“War is hell.” William Tecumseh Sherman said and as a general in the US Civil War I suppose he would know. The volume of wars that dot our planets timeline are numerous. Despite the tragedy that they cause (or more likely because) they are a popular topic for movies. Although they are less common in the modern era it felt throughout the 20th century, they were consistent box office winners. In my household growing up there was but one TV and one source of playback. At various points we owned a Betmax, Laserdisc, VCR and/or DVD player before I struck out on my own. The program manager in charge of what we got to watch was almost exclusively my father. As such we watched a great deal of horror, Sci-Fi, Action/Adventure, Westerns and you guessed it War movies. Among our favorites was Kelly’s Heroes.
In the interest of testing my knowledge and saving time (it’s been a long weekend) I will attempt to summarize the plot without referring to the internet. Most movies from this genre focus on a historical event in an effort to capture what it felt like in a dramatic setting typically with one or two big name actors like John Wayne or Charles Bronson. While Kelly’s Heroes does parade famous names for the time (1970s) like Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland and Don Rickles it doesn’t take itself too seriously and while it’s loosely based on a real event it doesn’t make much effort to be historically accurate. I think the unlikely paring of war and comedy makes for a unique picture and was a big part of the appeal my family (dad) had to it.
Set in the last days of WWII the flick opens during a night bombing in enemy territory and our main character Kelly, played by Clint Eastwood, is integrating a German officer. After softening him up with alcohol he learns the location of bank stocked to the brim with gold bars but behind enemy lines. Sensing an chance to capitalize Kelly begins to coordinate an assortment of oddballs and opportunists most notably Donald’s Sutherlands character, Oddball. Donald absolutely steals the show from my memory. The default commander of 3 Sherman tanks he stumbles into one unlikely scenario after another and with the promise of sharing in the gold he finds ways to survive and push forward.
The most notable line in the whole movie comes in an exchange between Oddball and one of his tank operators where they can’t seem to find any remaining bridges to cross and the tone turns pessimistic about their chances. With a goofy hippy twang, he interrupts and yells, “Stop hitting me with those negative waves Moriarty!” The characters exchange some banter about thinking positively and positive things will happen before proceeding (and finding the bridge blown up). This is a running gag throughout the movie and is repeated in various forms but always with the same two characters taking opposing positive and negative views. This was quickly adopted in my family as the retort whenever anyone said something was impossible or if the moment was somber and you needed a way to lighten the mood. Over the years few people have known about this movie when I mention it so the lack of familiarity with it and the uncharacteristic (for us) tone always warranted an odd glance from onlookers (adding to the humor).
Aside from the eclectic characters and unlikely plot the big appeal to me was always the soundtrack. The movie opens with the song Burning Bridges and during key plot points it pops back up for a few bars. Traditional movies like “Patton”, “Tora, Tora, Tora” or “Midway” have big epic songs with full orchestras and dripping with patriotic tones. Kelly’s Heros has upbeat songs but they don’t have a military feel and fall more into the range of folk music with light instrumental and vocal performances.
I’ve not seen the movie in years, but I can still hear Burning Bridges playing in my head, it’s such a catchy and engaging song. While both the movie and the song reference the destruction of bridges the movie means it in a literal sense and the song refers to the metaphorical bridge lost from alienating a friend. As a young man this clever juxtaposition struck a cord with me and like many of the songs mentioned in my favorite play list hearing it transports me to a time in my youth.