“This isn’t Geneva, Colonel.”
Kelly’s Heroes (1970)
Directed by Brian G. Hutton
Written by Troy Kennedy Martin
144 minutes, rated GP
It should be noted that while I do believe very strongly in the wonderment of an audience experiencing a movie’s twists and turns on their own, these reviews will not shy away from spoilers if they are necessary to discussion of the film.
Quick rating: 2/5
I really wanted to like this movie more than I did. On paper, it sounds like the sort of film that I would really enjoy. Just the general one-sentence plot description– a band of American soldiers goes AWOL to sneak across enemy lines and steal a protected stash of Nazi gold– would normally be enough to draw me in. But this film is a muddled mess that has no idea whatsoever what sort of film it wants to be.
I started this series of Clint Eastwood reviews because I am an ardent admirer of his work. With that said, I expected for there to be some garbage amongst the gems. What I did not expect was to be nine films into the series and be so utterly befuddled by Clint Eastwood himself. This is a man who so desperately wanted to break into films that he moved to another country for the opportunity, only to return to America to make films of questionable quality. Literally, EVERY OTHER MOVIE since The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly has made me question if Eastwood reads scripts before he agrees to do them.
I had not seen this movie before viewing it to write this review. I knew little about it other than the fact that it was a war movie. Ostensibly, it was also a comedy. I also knew that it had a stellar cast (Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Donald Sutherland, Carroll O’ Connor, Gavin Macleod). Every one of these things turned out by the end to only be partially true, and I am at a loss of where to even begin for a fair and accurate review that says something other than “this film is a muddled mess that has no idea whatsoever what sort of film it wants to be.”
Let’s start with that first “fact.” This is a war movie. I suppose there’s little argument in this regard. By definition, because the movie takes place behind the front lines of active battle, and because we see a good deal of military action, the film is a war movie. But what war? Well, World War II, obviously. The whole plot conceit centers around stealing from Nazis. There is an unfunny (and pointless) gag centering around one character being confused for Charles De Gaulle. The “bad guys” are all German. Then why– pray tell– do the characters all speak with seventies slang? Why is Donald Sutherland portraying his character (named Oddball) as a perpetually-lit hippie, complete with frequent references to “positive vibes” and constant haranguing of other characters for their “negative waves.” It’s a strange juxtaposition that took me out of the movie as soon as Oddball appeared and never let me get back in.
Moving on to the second “fact.” This is a comedy. I thought, by definition, that comedies are supposed to be funny. This movie isn’t very funny. In fact, I laughed out loud exactly one time, and it was a sight gag involving a Sherman tank caught in an alley and unable to turn around. There was a running gag that I found mildly amusing– a soldier named Babra (played by Gene Collins) getting more and more exacerbated that Big Joe (played by Telly Savalas) keeps calling him “Barbara”– but it wore out its welcome right around the seventh or eighth time they made the joke. A vast majority of the film’s remaining humor comes from the near-constant one-liner insults from Crapgame (played by Don Rickles) and the fact that ninety percent of Oddball’s dialogue is so spaced-out and drug-addled that it doesn’t even make a lick of sense. For example, Oddball has a conceit throughout the script where he shows his compatriots a different version of his “dog impression”. It always happens randomly and usually in the middle of a sentence.
Finally, let’s talk about the stellar cast. It can’t be denied that there are some top-notch performers populating this movie. However . . . Telly Savalas (who was unspeakably bad-ass in The Dirty Dozen three years prior) doesn’t have a single line of dialogue that isn’t garbled because he spends the entire movie screaming at the top of his lungs. Telly’s performance wreaked considerable havoc on the volume button of my remote. I kept having to turn the volume down to save my sanity, only to have to turn it back up whenever anyone else was speaking. Donald Sutherland (who, let’s face it, appears to have memorized the script for a completely different movie) was especially hard to decipher in these moments because he spends most of his dialogue mumbling. I’d have to turn the volume back up to figure out what he was saying. Then, I’d start cussing loudly because an explosion (or Telly’s incessant screaming) would just about blow my flatscreen off of the wall. My cat hid behind the couch for most of this movie’s runtime. Carroll O’ Connor (as General Colt) also spends most of the movie yelling incoherently. His character is also largely superfluous, only necessary for a madcap subplot that goes absolutely nowhere. For his part in the proceedings, Eastwood (who plays the titular Kelly) mugs a lot, his trademark squint replaced with a self-righteous cocky smirk. He appears, for all intents and purposes, to be laughing that the viewer has, so far, been suckered by the marketing claim that Kelly’s Heroes is a comic war movie.
To be fair, there are two sequences that I rather liked, but there are provisos to that admission. One is a sequence in a cornfield. It starts out suspenseful enough: our heroes discover that the cornfield they are using as a shortcut is a minefield. A viewer is actually hit by a sense of dread when the first mine explodes. It doesn’t last long. The movie seems to be so hellbent on remaining “a comedy” that the script cops out on the obvious plot point of having a dozen soldiers carefully traverse the minefield. Instead, the minefield is quickly forgotten and replaced by a shoot-out with a Nazi battalion that just happens to be passing by. You know, from the rather large embassy building that can CLEARLY BE SEEN near the cornfield? The second sequence is near the ending, and it’s clever enough that I might have laughed at it were I not so annoyed by this point. The sequence in question is a direct homage to the classic final scene of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. In the sequence, Kelly, Oddball, and Big Joe pull what amounts to a Mexican stand-off on a tank guarding the bank they are attempting to rob, complete with soundtrack that is vaguely reminiscent of Ennio Morricone’s iconic score. The sequence ends on an anti-climactic note with only about one minute and thirty seconds of film left to go.
In the end, I found this movie to be largely forgettable. Anything that I actually liked about it was quickly ruined by the film’s own ineptitude. If I have anything positive to take away from my initial viewing, it would be that the movie is, at least, better than Paint Your Wagon. This movie did not have Lee Marvin “singing” tone deaf renditions of terrible show tunes. On the other hand, though, at least Paint Your Wagon had a plot that made some sense. For being on a “secret mission to recover some gold, these unbelievable soldiers sure leave a lot of traceable damage in their wake.