It was 1970, America was fighting in Vietnam, and news channels were offering something Hollywood couldn’t: real death, real violence, and real war. Still, it was a good time to be making war movies. The studios were giving money to self-destructive hippies like Dennis Hopper (who had just made Easy Rider) and there was a sense that Hollywood was finally catching up with a changing America. About time too, because a changing America had already caught up with The Hills. The place was still reeling from the horrific Manson murders the previous year. The drug induced haze was beginning to clear. Things had gotten a bit too weird.
Out of all this came three very different war movies. Old Hollywood came up with George C Scott as Patton, a shamelessly patriotic celebration of America’s great WW2 general. New Hollywood’s calling card was Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, an anarchic comedy about the Korean War. From a different place altogether, weird Hollywood came up with Kelly’s Heroes.
On the face of it Brian Hutton’s film has all the ingredients of a straightforward genre piece. A bunch of misfits are recruited to carry out a dangerous mission behind enemy lines with a slim chance of survival. The eponymous “heroes” of the title are a bunch of combat weary GI’s who have been fighting their way across France since D Day. Their daring mission is not some noble escapade that will save lives or shorten the war, but a raid on a bank that holds a fortune in Nazi gold.
As in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, the platoon’s greatest enemy is their own side. Their superiors are incompetent, vainglorious and just plain stupid. Their commanding officer is in Paris renovating a yacht while they are fighting on the front line. They are shelled by their own artillery and attacked by their own aircraft. The regimental quartermaster, Crap Game (Don Rickles), seems to be running the war for his own personal gain. The jaded cynicism towards the US war machine is daring given what was being shown on the news every night.
Kelly himself is played by Clint Eastwood, who pulls of the remarkable feat of parodying his own image while remaining effortlessly cool. Telly Savalas gives a typically charismatic turn as Big Joe, the tough sergeant who has been keeping his men alive since Normandy. But the most memorable performance comes from Altman regular and star of M*A*S*H Donald Sutherland, as the tank commander Oddball.
Oddball is an LSD addled hippie from 1967, transported back in time by cynical producers to appeal to the anti-war audience. Surrounded by dead Nazis, stolen wine and naked French farm girls he manages to make himself worryingly at home. ‘Stop hitting me with those negative waves man’ he cries before driving off to blow up Nazis to the sound of gentle classical music flowing from his tank. When my dad first forced me to watch this as a child I was so confused by Oddball that I assumed he could only be based on a real life character who had managed to invent flower power whilst driving a tank through war torn France. On more recent viewings I’ve given up on this view. Oddball’s arsenal includes paint shells that explode in psychedelic colours. He believes that the war can be won through ‘positive waves.’
Somehow, this all works. Script writer Troy Kennedy Martin juggles terrific dialogue, with astute political satire and sharp characterisation. Hutton also knew how to direct combat sequences and build tension having already worked with Eastwood on the other WW2 classic, Where Eagles Dare. Kelly’s Heroes is about the absurdity of war and the individual trying to survive in the face of organised madness. The result is what Hollywood can achieve when it’s brave enough to look war in the face and laugh. What better time to be reminded of that than now?