Seen by Martin before? No
What did I expect? A badass heist movie in which a bunch of WWII GIs steal Nazi gold.
What did I get? It took me the longest time to figure this movie out. As I said, I was expecting a “badass” movie — but Kelly’s Heroes isn’t really a badass movie at all, it’s a countercultural war comedy that happens to involve a heist. I’d been hearing for years about this rousing classic war movie with … Telly Savalas in which a bunch of grizzled grunts make a run for this Nazi stash of gold. Great! That sounds like a rollicking adventure with lots of rugged badassery. But that’s not what Kelly’s Heroes is.
See, the first time I watched Kelly’s Heroes, it just didn’t strike me as very stirring, and I concluded that it wasn’t very well directed. (I still think that the pacing is poor, and parts do still seem muddled to me.) On second viewing, an alternate reading of the movie began to sink in, and everything started to make more sense.
The key to Kelly’s Heroes, and I honestly don’t know whether I’ve cracked the secret code on this movie or am just reading it the way everyone else always has, is that the whole quest for gold thing is a red herring, a MacGuffin. The movie isn’t about gold, and it isn’t about greed, and it isn’t about badassery. The movie is about the importance of being slack in a military context — a very 1970s approach to war, no doubt.
At some point I noticed that none of the main characters dies — indeed, none of them is ever in any real peril. This huge crew of a couple-three dozen soldiers travels several miles into enemy territory and has a couple of big tank battles and take over a fairly well-guarded town — and none of them die. (A couple of essentially nameless GIs do die in a minefield, but it almost feels like a sop to the idea that this is, after all, a war movie.)
So it got me thinking: what kind of war movie is it where the home team suffers almost no casualties? One is sorely tempted to answer, “One that’s really a heist film in disguise,” but I think the real answer is, “One where the soldiers have the right attitude.”
If you pretend that Kelly’s Heroes is not about getting the Nazi gold but is actually about capturing the town of Clermont, it becomes a lot clearer that the movie is really conducting an argument about the best way to be a soldier. The key to this bunch is that they’re not thinking about conventional military goals and pressures and risks. They’re thinking about gold, and that liberates them, lifts their fear. They can be slack.
Because slack is king, it’s not actually Eastwood or Savalas or Rickles who’s pivotal to the capture of Clermont — it’s Sutherland, the anachronistic hippie “Oddball.” For Sutherland is the slackest of them all.
Late in the movie, this general, played by Carroll O’Connor, gets wind that his troops have penetrated deep into enemy territory, and he starts cheering them on for being so aggressive, and his misunderstanding is meant to render his enthusiasm ironic. But it’s ironic and then back again, because objectively, O’Connor’s absolutely right.
Similarly, the title of the movie is ironic-but-not-really. The “heroes” are heroes, they did do something extraordinary, and all because they were able to trick themselves into thinking that they weren’t “really” doing anything productive in a military sense, and that had the effect of loosening them up as soldiers. By this reading, the movie’s about zen. Watch the movie, and pay close attention to Sutherland’s hippy-dippy dialogue (all of which the movie absolutely endorses), and tell me I’m wrong.
What here smacks of 1970? The theme song. And, of course, Oddball.
IMDB score: 7.5
My score: 7
Director: Brian G. Hutton
Writer: Troy Kennedy-Martin
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Carroll O’Connor, Donald Sutherland, Gavin MacLeod, Stuart Margolin, Harry Dean Stanton
IMDB synopsis: During World War II a German Colonel is captured by the Americans but before he can be interrogated an artillery barrage hits the camp. However, Ex-Lieutenant Kelly manages to reach the Colonel, get him drunk and learn that he is on a secret mission to ship $16,000,000 of gold to a base in France. Kelly is determined to get the gold and plans for himself and a few of his fellow soldiers to slip into enemy territory and steal the bullion.