Kelly's Heroes

Reviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 01/19/07 21:09:52

"Should war ever be this much fun?"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

World War Two movies have seen perhaps the biggest sea change over the past few decades. The likes of Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line and Flags of our Fathers have established that WW2 is the one war that perhaps responds best to the noble gestures and graceful sentiment that these films aspire towards. But where does that leave films like Kelly's Heroes that are just one big, fun, action-filled romp? Is it now distasteful to praise war films such as these?

It's a dilemma that Brian G. Hutton would have been familiar with, as he had previously helmed Where Eagles Dare, a man on a mission movie that saw Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton take out a German platoon single handedly (or should that be double handledly?). Here, Eastwood returns as Kelly, a disaffected Lieutenant who while deep in European action learns from a German officer of a bank that the Nazis are guarding - a bank that holds 16 million worth of gold bars. Kelly informs the rest of his platoon and after persuading his cynical Seargeant, Big Joe (Telly Savalas) that it's a risk worth taking, they set off to "liberate" the gold, with a little help from tank commander Oddball (Donald Sutherland).

Clearly, Kelly's Heroes is the film that Three Kings took a lot of inspiration from, right from it's plot to its wide streak of cynicism. Rare is the World War Two film that shows its soldiers as anything other than noble men just trying to survive through madness - and quite rightly too - but here the soldiers are a scuzzy, bitter, sarcastic lot. They bitch about having a dose of crabs, try to set up an illegal bar and flagrantly disregard orders from their commanding general who is more interested in getting his latest fashions from Paris than manouveres, until he sees a good PR opportunity to hand out some medals. Some would say that this is in bad tase - I say that's the point. As one soldier points out, they're doing a job no sane man would do and get paid little for it, so why shouldn't they try and make a little extra on the side? Distasteful or not, there's more than a little truth in that thought. And it should also be noted, that while these Boy's Own or men on a mission movies are often seen as the black sheep of the war genre, they're not just concerned with vicarious thrills, they do still hit home the cost of war - The Great Escape for example, is not the giddy romp it's painted as, and ends with a group massacre. Likewise here, there are reminders throughout of the cost of war when various characters are lost along the way - it's just not a point that's rammed down our throats by Hutton.

Instead, he keeps the tone firmly between the comic adventuring of the plot (released the same year as MASH, it's arguably just as funny) and several blistering action pieces. The final raid on the bank is a brilliant example of precise tick-tock filmmaking, while there's a hair raising chase through a town as it's bombed by night. Hutton directs these scenes with flair and energy but never overeggs them so they become distracting and don't mesh with the fairly light hearted plot. Best of all however, is the sequence in the middle of the film, where the platoon has to crawl agonizingly over a minefield - a situation made even worse by a German convoy that's bearing down the road onto them. It's a splendidly taut moment that deserves to be remembered alongside the actual getaway in The Great Escape or the final raid in The Dirty Dozen. Most daring however, is the scene when the platoons tanks mow down German troops occupying a train station while easy listening music plays within the tanks. It's a moment that starts off highly comical, before becoming something much more strange, disturbing and ultimately horrifying - something Kubrick would have been proud of perhaps.

With a wonderfully balanced script, the cast have a ball too. Eastwood is as instantly commanding as ever, whilst giving his rarely used comic timing a work out too - Eastwood can really deliver a funny line, simply because he says it with such a straight face. Early appearances are also seen by Harry Dean Stanton and Don Rickles, while the always underrated Savalas is great here as usual as a no-nonsense, no-shit taking Seargeant that you'd follow into battle without hesitation just because you believe him when he says that you'll be alright. Special mention though, must go to Sutherland's Oddball. A 1970s hippy unapologetically relocated to WW2 - his dialogue consists of "Negative waves man" and "Beautiful people" soundbites, he's a character that shouldn't work at all, but somehow does perfectly. He's a character that fits in with the cynicism of the film and perhaps also suggests that there are a lot more common elements to all wars than may be first thought.

As mentioned earlier, Three Kings owes a huge debt to Kelly's Heroes, something you don't think anyone could disagree with. But while Three Kings threw in a bunch of oppressed Iraqi villagers at the end to sweeten the pill somewhat, Kelly's Heroes does no such thing, remaining blackly cynical right to the end. And for that reason alone, Kelly's Heroes deserves its place alongside films such as The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen and MASH.

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