Kelly’s Heroes (1970): WWII Adventure, Starring Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, and Donald Sutherland

Brian G. Hutton directed Kelly’s Heroes, a WWII adventure about a bunch of American soldiers who go AWOL to rob a bank behind enemy lines.

Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

Kelly’s Heroes
Kelly's Heroes film poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster by Jack Davis

The film’s appeal derives from its large gifted ensemble, headed by Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Carroll O’Connor, and Donald Sutherland.

The screenplay was written by British TV writer Troy Kennedy Martin, who was inspired by a true story, featured as ‘The Greatest Robbery on Record” in Guinness World Records.

The tale begins in September 1944, when units of the 35th Infantry Division are near the French town of Nancy. One of the division’s reconnaissance platoons is ordered to hold position when the Germans counterattack.

Private Kelly (Eastwood), a former lieutenant scapegoated for a failed infantry assault, captures Colonel Dankhopf (Don Rickles) of Wehrmacht Intelligence. Interrogating his prisoner, Kelly notices in his briefcase some gold bars.  He gets the colonel drunk and learns that there is a cache of 14,000 gold bars, worth $16 million, stored in a bank vault 30 miles behind enemy lines in Clermont.

When their position is overrun and the Americans pull back, a Tiger I kills Dankhopf.  Determined to capture the gold, Kelly visits the opportunistic Sergeant “Crapgame” to obtain the supplies and guns for the operation.

An eccentric spaced out tank platoon commander known as “Oddball” (Sutherland) and his three M4 Sherman tanks from the 6th Armored Division join the operation.  Kelly also persuades the cynical Master Sergeant “Big Joe” (Savalas) to go along.

Kelly’s infantrymen and Oddball’s tanks proceed separately before meeting near Clermont. Oddball’s tanks fight their way through the German lines, destroying German railway depot, but their route is blocked when a bridge is blown up by Allied fighter-bombers.

Oddball contacts an engineer unit to build him a bridge, and the engineer brings in more men for support. After losing their jeeps and halftracks to friendly fire from American plane that mistook them for the enemy, Kelly and the others proceed on foot.  Private Grace is killed when he steps on a mine, and PFC Mitchell and Corporal Job are killed by a German patrol.

Oddball links up with Kelly, bringing the unexpected support troops. They battle their way across the river to Clermont, losing two of the three tanks and leaving the bridging unit and all other support behind.

Major General Colt (Carroll O’Connor) misinterprets the caper as the efforts of aggressive patrols pushing forward, and rushes to the front to exploit the “breakthrough.”

Clermont is defended by three Tiger tanks of the 1st SS Panzer Division. The Americans eliminate the German infantry and two of the Tigers.  Oddball’s last M4 Sherman breaks down, leaving them stalemated.  Under time pressure, Kelly offers the Tiger and his crew an equal share of the loot.

The Germans and Americans divide the loot and go their separate ways with $0.9 million share.  They barely avoid meeting the still-oblivious General Colt, who is blocked from entering Clermont by French residents.

In the end, when Captain Maitland (Hal Buckley) enters the bank, he finds a Kilroy and the words “Up Yours, Baby” on the wall.

Cast

Clint Eastwood as Pvt. Kelly
Telly Savalas as MSgt. Big Joe
Don Rickles as SSgt. Crapgame
Carroll O’Connor as Maj. Gen. Colt
Donald Sutherland as Sgt. Oddball
Gavin MacLeod as Moriarty
Hal Buckley as Capt. Maitland
Stuart Margolin as Pvt. Little Joe

Directed by Brian G. Hutton
Produced by Gabriel Katzka, Harold Loeb, Sidney Beckerman
Written by Troy Kennedy Martin

Music by Lalo Schifrin
Cinematography Gabriel Figueroa
Edited by John Jympson

Production companies: Avala Film, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Katzka-Loeb

Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Release date: June 23, 1970 (US)

Running time: 146 minutes
Budget $4 million
Box office $5.2 million (rentals)

Note:

TCM showed the film on Veterans Day, November 11, 2019, then again on Memorial Day, May 30, 2021.