in 70s war films, while also cutting productively against that whole "perfect 1970 film" thing, arriving at the close of the swinging, sexy 1960s, where an absence of women, even in a war movie, somehow feels "off." (Not that it's surprising from the writer of The Italian Job, who barely had any idea what to do with women when he did have them.) But above all it channels that explicit horniness into the all-purpose sense of yearning for more that will ultimately drive Kelly's heroes on their quest.
That quest is laid out for Kelly when he discovers Dankhopf's secret: thirty miles behind German lines there sits, in a bank, 14,000 bars of gold, guarded by a small but heavily-armed detachment of SS Panzers—notably three Tiger I tanks. During a German counterattack, the colonel is accidentally killed, so now his secret belongs only to Kelly and the web of co-conspirators he enlists to take the gold: "Crapgame" (Don Rickles), the crooked logistics specialist with his hand in every pie; the dozen-or-so men of Kelly's platoon, and, with heaving reluctance and only after being hectored into it, Kelly's platoon's chief NCO, "Big" Joe (Telly Savalas); and, most importantly of all, because I don't know what Kelly thought he'd do without him, the tank savant known as "Oddball" (Donald Sutherland), who, in a stroke of fortune, has three Shermans and no commanding officer. And Oddball and Sutherland's performance thereof is essentially the key structural component of this entire movie, but as far as Kelly's own commanding officer Capt. Maitland (Hal Buckley) goes, he's managed to get his troops some boring backcountry R&R, in the meantime heading to HQ to show his uncle, Gen. Colt (Carroll O'Connor), the yacht he found in a river. As U.S. Army resources that could undoubtedly be put to be better use elsewhere are deployed to haul his new boat back to the rear, the captain reminds his men that looting is punishable by death. This doesn't seem to register, and that night Kelly's conspirators execute their plan to smash through the German lines and get that gold.
That's the heist movie and the war movie, and if the sine qua non of the heist movie is the pleasure it finds in the irresponsibility of its heroes while balancing that pleasure against the need to not make them sociopaths, Kelly's Heroes changes the rules, tantamount to playing a whole new game: I am confident that there is not another heist movie in the history of cinema—not even the meanest, cruelest bank robber film uninterested in pleasure and scarcely deserving of the title "heist film" in the first place—that has a body count half that of Kelly's Heroes. You would have to parse this movie frame-by-frame to even estimate the number of Nazis it kills en route to that gold. And yeah, kill those Nazis, but that's that wonderful hypocrisy: it is so unbelievably violent in service to an utterly venal cause, and yet all their victims, in a sense, deserve it. More to the point, their job here in Europe was already to kill them, just for much loftier, and for Kelly's heroes, rather harder-to-define reasons. The movie did, originally, have more character drama, cut for time (it still has a brief exchange led by Crapgame that's essentially a dry parody of the WWII movie enlisted man backstory template, having Rickles roll his eyes at how boring it is); and if I do have one negative thing to say about the movie, it's that it clunks slightly as war drama, in that it has the exact wrong amount of characters die in it—zero would keep it a purely anarchic goof, while four or five would slam home the slimy pragmatism in its heart. Instead, we get three, all at once, all highly-tertiary characters, in a "war is also sad" module that does work, but feels a little alien to the rest of it.
The comedy part of it is all over, however—the premise is already comic (though it turns out it's almost a true story, and I wouldn't call the true story "funny"), and, depending on the scene, the whoop-and-holler Nazi slaughter is comedy, though it sticks to absurdism and never overplays it into sadism. A nice baseline is set by Rickles's New Yawk huckster and Savalas's charismatic long-suffering sergeant, and it finds rich veins of black comedy as it heads into its conclusion. (Having seen it twice in two days—I really like this movie, has that come across?—I noticed the second time, distracted on the first by the delightfully showy non-continuity editing of the film's excellent denouement, what this editing is actually depicting, namely a town full of French people obliviously celebrating their liberation while their "heroes" steal a fortune that belongs to them, payment for services rendered.) The nastiest, most disorienting joke of the movie is its very climax, which suddenly asks if violence is necessary, and it finds one surprising answer to that question, as the film lurches into the weirdest possible mood that mixes genuine humanism and full-tilt nihilism into one big "fuck you" slurry. (But even here details are important: it drags it the one vital step back when Kelly's new Nazi accomplice (Karl Otto Albery) is compelled to reconsider how useful his Nazism will be going forward when he's just committed treason for cash). There is also a strain of zany satire, effected principally by O'Connor's maniacal, Pattonesque general, who discovers Kelly's plot but misidentifies it as warrior patriotism, for by this point the film has taken on a quiet surrealism thanks to Kelly's plan snowballing into what I assume would have to be the most successful platoon-level action in history, since by the evidence of Kelly's Heroes if they'd kept going, by the end of the week they'd have killed Hitler.
This is all intellectual stuff, dependent on thinking about a loud, goofy war movie more than it probably even wants you to. Heck, as "a joke," O'Connor is slightly obnoxious. (The outhouse joke is also, I think, misplaced.) So when it comes to funny comedy, the parts you laugh at so hard you chuck up a lung, you have Oddball. And when I say "you" I mean "me," and if Oddball does not make you laugh, then I believe you might have a very hard time with Kelly's Heroes no matter how much you like WWII tanks. Except I don't laugh so much at Oddball, either, though I do love—whatever reservations I had were obliterated by this second viewing—what a wild concept he is, explicitly a hippie from 1970 who has traveled through time to lead a tank unit against Germany on an amoral mission for gold. Instead, what I laugh at so hard it hurts is Eastwood's straight man reaction to Sutherland pretending to be high-off-his-ass and constantly worrying about the effect of "negative waves." Eastwood—well, I suppose I mean Kelly—just hates this man so fucking much, and God has never crafted a face more perfectly-built than Eastwood's to express, without saying a word, how incredibly much a person can hate a hippie. Nonetheless, the cleanest, maybe the only, "character arc" in the movie belongs to the mutation of Kelly's relationship to Oddball into a still-deeply-irritated respect. Well, whatever the case, the movie loves Oddball, and despite almost dying of meningitis in a Southeastern European backwater during the shoot, I would assume that Sutherland must've loved his movie back, giving it 110% in return, with flourishes as small as his bizarre eye movements, or as big as the way he swings on his Sherman's gun.
That brings us to the megaproduction part, and I'm sorry, I just can't think of Kelly's Heroes any other way, despite knowing that it wasn't unusually expensive by 1970 standards. It cost less than one-sixth of what Tora! Tora! Tora! cost; and while such profligacy isn't the best comparison, it barely cost any more than M*A*S*H. For whatever it's worth, it cost less than half of Airport, which at no point required a tank to crash through the airport. Tanks crash through several buildings in Kelly's Heroes, and blow up many, many more. This is, remember, a comedy, but in any given frame it sure resembles a bloated war epic. There's a shot involving hundreds of extras trudging down a road, that exists solely to impress upon you the monumental scale of World War II; they blow up a railyard; they blow up two towns, towns that I assume must be sets because they blow them up, but the last one sure looks like they just blew up an actual Yugoslavian-standing-in-for-French town. During the opening the special effects team dutifully stages artillery strikes a good half-mile away from the camera.
There is, of course, just the matter-of-fact existence of those Shermans and Tigers (actually T-34s with extremely good dressing*), which they weren't allowed to completely wreck, but were allowed to partially set aflame so you never really question it. Kelly's Heroes manages three crucial things that probably aren't unique individually, but as far as its peer war movies go, might well be unique in their combination: first, it actually managed to get its hands on not merely real but pretty-close-to-accurate weaponry, actual tanks that are of the era the movie claims them to be (cf. Battle of the Bulge, which has more tanks, but all manufactured after WWII), allowing the sight of a Tiger I throwing a tantrum to land with complete verisimilitude; second, and even more importantly, it managed to get its actors to actually take part in the scenes where their characters do things, for instance standing on top of a tank, which is rarer than you'd think given that the hallmark of this golden age of war movies is its tactility (cf. Richard Burton living inside a pocket universe of process shots in Where Eagles Dare, or Robert Shaw floating clairvoyantly across panzers in Bulge), and this gives the movie an unheard-of flexibility and dynamism in its choice of shot scales and angles; third, it shoots night for night. Gabriel Figueroa's photography is tremendous throughout (when Oddball suggests we appreciate the beauty of summertime France/Yugoslavia, it's awfully hard to disagree), but there are some real standout pieces of lighting design in the night sequences, especially that hell-lit thunder run with red and orange splashing off our heroes' faces as they smash through a German-held town.
Director Brian G. Hutton is taking the utmost advantage of these resources to make the best war-heist-comedy he can, veering hard from his previous movie—the aforementioned Where Eagles Dare—which is itself a very worthy war thriller, but exactly what I mean when I say Kelly's Heroes is transitional, Hutton's and his editor John Jympson's efforts on their first WWII film together resulting in a stone-facedly "serious" silly movie whose chiefest goal is to bring to mechanical fruition the possibilities of blowing up things on a mountain and clawing at people on an alpine tram with an ice axe. (Hutton was not a prolific filmmaker, but he was at least damned good at getting what he needed out of his second unit; his reputation rests so entirely on these two great WWII movies you might not have even heard of any of his others.) In any case, though Kelly's Heroes is infinitely more personable, the mechanics remain resolutely in command of their machine, above all in the finale that consumes the whole last forty minutes of the film, which Hutton and Jympson at first build slowly, with meticulous thriller instincts, as Kelly's band infiltrates the town, before allowing it to explode into an orgy of violence, which then shifts into the great screen tank battle, complicated by the challenges of close-in urban fighting that give Oddball's single remaining Sherman the barest chance of victory. And then it ends on a total joke (a reference joke, even, to Eastwood's Westerns), buoyed by the strangest strains of Schifrin's score. But it's a bad-ass joke, and that's Kelly's Heroes, one of the baddest-ass jokes ever told.
*To the point this humble dumbass was fooled; corrected 2/7/2024.