Private Kelly (Clint Eastwood) is behind enemy lines in a jeep with a kidnapped Nazi colonel (David Hurst) in the passenger seat. He manages to keep a low profile until one German soldier notices his uniform and raises the alarm - from then on it's a frantic chase to the Americans' side which Kelly successfully negotiates. There he meets up with Sergeant Big Joe (Telly Savalas) in a barn where the sergeant is desperately trying to stop his men being bombed by his fellow countrymen. Not only that but he wants to find a brothel for his soldiers to ease off some of their battle tensions; Kelly, however, has other concerns after he finds a bar of metal amongst the colonel's possessions. The colonel says it's lead, but that's just the colour it's been painted, it's really gold and there's plenty more where that came from...
Of all the World War II cult movies, perhaps Kelly's Heroes is the most rewatched by its fans, not least due to the number of times it shows up on television. Scripted by Troy Kennedy Martin - this was the year after his similarly heist-themed The Italian Job was released - it takes a cheerfully cynical look at the war with its protagonists more interested in what's in it for them personally instead of the more noble rewards of liberating Europe from the Nazis. This also came out the year before Dirty Harry, but while Eastwood took centre stage in that one, here he is more part of an ensemble cast, and is so laid back that he almost drops out of sight at various times throughout.
And if there's one thing this film is known for, it's the volume of its destructive sequences, as can be seen during the opening with the characters not so much fighting the bad guys as fighting to be heard over the racket of explosives going off. The orders come through to pull out, and the platoon's vehicles leave the barns without opening the doors first, it being that kind of film, but Kelly is getting the colonel drunk and grilling him about where the rest of the gold is. He wheedles the information out of him, and then follows Big Joe, and although the colonel ends up shot dead Kelly survives to draw up his plans to get his hands on the treasure.
It's almost three quarters of an hour into the movie before Kelly and company set off for the small French village that hold the bank that holds the Nazi gold, so you couldn't accuse Martin of rushing things. In the meantime we meet the men who will make up the raiding party, among them the entrepreneurial Sergeant Crapgame (Don Rickles) who knows how to transform the metal into cash, and the strongest sign this film was made in 1970, Sergeant Oddball (Donald Sutherland). Oddball doesn't seem very nineteen-forties in his demeanour, in fact he's far more late sixties in his hippy way, making references to "negative waves" and barking like a dog.
So perhaps period authenticity wasn't high on the filmmakers' list, because Oddball sticks out like a sore thumb, but he does add personality, and big personalities, Kelly aside, are what drive the story. The closest Eastwood gets to showing any emotion is his just about kept in check disgust at the lackadaisical antics of Oddball, but he needs his Sherman tanks so doesn't make a big issue of any clash. If Kelly's Heroes has a philosophy, it's that if you find yourself in the middle of chaos then do what you can to exploit it: over and over again the raiders are fired at with bullets and shells, but, despite a few casualities, they make the most of their situation. Although usually thought of as a comedy, there are easily as many suspense and serious bits as humorous, and the mixture is pretty successful considering how long they have to sustain it. Music by Lalo Schifrin.