Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Kelly's Heroes (1971) - Finest War Comedy Ever

Kelly's Heroes poster
"Kelly's Heroes" (1971).

"Kelly's Heroes" is hilarious!  The funniest thing about it is how true-to-life it really is, but, by staying close to reality, it has greater leeway to poke fun at the absurdity and wastefulness of war.

Kelly's Heroes Donald Sutherland
Donald Sutherland as Oddball with his crew.

There are a handful of truly exceptional films made about World War II, and this is one of them, even though it really isn't about WWII. Or should I say, WWII is just a convenient background for a wild tale. It is a comedy, or perhaps more accurately a satire of classic war films. That it has only the vaguest resemblance to actual events takes nothing away from the fact that this movie is hilarious!

Kelly's Heroes Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood as Kelly.

It has an all-star cast. You can go right down the line and not find a better actor for any of the roles. You could even go so far as to say that this film is one of the earliest examples of stunt casting. Clint Eastwood plays the straight-man protagonist throughout and does it brilliantly, subtly mocking his oh-so-manly war films such as "Where Eagles Dare." Telly Savalas does a complete turnaround from his eccentric performance in "The Dirty Dozen" and brings a touch of humanity to his role of keeping as many of his guys alive as possible. Donald Sutherland, well, this is absolutely his classic role, whenever he says "Enough with the negative waves" it is hysterical! Don Rickles plays Don Rickles, but keeps it in character for perhaps the only time in his career and does it brilliantly. "NO, I don't have the money on me!" Everybody else is exceptional, with Jeff Morris and his comment about a certain incident reminding him of home a personal favorite (his argument with Rickles about carrying the machine gun - priceless!).

Kelly's Heroes Don Rickles
Don Rickles as Crap Game. He knows what he likes.

This is an anachronistic movie, in the same genre as "MASH," "Catch 22" and some darker films like "Castle Keep." Sutherland's character is just the tip of the iceberg in that regard. This is so 1970 it's hard to describe. But it is as funny today as it ever was, with General Carroll O'Connor telling his flunkies to "Keep quiet, the game is on!" as he is listening to Kelly's troops fighting it out with the Germans over the radio, and with Seinfeld's Uncle Leo making shady deals with Kelly to get rich (he hopes). What can I say about the scene where Kelly's tanks roll out of a railway tunnel to blast some Germans to kingdom come as Sutherland's tank blast some Hank Williams, Jr. and then "I've Been Working on the Railroad"? Hey Heinrich, the Americans are here! This is satire at its finest.

Kelly's Heroes Clint Eastwood Telly Savalas Donald Sutherland
The climactic showdown.

In essence the film concerns a bank heist - "The perfect crime!", according to Rickles - that requires Kelly and his guys to fight their way through enemy lines. Both sides keep getting in the way of the prize like annoying gnats, but are dealt with as off-handedly as possible. What really would motivate jaded soldiers to over-achieve? Patriotism? Glory? Or something else entirely, something out of our everyday lives? This film attempts to answer that question in as sardonic a way as possible. Let's use all this silly war fuss for something practical! Absolutely brilliant. But it wouldn't be nearly as good if the film didn't play it straight with the surroundings - yes, it is wartime, and people are getting bombed and killed. It's the actions and reactions of the cast to the futility of war that makes this film so stunningly funny.

Kelly's Heroes Oddball
Oddball sizing up the enemy.

"Kelly's Heroes" spawned a number of catch-phrases.  "Enough with the negative waves, Moriarty!" Oddball says time and time again.  "That was my other dog impersonation."  One wonders what the first one was.  "Maybe he's a Republican," Crapgame says helpfully. 

Kelly's Heroes German panzer officer
The German Officer is played by Karl-Otto Alberty, who made a career out of playing Wehrmacht figures. He would have been perfect as Mussolini.

The ending is somewhat controversial, as apparently there were a couple of different versions, but the one they chose is just right in my opinion. And anyone who thinks the theme song by the Mike Curb Congregation is out of place is missing the fact that this film is not about WWII, it is about "listening to your friends" as the song says and sticking with them to get ahead. I think "Burning Bridges" is perfect for this film and gives it a real feeling of "make love, not war," which is an underlying theme and one of those anachronisms I mentioned. This gets my highest rating. See it when you can!


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