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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Mister Roberts (1955)

mister_roberts_281955_movie_poster29By 1955, Henry Fonda had been away from major film roles for going on 8 years. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Fonda worked in film for several years before returning to the stage, specifically in a role he would play for 8 years. Naturally, when the film rights were purchased, Fonda wasn’t originally considered. Makes sense, right? Thankfully, the powers that be made the right decision, ultimately casting Fonda in the titular role in 1955’s Mister Roberts.

It’s spring 1945 and Allied forces are pushing Japanese forces back across the Pacific with victory seemingly in reach. Thousands of miles back across the Pacific on a securely head island, Lt. Doug Roberts (Fonda) is the cargo officer on a cargo ship that helps supplies the nearby island and passing ships heading toward the fighting. After 2-plus years on the ship, Roberts feels he’s not doing enough to help the war effort, and he would like nothing more than to serve on a destroyer in the fighting. The ship’s commander, Capt. Morton (James Cagney), knows his value to the ship and its efforts though, so he won’t approve Roberts’ transfer. In the meantime, Roberts continues to keep working hard, all the while working as a buffer, a go-between between the much-maligned crew and the crazy captain.

A huge hit for many years on Broadway with Fonda in the starring role, ‘Roberts’ made the inevitable jump to the big screen with classic results. Impressive considering the production was less than smooth, director John Ford clashing with Fonda and Cagney to epic proportions (Fonda supposedly punched him square in the face) to the point Ford eventually left the production. Mervyn Leroy took over with Broadway director Joshua Logan also helping with reshoots. It’s debatable which director shot what footage — some Ford footage with some broad humor seems to stand out — and at times, the first 45 minutes are a little slow, but the end result is a highly memorable flick that deserves its classic status (or at least its mostly classic status).

You take for granted sometimes how good an actor can be. Henry Fonda was never a flashy actor, always stealing scenes in subtle, underdone fashion. Then, you finish the movie and realize how good he was. His part as Lt. Roberts belongs with his best roles, 12 Angry Men, The Grapes of Wrath, Once Upon a Time in the West, and who knows? It might be his best. Fonda specialized in a long distinguished career at playing the everyman, Joe Normal who’s thrust into an unpleasant situation. As Roberts, it’s dramatic, there is some comedy, and a genuine humanness that plays incredibly sympathetic on the screen. He wasn’t nominated for the Oscar, but he should have been.

Fonda not surprisingly steals the movie, impressive considering the cast around him. Cagney hams it up in a big way (even for him), overdoing it as the narcissistic, egomaniacal Capt. Morton. You need a bad guy though to counter Fonda’s Roberts, and you get it with Cagney. William Powell is perfectly cast as Doc, the ship surgeon who’s good friends with Roberts. Their dialogue-heavy scenes together are a gem, just 2 guys talking, not 2 guys acting. Jack Lemmon won an Oscar for his supporting role as Ensign Pulver, the young officer with some issues who clearly looks up to Roberts and is trying to impress him while dealing with his own shy, nervous, lazy demons.

Because that quartet clearly isn’t enough, the crew of the USS Reluctant (the cargo ship) features Ward Bond as the ship chief, Dowdy, with Ken Curtis, Philip Carey, Nick Adams, Perry Lopez, Robert Roark, Harry Carey Jr. and Patrick Wayne rounding out the cast. Also look for small parts for Martin Milner, Gregory Walcott and Ford favorite Jack Pennick.

The 1950’s were an especially popular time for navy stories, especially World War II navy stories set in the Pacific. ‘Roberts’ would even inspire a sequel, 1964’s Ensign Pulver (not good). This is one of the prettiest, sunniest, most beautifully shot movies of the decade. I can’t recall a single scene that isn’t sun-drenched with cool blue waters in the background. The US Navy aided during filming, and it shows with an authentic military look and feel to the proceedings. Composer Franz Waxman turns in a solid score too, appropriately balancing the comedic and dramatic moments. Give it a listen HERE.

In my latest viewing, I struggled early on in a 121-minute movie. It’s slow — really slow — setting things up. Thankfully, when things up, they do in lightning-quick fashion. After a slow first 45 minutes, ‘Roberts’ hits its groove. It builds and builds, right up into a highly memorable final stretch. This is a movie that’s ready to punch you right in the stomach with a tragic final 15 minutes. It helps save the early portions and ends the movie on a great final scene. Excellent flick — flaws aside — with Fonda in one of his best performances in a long list of best performances.

Mister Roberts (1955): *** 1/2 /****