Sunday, February 3, 2013

From the Rental Vault: Kelly's Heroes (1970)

Although he was not yet the major power player he would become, Clint Eastwood in 1970 was one of the biggest box-office draws in Hollywood. He used some of his clout to re-team with his Where Eagles Dare director Brian G. Hutton to make Kelly's Heroes, a dark comedy/satire of war that was supposed to comment on the war in Vietnam through its World War II story. Unfortunately, since Eastwood was still two years away from securing virtual independence via Harry Callahan's .44 Magnum, he and Hutton were forced by studio heads to make cuts in their movie and thus tone down both its anti-war message and much of its character development.

Eastwood plays Kelly, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army in 1944 who was busted back to private as a scapegoat in an operation that went drastically wrong and cost many Allied lives. Now under the command of "Big Joe," a sergeant played by Telly Savalas, he is a part of a unit ordered to pull back from the front in the face of German resistance. Rather than be allowed time off near an inhabited village where the soldiers might find some recreation with booze and women, they are given leave in the middle of nowhere. Kelly, meanwhile, has discovered through a German POW the location of about $16 million worth of gold bars. They're in a bank in a town about 30 miles behind the porous German lines. Working with a canny supply sergeant (Don Rickles) and a loopy tank commander (Donald Sutherland), Eastwood develops a plan to rob the bank and acquire the gold, to be secreted somewhere and retrieved later. When the rah-rah General Colt (Carrol O'Connor) hears radio communications between the units of the AWOL force, he believes they're the aggressive attacking force he needs and speeds off to find and commend them.

There may be something to Eastwood's claim that the movie was chopped up by the studio, because it's a mismatched set of action pieces and supposedly satirical scenes that never gel. On the other hand, it's hard to see how including the more anti-war elements and character development would have helped Kelly's Heroes, since it can never decide what kind of movie it wants to be.

Is it an acid commentary on what war does to otherwise good people? Is it the same kind of commentary, only focusing instead on how the chaos of war allows freedom for criminals that they'd never be permitted in peacetime? Is it a broad satire on war, showing how the really clever soldiers are in it for an angle and only out to save their own skins, while the gung-ho patriot types are all idiots? Is it a parody, in which O'Connor's Colt wears a bathrobe with Eisenhower jacket lapels and his general's stars and Eastwood, Savalas and Sutherland face down a German tiger tank along a dusty street, complete with Morricone-styled music? Or in which Donald Sutherland plays his tank commander the way a tank commander might be if he were Donald Sutherland in 1970, complete with hippie gibberish about "negative waves" and "dig this beautiful day."

Neither the audience nor, apparently, the director or stars can ever figure out what movie they're making, and as a result they make one that's nothing much. Eastwood is said to have thought the film after the cuts were made a pretty routine romp, but he's wrong. It's nowhere near that good.

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