In the summer of 1970 people across the U.S. were packing into cinemas to see a highly-anticipated new movie. The film in question was Kelly’s Heroes, a World War II yarn centered around some American soldiers who go AWOL and behind enemy lines in order to raid a bank. The majority of patrons no doubt enjoyed watching the likes of Clint Eastwood, Donald Sutherland, Telly Savalas and Don Rickles in their pomp. But they were likely unaware that there were many strange things about the motion picture. Here are 20 curious things you probably didn’t know about the cult classic…
20. The filming location
As a World War II movie set in Europe, you may have guessed that Kelly’s Heroes would have been shot somewhere in France, Italy or even Poland. You’d be wrong though. No, the movie was actually predominantly filmed in a nation that no longer exists. Namely the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
So, why was the socialist state in southeastern Europe chosen for the filming of the movie? Well, for a couple of reasons actually. Firstly, because the nation’s army still possessed a sizable number of Sherman tanks, which was logistically handy as they were needed for the shoot. Perhaps more importantly, though, there was the motive of money. In Yugoslavia, profits from preceding movie screenings could not, by law, be taken out of the Federal Republic. Therefore, that cash could be utilized as funds for the production.
19. Fact or fiction?
American soldiers go behind enemy lines in Europe to rob a bank during World War II. Sounds a bit far-fetched, right? Well, as a matter of fact it isn’t. Kelly’s Heroes is actually based – quite loosely, it has to be said – on a true story. The yarn was told in the book Nazi Gold: The Sensational Story of the World’s Greatest Robbery – and the Greatest Criminal Cover-Up.
That book – which was written by Douglas Botting and Ian Sayer – documents the theft of the Reichsbank’s vast assets. It’s estimated that they added up to an eye-watering $2.5 billion when the investigation began. The gold was moved on trains from Berlin as the Allies closed in, before it was eventually stolen. Then there was a cover-up of Watergate-esque proportions, as the investigators discovered a grim world of corruption, racketeering and gangs.
There’s no denying that the heist was a really big deal. It was a large-scale crime with a monumental cover-up afterwards. There was a reason that the investigators were obstructed at every turn – there was an astonishing amount of gold and other valuables at stake.
Indeed, in the 1960s, the robbery had a special place in history: one that made it boldly stand out from the rest of its ilk. Yes, the heist that inspired the motion picture Kelly’s Heroes was listed as the “biggest” robbery ever in the Guinness Book of Records. That’s quite a feat, right?
17. Kelly could have been a different guy
Of all the actors in the star-studded ensemble cast of Kelly’s Heroes, one particular name arguably shines a little bit brighter than the others. That name is Clint Eastwood. Now a Hollywood icon, by the time this movie came out he was already a movie megastar thanks to such classics as A Fistful of Dollars, Where Eagles Dare and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.
Yet Eastwood’s star turn as Kelly almost didn’t happen. Indeed, the iconic actor only agreed to make the movie on the condition that his close pal and chief creative partner Don Siegel would be at the helm. But the director, who was at the time wrapping up the film Two Mules for Sister Sara, suddenly found himself dealing with a host of post-production headaches. He had to bow out and Brian G. Hutton was chosen as his replacement. Luckily, Eastwood had already signed on the dotted line, and thus couldn’t quit.
16. The movie could have been very different
Although he was signed up with no real way of dropping out, that doesn’t mean Eastwood was entirely content about the whole project. No, the iconic star of Sergio Leone’s most famous spaghetti westerns was not a happy bunny. Indeed, there was something in particular about Kelly’s Heroes that really annoyed the American actor.
Yes, the gruff Hollywood star was aghast at the way the film was edited by the studio. Eastwood felt that many of the cut scenes provided more character and philosophical depth and would have ultimately made Kelly’s Heroes a superior movie to the one which was released. He lamented the changes that made it a more straightforward action movie to French film magazine Positif in 1985, saying: “It was [originally] a very fine anti-militaristic script, one that said some important things about the war, about this propensity that man has to destroy himself.”
15. Mine-d your own business, producer
As those who have seen it will surely know, Kelly’s Heroes was supposed to be an adventure comedy film. Sure, there were several bits in it that documented the horrors of war, but ultimately it was meant to be a family-friendly caper. But then a producer came in and sort of spoiled the fun.
Spoiler alert: about 70 minutes into the movie, three of the greedy U.S. servicemen – Corporal Job, Private Grace, and Private Mitchell – are killed in action. Two of them perish by way of German gunfire, while the other is slain by an exploding mine. Sutherland was unhappy, later saying, “Nobody died. At least they didn’t die in the original script, but then some idiot producer […] insisted that there had to be deaths. Brian [G. Hutton] fought it, didn’t want it, but money shouted so Brian ended up giving him a minefield.”
14. Near-death experience
Sutherland would have considerably more to contend with on the set of Kelly’s Heroes than an interfering producer. During filming in Yugoslavia, poor Don would suddenly become gravely ill with spinal meningitis. Alarmingly, things got so bad that his then-wife Shirley Douglas was sent a telegram, which told her to come to the far-away European state immediately. It also warned that it was likely he would die before she arrived. Yikes.
The actor later recalled his frightening experience to newspaper the Irish Examiner. He revealed, “I got sick in the middle of shooting… I came to Yugoslavia for a day’s filming and I was out for six weeks. They took me to hospital – I had spinal meningitis. They didn’t have the antibiotics, so I went into a coma, and they tell me that for a few seconds, I died. I saw the blue tunnel, and I started going down it. I saw the white light. [But] I dug my feet in.”
13. Woman troubles
Thankfully, Sutherland would make a full recovery from his rather scary bout of spinal meningitis. However, it would not be the only headache, so to speak, that he would have to deal with whilst on set in Yugoslavia. So, what else did the poor Canadian have to put up with?
Well, the actor would be informed, via Eastwood, that his missus had been busted attempting to purchase hand-grenades for militant group the Black Panthers. Douglas – herself an actress and the daughter of prominent Canadian politician Tommy – was caught out by an undercover FBI agent. Apparently, his co-star burst into laughter when telling him about her personal check, even falling to his knees. Some friend you are, Clint.
12. Michelin Guide to… World War II
Right at the start of the film, there is a scene in which Telly Savalas’ Big Joe is trying to figure out where it’s best to stay in Nancy, France. Curiously, Joe is using a Michelin tourist guide book to locate such a place in the city, which lies in the northwest of the country. Peculiar, yes, but factually accurate. Allied troops definitely used these books during WWII.
Believe it or not, when the Normandy invasion was being devised, staff officers raised concerns about how troops would navigate if the withdrawing Nazis reversed or removed the road signs. So the American government secretly reprinted the most recent Michelin guide from 1939. Subsequently, when storming the beaches on June 6, 1944, Allied forces clutched the handy books, which for the rest of the conflict proved invaluable.
11. Cut Female role
Kelly’s Heroes is well known for its band of brothers, who turn their attention away from the war to looting a significant amount of gold. Besides the aforementioned Eastwood, Sutherland, Savalas, and Rickles, there were the likes of Carroll O’Connor, Gavin MacLeod, Stuart Margolin and Harry Dean Stanton. But did you know there may well have been a sister in there with the brothers?
Well, it’s true. Ingrid Pitt, who had appeared in Where Eagles Dare with Eastwood shortly beforehand, was going to be cast in the movie. But before filming had even started, her role was slashed from the screenplay. Poor Pitt later disclosed how she was “virtually climbing on board the plane bound for Yugoslavia when word came through that my part had been cut.” How cruel.
10. Parody tank commander
Fans of the movie Kelly’s Heroes will no doubt remember with fondness the German Tiger tank commander. Expertly portrayed by German boxer turned actor Karl-Otto Alberty, he has a memorable confrontation with the band of brothers. Nonetheless, the character appears to be something of a parody. But of whom, exactly?
Well, eagle-eyed viewers and avid movie watchers may have noticed that Alberty’s Tiger tank commander is very similar to a certain character from another movie: the German Lieutenant Christian Diestl in the 1958 film The Young Lions. Yes, the Marlon Brando-portrayed Nazi is uncannily similar in both his Aryan appearance and particular manner of speaking.
9. Call to Hogan
The nod to the motion picture The Young Lions, and in particular Brando’s character, is not the only such instance. No, Kelly’s Heroes contains more knowing winks and tips of the hat, including one to a popular TV series of the era. So which show was it, and how did they squeeze it in?
The TV series in question was the similarly titled Hogan’s Heroes. The World War II-based sitcom, set in a Prisoner of War camp, aired from 1965 until 1971. There were a whopping 168 episodes of the popular program across six seasons. Anyway, in Kelly’s Heroes the Rickles-portrayed Crapgame dials up a “Hogan in Intelligence.” This is a sly nod to the show’s titular character Colonel Robert Hogan, who masterminded a covert intelligence network out of Stalag 13.
8. Clint’s minor hit
Have you seen Kelly’s Heroes? I’m guessing if you’re still reading this article that you have. Well, remember when the movie’s lead actor Clint Eastwood belts out a song? Yeah? Not a bad set of pipes, that Mr. Eastwood. Granted, he’s no Ariana Grande or Jeff Buckley in the vocal department, but he can sure hold a tune.
Anyway, the song Eastwood was singing was called “Burning Bridges,” and served as the theme tune for the movie. The main version was performed by The Mike Curb Congregation. The interesting thing, though, is that a single was created out of the actor’s effort, which was released by Certron Records. Produced by Allen Reynolds and Dickey Lee, the record also featured a B-side entitled “When I Loved Her,” a Kris Kristofferson number also sung by Clint.
7. Taking a Mulligan
Ah, Sergeant Mulligan. A humorous minor character in Kelly’s Heroes. played, no less, by Telly Savalas’ younger brother George. Not the brightest bulb in the box in the movie, it has to be said. In fact, it’d be fair to call him a bit of klutz. But what is the hidden gag about him the writers cunningly inserted into the film?
Well it was fairly well concealed, and probably only picked up on by fans of one particular sport: golf. You see, in that popular pastime, there is such a thing as a “mulligan.” It is the opportunity to ditch and re-play a bad shot. And in Kelly’s Heroes, Sergeant Mulligan is notable for his inaccuracy, and continually slammed for it.
6. Odd how much he loved Oddball
Earlier on we talked about Donald Sutherland’s considerable trials and tribulations during the filming of Kelly’s Heroes. They included his then-wife being arrested by the FBI for trying to buy hand grenades for the Black Panthers. And oh, you know, very nearly succumbing to spiral meningitis. To the extent that he could even see the light at the end of the tunnel.
You might think then that Sutherland utterly hated his time filming Kelly’s Heroes, and would be traumatized just thinking about it. You’d be wrong. Aside from the unnecessary deaths added to the screenplay that irked him, the Don loved it. He later remarked, “I thought it was a terrific script. Oddball took over my life. He inhabited me… I was in love with my Sherman tank.” On his beloved character the Canadian added, “I liked everything… He was exactly who he was and he carried me with him all the way through the six months of shooting.”
5. Fun and games
And Sutherland wasn’t alone in having a blast during the filming of Kelly’s Heroes. No, the actors all seemed to get on well, and had a lot of fun together. Don’t know about you, but that’s kind of heartwarming to know – that it was a laugh and there were no major egos flying.
Indeed, Sutherland would later confirm that it was genuine fun to be a part of that group. He revealed to the newspaper the Military Times in 2020, “We had little campers out in a field near each location. Clint’s had a sign on it, ‘Clint Eastwood: Private.’ Don Rickles’ was right next to Clint’s and it had a sign on it saying, ‘Don Rickles – Mr. Friendly – Everybody welcome.’” He concluded, “That’s what it was like 24/7.” How cool.
4. Landis’ bold prediction
Exceptionally eagle-eyed viewers of Kelly’s Heroes, who were watching the movie several years on from its 1970 release, might have just caught sight of a familiar face. Yes, in a scene where several nuns are shown, a soon-to-be famous man can be seen. That particular male in drag as Sister Rosa Stigmata is the director and actor John Landis.
Anyway, the uncredited extra was a relative nobody during the time of shooting. But Landis was convinced that he would one day make it as a film director. In fact, he was so confident he would incessantly tell Sutherland so. The Canadian offered to appear in his movies if he ever reached his goal. And, spoiler alert, he did. Awesomely, the Don performed in Landis’s subsequent flicks The Kentucky Fried Movie, National Lampoon’s Animal House and even upon a billboard in The Blues Brothers.
3. The price of gold
In Kelly’s Heroes, the titular character and his band of badly behaved brothers eventually pinch gold totaling $12 million. During the second major global conflict, gold was valued at $35 per troy ounce. As of today, the luxurious metal is worth about $1,000 per ounce – which is a little over 28 times as much.
This value equates to somewhere between $360 to $400 million. Then, try adjusting for inflation, and make the assumption that the errant soldiers got away with it and were able to retain the gold bars until now. The total value in today’s money would be, roughly speaking, between $2 billion and $2.5 billion. Not bad, huh? An even 12-way split between the crooks would give each a cool $200 million.
2. A vastly different movie
We mentioned earlier how Eastwood was disappointed with the fact that numerous scenes were cut from the movie. But what was cut, and just how different would Kelly’s Heroes have been? Well, two particular deleted parts included some nudity, which may be why they were chopped. One sees the platoon encountering a group of Nazi soldiers while girls enjoy a skinny dip in a pool, and another has Oddball and company going across lines to a local village, where women run around semi-nude.
What else was slashed from the motion picture? Well, aside from some minor cuts, there was a notable scene where Kelly and Big Joe converse in the barn about their disenchantment with conflict. Eastwood’s titular character also laments how he was, in his opinion, scapegoated for the botched hill attack that saw him demoted. This is likely what the Hollywood icon was referring to in particular when he bemoaned how the film could have been better.
1. Swedish superfans
It was in the 1990s, some 20-or-so years on from the release of Kelly’s Heroes, when Swedish superfans of the film decided to embark on an ambitious project. They were going to build a lifelike model of the small village in which the famous robbery occurs, no less.
The Swedes were clearly sticklers for accuracy. As such, they would travel to Vižinada, in modern-day Croatia, to properly size up and emulate the village as best they could for their 1/72-scale model. Clearly, they also had some money to spend, as they hired a plane and a pilot in order to take aerial images of the scene of the robbery. But their escapades alerted Croatian authorities, who mistook them for spies and detained them for hours. Where was Google Maps when you needed it?