Burning bridges, with live boys as kindling: “Kelly’s Heroes” (1970)

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By Scott Ross

I recently posted on the splendid Alistair MacLean-penned Where Eagles Dare, a World War II espionage epic of grand scope, superb characterizations, truly terrifying set-pieces (that cable-car to the schloss) and a series of twists and ambiguities that un-spool at the very start and don’t resolve until the final scene. The director was one Brian G. Hutton who, two years later, was represented on American screens with Kelly’s Heroes.

I remember the iconic Jack Davis poster art when the movie was released in 1970 — an interesting year for war-comedy art, what with that bizarre image on the poster of the year’s other big genre title:

I also recall having seen this Kelly’s Heroes on television in the ’70s (if remembering when the three big networks still aired theatrical features doesn’t date me, nothing will) and having only vague memories of it: The opening sequence, with Lalo Schifrin and Mike Curb’s infectious “Burning Bridges” vocal playing over the main titles (a song I like almost as much as MASH‘s “Suicide is Painless,” but which is as anachronistic as the radio source cues on the soundtrack and Donald Sutherland’s absurd Sgt. Oddball); the lone Tiger Tank spreading mayhem in the French village; Don Rickles kvetching, Telly Savalas barking, Gavin McLeod laughing maniacally, and Carroll O’Connor chewing up every available bit of scenery.

What I did not remember was how sinister the damn thing was.

Take another look at that poster. Jolly comrades screwing the Army. Dollars replacing the Stars and Stripes. Caper-comedy in the European Theatre of Operation. Hogan’s Heroes meets the Anti-Establishment. All just good, dirty fun, right?

Tell that to the young soldiers who die in the various actions Kelly and his growing cohort of booty-seeking mercenaries engender on their way to plundering a cache of Nazi gold bars. Yeah, I know it’s only a movie. A fiction. But the deaths, violent and anguished — particularly the pair in the mine-field — aren’t un-felt; they represent the snuffing-out of youth, and promise. Not in the advancement of a military goal, or even that hoariest of hoary cliches, defense of liberty, but in hopes of that far greater American Dream, the Perfect Score. It’s a light caper-comedy set against the hideous realities of war, and those deaths, and the attitudes that lie behind them, linger in the mind.

As Kelly, Clint Eastwood plays an only marginally more talkative version of his Man with No Name character, but with infinitely less to work with. It’s as though the filmmakers decided his mere presence was enough, and indeed the Sergio Leone connection is made explicit in one protracted, and unfunny, sequence in which Clint confronts the Tiger, accompanied by a Schifrin pastiche of Morricone.

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But did anyone connected with Kelly’s Heroes, including Eastwood, recall that “Blondie”‘s encounter with the beautiful dying soldier near the climax of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was a sequence that acknowledged the awful futility of armed conflict and the heartbreaking waste of young men who serve as cannon-fodder? Even the emotionless, cynical Blondie, as obsessively single-minded in his pursuit of riches as Kelly, is moved to compassion by the obscenity of that boy’s death in that movie.

MASH, for all its screw-the-establishment attitude and occasionally ugly frat-boy antics, had a sense of outrage. Both Robert Altman and the scenarist Ring Lardner, Jr., for all their discord, were in agreement on the one essential: They were appalled by the waste of young lives in the depraved theatre of organized war. Kelly’s Heroes regards  violent death as a regrettable but necessary step to the accumulation of wealth. Much like those who start wars to begin with.

The scenarist of this occasionally diverting but ultimately dismaying and cynical exercise was one Troy Kennedy-Martin, a Scot. It is to him, far more than to anyone else associated with the movie, even the minimally interesting Brian Hutton, that the final opprobrium must accrete. Kelly’s Heroes, despite its resolutely “anti-everything” tone, finally comes to represent the very aspects of America the Hippies loathed: Conservative, self-righteous, money-grubbing, and callous. Killing young men, even in fiction, for the greater glory of the personal savings account is beyond obscene; it’s morally indefensible.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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