Kelly’s Heroes (1970) dir. Brian G. Hutton
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, Don Rickles
By Alan Bacchus
Quentin Tarantino paid wonderful reverence to Kelly’s Heroes when he used one of composer Lalo Schifrin’s music cues in the final act of Inglourious Basterds. I knew the music right away and grinned ear to ear when I heard it. Thinking back, I bet Tarantino was chomping at the bit to use the even more fun theme song of Kelly’s Heroes, ‘Burning Bridges’ by The Mike Curb Congregation.
The fact is, the song perfectly represents the offbeat and affable tone in Kelly’s Heroes, Brian G, Hutton’s WWII/Heist comedy, which in today’s era of cinema would likely be vilified for insensitivity to the veterans of the War. But the fact is, it’s one helluva a movie and likely one of the inspirations for Tarantino’s revisionist war film.
Clint Eastwood plays Kelly, a defrocked lieutenant, now a private, who while interrogating a German officer learns about a stash of gold bars ($16million dollars worth) in a French bank behind enemy lines. While on a three day rest Kelly gathers together his platoon to go AWOL and score the perfect heist. The eye-popping sight of his sample bar of gold is enough to convince everyone to join in, even Kelly’s tough and cynical captain Big Joe (Telly Savalas). Among these ‘men on a mission’ there’s the cagey opportunist Crapgame (Don Rickles), and the hippie tank captain Oddball (Donald Sutherland).
With fine subtlety Hutton and company sharply satirize the heroism of war. At every turn the bunch of working class soldiers freely subvert the notion of fighting honourably and valiantly for one's country, instead their collective mantra is survive at all costs, ‘stick your neck for nobody’ and make it home alive – and, rich, if possible. It’s a decidedly anti-heroic stance of war – something we absolutely NEVER see in today’s cinema.
There are no direct allegories to modern war and no overt statement-making, but the theme of anti-heroism fits in with the then prevailing liberal reaction to the Vietnam War, which was in full force when the picture was made. From the naive General played by Carroll O’Connor to Captain Maitland who bugs off to Paris to sail his boat, each of the authority figures in the film are portrayed as bumbling idiots and out of touch with the hell fire and carnage on the frontlines.
Kelly is not much different from Eastwood's portrayal of his 'man with no name' characters, or his Dirty Harry Callaghan character – a pragmatist loner with surly disposition and no patience for bureaucratic bullshit. In fact the tone of the Spaghetti Westerns play a big role in establishing the heightened fantasy-reality of the situation. Lalo Schifrin even lays down a Morricone-esque piece of music for Hutton’s Leone showdown with the German Tiger Tank operator at the end of the film.
Despite the numerous battle scenes, at heart Kelly’s Heroes is a heist comedy, in the realm of The Italian Job or Topkapi. The journey to the Clermont bank is filled with hurdle after hurdle, but we so desperately want Kelly and the boys to come out on top and complete the scam. And so in the final moments when the ambitious Engineer Sgt Bellamy who has been desperately following Kelly to beat them to the bank walks in and finds the killroy scribble in the empty bank we know Kelly’s Heroes have gotten away with the gold. It’s a thoroughly pleasing ending – and for the third time in the film, The Mike Curb Congregation’s ‘Burning Bridges’ send this rousing action comedy through the roof, with all the fuzzy-wuzzies of a satisfying movie-going experience.
'Kelly’s Heroes' is packaged with another Brian Hutton/Eastwood collaboration 'Where Eagles Dare' on Blu-Ray from Warner Bros Home Video.