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): ****/****