Kelly’s Heroes (1970)

This entry into the old Ethan’s Film Journal just seems right for today’s Throwback Thursday, what with it being America’s Independence Day and all.

Originally posted 01/24/2018.

Summary: Grade A screw-up Private Kelly (Clint Eastwood) accidentally discovers a briefcase filled with lead-plated gold bars while interrogating a Nazi prisoner in Nancy, France during World War II.  By plying his prisoner with alcohol, Kelly learns of a $16 million fortune in gold bars sitting in a bank vault behind enemy lines in Clermont.  Deciding to take the money and run, Kelly assembles an all-star team consisting of disgruntled/greedy US Army misfits and opportunists to help him retrieve it.  Hilarity ensues (really).

Thoughts: Kelly’s Heroes is a war/heist/comedy hybrid movie.  It’s a strange mix, war and comedy, but the field isn’t as lonely as you might think

War comedies are not unicorns: Hot Shots! (1991), Hot Shots! Part Duex (1993), Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Private Benjamin (1980), and even M*A*S*H* (1970) are all great examples of genre mixes, with some concentrating more on slapstick and others balancing both situational/character comedy with real world war drama to make a more impactful statement.  If I had to compare the tone of Kelly’s Heroes, I’d say it falls somewhere on the Dr. Strangelove (1964) spectrum in that it takes a sardonic, subversive look at war and soldiering through the lens of World War II.  This is apparent right from the opening credits, when the film’s theme song is played for the first time: Burning Bridges by Mike Curb Congregation, a jaunty 60s-ish pop tune with lyrics about social isolation, stubbornness, and regret.  Quirky but effective in its juxtaposition.

The film has a strangely contemporary (for 1970) feel to it.  Though it’s set during WWII, it’s less John Wayne than John Lennon; less WWII than the ‘Nam.  For instance, Donald Sutherland plays the character of Tank Sergeant “Oddball” like a hippy for Christ’s sake (which is both brilliant and hilarious, by the way).  Clint Eastwood’s Private Kelly has the morals of The Man With No Name (one of the better known Spaghetti Western characters and also, coincidentally, played by Eastwood) and cares more about money than the greater good of destroying the Third Reich–a departure from the image most carry of the “Greatest Generation.”  The film features an anachronism in the form of a 1970 Hank Williams, Jr. song, and there’s even a nod to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) at the end.  Keeping in line with the film’s sardonic sense of humor, the message here seems to be that though WWII ended in 1945, nothing really changed in 25 years.  Bravo, movie.

Conclusion: Kelly’s Heroes holds a special place in my heart.  It was the last movie I watched with my father before he passed away two years ago this very day, so it was destined to leave an impression.  Even if I didn’t have that emotional connection to it, it’s a damn fine film on its own–a little weird and offbeat, cynical and subversive, like a black comedy you might catch on IFC at 3 AM.  The low-level soldiers are greedy, the upper echelon is incompetent, the enemy is oblivious, and more than once, the whole operation might be blown to hell because-of and if-not-for sheer dumb luck and random chance.  If you like war films, heist films, or subversive comedies, this movie will not disappoint. 

You know, I was lucky to have the father I had. Not many people can say that. Much of who I am is due to the man my father was. Though he suffered greatly in his life, he never let that keep him from being a faithful husband and a selfless father. A Marine during the Vietnam years, he was never a hard ass when I was growing up, and was always supportive of whatever I wanted to attempt to do as a kid–so long as it was harmful to no one, of course. While I’m not the biggest fan of war movies like he was, my love of westerns and sci-fi comes from him. While no one will ever accuse me of being a handyman like my dad, he taught me to appreciate the possibilities of technology. And while this reflection isn’t about Kelly’s Heroes… it is about mine.

Happy 4th, Pop. Semper Fi.

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