It's not widely known that Kelly's Heroes, one of my favourite war movies, is actually based upon a true incident. The caper was covered in a book called “Nazi Gold: The Sensational Story of the World’s Greatest Robbery – and the Greatest Criminal Cover-Up” by Ian Sayer and Douglas Botting. The heist was perpetrated by a combination of renegade Nazi and American officers. It was also listed as the “biggest” robbery ever in the Guinness Book of Records, in the 1960s.
In 1945, as Allied bombers continued their final pounding of Berlin, the panicking Nazis began moving the assets of the Reichsbank south for safekeeping. Vast trainloads of gold and currency were evacuated from the doomed capital of Hitler’s ‘Thousand-year Reich’. Nazi Gold is the real-life story of the theft of that fabulous treasure – worth some 2,500,000,000 at the time of the original investigation. It is also the story of a mystery and attempted whitewash in an American scandal that pre-dated Watergate by nearly 30 years. Investigators were impeded at every step as they struggled to uncover the truth and were left fearing for their lives. The authors’ quest led them to a murky, dangerous post-war world of racketeering, corruption and gang warfare. Their brilliant reporting, matching eyewitness testimony with declassified Top Secret documents from the US Archives, lays bare this monumental crime in a narrative which throngs with SS desperadoes, a red-headed queen of crime and American military governors living like Kings. Also revealed is the authors’ discovery of some of the missing treasure in the Bank of England.
The filming itself was surrounded by some interesting facts and amusing incidents, some of which are as far flung as the narrative itself. For example, it was during shooting in Yugoslavia 1969, that Donald Sutherland received word, via co-star Clint Eastwood, that his then-wife Shirley Douglas had been arrested for trying to buy hand-grenades (with a personal cheque) for the Black Panther Party from an undercover FBI agent. Sutherland recounts this story often, mentioning that when Eastwood got to the part about the personal cheque, he laughed so hard, he fell to his knees, and Sutherland had to help him up. Eastwood then put his arm around Sutherland and walked him down the hill that overlooked the Yugoslav countryside, assuring his friend with complete support of his predicament. Sutherland and Douglas, who are the parents of Kiefer and twin sister Rachel Sutherland, later divorced in 1970.
Clint Eastwood signed to do the film mainly because his friend and favourite director, Don Siegel, was set to direct it. However, Siegel ran into post-production problems while finishing up Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970) and had to withdraw from the project. Brian G. Hutton was then signed to direct. Eastwood, who had already signed a contract to do the film, couldn’t pull out. Mike Curb, who wrote the lyrics to the movie’s theme song “Burning Bridges,” served as lieutenant governor of California between 1978 and 1982. A record was made of Clint Eastwood singing “Burning Bridges” and was released as a 45-rpm disc on Certron Records, the B-side of “When I Loved Her” also sung by Eastwood was written by Kris Kristofferson.
The “Tiger” tanks used in the film were actually Russian T-34 tanks which had been specially modified to look like Tiger tanks. This is apparent when you look at the suspension of the tanks - T-34s used a modified Christie suspension, whereas the Tigers’ wheels were much more elaborate. The German Tiger tank commander, played by Karl-Otto Alberty, appears to be a parody – both in appearance and manner of speaking – of Marlon Brando’s portrayal of German Lt. Christian Diestl in The Young Lions 1958. The ‘key’ symbol on the Tiger tanks denotes that they are attached to the 1st SS Panzer Division “Leibstandarte (Body guard unit) Adolf Hitler.”
The blue “crosshair” shoulder patch indicates Kelly and his men are from the 35th Infantry Division. A National Guard Division, comprised of Guardsmen from Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas who were fighting in the area of Nancy, France, in late summer 1944, while Oddball’s division is the “Super Sixth”, the 6th Armored Division. Its also worth noting that Oddball carries a Luger P-08 “Parabellum” semiautomatic gun, which were in service only in Switzerland and Germany.
Approximately 20 minutes were cut from the movie by MGM and studio boss James T. Aubrey before theatrical release. MGM even changed the title of the movie. Originally it was called The Warriors, then in post production it was changed to Kelly’s Warriors and then into Kelly’s Heroes. Years after the film was completed Eastwood claimed that Hutton had intended more depth to the cast, but these were cut out in favour of more action and comedy. Some of the comedy even parodies Eastwood himself (not bad from actor who had only relatively recently had become a household name) in a scene in which Eastwood’s character of Kelly squares up against a German Tiger tank and the stand-off is played against Ennio Morricone’s score for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). The comedy is more than just slapstick. Taken in the context of when the film was made during the height of the Vietnam War much of the comedy is black in tone; Sutherland's proto-hippie character complete with Sixties vocabulary is a deliberate inclusion in order that the audience can make that link. This was made at the time of those other seminal Vietnam black comedies of M*A*S*H and Catch 22.
Made for a budget of $4 million in 1970 dollars, Kelly’s Heroes grossed $5.2 domestically, and unknown amounts in foreign sales, DVDs, etc. Inflation has increased six-fold since 1970, and though the movie was moderately successful financially, it stands out in popular culture lore as a landmark American movie.