Another Wednesday trip to my local video store and back under my arm came seven DVDs!! It has been years since I last saw Kelly's Heroes, let alone read the book. After watching this several nights ago I was surprised to learn something. That thing being how aging brings us a new perspective on movies we have seen in the past and how some are now garbage and yet others we see in a new light, and if anything got better.
I have always liked Kelly's Heroes but when I was younger I always viewed it as a straight war movie and yet after my lastest viewing I realised it isn't. A war movie yes, but not in the strictest sense because it hides an anti-war sentiment that wasn't apparent to me before. Here the benefit of having read just a bit, combined with age came into play. As a younger being I enjoyed war movies and never really understood the idea of what anti-war meant. But in recent years I have read the likes of the brilliant All Quiet on the Western Front and The Boat and have come to understand the concept much better.
Kelly's Heroes is a war movie with a bit of comedy thrown in, but those two ingredients only disguise the anti-war message. This is very much a book/movie adaptation in the vein of Catch-22 ( if you have read the book you will know what I mean ). Catch-22 is a very dark, cynical black comedy and a masterful anti-war novel. It is total fiction but a sad indictment on the military and warfare. I have never seen the movie and in many respect don't want to as I believe this is an almost impossible book to make a movie from.
The book this is based on isn't very long and can be read in a matter of hours. Unfortunately it is years since I have read it so I can't comment on it here. Where Kelly's Heroes is like Catch-22 is the absurdity of the characters and the events surrounding them. For instance one captain finds a yacht and decides to have it shipped back to the States. He has it put on a transporter to have it taken to taken away, as it does so he yells to his men that taking from the locals is stealing, yet is oblivious to the fact that he is doing just that!! It is a scene straight from Catch-22. I loved it and laughed out loud!
The characters are all there. We have the quatermaster who is essentially a coward and yet controls all the goods coming in and out ( Don Rickles ). We see a scene where he has a stash of whiskey bottles behind him, but do you think the front line troops will ever see any of it? We have the segeant who is yelling and screaming at his men and taking the war all too seriously ( Telly Savalas ). We have the former officer busted to the ranks who quietly goes on with the war but isn't shy of getting out when he spots an opportunity, and sixteen milion in gold is quite an opportunity! ( Clint Eastwood ). Also there is the two star general who rants and raves and wants the impossible to make himself look good ( Carroll O'Connor ), and finally the nut, Donald Sutherland in the role as Oddball, the most memorable of them all ( who views his role as a tanker as being 'defensive'!! ).
And then we see the absurdity of it all, because when word gets out about the gold it seems as if the whole American army gets of its behind and is on the move. O'Connor as the two star finds out and is incredulous as he doesn't know what is going on and yet impressed and rushes of to be at the front ( I love it when he comes up to a soldier, shakes his hand, then drives off saying over his shoulder, 'I have a medal here in the jeep for you'!! ). All the crack pots come out of the wood work and it all becomes farce. Really good stuff and very black in its comedy and cynicism.
What an eclectic bunch! All different and viewing the war in their individual ways. We have seen these types portrayed in war movies before but it is usually one character among many. Here we have them all in one melting pot and it is superb.
The cast is great and lifts this above just another war movie. We all know about Clint Eastwood, but though he stars this isn't his movie. It really is the Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland show. Eastwood has an understated role, he plays it well and lets Savalas and Sutherland shine whilst he himself plays a more quiet and thoughful character. It shows his lack of an ego as an actor as many would never let anyone else do so. Telly Savalas was never really an actor I thought much of. In kelly's Heroes he is outstanding, and I could really buy into his sergeant role. He cares about the lives of his men and hates the war. The stupidity and decisions of his superiors wind him up no end, and we see him as a very tense, highly strung character.
Savalas is very good here and I really enjoyed watching him. Too serious maybe but that is the point when you compare him to the absurdity of the two star general commanding him and the division. He is completely out of touch with reality. There is a very subtle parody of George Scott's Patton in O'Connor's performance as he hams it up no end, and is both Patton and Catch-22 rolled into one.
Savalas is a standout but Donald Sutherland is the real star of the show. He puts in a stella performance that must rate as one of his very best ( I have always liked him in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers re-make as well ). As stated when younger so much of this movie for me went un-noticed. Sutherland as an eccentric off-beat character passed me by but now I'm older I 'get' him. He is just brillaint as a 1944 type hippie and is a sly reference to the said movement of the late 1960's. Like Savalas he totally immerses himself in his role and he provides the comic relief of the movie. His lines aren't so much laugh out loud comedy as much as laid back and eccentric. I love one part at the end where his tank breaks down during the battle for the village and he is sitting down 'eating some cheese, drinking some wine, and catching some rays' as he so infuriatingly tells a livid Savalas. Classic Oddball and just sums up his laid back views to life and the war. He is determined not to let anything upset him and is the complete opposite of Savalas' character.
Sutheralnd's is the stand out performance of the many littered throughout Kelly's Heroes. But the movie goes so much further than good acting. What really struck me was the accuracy of the uniforms and weapons, especially of the Germans. They are actually German!! So often in movies of the era as I stated in my Where Eagles Dare review historical accuracy wasn't a high priority. This movie was made in Yugoslavia and the weaponry in particular was borrowed from the Yugoslav army as it was still in use by them. I am so impressed by this fact and it only lifts my regard for this movie. Its anti-war sentiment can only be taken more seriously for its attention to detail.
The thing I have always liked about this authenticity was the attempt to make supposedly German tanks actually look like German tanks. The three 'Tigers' aren't geunine Tigers but Russian T-34's that were heavily modified by Yugoslav army engineers and initially used in a Yugoslav WW 2 movie. No other war movie before it had done this and it wasn't until Saving Private Ryan that German tanks were made to look like German tanks again. When you have a serious look at Kelly's Heroes you get a real sense of what is meant by 'budget', which must have been astronomical. Whole villages and bridges are destroyed, ( remember this is well before CGI ), whole roads are packed with military equipment, camp scenes huge and realistic, the list goes on and on. The realism is staggering and again I didn't see it when I was younger and only do so now becuase my knowledge has also increased over the years.
In Kelly's Heroes we have the true meaning of 'Blockbuster' This must have been a staggeringly expensive movie to make and I think we today take film budgets for granted. Tens of millions are thrown at special effects in an attempt to make each movie a 'blockbuster'. Most fail miserably and it is a sad indictment on the film industry when you look at Kelly's Heroes and see what a real blockbuster is. It also has the mandatory length of a blockbuster of its time as it runs to a shade over two hours. It is rare today to have a movie run over ninety minutes so in its day it was real value for money.
The other thing that stood out was the freshness of it. In wide screen it was fantastic and it has dated extremely well. It doesn't look like a forty year old movie and again shows the detail that went into its making to achieve this. It is quality all the way and still an excellent movie. This is what sets the rubbish apart from the good. Kelly's Heroes would have been a spectacular film to have seen in 1970 and yet forty years later it can still hold its on in an era of mass produced, self proclaimed block busters. Watch this and see what a real blockbuster is as they don't come much better.
This is a quietly great movie. I don't think many would think to put this on their lists of the greatest movies ever made, and yet it deserves to be. Its anti-war message is clear, the acting superb, as is the realism, and it still is a fine looking movie. I find there is an aversion in rating war movies as great but this one must surely be among the very best. If you haven't seen it then I recommend you do, if for no other reason than to see Donald Sutherland ham it up. He is brilliant!! And so is the movie overall. It is a true blockbuster of its era and still worth watching as it is a good excersise in quality film making with a point to make.
Those of you with an eye for cinema will love the parody of the three way stand off from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, with its appropriate music! It is all great fun and so tounge in cheek as three guys walk up to a giant German tank!!