When I was young, and less wise, I developed some strange ideas about what constituted a great film. After seeing "Kelly's Heroes", for instance, I was convinced that I had just experienced the greatest war movie ever made. Little did I know that it was really intended as a "comedy", blending subtle satire, frivolity and action. Whatever my youthful misconceptions, it remains an entertaining, and occasionally thought-provoking picture.
The film centres on the exploits of a group of American soldiers in France in 1944, and their successful efforts to "steal" a haul of gold from a bank located behind enemy lines. The driving force behind the operation is Kelly, played by Clint Eastwood, who summons up his best "mean, moody and magnificent" persona for the role..
"Kelly Heroes" has much in common in many respects with the Vietnam-era war films which appeared later in the 1970s and 1980s. The fact that this picture was made in 1969/70 doubtless helped to shape its aesthetic and some of the undercurrents in the script. The music is vaguely "Age of Aquarius" in nature, and bits of the dialogue are not what one would normally associate with a World War Two film.
This juxtaposition between the Second World War and later counter-cultural values is of course epitomised by the character "Oddball", played by Donald Sutherland. Oddball's tank unit resembles a proto-hippie commune, and the "modifications" to his armoured vehicles are perhaps an insinuation that evil can be tackled without recourse to excessive violence...
I have read it suggested that "Kelly's Heroes" contains an anti-war message. I would concur with this assertion, but at the same time this is an undercurrent, not rammed down the viewer's throat, and it may not be immediately clear to those only watching casually. There is mixture of satire and "black comedy" which helps to soften any abrasiveness or preachiness which might have crept in.
I am not entirely sure whether the producers of this movie were seeking to pose deeper and more complex moral questions. The relative "merits" or stealing gold and waging war spring to mind, although of course in reaching the bank the troops had to engage the German forces anyway. Men died in the process. Which was the more noble "cause"?
Some of the action sequences leave a little to be desired in terms of authenticity, but then again I doubt that "Kelly's Heroes" was aimed at the "purist" audience, militarily or historically speaking. One needs to accept some of the occasional absurdity, and disregard technical minutiae, to appreciate the basic thrust of the movie.
There are, however, one or two memorable scenes. The sequence where the unit becomes trapped in a minefield is especially gripping. More levity is provided by the comical misinterpretations by the American general, who thinks that news of the appearance of Kelly's men behind enemy lines is evidence of some heroic and selfless act of initiative and aggression. Telly Savalas' performance is also worthy of praise, as the irascible sergeant "Big Joe".
It might not be a good idea to watch "Kelly's Heroes" back-to-back with a "serious" war movie, but it is still an intriguing watch.