Clint Eastwood made the two movies in this Blu-ray "Action Double Feature" set--"Kelly's Heroes" (1970) and "Where Eagles Dare" (1968)--after he had gained international recognition with his "Man With No Name" films and just before he attained superstardom in "Dirty Harry" (1971). So he was a kind of star in ascent at the time. It's also interesting to note the contrasting tones in these World War II pictures, both produced by MGM and directed by Brian G. Hutton ("Night Watch," "High Road to China"), "Kelly's Heroes" mostly a lighthearted romp, "Where Eagles Dare" a straightforward adventure.
After the success of "The Dirty Dozen" a few years earlier, MGM probably figured another WWII war film about a bunch of crackpot soldiers on a special mission couldn't hurt. Only this time, they figured to combine a little humor with the action, making it in part, at least, a criticism of the Vietnam War, much as "MASH," made the same year, did using the Korean Conflict. The difference between "Kelly's Heroes" and "MASH" is that "Kelly's Heroes" doesn't play it entirely for satiric laughs. In fact, by the second half of the movie, things get downright tense.
Eastwood plays Pvt. Kelly, a former lieutenant busted to private for a battle gone wrong that wasn't his fault. But it means he's a natural leader, so he takes command of the operation. The scheme itself is incredible, a near-impossible mission, but that's the fun. Kelly gets wind of a cache of gold bars stashed in a French bank behind enemy lines, 14,000 gold bars worth about $16,000,000 (or, to think of it in today's inflated terms, about $400,000,000).
The trouble is, Kelly needs men and equipment to help him, and the Army isn't about to authorize a raid into enemy territory just to benefit the men who take part. So it's got to be a secret operation. Still, 14,000 gold bars is all the "authorization" Kelly needs to enlist the men and equipment he has to have for the heist.
The "heroes" include Telly Savalas (fresh from "The Dirty Dozen") as Master Sgt. Big Joe, a tough guy who spends most of the movie yelling at people; Don Rickles as Staff Sgt. Crapgame, a wheeler-dealer hustler, much in the Phil Silvers-Sgt. Bilko mold; Donald Sutherland as Sgt. Oddball, a laid-back, peace-loving type in command of three Sherman tanks--he's crazy, but he's not stupid; Gavin MacLeod as Moriarity, Oddball's aide and constant naysayer; Stuart Margolin as Little Joe, an eternal whiner (think of his role as Angel in "The Rockford Files" a few years later); the great Harry Dean Stanton, here billed as "Dean Stanton," as Pvt. Willard; and many others. Playing the big cheese, we get Carroll O'Connor as General Colt, a gung-ho glory hound frustrated that his army can't move fast enough through France.
The movie seems to take forever getting started and setting up its plot, yet once Kelly and his men reach their objective, the action gets appropriately exciting. But things are still not entirely serious; for instance, there's a cute parody of Eastwood's "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" in the movie's climactic showdown.
The only elements that don't work so well today begin with the movie's insistence on reminding the audience of the early Seventies and the Vietnam War. We get original music by the dean of Seventies' film composers, Lalo Schiffrin, plus a theme song, "Burning Bridges," by him and Mike Curb. Then, worse, we have Sutherland's hippie well before his era, bearded and talking in the hip jargon of the early Seventies; it's pretty jarring. And, finally, one can't help noticing some oddly disjointed editing, with gaps in the story's continuity that can be more than a bit disconcerting to a viewer.
No matter; the filmmakers clearly intended the movie to be a carefree caper, and if one views it that way, it can pass an entertaining few hours.
WHERE EAGLES DARE
"Where Eagles Dare" is a straight-ahead action yarn in the tradition of "The Guns of Navarone." Indeed, if the movie reminds you of "The Guns of Navarone," one reason is because author Alistair MacLean wrote them both. "Where Eagles Dare" doesn't try to be cute or coy or satiric the way "Kelly's Heroes" does. Instead, it provides full-on thrills, maybe exaggerated thrills, to be sure, but making for an exciting ride, nonetheless.
Even though Clint Eastwood had just become an international star in the "Man With No Name" movies, he gets second billing here to Richard Burton. It wasn't Eastwood's idea, but MGM made him an offer he couldn't refuse. Mostly, he just follows Burton's character around, shooting people and blowing stuff up.
The plot is similar to "Kelly's Heroes" in that it involves an impossible mission. Only this time the filmmakers mean for us to take things in all seriousness: A commando unit made up largely of British soldiers must rescue an American general from a strongly fortified, Nazi-held castle in the Austrian Alps. Burton's character, Major Jonathan Smith, heads up the mission, and Eastwood's character, Lt. Morris Schaffer, the only American on the team, is his second-in-command. Also along for the adventure is Mary Ure as Mary Elison, a pretty young woman with a mysterious purpose.
There are twists and turns aplenty in "Where Eagles Dare," and the viewer never knows whom to believe in, as early on we learn that someone among the unit's number is a German plant working against the rest of the team. Nothing is as it appears. Spies. Spies everywhere. Trust no one.
In its way, "Where Eagles Dare" is more preposterous than "Kelly's Heroes," yet it moves along so efficiently, one hardly notices. Not that it is without its obvious shortcomings. Composer Ron Goodwin did the music for the movie, and it's pretty generic and melodramatic. Still, it serves its purpose and reminds us every minute that this is a true adventure film. Then, there's the length. At over two-and-a-half hours, the movie has more going on than it needs to, and there is a makeshift quality to it, as though the filmmakers were creating it as they went along. Which may have been the case, as author Alistair MacLean wrote the screenplay and the novel simultaneously. And there are coincidences galore. You need a really long rope? There's one conveniently at hand. You need another cable car? There's one conveniently passing by. I dunno.
Finally, there is the matter of accents. The filmmakers expect us to believe that everyone in the film is speaking German, but only the real Germans speak English with German accents; the British and the American speak English with an English or American accent. This is especially confusing early on when Burton and Eastwood speak to a German soldier in their normal English-language voices, and the German soldier doesn't notice anything wrong. Huh, we ask. Then it dawns on the viewer that the filmmakers intend for us to pretend they are all speaking fluent German. OK.
Trivia: The great stuntman, stunt coordinator, actor, and director Yakima Canutt was the second-unit director on the film and shot most of the action scenes. He was the same guy who started in movies during the silent era, doubled for Clark Gable in "Gone With the Wind," and staged the chariot race in "Ben-Hur."
Eastwood's character kills more people in this movie than in any other film he's ever been in.
Warner Bros. present each film on a separate Blu-ray disc, using a dual-layer BD50 and a VC-1 encode. Judging by the results, I'd say they do a pretty good job reproducing both films' Panavision aspect ratio, 2.40:1, and its Metrocolor hues. Although the original prints were probably not any great shakes, they are at least free of too much age deterioration, noise, ticks, and lines.
"Kelly's Heroes" starts off with a lengthy nighttime sequence that displays a good deal of natural print grain and a degree of murkiness in darker areas of the screen. When daylight breaks (about twenty minutes in), things clear up considerably. The image becomes brighter and sharper, yet with no serious evidence of filtering or edge enhancement.
"Where Eagles Dare" also begins with a dark, grainy outdoor shot, along with what looks suspiciously like a superimposed airplane positively glowing with halos. Don't despair, though; things get better. The outdoor nighttime shots in the snow look bad because the glistening white snow tends to show up all the inherent grain there is in the print, but the indoor and daylight shots are excellent, with fine detail and delineation. Colors are mostly good, too, except occasionally for faces, which can look a bit orangish.
Both films sport newly processed, lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtracks. Unfortunately, the new mix doesn't do a lot to improve the sound of "Kelly's Heroes," where the voices are veiled, dull, pinched, shrill, edgy, and harsh by turns; background music and noises seem too soft; and dynamics, while loud, appear limited. There is a good stereo spread, however, and a touch of rear-channel surround activity from time to time in things like night sounds, airplanes overhead, and explosions.
In "Where Eagles Dare" the audio is markedly better. There are some fairly wide dynamics, and the midrange is smooth and natural, with voices rendered realistically against dead-quiet backgrounds wide. There isn't much side or rear-channel activity, though, except late in the film, and the front-channel stereo spread isn't all that broad. Nevertheless, the audio is a pleasure to listen to after the hollow-sounding "Kelly's Heroes."
Not much here on either disc. The main things are a twelve-minute, standard-screen featurette, "On Location: Where Eagles Dare" (SD), made at the time of the film's production, and a widescreen theatrical trailer (SD) for each movie. "Kelly's Heroes" has thirty-seven scene selections; "Where Eagles Dare" has forty-two. Then, we get English, French, Spanish, German, and Italian spoken languages; French, Spanish, Danish, Norwegian, Portuguese, and other subtitles; and English, German, and Italian captions for the hearing impaired.
Neither "Kelly's Heroes" nor "Where Eagles Dare" is a great motion picture, but each of them is so different from the other in tone, they make a pleasant pairing in this two-disc set. It's too bad Eastwood has so little to do in "Where Eagles Dare," though. Not that it will stop Eastwood fans from enjoying the ride.