Friday, 28 August 2015

Kelly's Heroes

Kelly's Heroes (1970)

Starring Clint Eastwood and Telly Savalas
Directed by Brian G. Hutton

Whilst it would make few people's "All time top ten" lists, I'm hard pressed to think of a film which is so relentlessly enjoyable as "Kelly's Heroes". Part war movie, part comedy, part bank-job caper flick, the different elements combine seamlessly to produce a distinctive and memorable film.

Clint Eastwood, who owns the screen arguably more than anyone in American Cinema in the last 50 years, gives in an unusually subdued but nonetheless commanding performance, playing the leader of a platoon of restless GIs in the chaos of post D-Day France. When he captures a German officer who just happens to be in possession of a solid gold bar, Kelly (Clint) extracts the necessary information and before you can think of an appropriate war-based robbery movie, he's hatched a plan to make it 30 miles beyond enemy lines to nab the $16 million stash.  He can't do it alone, of course, but has no trouble in convincing his fellow troops that if they're going to be killed in this war, the reward for them should be worth the risk.  Enlisting the help of Quartermaster "Crapgame" (Don Rickles) Sergeant "Big Joe" (Telly Savalas) and Sherman tank driver "Oddball" (Donald Sutherland) among others, Kelly and his platoon of ironic "heroes" are soon on their way to an eventual showdown with the German Tiger tank unit guarding the bank...

All too often cross-genre pictures can be let down if the balance isn't right, but that's not the case here because each element is as good as it can be. The action and battle scenes are well executed, especially that in which Oddball and his delapidated Shermans attack a German depot. The comic relief is genuinely funny rather than cheesy, and includes a beautiful scene at the climax of the movie which gently parodies Clint's spaghetti-western days, complete with the strains of cod-Morricone music. The suspense is well maintained where necessary, such as the scene where the platoon is caught exposed in the middle of a minefield with a truckload of Germans bearing down on them. And of course there is the ensemble cast, which is uniformly excellent. Keep an eye out for a young Harry Dean Stanton, and Len Lesser, who is better known as Uncle Leo in "Seinfeld". Sutherland's proto-hippie, and Carroll O'Connor's manic General Colt are just two performances which live long in the memory, alongside the ever-reliable Eastwood and Savalas.  Eastwood, of course, maintains an understated control of proceedings at all times.  It's also dripping with quotable one-liners, mostly from the mouth of Sutherland's Oddball.  "Why don't you knock it off with them negative waves...?"

There are a few points made about the madness and futility of war if that's what you're looking for.  Bearing in mind that the film was mad right in the middle of the Vietnam War.  Anti War films would be easy to pull off and strike a chord, but cynical and funny anti war films are a different matter.  People think of Altman and "M*A*S*H", still 2 years off, and rightly so, but this is arguably up there.  Accordingly, allied bombers knock out bridges by day, German mobile engineers rebuild them by night... neither the Americans or the Germans seem to know what's going on or where their lines are supposed to be... behind the lines our heroes are attacked by their own aircraft... General Colt mistakes Kelly's gold-inspired push for a patriotic determination to end the war, and mobilizes his army to follow him, chastising the staff officers around him for failing to show the same spirit...

But ultimately, this movie is about entertainment rather than political comment. And as such it is one of the most successful examples of its type, coming near the end of a procession of highly successful "guys on a mission" movies (both warbound and not). The script by Troy Kennedy Martin ("The Italian Job") is tight, and direction by Brian G Hutton ("Where Eagles Dare") equally assured. Perhaps regarded as lightweight in comparison to other, more serious "men on a mission" movies such as Robert Aldrich's "The Dirty Dozen" or Hutton's aforementioned "Eagles", the film has nonetheless been influential. For example, although David O Russell's "Three Kings", a sharp vehicle for George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube, veers off on a tangent and makes more of a serious comment on the US role in the Gulf War, its matchbook plot (ie that which can be written on the back of a matchbook) is the same as "Kelly's Heroes".  And in the speakers mounted on the side of Oddball's tanks, used to blast music at the enemy and freak them out, there is more than a hint of the Wagner-playing helicopters in Coppola's "Apocalypse Now", still some nine years hence at the time of this film's release.

Operation Overlord, the liberation of Europe, the Second World War as a whole, are not to be taken lightly.  But every once in a while it pays to take a breather from the horror and laugh at the stupidity of it all.  "Kelly's Heroes" does just that, and is a supremely enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours.  It doesn't intrude on the legitimacy of something like "The Longest Day", nor in retrospect does it diminish a film as straightly aimed as "Saving Private Ryan".  You will be doing yourself a favour if, next time you get the chance, you take a look.  It's rare that I see a film and don't think at least once that I'd change something about it, but if there is something to change in "Kelly's Heroes", I don't know what it is. 

"To a New Yorker like you, a Hero is some kind of weird sandwich, not some nut who takes on three Tigers."


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