Kelly's Heroes are my heroes
Kelly’s Heroes, the Clint Eastwood war movie we watched for family movie night this weekend, is a strange film—strange because it’s more intelligent and subtler than it needed to be.
In barebones outline it’s basically a caper movie that happens to be set in occupied France in World War II. Mastermind Clint Eastwood, as Kelly, hatches a plan to steal 16 million dollars worth of Nazi gold from a bank behind enemy lines. He enlists Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Donald Sutherland, and a gang of misfits to help him with the heist. For added fun, setting up the caper and assembling the gang allows the filmmakers to include elements of a typical service company. And pretty much this is what Kelly’s Heroes is—a Chinese menu of a genre movie with a little from Column A, a little from Column B, plus some Chef’s Specials. It’s a war movie/caper movie/service comedy. Well-made, diverting, funny in spots, exciting in others. Nothing special. Except…
Kelly’s Heroes came out in 1970, the same year as M*A*S*H and the two movies share thematic similarities, character types, and attitudes. M*A*S*H began life as just a service comedy, Sergeant Bilko with doctors and sexy nurses. Kelly’s Heroes has some of the same service comedy elements: Soldiers as wisecracking wheeler-dealers and con men pitted against brass that’s out of it, lost in their own pet projects, schemes, vanities, ambitions, or delusions of military grandeur. Kelly’s Heroes is missing the authoritarian types who are in love with rules for the rules, own sakes or for the opportunities rules provide them to boss others around. Carroll O’Connor is in there as a general who is a borderline crackpot, but his role isn’t to get in Kelly’s way; it’s to cheer him on, although without knowing what he’s really rooting for Kelly to do. So the movie doesn’t share M*A*S*H’s anti-authoritarian streak, exactly. Its view is that authority is an illusion. The brass—the ruling class, the bosses—only think they’re in charge.
What’s in charge is chaos and death in the form of War. And all that opposes it is the individual’s determination to survive and make enough order for himself as he can manage. The fight isn’t to end Nazism. Nazism is just another face of War. The fight is to get to Berlin alive so that the War will end and the good guys can get a good meal, a good bed, and a good lay. Telly Savalas, as Big Joe, the sergeant, is the hero, which surprised me. I didn’t remember that from when I first saw the movie as a kid or even from the second time when I was in college. When I was a kid I identified with Eastwood the Cowboy. When I was in college I identified with Donald Sutherland as the artist and professional survivor. Now that I’m a father I guess I’m finally smart enough not to take what Savalas is doing in the movie for granted.
Eastwood’s character is more ambiguous than I’d noticed. Kelly’s a loner, but unlike in Westerns, the loner here is admired only up to a point. Kelly’s in this thing for himself, this thing being the caper, but it may be the war too. Kelly sees all the other characters as his business partners. He’s fair to them, but he isn’t bound to them. He doesn’t love them, that’s for sure. Savalas loves them all, even Kelly and the Don Rickles character, whom Big Joe disapproves of, distrusts, and even disdains—but he’s still one of his. His responsibility. His son.
Big Joe is the only character in the movie who is not motivated by money or self-interest. (Except for Carroll O’Connor’s general whose motivations are a mixture of vanity, bloodlust, and patriotism, and as lunatic as he is.) Big Joe goes along with the plot to steal the gold in order to be there to take care of his men and see they get out alive.
Through Savalas’ character, Kelly’s Heroes becomes not a war movie or an anti-war movie but a movie about heroism in an unheroic reality. And in that way it’s very much a product of its time.
Which brings us back to its similarities to M*A*S*H.
What the two movies have in common, besides the presence of Donald Sutherland in their casts, is an unglorious definition of heroism. Heroism is staying alive and helping others stay alive—which is to say, stay human—in the face of unspeakable inhumanness. The enemy in both movies is Death. And War equals Death. Any justification of war, any justifier of it, whatever uniform he wears, is on the side of Death.
Watching Donald Sutherland play his character as the first hippie is a clue. The movie may be set during World War II but don’t let that fool you. Kelly’s Heroes and M*A*S*H are both anti-Vietnam War, anti-Johnson, anti-Nixon.
What’s different between them is that Kelly’s Heroes has no equivalent to Frank Burns while M*A*S*H has no equivalent to Big Joe.
Hawkeye, Trapper, and Duke are basically compassionate men. They care about their patients and look out for each other and their friends. But they are also anti-social types and more often than not pretty darn selfish. They are like Kelly. They don’t want to be where they are, they didn’t volunteer, they don’t feel called upon to do anything over and beyond the call of duty, and they are on the lookout for a way to get something for themselves out of the awful messes they’ve been stuck in—they want some kind of payback.
Big Joe talks tough, comes on like a cynic. He dismisses any outbreak of idealism—but the only idealism that appears in the movie is inside his own head and we only know it’s there from his spoken rejection of it. He says that all he wants for his men is decent “beds, booze, and broads.” But under the circumstances that’s an awful lot to ask.
Essentially, it’s to ask for their lives and their humanity. And he sets out to get those for them. He’s not an anti-war protester. He’s a social activist.
I don’t mean to suggest that Kelly’s Heroes is the better movie. I just think it has the better heart, and that makes it a better movie than it has any business being.