Cinema geeks can cite scores of films, ranging from classics like  Clue, Murder By Death, or Weekend at Bernies, to Noises Off! or even Repo Man, that still are able to retain the mystique of being called underground classics, films that are known line for line in many circles but at the same time gloriously refrain from being called “cool” by the mainstream (which turns it into old hat for the purist, and even somehow may ruin his appreciation for the work). In the world of comedy, in the last 15 years, one of the best shining examples of black comedy genius is The Big Lebowski . For years this film dwelled in that shadowy world that only the cool kids seemed to know about, an underground movement that spread like wild fire and with one casual quote,could bond strangers forever. It has sadly gone “mainstream” in recent years, and is now in the public domain of Americana. It is “hip” to think Lebowski  is cool.

But one of the pioneers of this sub-sub-sub genre of cinema, a film which amazingly and thankfully has been able to stay under the radar and still reside in those underground circles which strive to not be labeled cool by “the in crowd”, is Brian G. Hutton’s 1970 classic Kelly’s Heroes.

The film stars—ready for this line up?—Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Donald Sutherland, Carroll O’Connor, Gavin MacLeod, Harry Dean Stanton, Jeff Morris, Len Lesser, Stuart Margolin, and George Savalas. It was written by Troy Kennedy-Martin, who penned the original The Italian Job, Edge of Darkness, and Red Heat. Rounding out the talent here is legendary jazz and film composer Lalo Schrifrin (his credits are incredibly too long to mention, and if you don’t know this man, I’ll have to quote the mortal words of Calvin Broadus, aka Snoop Dogg: “You better ask somebody!”).

The plot is as follows: In the European theater of World War II, Pvt. Kelly (Eastwood) learns of a German stash of $14 million worth of gold bars that is in a bank, behind enemy lines in France. Kelly enlists his platoon and others to sneak through the lines and take the bank to get the gold.

You might recognize this plot from the 1999 film Three Kings, which was set during the Persian Gulf War and was practically a remake starring George Clooney (here’s some small world trivia for you: The lead role was written for Eastwood, but at the last minute, it was decided to make the character younger; Jeff Bridges tried for the role, but was turned down because of the poor box office run of The Big Lebowski!). But I digress…

This film from start to finish is brilliant on so many levels. Literally every piece of dialogue is recitable, and the characterizations are hilarious.

Mr. Savalas plays the platoon leader, “Big Joe”, whose only concern is, not winning the war, but trying to get his boys off the front lines long enough to be able to get them some much needed R&R, because “I gotta get my men some action before they start freaking out with each other!”

Don Rickles is “CrapGame”, the section’s acquisitions sergeant, the man who not only gets you supplies and ammo but also runs the local black market;  he can get you whatever your heart desires. Mr. Sutherland, in probably one of the best and most underrated roles in his career, plays “Oddball”, the leader of a squad of Sherman tanks who is the only pothead in WWII. Carroll O’Connor is Major General Colt, who makes Patton’s overzealous personality look like a church mouse in comparison.

Eastwood’s rag-tag team is assembled out of necessity. He needs Big Joe and the platoon because he needs the manpower to pull off the score; he needs CrapGame’s help so the operation will have the proper financing (meaning weapons, ammo, and food for the trek); and Oddball is discovered accidentally and put into use because, as Sutherland’s character likes to remind Kelly, “a Sherman can give you a very nice… edge.” (He hilariously repeats his mantra throughout the film, telling his men to stop projecting “negative waves”, and to only think with “positive waves”; only then will good things happen.)

With everyone on board, before long half the American army finds out. General Colt gets involved when he hears them on ham radio and discovers that an entire line has been broken through and he wasn’t told, going as far at one point as to yell at his underlings to pipe down while he listens to the radio, because he’s “got the game on”.

What makes this film brilliant is firstly the angle it looks at WWII (or any war) from.

I think I’m safe saying this may be the only war film that shows the enormous amount of “waiting” an army does when they are not on the front lines. War can be hell when you’re on the front, but everyone forgets about the soldiers who are waiting on the sidelines for action, and the huge amout of nothing they do in this time. Just think about the manpower and equipment that the American Army had in WWII in Europe, and the amount of time wasted waiting to be put into service. The black markets and “diversions” the soldiers came up with to pass the time have become legendary.

Secondly, this film accurately captures the absurdity that goes hand in hand with war. All the men want is some rest, to find a place to hole up and maybe get some female companionship. Kelly’s Heroes plays as a war film, but at times comes off very much like an anti-war film as well. (And it is interesting to note that Kelly’s Heroes  was released the same year as one of the greatest anti-war films of all time, M*A*S*H, both starring Donald Sutherland).

Oddball's mob of marauders

Speaking of Sutherland, he is spectacular in this film, commanding a trio of Shermans that are manned by men who seem to be high on every drug under the sun. They like to use tactics such as blasting music through loudspeakers they’ve mounted on their tanks to “scare the hell” out of the enemy, and shoot ammo that’s filled with paint that “makes pretty pictures”. The combination of the cast and their characters’ interactions are pure genius here, having the straight-edged Eastwood and Savalas reacting to the insanity of Sutherland, Rickles, and the rest of the cast.

"Italian" Standoff- Homage to a Spaghetti Western

The film does have its problems, as Eastwood has noted. In his opinion (one which I agree with), if the film had been edited better it could have become an across-the-board classic. It also suffers from a problem common to films from the late ’60s and 1970s—a popular song of the era bookends the movie, but is not proper for the period the film takes place within, and sadly sounds quite dated today (though I’ve actually grown to love the track, the Mike Curb Congregation’s “Burning Bridges”).

It’s one of those films, much like The Big Lebowski, that one may not think is great upon first viewing. I have found that these types of movies are puzzling though enjoyable on the first watch, but draws you back again for another crack at it, and before you know it you’ve seen the thing a dozen times. That’s the joy with these kind of films, they just get better with every viewing, and you pick up on something new each time which is more hilarious than the last.

Kelly’s Heroes is a great treasure to behold and, like The Big Lebowski, has a huge underground following, which thankfully has kept it within the confines of the “cult” world—which is surprising since it’s turning 42 this year. Who knows, maybe in years to come we’ll see bumper stickers and t-shirts like the Lebowski. But until then, I am proud to be in this secret club.

  1. Jim D says:

    A good rendition. The only tid-bit I would add is that Oddball and his crew represent the beginings of the original counter-culture group: The Beatnicks. Represented later by Dobie Gillis
    Too true that the theme song is dated, but then I take the time that a film was made into account, when watching them.