In coming back to classic movies, it’s often to reminisce about the first time you saw it. But with this one I had an entirely different and unexpected reaction.
It had never stuck me before, but this is a strange movie on so many different levels. At first glance this is a by-the-numbers war movie, with the USA winning WII by itself, as usual. But the opening sequence, where you realise that American troops are queuing in a traffic jam of German military vehicles, sets an entirely different tone.
A variation on ‘war is hell’, this is ‘war is crazy’.
Kelly and his men catch a German General who lives long enough to tell them about a bank behind enemy lines which has in it a huge stash of Nazi gold. But to get their hands on the loot, they’ll need help, and as the story progresses, all manner of strange characters become part of their nefarious endeavour.
What amazed me in researching this review was that it’s apparently based on a true story, where I’d always thought it was like Where Eagles Dare, i.e. made up.
But the oddness of the story is only compounded by the weirdness of the various heroes they collect, the strangest of which is Donald Sutherland as tank command ‘Odd Ball’.
He and his tribe are quite obviously hippies, and, as such, he pre-dates the appearance of the subculture by at least 20 years. But until seeing it again I never actually considered how strange this is, or how the audience in 1970 seemed to completely accept it.
Kelly is a relatively low key character, in typical Eastwood fashion, which allows the likes of Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Carroll O’Connor (Archie Bunker), Gavin MacLeod (The Love Boat), Stuart Margolin (Angel in The Rockford Files) and Harry Dean Stanton, among others, to throw all their acting toys out of the pram in unison.
As the story progresses it moves disturbingly quickly from scenes of very high tension and personal tragedy (the minefield scene) to wild camp hilarity (all the amazing scenes with Carroll O’Connor) and then rapidly back again. It’s never quite sure if it’s a black comedy or quirky war movie, or even both.
That said, some of the scenes of combat are very good and pretty realistic. In the end of the movie Kelly’s Heroes get to the town where the gold is to find it has a moderate German contingent of infantry and three Tiger tanks protecting it. This scene is so amazingly executed that I’ll even give them geek penance for not having a real Tiger tank (it’s a Russian T-34, You can tell by the wheels.). At least these tanks were made to look right to a degree, instead of the usual rubbish from that period of getting much later US armour and painting German crosses on them (Battle Of The Bulge). Overall, the accuracy in equipment, vehicles and uniforms is really good in Kelly’s Heroes, generally much better than supposedly serious war movies.
It’s also full of some very memorable scenes, including the spaghetti western salute when they walk down to meet the last Tiger tank to an appropriate Morricone-style rift.
This is a film that’s been repeatedly listed in numerous top 100 lists of the best war movies, and despite its oddities, who am I to suggest it shouldn’t be there?
I’ve just paid a small homage to this movie, and now I come to bury it. The Blu-ray transfer is substandard on a number of levels, but most notably they couldn’t even be bothered to find a totally undamaged print with which to do the work.
The result is grainy throughout, even when in bright sunlight, and dirt and scratches are apparent in some scenes. I’d love to know if this is due to cheap film stock, and if the negative is compromised in this way, but the result isn’t as great as I’d hoped. This is one of those sources where it looked fine on DVD, however Blu-ray exposes the limitations rather painfully.
On the upside, the colour saturation is excellent, and despite the grain, there’s relatively few artefacts visible. I wish they’d given this movie the Bond restoration treatment, but I guess the returns don’t warrant that sort of indulgence.
What they have done is remastered the Dolby 5.1 audio from the DVD release into a DTS HD track, which is actually very clean sounding.
In terms of extras, there is only one, a period trailer. There’s scene selection, and alternative soundtracks in French, Italian, German and Spanish, along with subtitles for almost every other major European language.
It would be lovely to have seen a small documentary, perhaps with interviews of those few ‘Heroes’ still with us, but again I guess commercial constraints didn’t allow for that. Even if it is strange, I do like this movie and found it highly enjoyable to see again.
Kelly’s Heroes will be released on Blu-ray on June 7 and can be pre-ordered from the Den Of Geek Store.