Movie review: ‘Kelly’s Heroes’

Kelly’s Heroes” from 1970 is one of my all-time favorite films. No, it certainly isn’t the best war movie (although the battle scenes are solid, it’s not a pure war film such as “The Battle of the Bulge”– click here for my review) and, no, it certainly isn’t the best comedy (it has funny parts, but it is not a comedy in the true sense of the genre). However, it is a war movie that’s ultimately funny by having World War II’s only hippie. Best of all, it has Clint Eastwood and Don Rickles, so you cannot go wrong and because it is a WWII film, it easily stands the test of time. “Kelly’s Heroes” had its 45th anniversary on June 20, 2015, and I’ll be watching it for some time to come since I first saw it in a theater way back in the day.

‘Kelly’s Heroes’
(1970; 144 minutes; rated GP; directed by Brian G. Hutton and starring Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland and Don Rickles)

CATCHING SOME RAYS … AND SOME GOLD

(NOTE: I expanded this review and updated links on July 22, 2015. I then reorganized, expanded again and added trivia while updating links on Nov. 6, 2017.)

I cannot exactly say for sure why I’ve always enjoyed “Kelly’s Heroes,” a Clint Eastwood dramatic comedy set during World War II, but it certainly is one of my top 10 favorite flicks – and that’s saying something with company there including “The Godfather.” Actually, it comes in at No. 9 (click here to read my Top 10 list).

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In “Kelly’s Heroes,” a bunch of assorted pieces come together to make a potentially dreadful film into a work of art – at least in my eyes. But not everyone, including important members of the cast even the filmmaker, can say the same thing.

Kelly’s Heroes” was never popular with either its headliner or director. Eastwood was quoted as saying he didn’t approve of how the film turned out and it is sometimes cited as Eastwood’s last film without him having a creative veto. Even the director was disappointed because of cuts ordered by the studio. I believe Eastwood’s criticism comes from the film not being any one of its pieces – a comedy, a war movie or, at its heart, a caper film.

To sum it up quickly, Clint Eastwood is “Kelly” a U.S. private in WWII who was once an officer but got busted down in rank because he was ordered to take the wrong hill and U.S. soldiers were killed. This gives the character its anti-hero status of the day. Clint comes up with a caper to steal a stash of gold from the Nazis. He plans on using the confusion at the front line to hide the theft. Eastwood ropes in the members of his platoon, but it takes some work to lasso tough-minded sergeant “Big Joe,” who is played by veteran tough guy Telly Savalas (who loves ya, baby?).

With that out of the way, “Kelly’s Heroes” is simply Donald Sutherland’s movie and he doesn’t get prime screen time. However, he makes the most of every second he’s there.

Sutherland plays “Oddball,” the commander of a trio of Sherman tanks and the group is more interested in … well, lounging around while everyone else becomes a hero. Sutherland is World War II’s only hippie, with long hair and a laid-back manner. “Hi, man … I’m drinking wine, eating some cheese and catching rays. You know?” he tells “Big Joe” in the middle of the penultimate battle as he relaxes in the shade of a tree since he cannot help fix a broken-down tank. “Definitely an anti-social type,” he comments as “Big Joe” walks away in disgust.

The film certainly wouldn’t have had the punch it retains if not for Sutherland. So, here’s a look at some of the principal cast:

  • Two-time Golden Globe winner and five-time nominee (not for this one) Sutherland is best known for films such as “MASH” (he’s the original “Hawkeye Pierce” from that great anti-war flick of the same year as “Kelly’s Heroes”), “The Dirty Dozen,” “The Eagle Has Landed” (click here for my review) and was particularly good (as well as creepy) in the dark drama “Panic” with William H. Macy and Neve Campbell – click here for my review. Sutherland is pitch perfect in projecting the perfect slacker personality, except when it’s action time and then he can get it in gear … but on only profoundly philosophical terms, of course. I also liked him and he won a Globe for the HBO film “Citizen X” (click here for my review).
  • Four-time Oscar winner and seven-time nominee (not for this one) Eastwood plays “Kelly” and his character ties the whole thing together. Clint does his usual competent job, although I believe he could have done better. He is his usual solid and stoic self until the credits roll and you never get a real feel for the character the way you do for others. I don’t have enough time or room (even on the Internet) to list all of Clint’s accolades or all my favorite films of his – although I will tell you to watch “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (click here for my review).
  • The man’s man here is Oscar nominee (not for this one) Savalas as “Big Joe.” Savalas gives a performance nearly as convincing as his turn as “A.J. Maggott” in “The Dirty Dozen” three years earlier. Both he and Sutherland were in that war classic and both gave top-of-resume performances in that one. Savalas is best-known for his work as TV’s “Kojak” and he got his nomination for “Birdman of Alcatraz” from 1962. He died in 1994 at 72 of bladder cancer.
  • The entire film’s cargo of sarcasm is delivered hysterically by Primetime Emmy winner Don Rickles, who plays “Crapgame,” the desk-jockey supply sergeant. You start laughing whenever you just see Rickles, whose best-known work in film prior to “Kelly’s Heroes” was being in a trio of 1960s beach films with Frankie and Annette including ““Bikini Beach” and “Beach Blanket Bingo.” Still, Rickles isn’t just all about comedy as he had a tiny part as “Billy Sherbert” in Martin Scorsese’s “Casino.” Of course he did do some roles just for the money (or so it would appear) in execrable dreck such as “Dirty Work” with Norm MacDonald (click here for my review). Rickles died in 2017 at 90 of kidney failure.
  • Stuart Margolin is another actor with one memorable line. He plays “Little Joe” and is instructed to set up a bar at a farmhouse. “We ain’t got no booze,” he whines and Savalas mocks back, “We ain’t got no booze.” Funny then; funny now … and a friend and I still laugh when we see the film all these 45+ years later. Margolin, who won two Primetime Emmys for TV’s “The Rockford Files,” was particularly effective in “Death Wish” with Charles Bronson (click here for my review).

Two other supporting actors play a bit out of character for them:

  • In a pre-“Archie” and “All in the Family,” Golden Globe winner and 10-time nominee (not for this one) Carroll O’Connor plays “Gen. Colt,” a Patton-esque military leader who is in a constant state of agitation with his less than braniac subordinates. O’Connor does a great job, with just the right touch at just the right point in every scene. Especially funny is his face turning into a blank expression when he asks a soldier where he’s from and told New Jersey. Just one moment of flummoxed exasperation shows his considerable talent. Naturally he won his Globe for “Archie” and his nominations were for both “All in the Family” and TV’s “In the Heat of the Night.” Our friend “Archie” passed in 2001 at 76 from a heart attack related to diabetes.
  • Before he was a headliner on “The Love Boat” series (click here for my review of it), five-time Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) Gavin MacLeod couldn’t be any more different as “Moriarity” than from his future role as “Capt. Steubing.” MacLeod is a semi-hippie himself here (“Whatever you say, babe,” he oozes when called the tank’s mechanical genius) and the constant target of Sutherland’s complaints about negativity. Just like O’Connor, McLeod is funny in every scene and while you might have wanted more of him, too much of a good thing might have detracted from the good. In addition to his work on “The Love Boat,” MacLeod was nominated for his work on the iconic “Mary Tyler Moore Show” as the also iconic “Murray Slaughter.”

In getting back to the plot, the group has to bribe a mortar team commander best known for shelling his own troops; enlist a marching band; and redirect a bridge-building crew in order to complete their mission. I’ll leave the ending to you watching the film.

Director Brian G. Hutton did “Kelly’s Heroes” and his previous effort was also with Eastwood and it is the outstanding WWII film “Where Eagles Dare” (click here for my review) that starred Richard Burton and Clint. Hutton also did good with “The First Deadly Sin,” a solid police procedural starring Frank Sinatra.

Kelly’s Heroes” is the earliest film I’ve seen where a real effort was made to have a German WWII tank be accurate. The “Tiger” tanks here (the Panzer Mark VI E) are really the ubiquitous Russian T-34 tank but modified by filmmakers to look like a Tiger. The drive wheels of the T-34 somewhat resemble the Tiger’s layered track system, but at least the filmmakers didn’t just use U.S. post-war Patton tanks painted gray (look at “The Battle of the Bulge”) as in so many other war film productions. One other film to modify a T-34 into a Tiger to great effect is “Saving Private Ryan,” where you see one near the end of that film.

The film has any number of great lines, such as Sutherland barking like a dog and then saying, “That’s my other dog imitation.” Another is when Savalas tells Rickles there’s no budging the Germans from guarding the gold. Rickles tells him to make a “deal.” “What kind of a deal?” Savalas asks. “A deal deal,” Rickles says in exasperation. “Maybe the guy’s a Republican. Business is business. Right?”

Finally, one story I recall reading about the filming (and I couldn’t find during an online search for this review) showed just how funny Rickles could be. During filming of the scene where the “Heroes” get caught in a minefield and have a firefight with a German patrol, Rickles allegedly grabbed his leg and screamed as if he had been shot. Everyone laughed, including director Brian G. Hutton, because they tought he was joking around. However, it wasn’t a joke as Rickles was nicked by a live round that had somehow slipped into the blanks being used in the weapons. Rickles reportedly got really angry, especially at Hutton.

At the box office, “Kelly’s Heroes” made $5.2 million on a $4 million budget, according to Wiki. It was 23rd ranked at the box office that year, according to listal.com (by comparison, the No. 1 film “Love Story” made $106.3 million). The other film from 1970 that I’ve reviewed is “Tora! Tora! Tora!” (click here to read it).

Other cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Sutherland had an interesting personal life, too. According to IMDb.com he became so ill his wife received a telegram asking her to come to the set in Yugoslavia and that there was a chance he wouldn’t be alive when she arrived (he was). Coming back at him on the family news front was word that his wife had been arrested by the FBI for allegedly trying to buy hand grenades for the radical Black Panthers. Wow. Talk about drama!
  • The film was shot on location in the then-Yugoslavia and its military still had many of the WWII era Sherman tanks (and was the source of the one’s used by filmmakers – as well has providing the Russian-built T-34 that was modified to be a Tiger tank).
  • Harry Dean Stanton, who plays “Willard,” has had a wonderful career of roles in eclectic films including “Alien,” “The Godfather: Part II,” “Escape From New York” (click here for my review), “Paris, Texas,” “Red Dawn” (click here for my review), “Christine” (click here for my review), “Down Periscope” (click here for my review) and “Pretty in Pink.” He died in 2017 at age 91.
  • Kelly’s Heroes” would be the last time Eastwood played a World War II soldier, although he would play a current U.S. Marine in 1986’s “Heartbreak Ridge.” Eastwood would direct “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” about WWII in the Pacific (between them, the films would win an Oscar and have a total of five other nominations).
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “John Landis was a production assistant on this film. He also appears as an extra (he was one of the three nuns).”
  • In what is easily the most interesting piece of trivia, Landis supposedly inspired to create his amazing “An American Werewolf in London” (click here for my review) after seeing a gypsy funeral in which a corpse was buried in a deeper-than-usual grave – feet first – while wrapped in garlic.

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014-2015, 2017.
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