A contemporary of both M*A*S*H and Patton, this gleefully anti-establishment World War II comedy manages to bridge both films, turning a lot of the clichés of earlier war movies on their heads while not totally disrespecting the genre. The American GIs in this film are still square-jawed and tough-as-nails, but they are also tired of war and bored out of their minds.
When a drunken German POW reveals that there are 14,000 gold bars stashed in a bank behind enemy lines, Kelly (Clint Eastwood decides that he’s had enough of slogging around France getting blown up for someone else’s war. It’s time to take his cut. He recruits some of his equally weary comrades, including supply sergeant “Crapgame” (Don Rickles), to help him steal it and overcomes the objections of his Sergeant, “Big Joe” (Telly Savalas). Unfortunately, the plan also depends on an artillery barrage from the perpetually tardy Sgt. Mulligan (George Savalas) and on armor support from the even-more-perpetually blissed-out “Oddball” (Donald Sutherland).
Even once they get underway, they have nothing but problems when their vehicles are strafed by their own planes, they wander into a minefield and get pinned down on the banks of a river. Even if they succeed they have to contend with General Colt (Carroll O’Connor), who doesn’t know why they are attacking deep behind enemy lines but he’s just happy somebody under his command is attacking something. He’s determined to decorate everyone involved in Kelly’s “mission,” something that might put a crimp in their plans to steal $16 million in gold.
The film is justifiably famous for an eccentric cast, especially the pre-hippy Oddball and his exasperated and pessimistic driver Moriarity (Gavin MacLeod). Sutherland’s performance is the equal of his work in that other famous 1970 war comedy. Clint Eastwood is, of course, Clint Eastwood in his signature “Man With No Name” mode. He just traded in the poncho for army fatigues.
Finally, Carroll O’Connor manages to be equal parts Archie Bunker and no less than two memorable George C. Scott roles. His General Colt seems like a cross between Patton and General Turgidson from Dr. Strangelove.
I’m sure that many objected (and probably still do) to the portrayal of American soldiers in World War II as larcenous and even somewhat amoral, but of course the “victims” were Nazis and it’s hard to get all that upset with theft when one’s is being shot at in the middle of a war zone. The film establishes that all of Kelly’s men have done their patriotic duty and then some. They’re not slackers or deserters, just “cashing out.”
Of course, this is a movie made at the height of anti-war sentiment in the world and it manages the not-inconsequential feat of being cynical about war without seeming unpatriotic or really disrespecting men in uniform. Of course, it also really funny, which also helps.