Entertaining despite an overlong running time and some dubious stylistic flourishes, Kelly’s Heroes is one of the myriad smartass World War II romps that followed in the wake of The Dirty Dozen (1967). Like the earlier picture, Kelly’s Heroes assembles an unlikely crew for an impossible task, all the while mixing anti-Establishment sentiment and broad characterizations in order to present everyman soldiers looking out for themselves instead of buying into the mission that brought them to the battlefield. Yet while The Dirty Dozen cleverly depicted criminals becoming soldiers, Kelly’s Heroes more crudely depicts soldiers becoming criminals; it’s a heist picture in war-movie clothing.
Clint Eastwood stars as Private Kelly, an enlisted man with an attitude problem who accidentally discovers the hiding place for a cache of Nazi gold worth millions. He convinces his gruff NCO, “Big Joe” (Telly Savalas), to lead an excursion behind enemy lines so they can rip off the loot, and their crew soon expands to include “Crapgame” (Don Rickles), a supply sergeant who outfits the crew with munitions and other gear, and “Oddball” (Donald Sutherland), a space-case longhair who happens to have three Sherman tanks under his command. Sutherland’s characterization is simultaneously the funniest thing in the movie and the hardest element to believe; bearded and, though this is never explicitly stated, apparently high as a kite throughout the story, he’s a ’60s stoner in a ’40s setting, so it’s never clear, for instance, how he rose to the rank of sergeant.
Yet logic isn’t really what makes this sort of movie work, because Kelly’s Heroes is a big, silly adventure story about entertaining characters blowing stuff up, cracking wise, and pulling one over on the man. The production values are impressive—the picture was shot in Yugoslavia, where a wealth of WWII-vintage gear was available for filming—and everyone delivers the requisite goods in terms of onscreen charisma. Eastwood is sly and quiet, always one step ahead of everyone else; Savalas is a dese-dem-dose tough guy; Rickles does his insult-comic thing, bitching and sassing with every breath; and Caroll O’Connor, going way over the top, appears as a ridiculous general who mistakes Kelly’s mission for a nervy invasion. All of this goes down fairly smoothly in a guy-movie kind of way, though it doesn’t seem unreasonable to lament the lack of anything resembling substance in the movie’s 144 minutes.
Kelly’s Heroes: FUNKY