Sunday 28 March 2010

Movie Review: Kelly's Heroes (1970)

Back in 1970, this must have seemed like a good idea: infuse modern anti-war cultural elements into a World War II movie to appeal to the hippie and flower-child audience of the day.

Hence Donald Sutherland as Oddball (indeed) is a laid-back, seemingly perpetually stoned tank commander. The rag-tag soldiers under his command are doing all they can to sit-out the war, living in a tent compound that can only be described as a hippie commune. In future Hollywood war films, characters like Sutherland and his anti-authoritarian crew make regular appearances in movies about the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. In the World War II setting of Kelly's Heroes, they are jarringly out of place. The main song of the movie, "Burning Bridges", is also straight out of the late 1960's and totally irrelevant to the World War II era.

Thankfully, Kelly's Heroes also offers Clint Eastwood as Private Kelly. Eastwood brings his typical restrained but tough persona to the war arena as the demoted Sergeant who, in the days after D-Day, stumbles onto the location of 14,000 bars of Nazi gold stored in the small town of Clermont, 30 miles behind enemy lines in France. He hatches a plan for a small force of disenchanted US soldiers to strike out on their own, defy orders, breakthrough the German lines and steal the gold from the bank where it is held. His reluctant companion is Big Joe, a Master Sergeant effectively brought to life by Telly Savalas.

As rumours of the gold spread, Kelly's small force unwittingly mushrooms into a full-fledged breakthrough of the German lines through which a large chunk of the allied army starts streaming in. What starts as a theft is transformed into a race to the bank before the American army unit arrives to liberate the town.

Kelly's Heroes is not trying to be serious, and it is does contain several memorable action sequences and some impressive explosions. Director Brian G. Hutton keeps the action moving and allows his stars time to stamp their personalities on proceedings. The final battle between Kelly's unit and the small armoured German force tasked with defending the bank is also well choreographed, with a nice blend of action and humour, and Hutton finds time to weave in a clever salute to Eastwood's Spaghetti Western roots.

Eastwood and Savalas are capably supported by a colourful cast that includes Don Rickles as a supply sergeant, and Carroll O'Connor as the General who spots the opportunity to exploit the gap created by Kelly's expedition.

Kelly's Heroes would have a made quite a solid comic-oriented war movie; the artificial imposition of a 1960's ethos unfortunately both undermines and unhinges the film. Oddball is not just the name of Sutherland's character -- it's an apt description of the movie itself.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.