Kelly’s Heroes (1970)

Kelly's Heroes

Growing up, I always associated Memorial Day Weekend with the war movie marathons on TV that dotted TNT, AMC and Turner Classic Movies. I ate them up — still do — as I watched as many as I could. They’re still some of my favorite movies, everything from The Dirty Dozen to The Devil’s Brigade and one of my favorites, 1970’s Kelly’s Heroes.

It’s fall 1944 and Allied forces are fighting their way across France, the German army slowly being beaten back. At the forefront of the Allied advance, a recon platoon, including Sgt. Big Joe (Telly Savalas), are worn down after months of fighting. One member of the platoon, Pvt. Kelly (Clint Eastwood), stumbles across an interesting tidbit of information while interrogating a German colonel. There is 14,000 bars of gold — worth $16 million — in a bank just waiting to be plucked. The catch? The bank is 30 miles behind German lines. Joe manages to convince both Big Joe and the platoon to navigate through the lines and get their hands on the gold. With a scrounger/supply sergeant, Crapgame (Don Rickles) and three Sherman tanks commanded by a hippie, Oddball (Donald Sutherland), along for the ride, Kelly and his motley crew of soldiers head out with a chance to net quite the payday.

What an appropriately timed World War II movie. By the late 1960s, the tone of war movies had changed from the big epics to the more cynical/comedic variety, movies like MASH and Catch 22 among others. Enter Kelly’s Heroes, directed by Brian G. Hutton (who also directed Where Eagles Dare), one of the most entertaining war movies I’ve ever seen. Cynical with a dark sense of humor but also some lighter moments — courtesy of Sutherland’s hippie tank commander — with some great action, memorable score, and one of those perfect tough guy casts. There’s a reason it remains a fan favorite 40-plus years later, and much of it because it blends all those things together so effortlessly. Even an odd-sounding theme, Burning Bridges, fits perfectly in an odd way. It is one of my favorite movies and always will be, a classic war flick that I can sit down and watch whenever it pops up on TV.

Can you ask for a better lead quartet than Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Don Rickles and Donald Sutherland? Yeah, there has been casts with bigger star power, bigger name recognition, but it’s more than that here. This is four tough guys having fun, on-screen chemistry that’s just hard to describe. They all get their chance in the spotlight. Eastwood is Eastwood, the impeccably cool and man of few words hero. Savalas is a subtle scene-stealer as Big Joe, the unofficial commander of the recon platoon (Hal Buckley playing the clueless real commander Capt. Maitland), just trying to get his men through the fighting unscathed and a somewhat unwilling participant in the gold heist. Rickles is an out of left field choice to join the cast, but it works, his Crapgame a smart-ass New Yorker always with an eye for a profit. And then there’s Sutherland as Oddball, the tank commander always talking about positive waves (No Negative Waves, man!), his Zen-like qualities, heading into battle with music blaring and shells filled with paint waiting to be unleashed on the Germans.

As a fan of guy’s guys movies, it’s simply hard to beat those four stars. They make it look downright easy. Much of that chemistry and success comes from the script written by Troy Kennedy-Martin, a script with too many great one-liners to even mention. We see familiar character archetypes, familiar war movie situations — stumbling into a minefield, prepping for battle — but there’s a different energy to the whole thing. It’s that tone that blends the drama, comedy and action so easily that makes it work. Carroll O’Connor too is excellent in a part that lets him ham it up as General Colt, the fiery division commander who’s frustrated with the stagnant front lines, getting a jolt of energy when Kelly’s screwball force unintentionally opens things up all along the front. There’s something to be said for a movie that is non-stop fun.

When the platoon looks back on a field where some of their fallen comrades lay dead in the dirt, there’s no words that need to be said. The looks on the surviving men’s faces says it all. Telling the men to keep moving, Big Joe turns and raises his binoculars to check one last time, that maybe, just maybe, his men are still alive. The dynamic is there from the lead quartet right down to the platoon, a group of recognizable character actors clearly having some fun. The platoon includes Little Joe (Stuart Margolin), Big Joe’s radioman, Cowboy (Jeff Morris) and Willard (Harry Dean Stanton), two drawling best buds, Gutowski (Dick Davalos), the sniper, Petuko (Perry Lopez), the smooth, goofy ladies man, Cpl. Job (Tom Troupe), Joe’s second-in-command close friend, Fisher (Dick Balduzzi), the platoon genius, and Babra not Barbara (Gene Collins). Also, you can’t forget Gavin MacLeod as Moriarty, Oddball’s mechanical genius and constant provider of negative waves.

Also look for Seinfeld’s Uncle Leo, Len Lesser, as Bellamy, an engineer Oddball ropes into helping the cause and Karl-Otto Alberty as a German tank commander who goes up against Kelly’s forces and Oddball’s tank trio.

With a 146-minute running time, we’ve got plenty of chances for guys being guys and plenty of action scenes. We get lots of action — escaping a minefield, a tank attack on a railway station, the platoon racing through a German crossroad under mortar attack — but the best is saved for last as the platoon descends on Clermont, the town where the bank and the gold are waiting. It’s an extended sequence that runs about 35 minutes that doesn’t rush into it. We get almost 10 minutes of the men and the tanks sneaking into town while the German garrison slowly wakes up, composer Lalo Schifrin‘s score driving the action. The entire movie was filmed in Czechoslovakia, the action finale filmed in the village of Vizinada. It’s an extended sequence that is hard to beat.

Just a great movie overall. Great cast, incredibly quotable, lots of action, memorable soundtrack (especially Tiger Tank), and even a nod to Eastwood’s spaghetti western background with a three-way showdown with said tank. One of my all-time favorites and hopefully you’ll enjoy it just as much as I do.

Kelly’s Heroes (1970): ****/****

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The Dirty Dozen

One of the all-time great tough guy casts — if not the greatest — in one of my favorite genres. A movie that stands the test of time that is action-packed, darkly funny and amazingly entertaining. It has taken abuse over the years by some because of its shocking ending, but it also has built up a diehard following by those who will defend it to the last (including me). One of my favorite movies ever, and a Memorial Day themed review, 1967’s The Dirty Dozen.

An American army officer with a record a mile long, Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin) has been given a mission that even he doesn’t believe is real. It’s late spring 1944, and as the Allies prepare for the D-Day invasion, the Allied high command (including Ernest Borgnine) delivers his impossible, suicidal mission. Reisman is to take 12 prisoners either sentenced to death or years of imprisonment and hard labor, train them, and then in the days before the D-Day landing, drop them into German-occupied France. Their mission? Attack a German chateau, killing as many high ranking German officers as possible, hopefully wreaking havoc on the high command. Can Reisman get the prisoners to work together before they kill him?

This is a movie that is a perfect storm of timing, casting and story. A story of 12 convicted criminals — rape, murder, robbery — turned commandos who resent any sort of authority given a mission to kill enemy officers in cold blood? Could that story even remotely fly in any time other than late 1960s America? It was a time when America was changing, a darker, more cynical time in our history. Director Robert Aldrich taps into something special there. ‘Dozen’ has a unique look to it, interesting camera angles, a catchy theme for the Dozen — listen HERE — and a general feel of giving the middle finger to any sort of power or authority figure. Could there be a more perfect movie for a 1967 audience?

I could write a whole review discussing the characters and the long list of tough guy actors who play them, but I doubt many people would read 10,000 rambling words about how the cast of The Dirty Dozen is the coolest thing ever. Let’s start with Lee Marvin, an all-around bad-ass who by the mid 1960s had become a major, bankable star. His Major Reisman, a sarcastic, quick-witted, smart-mouthed and brutally effective officer, is probably his most well known role, and he owns this movie. With the cast behind and around him, that’s saying something. Marvin delivers brutally funny one-liners left and right, handles the action scenes flawlessly, and is believable as the cynical leader of this group of crook commandos. With those type of men behind him, you need someone like him to lead.

Richard Jaeckel is a scene-stealer as Sgt. Bowren, the MP assigned to work with Reisman in training and execution of the mission. Along with Borgnine, the High Command and other Allied officers include Robert Webber, George Kennedy and Ralph Meeker. Oh, and Robert Ryan as a stiff-collared officer from the 101st. Enough for you? No?

And then there’s the Dirty Dozen. The group includes Charles Bronson as Wladislaw, the former officer sentenced to hang for killing one of his own men, a medic carrying medical supplies away from battle. There’s former NFL star Jim Brown as Jefferson, an African American soldier who killed in self defense but is sentenced to hang nonetheless. John Cassavetes was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Franko, a Chicago hood who killed a London man for $10 worth of cash. Telly Savalas is Maggot, a psychopathic Southerner convinced God works through him. Clint Walker is Posey, an Apache with rage issues, Donald Sutherland is Pinkley, a dimwitted soldier, and singer Trini Lopez plays Jiminez. Rounding out the Dozen are character actors Tom Busby, Ben Carruthers, Stuart Cooper, Colin Maitland, and Al Mancini as Bravos, the smallest of the bunch but with a mean/funny streak. The focus is Bronson, Brown, Cassavetes, Walker, Savalas and Sutherland, none of them disappointing, all of them living up to the hype, all given a chance to shine.

What has helped ‘Dozen’ gain its cult-like following over the years is its humor in looking at and poking some fun at war in general. Sutherland’s dimwitted Pinkley is forced to inspect a crack platoon of Ryan’s Col. Breed in one of the most memorable, truly funny scenes. Watch it HERE. Reisman later arranges for eight London prostitutes to visit the Dozen as their training winds down. The facial expressions exchanged back and forth are priceless. The high point comically — however dark it is — comes in the War Games sequence, the Dozen forced to prove their worth by capturing Col. Breed’s headquarters. They resort to cheating, con jobs, stealing, and all sorts of trickery. After the extended training sequence — which has its fair share of funny moments — the War Games development and the eventual payoff provides some great laughs.

The portion of the movie though that tends to drive people away is the attack on the chateau. SPOILERS AHEAD SPOILERS STOP READING Here’s the plan, courtesy of Reisman, which you can watch HERE. It of course, doesn’t go as planned, Reisman, Bowren and the Dozen forced to improvise. Their solution is simple; throw grenades and gasoline down air chutes and burn (think napalm) the German officers to death. Heroic? No, I would say not. It’s a movie though. These guys aren’t portrayed as heroes. These are prototypical 1960s anti-heroes! What does work? The entire finale sequence (around 45 minutes long) is dripping with tension, and once the adrenaline starts pumping, it doesn’t stop. The Dozen start to get picked off — including two legitimate shockers — as the bullets start flying. I’ve seen this movie 50 times and still root for two characters especially to make it, knowing all the while they won’t. The means are brutal, but as far as an entertaining action sequence goes, it is one of the best.

I’m not sure what this says about me, but I grew up watching this movie a lot. Introduced to it via Memorial Day war movie marathons, it will be always be one of my favorites. I love its cynical, dark look at war. I love the ridiculously strong cast from top to bottom. It is funny, entertaining, action-packed, and a true example of ‘They don’t make them like that anymore.’ A classic.

The Dirty Dozen <—trailer (1967): ****/****