Up until the filmed adaptation of Alistair Maclean’s war set action adventurer Where Eagles Dare (1969) Clint Eastwood had always played cowboys (even as a cop in the Arizona/New York set thriller Coogan’s Bluff, 1968). This was the first time that he played a totally different role, albeit still with guns and action. Most war movies are based off a true event from the war. Yet in Where Eagles Dare and Kelly’s Heroes these are action packed war movies played as fictitious Boys own stuff. Even this is not entirely true as there was a heist plot to steal Nazi gold in France in the summer of 1944 carried out between renegade Nazis and some American soldiers which came to naught. The second film is also a heist film as a well as a war film and a comedy, co-starring a very sixties hippy tank officer in the shape of Donald Sutherland. Alongside Eastwood and Sutherland Kelly’s Heroes co-starred Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Harry Dean Stanton, Carroll O’Connor and Stuart Margolin and also included Karl-Otto Alberty as the German Panzer commander who is as much a cliché as Derren Nesbit was as the blonde haired SS officer in Where Eagles Dare. The plot revolves around a German colonel who is captured in 1944 and before he is interrogated an artillery shell lands near the compound. However, a young American officer Kelly (Eastwood) gets the colonel drunk and he reveals a cache of hidden gold worth $16 million and as a result pulls together an outfit of disparate solders to search out the gold.
Eastwood agreed to make the film as he thought his good friend Don Siegel was set to direct it (Siegel and Eastwood also made Coogan’s Bluff, Two Mules for Sister Sara and later The Beguiled, Dirty Harry, both 1971 and Escape From Alcatraz, 1979 with Eastwood). This was not the first time the two men were set to work together only to be disappointed. Siegel was having trouble with the post production work on Two Mules for Sister Sara and had to pull out from the project. MGM then hired Brian G. Hutton to direct and at this point it was too late for Eastwood to pull out as he had already signed the contract, even though he had previously made Where Eagles Dare with Hutton. Unlike Siegel, other than these two films, Hutton did not have that distinguished a career apart from going on to make a couple of films with Elizabeth Taylor in the seventies. Eastwood built a strong rapport with Sutherland during filming who was going through a personal crisis at the time with his wife Shirley Douglas (mother to actor Kiefer Sutherland) back home having been arrested for her involvement with the Black Panthers. Eastwood and Sutherland shared plenty of laughs on set to take his mind off the situation. Meanwhile during filming Sutherland did nearly die from some unnamed illness.
Made by MGM in Yugoslavia in the summer of 1969, it was shot in that more liberal of communist countries where a number of war movies were shot at the end of the sixties and it certainly made the most of the tanks on offer from the fourth largest army in the world. Most of the tanks were Russian built T-34 tanks, old war horses and even dressed them up and made additions to make them look like German Tiger tanks and those was also a surfeit of American Sherman tanks in the country at the time; the details of the insignia on the Waffen SS Panzers denote the SS Liebstandarte, Hitler’s personal bodyguard. Before shooting began a Yugoslavian World War II set story about partisans had already been shot in the country, The Battle of Neretva and Hutton was able to use some of the equipment left behind from that movie.
Years after the film was completed Eastwood claimed that Hutton had intended more depth to the cast, but these were cut out in favour of more action and comedy. Some of the comedy even parodies Eastwood himself (not bad from actor who had only relatively recently had become a household name) in a scene in which Eastwood’s character of Kelly squares up against a German Tiger tank and the stand-off is played against Ennio Morricone’s score for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). The comedy is more than just slapstick. Taken in the context of when the film was made during the height of the Vietnam War much of the comedy is black in tone; the hippy character in Sutherland is deliberate in order that the audience can make that link. This was made at the time of those seminal Vietnam black comedies of M*A*S*H and Catch 22, even if this film isn’t of the standard of those two films. It is a film that is sometimes discussed as being not one of Eastwood’s better films which of course it isn’t. But nor is it a bad one and it is fun. It has several successors: in 1975 Telly Savalas also appeared in a post-war Nazi gold heist film called Inside-Out and more recently George Clooney starred in a Gulf War set war comedy heist, Three Kings (1999). Clint is as cool as ever, Sutherland and Savalas are also very entertaining and is worth another viewing for its good fun and action.