Kelly’s Heroes

Kelly's heroes poster1970  METRO GOLDWYN MAYER

One of the WWII movies where tanks play a significant role is, unfortunately, this 1970 “war comedy.” The film was perhaps intended to be a silly version of war to appeal to a Viet Nam-War weary audience, although in the same year we did have the movie Patton winning 7 Oscars. But comedies, like other stories, need heroes and villains in order to be successful — memorable characters that we either care about or despise. It is a tricky business trying to get laughs out of the carnage of war, which has probably never been equaled since Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” in 1964.  Kelly’s Heroes contains no credible heroes or villains. Thus, it produces no belly laughs, and very few smiles.  Neither American nor German soldiers are given any respect in this misadventure.  The Americans are an undisciplined rabble, obsessed only with personal gratification in terms of booze, money, and whores.  German soldiers are portrayed as inept in battle.  Only Americans, for some reason, throw hand grenades in this film.  The Germans, however, make wonderful targets, like ducks in a shooting gallery with various pratfalls as they go down. Even a German SS tank commander complete with dueling scar can easily be corrupted in minutes by a vague promise of money.  Too bad that the important tactical role and psychological impact of tanks (or even what it feels like to fight in a tank battle) cannot be salvaged from this quagmire.

The screenwriter has taken snippets of actual WWII history — the envelopment of Nancy, the crossing of the Moselle and Meurthe rivers, the discovery of Nazi gold months later in the salt mines at Merkers, the personality quirks of General Patton, and blended them into an unintelligible pap.  Private Kelly (Clint Eastwood) of the 35th Infantry Division captures a German intelligence colonel and finds a gold bar he is carrying.  When the colonel refuses to tell Kelly where he got the gold, he forces the colonel to drink cognac until drunk.  The half-conscious colonel mumbles that there are $16 million worth of additional gold bars in a bank vault behind enemy lines in the fictional village of Clermont some 30 miles east of Nancy.  Incredibly, Kelly believes the colonel and organizes a raid with a handful of gold-fevered soldiers sworn to secrecy.  The colonel is left to die in a German counterattack.

Kelly sells his half-baked scheme to “Crapgame,” a lazy, moneygrubbing supply sergeant (Don Rickles). The ever-stoned, hippy-dippy tank commander “Oddball” (Donald Sutherland) invites himself to the party with his 3 Sherman tanks and crews. With anachronistic lines such as “Dig those negative waves, Man,” and barking like a dog, Oddball’s attempts at levity fall flat.  A disgrace to the 6th Armored Division whose insignia he wears, Oddball is unwilling to fight the Tiger tanks that showed up later on in Clermont guarding the bank, or to help repair his last surviving tank.  Once Kelly had recruited a dozen men or so, he is able, implausibly, to con the soldierly Master Sergeant “Big Joe” (Telly Savalas) into leading the illegal raiding party.  (Their Captain is off to Paris bearing a stolen yacht, setting a fine example.) The grubby, incohesive raiders, dressed in all manner of improvised uniforms, haven’t thought through the fact that there is no way for them to bring home 190 tons of gold bars during a war, and that all would be prime candidates for courts martial.

When one soldier steps on a mine and two others get shot in the minefield by a German patrol, none are afforded first aid, nor are their bodies removed for burial.  There is no honor among these thieves.  The mechanical, unlikable Kelly had failed to consider the problem of river crossings to reach Clermont.  He might have anticipated that the bridges over the Moselle and Meurthe rivers would be blown by the Germans.  So he radios for bridging equipment and a company of bridge engineers, cutting hundreds of additional people in on the booty.  Two of the Shermans are destroyed in trying to cross the river, the bridge is too damaged for use, and the rest of the bridging equipment is snarled up in traffic.  Solution? Just drive to Clermont without crossing the river. Maybe the audience will be too stupid to notice the incredible sleight of hand.

When Maj. General Colt (Carroll O’Connor), a rabid, over-the-top Patton parody, discovers that some of his troops have penetrated the enemy lines against orders, instead of taking disciplinary action, he decides to join them. Wearing a custom-made red uniform, possibly a bathrobe with general’s emblems on the shoulders (the only smile I got from the movie), the general is concerned only with publicity, and he wants to make sure he gets his share.  So he is driven through enemy lines in a jeep and joins the raiders for celebrating the liberation of Clermont — while the raiders steal away with the gold from the bank.

The use of tanks is pretty ridiculous.  It’s not clear why Oddball does not give direct support to the mission as promised.  On his own he surprises some German infantry at a railroad station by sneaking through a railroad tunnel with three Sherman tanks.  Considering the roar of these tanks and the echo of the tunnel, there is no way he could have achieved surprise.  The village of Clermont seems abandoned as the GIs infiltrate successfully.  The GIs even man the bell tower for observation and sniping, (the first thing real German soldiers would have done) and ring the bell for minutes as a diversion without being blasted out of the tower.  The last remaining Sherman tank is guided by Kelly through the narrow streets, inside an old store front, approaches within 30 yards undetected, and kills a Tiger tank by a blast into its rear armor.  Actually the town is populated by hundreds of French civilians who appear for a street dance and victory celebration minutes after their bank is robbed and their town wrecked.

So,  according to the makers of this film, tanks are used in narrow quarters as weapons of stealth.  They are also very good at crushing cars, and blasting through walls of wood and stone.  A single Sherman tank kills two Tiger tanks by shooting them in the rear before it goes out of action, despite efforts in the street to repair the Sherman. The remaining Tiger tank is standing in the square in front of the bank.  How to neutralize it?  Why not just scare it by sending three tough-looking American hombres with guns walking towards it, like a classic western shoot-out?  With Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, and a drug-zonked Donald Sutherland walking slowly right into the teeth of a Tiger tank, who would be the first to flinch?  Yup, the Germans.  The  Krauts didn’t even know about the deal for the gold bars they were about to be offered.  It must have been the stick, not the carrot that made them break their oath to the SS and the Fatherland, putting death sentences on their heads.  Anybody who would believe that has been watching too many Westerns.

Made for a budget of $4 million in 1970 dollars, Kelly’s Heroes grossed $5.2 million domestically, and unknown amounts in foreign sales, DVDs, etc.  Inflation has increased six-fold since 1970, and though the movie was moderately successful financially, it stands out in popular lore as a landmark American tank movie.

Jim Sudmeier                                                                                                                          July 3, 2016

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