Kelly’s Heroes

tn_kellysheroesFor four years now it’s been my tradition to kick off a new year with Clint Eastwood. This year I’m starting it with Clint and a rowdy gang of G.I. goofballs including roughneck Telly Savalas, new agey Donald Sutherland, bitter wiseass Don Rickles and young, harmonica-playing, exactly-the-same-looking Harry Dean Stanton (credited as Dean Stanton). It kinda feels like one of those fun ensemble war pictures like THE DIRTY DOZEN or THE GREAT ESCAPE, except the idea behind it is much more cynical.

Clint plays Kelly, a once great soldier, demoted and disillusioned after an incorrect order caused him to blow up some of his own men. When he finds out about a stash of gold bars in a German bank he finally has a mission he can believe in again: get together a crew to penetrate the enemy lines early and get the loot. Everyone thinks/knows it’s crazy, but the lure of the bling is enough. In fact, they have trouble with more and more people joining the group and expecting a share.

At times it can be kind of a broad comedy, and with that old timey type of military humor where they complain about their job but they just talk about hating to have to lug heavy things around, or get bossed around, they don’t talk about the psychological trauma of having to kill people, or almost being killed, or seeing their friends killed. But in a way this is a very subversive movie, because here’s The Great War, the one we can all get behind, the one that made them The Greatest Generation, and our titleistical heroes never even mention ideals or what they’re fighting for. What they end up getting behind is a big payday.

In fact, there’s a funny scene where the General (Carol O’Connor) overhears them talking over the radio, arguing over who gets to go, because no one wants to be left behind and miss out on the gold. But he thinks they just have the fighting spirit, so he gets excited and suits up to try to join them.

mp_kellysheroesClint is the leader and has the sort of narrow-eyed, no-nonsense badass presence we expect and  need. Savalas, as Big Joe, provides the rest of the manliness. The others are screw ups who cannot necessarily be counted on to come through. The most memorable character is Oddball, played by Sutherland. He seems to be some kind of time traveling, acid-damaged hippie, hanging around with a bunch of shaggy weirdos laying around like they’re on a commune. He’s also the provider of, and expert about, the tanks, so he’s valuable to the heist, even though he’s always talking about positivity and negativity, and really believes that the bridge they need to not be blown up will be intact if they all think positively enough. He’s also doing a pretty involved voice and New York accent. I wonder if Sutherland misses playing characters like that.

It alternates between trying to do alot of different things, which I don’t think is necessarily bad. I don’t usually like when somebody says a movie “can’t decide what it’s trying to be” or whatever, because maybe it wants to be many things. But there are definitely some shifts in tone here that seem a little off.

It’s bit of a comedy, but it’s more of an action movie. It’s not gory, but pretty violent for the time. Tons of explosions and machine gun spraying. Enough ammo is expended to remind me of that scene in PREDATOR where they all unload on an innocent jungle.

At one point some Nazis pass by them and they try to hide. I thought maybe they were gonna turn serious about soldiering and make the conscious decision to take out an officer. No, they only fight when they have to. The title and having seen other movies made me think they would end up learning a lesson and becoming heroes, but not really. They help the war effort, but only as a byproduct of stealing the gold.

They sneak around, try not to get blown up by mines. The attack on the town with the bank is a very effective suspense sequence, lots of strategy involving covering up the sound of their Sherman tank, and getting behind the Tiger so they can shoot it in its only weak spot. I like that the Tiger tries to spin its turret around and can’t do it because the road is too narrow.

Let’s talk about the music. The score is by Lalo Schifrin, and it’s good, though not one of his more memorable ones. The most notable part is the theme song “Burning Bridges,” performed by The Mike Curb Congregation. Curb was a guy who had scored THE WILD ANGELS, THE BORN LOSERS and a bunch of other movies, and was also the president of MGM Records. “Burning Bridges” was the Congregation’s biggest hit (#1 in Australia!), though they also had some success with a version of “It’s a Small World” from an album of Disney covers, were featured on Sammy Davis Jr.’s version of “The Candy Man” and appeared in the musical THE MAGIC OF LASSIE. Even Clint never co-starred with Lassie I don’t think.

I thought the cornball vocals of “Burning Bridges” added kind of a flower childreny touch to the movie, but I’m not sure Curb would like that characterization. In the same year KELLY’S HEROES came out he made a splash by dumping The Velvet Underground and other groups from MGM because he thought they promoted drugs. In 1978, Curb was elected lieutenant governor of California, a Republican working under Jerry Brown. Still, the Congregation found time to record “Together, a New Beginning,” the theme song for Ronald Reagan’s successful 1980 presidential campaign. So, not really the hippie I took him for.

Although it’s not in the movie, there was a single released of Clint singing “Burning Bridges”:

I like how the original song works in the movie, but Clint’s version is better.

(You know what, this just inspired me to order Clint’s album “Cowboy Favorites.”)

Curb and Schifrin also co-wrote “All For the Love of Sunshine,” the Hank Williams Jr. song that plays ironically over a vicious tank battle. It became Williams’s first #1 hit.

Scottish screenwriter Troy Kennedy-Martin is best known for THE ITALIAN JOB, but around here we know him as one of the writers of RED HEAT. He died in 2009, but apparently had already written Michael Mann’s ENZO FERRARI movie that comes out in 2017.

Director Brian G. Hutton was an actor who appeared in some movies and a bunch of TV shows, many of them westerns, and yes, including a 1961 episode of Rawhide with Clint. He started directing in ’65. KELLY’S HEROES was his fifth film, and the followup to WHERE EAGLES DARE, another ensemble WWII men-on-a-mission movie with Clint. But that one was more traditionally heroic. This one coming two years later you can tell at least a little bit of the Vietnam disillusionment rubbed off on it.

Hutton is also important because he’s the director of THE FIRST DEADLY SIN starring Frank Sinatra, and that was Bruce Willis’s first movie (as an uncredited extra). Hutton got that gig after original director Roman Polanski got into some, uh, legal trouble. Hutton’s last film was HIGH ROAD TO CHINA, the 1983 adventure movie starring Tom Selleck. IMDb trivia claims he “gave up direction in the mid eighties and became a plumber,” but a contradictory entry, as well as his obituaries, say it was real estate trading. I bet he would’ve been good at either one, though.

I noticed that there are no women in the movie. Interestingly, WHERE EAGLES DARE co-star Ingrid Pitt was cast, but her part was cut right before filming. I can’t imagine where she would’ve fit in, or why they would’ve decided against it.

At 146 minutes, the movie seems a little longer than it needs to be, and there are many scenes that would obviously be trimmed if this were made for modern attention spans. So I was surprised to read that that’s after the studio cut 20 minutes from it. Eastwood had wanted Don Siegel to direct, but he was busy finishing up TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA. There’s no way to know if Siegel would’ve had an easier time, but Hutton, who did not have final cut, got screwed over by the studio in post-production. A new head of production took over at MGM, retitled the movie (it was originally THE WARRIORS) and re-edited it to be allegedly more commercial.

I doubt Clint has this poster hanging in his house.
I doubt Clint has this poster hanging in his house.

One of the deleted scenes, a transition from the second to third act, apparently had Big Joe discussing his disillusionment with the war and the reasons why Kelly was the scapegoat for the friendly fire incident. Clint said in Richard Schickel’s book Clint Eastwood: Interviews that the scene was crucial because it “just sort of summed up the philosophy of those loose ends, and what the war had done to them.” He felt the changes completely ruined the tone of the movie and made it unreleasable. He tried to convince MGM to let him have just one day in the editing room with it. Nope.

Their failure to please Clint was a good thing in the long run. He’d recently founded Malpaso Productions for 1968’s HANG ‘EM HIGH, and his frustrations with KELLY’S HEROES encouraged him to stick to movies he had control over. He wouldn’t appear in another non-Malpaso movie until IN THE LINE OF FIRE a good 23 years later.

I also think it’s interesting that the man who starred in this irreverent WWII comedy would, decades later, go the reverent route when returning to the subject as a director with FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS. In my opinion that’s not one of his better movies, but it (and especially its superior companion piece, LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA) show him looking at that war in different ways as he grew as a person and artist.

I’m sure Clint is right that KELLY’S HEROES should’ve been better, should’ve had more soul. I sensed it before I read that he had a problem with how it turned out. But I also sensed what it was trying to say about war beneath the hijinks. And it’s a pretty fun movie. I can’t be too mad at it.

Best piece of KELLY’S HEROES trivia: John Landis says he came up with the idea for AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON while on set as a production assistant

This entry was posted on Monday, January 4th, 2016 at 12:27 pm and is filed under Action, Reviews, War. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

29 Responses to “Kelly’s Heroes”

  1. My feelings towards KELLY’S HEROES changes every time I see it. Sometimes it’s just funny enough to enjoy, but other times it’s just too sad. I don’t think even in 1970 people hated Germans enough to laugh at the scene where Oddball and his crew vipes out that train station, civilians and military alike.

    By the way, Vern, I’m going through a list of movies with famous actors that I’m going to try out on my youngest sons. Which Clint movie do you think they will enjoy the most? I’m sort of leaning towards IN THE LINE OF FIRE. I think that’s pretty much the only one that’s “modern” enough for them…

  2. That Clint country album is a fun novelty, but bear in mind that’s it’s some decidedly uncool pre-outlaw country country music. Like, some Roy Rogers, sequins-and-fringe, Andrews Sisters-sounding background singers type stuff. A lot of it sounds like Slim Whitman, perhaps best known these days as the yodeling guy whose music made the aliens heads explode in MARS ATTACKS! I like that kind of stuff because I have a taste for kitsch–particularly when it involves Clint’s bizarro-world career as a successful country-western singer, as evidenced by his duets with Ray Charles and Merle Haggard for the Clyde series and his appearance on the novelty song “Go Ahead Make My Day”–but your mileage may vary. You could probably get away with just downloading his version of “Don’t Fence Me In,” which is just the kind of message you want to hear Clint sorta rasp-crooning his way through.

  3. All those words. Fuck it.

  4. I haven’t seen KELLY’S HEROES, at least not within memory, but sound’s like they took a page or two from it for THREE KINGS.

  5. Good times. One of the very first and very few “old” movies I enjoyed, rather than merely endured, as a little kid, along with WIZARD OF OZ and maybe some o.g. cartoon features. Almost anything pre-FLASH GORDON was considered by me to be ancient & unworthy of attention until some point in the ’90s when I became enlightened about the full range of cinema and its relative timelessness.

    I distinctly remember the first time I saw KELLY’S HEROES; it was on local network tv in the afternoon
    (must have been raining outside, or else I would have been playing sportsball,
    and it must have been a Sunday, or else I would have been hanging out with my neighbor-friend who had the latest video game systems),
    and I was drawn in by the violent chaos of the opening scenes.

    Strange to learn about these behind-the-scenes production issues that resulted in such a strange film that I always thought was just a happy-strange action-comedy, the kind of stuff weirdo 1970 filmmakers were naturally doing, but oh well. Good for Clint to move on and learn the right lessons from all that.

    This is by far Donald Sutherland’s best role in my opinion. He makes the movie. Just marvelous.

    KELLY’S HEROES is 0% responsible for inspiring me to join the U.S. Army, and probably would have had a net negative effect on that job choice if the script/final cut had been as bleak/ambivalent as intended. Anyway, I never got to shoot a Tiger tank in the ass, but I did once shoot a Taliban guy in the neck; that was pretty satisfying. Didn’t collect millions in gold afterwards, though.

  6. Pegsman – yeah, I think IN THE LINE OF FIRE would be a good choice for a modern-ish one. Unless you think they’d go for DIRTY HARRY.

  7. Oh, I posted an incoherent, or unexplained, thought above. Yeah the important reason my neighbor-friend was unavailable on Sundays is because his household was devout Baptists, spent all Sunday doing church stuff. This detail turns out to be relevant in my development as a student of the films of cinema. We hung out all the time, playing his Super Nintendo and patrolling the local malls and such, but if his parents hadn’t forced him to go to church and post-church picnics and post-picnic bible-studies and all that one day a week (and sometimes Wednesdays, too) then there’s a good chance I would not have spent any significant alone-time as a boy discovering various movies and books and etc..

    Without his family’s religious fanaticism, I might never have seen KELLY’S HEROES.

    The butterfly effect is real.

  8. Thanks, Vern. DIRTY HARRY is a good choice…

  9. Mouth, Donald Sutherland’s best role was in Kentucky Fried Movie.

    When I got that Clint Eastwood 35 year dvd set Kelly’s Heroes was the one I was most excited to discover. I had the same conflicts with it. Where Eagles Dare turned out to be the solid ensemble actioner and kind of the rousing adventure I’d hoped this would be.

  10. Pegsman, If you go with Dead Pool your kids would ask why John Taken is so mad at Ace Ventura. But maybe they have to work up to that one.

  11. They’ve seen the three TAKEN movies. And ACE VENTURA, for that matter. But I want to show them some of the essential actors from the genre; Clint, Jackie, Jean Claude, Steven, Scott, Dolph…without them thinking this is too old and boring.

  12. GUNS OF THE NAVARONE might be my favourite WW2 actioner alongside DIRTY DOZEN and WHERE EAGLES DARE. I never been much of a KELLYS HEROES fan. I might try and rewatch it.

  13. THE EAGLE HAS LANDED is also good. And for just plain crazy ESCAPE TO ATHENA.

  14. This movie plays surprisingly often somewhere on German TV. Just a few days ago I came across its name while checking what’s running. But I never watched it.

  15. ESCAPE TO ATHENA? Didn´t Roger Moore play a nazi in that one? I remember it being strange casting.

  16. Shoot, the movie was put together by David Niven’s son, so that daddy could get back in the spotlight. And, yes, his friend Roger is playing a Austrian officer in the German army that’s friendly with the resistance (Telly Savalas) and a bunch of POVs (Elliott Gould, Sonny Bono etc). Pure nonsense, but beautifully filmed by George P. Cosmatos on Rhodos. A war movie that gives you that summer vacation feeling.

  17. I realized I own that movie on dvd. I think I´ve seen it only once. So I may have to revisit it.

  18. The Original Paul

    January 5th, 2016 at 7:12 am

    Pegsman – EVERY WHICH WAY, without a doubt. Although DIRTY HARRY would be a top choice if they’re mature enough for it. Or even UNFORGIVEN. (Just don’t give ’em SUDDEN IMPACT.)

    I’ve got this one (KELLY’S HEROES) on DVD but haven’t watched it yet. I’ll have to give it a shot.

  19. The Original Paul

    January 5th, 2016 at 7:15 am

    Actually, I change my vote. UNFORGIVEN is the one. A fascinating portrayal of a past, possibly mythic, age, with iconic characters and some incredible scenes (that claustrophobic gunfight at the end – not even a fight, more of a one-man massacre).

  20. Both good choices, Paul, but I’m kind of avoiding westerns. And no way I’m introducing them to Clint with EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE. That’s a movie for Eastwood veterans. No, I think I’ll go with IN THE LINE OF FIRE.


  22. I love DEAD POOL. I considered suggesting it, but didn’t for the Ace Ventura singing GNR factor. Then I realized your kids might not even know GNR. Getting old is sad business.

    I was also thinking the westerns might not feel so dated because they’re already historic pieces, but then I remembered some of the themes and reconsidered. I think they need to be more familiar with those themes and the way “classic” westerns are, before getting them turned around on their heads with UNFORGIVEN, to be truly impressed with it.

  23. You can never tell what your kids gonna like. They might surprise you

  24. Sure, but as a part of an ongoing series of movies in which I intend to include UNDER SIEGE, DRAGONS FOREVER, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER etc, I don’t want Eastwood to “drown” either.

  25. I always liked this movie. I remember first seeing the movie on TV years ago and when Donald Sutherland’s Oddball appears with his long hair and saying stuff about “negative ways” and was like “WTF?” at what a hippie was doing in a World War II movie! I learned to let go of it because he was so entertaining. Don Rickles and Telly Savalas are also great and I love the song “Burning Bridges”.

  26. Also when I saw the original Italian Job with Michael Caine I thought it had a similar vibe about a bunch of colorful characters(this time British crooks) trying to rob some gold and then I find out they were both written by the same guy, Troy Kennedy Martin! Martin had written The Italian Job first and then Kelly’s heroes a year later.

  27. This was always one of my favorite movies that I didn’t know anybody else really liked or enjoyed. Of course I should have known that you lot would also be on the same page. Thank you for not disappointing. Come to think of it Clint has a few others like that for me (PINK CADILLAC, HONKYTONK MAN & ANY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE/YOU CAN) hope to seevsome reviews for the ones I mentioned that weren’t reviewed yet in the future.

  28. I always loved the moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indy is disguised as a Nazi, but he still takes a moment to nearly blow his cover by body-checking Belloq. Just because fuck that guy. The bit in the opening scene where Clint, driving a hijacked German jeep, manages to splash mud on a line of Nazis reminded me of that. Poetic cinema.

    For a dad movie/hangout movie/fun time at the theater, I think this one works on multiple levels. You can take the ending as a searing indictment of greed, as it ends up with the Heroes allying with some Nazis (albeit ones who are quick to chuck their ‘ideals’ out the window). Or maybe as an endorsement of negotiation; Kelly and the last remaining Nazis are able to settle the conflict peacefully, with everyone getting something out of it. You can even read class warfare into this–it ends with the grunts on both sides deciding they’re tired of being abused by the officers, so they choose to help themselves.

    I wonder if that kind of ambiguity is what drew Eastwood to the project; it definitely reminds me of the more nuanced take he’d develop towards violence later in his career.

  29. Have watched KELLY’S HEROES any number of times and have always enjoyed it, but also every single time it’s Donald Sutherland who makes the movie (Sgt Oddball rules!) for me. Which underlines the fact that for all the control he exercised, Eastwood was frequently game to let co-stars steal his thunder. Years later, Jeff Bridges clearly walked away with the honors in THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT. And he gamely gave the most bad-ass action sequences in THE ROOKIE to Charlie Sheen.

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