The story of Kelly’s Heroes is quite small. A group of US soldiers is attempting to burst into German territory to steal millions in Nazi gold, completely unbeknownst to both the enemy and their own military brass. How is then that Kelly’s Heroes feels so lavishly scaled, huge, and intense?
Much can be said for using real actors, tanks, and planes. That is certainly part of it. For what is a wonderfully blended mixture of drama, tension, and comedy, Kelly’s showcases wide expanses of troops moving about, along with spectacular action scenes, quite possibly the best of the era. There are countless explosions, buildings completely demolished, and widespread destruction usually reserved for a war epic. This is a story about gold thieves who happen to be soldiers.
These are not your ordinary soldiers though. Oddball (Donald Sutherland) is a goofy, possibly even insane tank commander, completely out of place in World War II. His hippie-like ways are completely off the wall, but give the film a wide sense of character and entertainment. He enjoys his job, blasting away at Nazis from the comfort of his Sherman tank… then again, who wouldn’t?
Director Brian G. Hutton is able to blend that humor into the dramatic, utilizing timing and care to ensure the mixture works. A sequence on a minefield is incredibly involved, with multiple casualties, but the film turns that around as Oddball arrives on the scene blaring his music via loudspeaker to spark the movie again.
Kelly’s Heroes makes full use of its cast, although someone needed to be cut, and that is Carol O’Connor. A year before his groundbreaking work in “All in the Family,” O’Connor here is placed in a role that leaves him with a mere cameo as a clueless General who has no idea what his troops are doing. His enthusiasm and energy are in place; Archie Bunker is being born on screen, and sadly underutilized.
Many see Vietnam war parables brought into Kelly’s Heroes, those themes certainly aided by the inclusion of Oddball, the music (certainly more reminiscent of Vietnam than WWII), and the chaos and uncertainty that ensues in many scenes. This a film that feels carefree, even in the opening scene as Eastwood and crew drive through an entire German squad after running over an officer. It is a connection that works, but does need to be appreciated to fully enjoy the film itself. It adds another layer to an already minor classic, that rare war film that can laugh at itself despite the turmoil.
MGM/Warner brings a wonderful, rich and dimensional quality to Kelly’s Heroes for this hi-def debut. The movie starts, for over 20-minutes, in the dark. Black levels are outstanding, although some of the faces look slightly digital, worrisome for this VC-1 encode. There is some definite softness and loss of detail aside from the close-ups, although even then these are not consistent (Eastwood at 17:00). The grain structure is evident yet never intrusive, fully resolved by the encode.
Once the film moves into daylight, it is fully able to be appreciated. This is a movie of texture, across every surface and character. A distant shot of the military mobilizing at 25:47 is the first time it becomes easy to appreciate the tremendous depth, with soldiers, plants, and vehicles fully defined and crisp deep into the frame. Environments are almost always striking. A grassy field at 1:06:46 is meticulously detailed, and the concrete texture on the wall behind Eastwood at 1:48:29 is phenomenal. Facial detail is exceptional, with far too many instances to take note of. Pores, sweat, and strands of hair (Sutherland’s beard) are simply outstanding.
Print damage is minimal, and rarely a distraction. A possible lens flare effect at 52:25 puts a small, faded circle in the middle of the frame, the only time things become rough. A bigger possible issue comes into play when the comparison is made to the prior DVD. Color timing has been changed, and some brightening has been performed. However, all these changes do is add spectacular depth to the image, and only once causing a hot, overblown contrast (1:07:22). Black levels are deep and rich, and colors carry a bold quality that gives this movie new life. The saturated red of O’Connor’s uniform at 1:27:11 is stunning. Flesh tones carry a warm tint, slightly orange but still within the realm of natural.
Audio, presented here in DTS-HD 5.1, is an inconsistent yet generally flat effort. The film’s main musical theme, “Burning Bridges,” offers the necessary fidelity. It sounds crisp and clean, with minimal distortion and even a bit of kick on the low-end. Other musical cues, including some whistling during a military march at 45:30, are irritatingly strained.
Explosions produced flat, muffled highs and muddy lows. Everything remains distinct, including a complex action sequence at 48:26, producing artillery fire, gunfire, music, and dialogue, mixed with care. This is all generally confined to the center channel, rarely breaking free distinctly into the stereo or surrounds. Some fanfare during a celebration at the end at 2:14:40 marks the best surround use, although it is nothing special.
Dialogue, as you would likely suspect by now, is hollow and flat. There is no distortion, leaving lines clear and understandable, the real key. Screams or yelling typically lose the fidelity battle, although remain audible.
The only extra is the original trailer in standard def and the wrong aspect ratio.