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Kelly's Heroes (1970) was made during a transitional phase in Clint Eastwood's career - between his former days as a stogie-chewing pistolero in Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns and his future job as San Francisco's most relentless cop, Dirty Harry (1972). Kelly's Heroes experienced a rocky road from conception to the screen. With a working title of The Warriors, star Clint Eastwood and director Brian G. Hutton were set to make a unique anti-war picture, in the same vein as M*A*S*H*(1970). Hutton and Eastwood collaborated just two years prior on the very successful Where Eagles Dare (1969), so the studio expected a similar treatment in Kelly's Heroes. After all, if a formula works, there's no need to change it. At least that's the standard idea in Hollywood filmmaking.
But Eastwood and Hutton wanted to do something daring, the timing seemed right, and the star had the clout to do the unexpected, since Eastwood was the second biggest box office draw in 1970, sandwiched between Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. So with the Vietnam War and anti-war protests raging, the release of the film seemed timed just right to reflect the tone of the nation. Kelly's Heroes was just one of several war films produced between 1969 and 1970, like Castle Keep (1969) and Catch-22(1970), that were adapted from anti-war novels that dated from the early 1960s. And like M*A*S*H (1970) and Catch-22 (1970), this military comedy takes place in an earlier war but is really a thinly disguised treatise on the modern-day insanity then unfolding in Vietnam.
Unfortunately, Eastwood did not have quite as much clout as needed to release the picture he and Hutton intended. Once the film was nearly in the can, Hutton was forced to make a number of cuts to suit the then MGM boss James Aubrey, a move that Clint Eastwood resented. While he did plead on Hutton's behalf, Eastwood's voice did not carry quite as much weight with Aubrey as it would have just a few years later, with the release of films like Dirty Harry(1971) and High Plains Drifter(1973). Thus, the specific or overt anti-war message that Hutton might have intended may well have been lost in MGM's cut. This anti-war message was just one element that attracted Eastwood to the project in the first place. "It had the best script, a good cast, a subtle anti-war message, elements that would possibly make a ground-breaking movie." In fact, it was not until 1999 that the same plot of soldiers taking leave of a war to find hidden loot was reworked in a truly ground-breaking film called Three Kings, starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Ice Cube.
Eastwood's personal view of the Vietnam War was tempered by the loss of friends and contemporaries in the Korean conflict, which he narrowly escaped during his military service. Eastwood also had a natural aversion to killing living creatures of any kind, but his right-wing political stance prevented him from raising his voice amidst the left-wing, anti-war movement. "When I was in the Army, I was against the Korean War and I'm against the war in Vietnam. But I'm not among the people who say, "Let's stop Vietnam, zap!" If you're going to stop it, I'd like to say, "There's a constructive way." Eastwood cited the current popularity of Catch-22 (1970) as a positive example that a perceptive look at the greedy fingers pulling the strings of war could work. Instead, Kelly's Heroes, in Eastwood's view, became a routine romp. Despite favorable audience reaction and some good critical notices, Eastwood felt that the film fell short of classic status because of the post-production meddling of "The Smiling Cobra," MGM chief James Aubrey.
The funniest thing about this World War II heist film (Clint & his men rob a bank in occupied France containing 14,000 bars of German gold) is that the supporting cast upstages Clint at every turn. But after all, how could he compete with the wily Telly Savalas or loudmouth Carroll O'Connor or that pesky scene-stealer Harry Dean Stanton as Willard or Donald Sutherland as a hippie tank driver named Oddball or Don Rickles as an arms supplier called Crapgame. By the way, if you've ever wanted to see Don Rickles with a machine gun, this is your one chance.
There's also a funny parody of the climatic showdown in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) in which Clint and his cohorts square off against a Panzer tank while the background music playfully imitates the spaghetti western music of composer Ennio Morricone.
Director: Brian G. Hutton
Producer: Sidney Beckerman, Gabriel Katzka
Screenplay: Troy Kennedy-Martin
Cinematography: Gabriel Figueroa
Music: Lalo Schifrin
Principle Cast: Clint Eastwood (Kelly), Telly Savalas (Big Joe), Don Rickles (Crapgame), Carroll O'Connor (General Colt), Donald Sutherland (Oddball), Gavin MacLeod (Moriarty), Richard Davalos (Pvt. Gutowski), Harry Dean Stanton (Pvt. Willard), Stuart Margolin (Pvt. Little Joe).
C-144m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Scott McGee