Monday, April 14, 2014

My First Million: Clint Eastwood and Kelly's Heroes

By the late 60's and early 70's, Clint Eastwood was becoming one of Hollywood's biggest stars.  Thanks to the world wide success of Sergio Leone's Man With No Name Trilogy (where he actually has a name, in each...), Eastwood was paid hefty sums in the $500,000 - $750,000 range for World War II action fest Where Eagles Dare and the awesomely excessive western musical Paint Your Wagon, co-starring fellow cinema badass Lee Marvin.  But his first million dollar paycheck came for, I believe, 1970's Kelly's Heroes.  Re-teaming with Eagles director Brian G. Hutton, Eastwood would receive top billing this time around, heading up a talented cast that included Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Carroll O'Connor and Donald Sutherland.  What initiallyally started out as a Comedic Adventure Caper, Heroes would suffer a tumultuous shoot that was originally slated for 9 weeks but went on for 6 months in Yugoslavia.

The script, originally titled, The Warriors, by Troy Kennedy Martin, sold to MGM for a cool $250,000 clams.  The story of a group of G.I.'s in France who go behind enemy lines to steal $16 million of Nazi gold, The Warriors had all the potential trappings of a great anti-war adventure film.  Director Hutton saw it as a comedy while Eastwood saw it as a satirical adventure caper.  At first thinking they could shoot it in northern California, production moved to Yugoslavia where original World War II weapons and vehicles were still abundant.  Throw in the offer to demolish a small town and the newly retitled Kelly's Heroes was off and running.  To kick things off, Donald Sutherland was struck down with a case of Spinal Meningitis and spent 5 weeks in an English hospital.  The tone of the script was tricky to pinpoint as Eastwood saw it as a reflection of his own military service where he spent most of his time as a swimming instructor and his views on the Vietnam conflict.

Kelly's Heroes is one of my all time favorite Clint Eastwood flicks.  It's big, funny, weird and fun.  There's everything World War II movie aficionados love: Thompson sub-machine guns, tanks, minefields, a motley crew of smart ass G.I.'s, dog impressions, negative waves, Lalo Schfrin score, celebrating villagers, Tiger Tanks, snipers, wine and cheese. Eastwood is in typical serious form as the fed up soldier who sees his shot and takes it.  Sutherland gets the award for Best Hippie in World War 2 while O'Connor is hilariously blowhard as the general listening to the caper on the radio, thinking it's actually some motivated campaign to break enemy lines.  It's a men on a mission flick that isn't as long, serious or slow burning as The Guns of Navarone or The Dirty Dozen (which are both great, just different).  It would be interesting to see what the original version would have been like as Hutton and Eastwood fought and lost to the studio's recutting of the picture to remove most of the anti-war satire.  Eastwood would later comment on the film having the potential to be great but in the end was just a bunch of screw offs running around.  Kelly's Heroes had the unfortunate distinction of being prepared, produced and released under 3 different studio regimes at MGM.  In a bid to fight off the growing threat of television, Heroes was released in the over sized 70mm format.  The film took in $5.2 million, less than Where Eagles Dare but a decent hit nonetheless.

Eastwood was only 2 films away from another career defining film, the anti-establishment cop thriller, Dirty Harry.  Director Brian G. Hutton's output would slow tremendously before eventually retiring.  Donald Sutherland had just come off the smash hit MASH and still had  Klute, Animal House and Ordinary People in his near future.  Kelly's Heroes would be one of Carol O'Connor's last film credits before finding huge success on television in All in the Family, Archie Bunker's Place and In the Heat of the Night.  Telly Savalas had already established himself as a great character actor in roles ranging from the psycho soldier in The Dirty Dozen and as a Bond villain in On Her Majesty's Secret Service before becoming TV's Kojak.

That's your problem!

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