Was Kelly’s Heroes Accurate? Well, it Was Based on a True Story

Kelly’s Heroes screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin had previously written The Italian Job, another gold-fuelled comedy heist romp. It was released by the same studio, MGM. Sources have noted that “Troy” is also a term applied to the weighing of precious metals.

He wasn’t the only person repeating himself. Donald Sutherland had not long filmed M*A*S*H. The Korean War comedy satirized the situation in Vietnam, just as Kelly’s Heroes was said to do, albeit through the prism of World War II.

The Movie has Some Very Dedicated Fans

Many popular movies have fans, though Kelly’s Heroes has arguably the most dedicated. Over in 1990s Sweden, a group of enthusiasts became fixated on the film’s setting for a war game. They went as far as constructing their own model of the location. But how far would they go in the name of authenticity?

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In the days before drones, the students booked a pilot for aerial shots of the town, now in Croatia. Their concerns about accuracy were met with suspicion by authorities, who thought they might be spying on the area!

Countess Dracula Nearly Appeared in it

Actress and horror movie icon Ingrid Pitt was originally supposed to join the Heroes. She’d previously appeared in Where Eagles Dare, also directed by Brian G. Hutton. Ultimately however, her character was taken out of the script. When did she find this out? She was reportedly all set to go to the former Yugoslavia when the bad news broke.

Ingrid Pitt
Ingrid Pitt of ‘Where Eagles Dare’ fame was due to fly out to start filming on Kelly’s Heroes. However she was written out of the script

Best known for playing the title role in Hammer’s Countess Dracula, Pitt also appeared in cult films The Wicker Man and Who Dares Wins.

It Inspired ‘An American Werewolf in London’

Kelly’s Heroes had a young production assistant named John Landis. A decade or so later he would direct An American Werewolf in London, which was inspired by the former movie! Landis observed what appeared to be a zombie prevention ceremony conducted by Romanies in the former Yugoslavia. This supernatural vibe planted the seed of the story that became a horror hit.

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And Landis didn’t leave the Kelly’s cast behind – Donald Sutherland (“Oddball”) worked with him 3 more times, including in a billboard cameo for The Blues Brothers. Decades later, Don Rickles (“Crapgame”) was the subject of a documentary, Mr Warmth, also directed by Landis.

It Was Nearly Directed by Don Siegel of ‘Dirty Harry’ Fame

Clint Eastwood wanted to do Kelly’s Heroes based on the original choice of director – Don Siegel. The pair had worked together before on Coogan’s Bluff and Two Mules for Sister Sara. Issues with the latter movie meant that Siegel dropped out. His replacement was Brian G. Hutton, who’d directed Eastwood in Where Eagles Dare.

Where Eagles Dare
British poster for Where Eagles Dare. starring Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton.

Already uncomfortable with the departure of his friend and colleague, Eastwood faced further disappointment when Kelly’s Heroes was edited before its release. The star felt that key character detail was missing, and the movie was less interesting as a result.

‘Kelly’s Heroes’ Was (kind of) Based on a True Story

Troy Kennedy Martin got the idea for Kelly’s Heroes from an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records. They billed the “Greatest Robbery on Record” as a World War II heist targeting the German National Gold Reserves in Bavaria. Carrying out this robbery was a combination of Americans and Germans. Pretty surprising stuff, and a story that got Kennedy Martin’s mind racing.

Kelly's heroes
Elliott Morgan’s letter to the Guinness Book of World Records. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Ian Sayer Archive

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When MGM tried to obtain specifics about the heist, they couldn’t find out much. In fact, a veil of secrecy hung over the affair until decades later, when historical investigator Ian Sayer researched and published a book titled Nazi Gold (with Douglas Botting). A cover up involving the US government was revealed! Kennedy Martin’s characters and scenario appear to be a largely fictional interpretation.

Making it Was a Blast

With so much testosterone on the shoot, you’d think the making of Kelly’s Heroes might be more than a little tense. However, nothing could be further from the truth, at least as far as the cast were concerned. Sutherland enjoyed playing the character of Oddball, and looked back on his role fondly for an interview with Military Times celebrating the movie’s 50th anniversary.

Kelly's Heroes
No, baby, we ain’t! Credit MGM Studios

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Just like real soldiers, the stars were happy being shoulder to shoulder. “We had little campers out in a field near each location,” Sutherland said, remembering the signs people had outside their patch. Eastwood’s read: “Clint Eastwood: Private.” Meanwhile, neighbour Don Rickles’ sign stated: “mister friendly — everybody welcome.”

In Jokes

Kelly’s Heroes is a fun picture, so naturally the production decided to tip the wink to famous roles associated with their stellar cast. When Clint Eastwood’s Kelly squares up to a Tiger Tank, the music and sound effects call to mind his “Spaghetti Western” classic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The tank commander played, by Karl-Otto Alberty, is believed to be taking off Marlon Brando in his movie The Young Lion.

At one point an intelligence operative named “Hogan” is mentioned, reportedly a reference to much-loved wartime sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. Also, Harry Dean Stanton (Willard) looks to be inserting a reference to an earlier role of his in Cool Hand Luke. That featured a dog called Blue, who Stanton sings about in Kelly’s Heroes.

Clint Eastwood Recorded a Single for the Release

Speaking of singing, Clint Eastwood carried a tune! You may be familiar with him singing in the musical Western Paint Your Wagon. This was alongside fellow screen hard man Lee Marvin, who didn’t so much carry a tune as sling it over his shoulder before dropping it in the river. Eastwood however decided to keep on warbling, with the Kelly’s Heroes track ‘Burning Bridges’.

Released as a single, it featured the Mike Curb Congregation and got to number 34 in the Billboard Hot 100.

Why They Filmed in Yugoslavia

The film was shot in the-then Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. Why? Financial reasons. It was cheaper to make it there because legally the country couldn’t profit from any screenings. Typically when traveling to a foreign destination to make a movie, money needs to change hands for the privilege. Not in this case.

Plus, the filmmakers had access to Sherman Tanks, as used by the Yugoslavian Army. It’s not everyday you go somewhere with a ready supply of military vehicles at your disposal!

Don Rickles’ Home Truths

Speaking to Tom Snyder years later, Don Rickles revealed how his big time accommodation request was granted by producers. The fast talking Rickles wanted somewhere to live that was equal in stature to Clint Eastwood’s. He got his wish, but it wasn’t what he expected.

Reportedly a lover of the simple life, Eastwood preferred laying his hat in a rustic setting rather than a swanky hotel room. When Rickles and his family arrived, they realized that they needed to move. He described Eastwood’s digs as a “closet with a dead beaver on the wall… to him that’s heaven”!

Don Rickles
Hey, Oddball, this is your hour of glory. And you’re chickening out!

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Rickles Roasts Eastwood

During the same interview, Rickles spares no blushes in his tongue in cheek assessment of Eastwood. He states that he “carried” the star through the movie, and that Clint’s idea of a restaurant tip was “a picture of himself”. He didn’t let up on Eastwood at the time either, as a vintage behind the scenes clip shows.

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Speaking to camera alongside the tall and rugged star, Rickles quips: “we’ve been on the picture with you for about two days… on behalf of the whole cast, Clint, we’re fed up.” The ribbing continues from there, and all Eastwood can do is split his sides.

Finding Your Way Around

Kelly’s Heroes is acknowledged as pretty accurate in some ways. Telly Savalas’s character Big Joe uses a Michelin Guide, which sounds frivolous but these were actually used by military personnel at the time. In fact, because the publishing industry wasn’t too active under wartime conditions, new Guides were specially produced.

Making the film was a family affair for Telly, who was joined by his younger brother George in the role of Mulligan.

Where are the Characters From?

The movie may not be big on detail when it comes to its characters’ identities. However, some eagle-eyed viewers have narrowed things down based on their uniforms.

Past Factory notes that these feature a “blue crosshair shoulder patch” belonging to the 35th Infantry Division. “This specific division of the National Guard includes men from Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri.”

A Lot of Work Went into Creating the Tanks

The former Yugoslavia provided the production with Sherman Tanks. Yet for the Tiger Tanks featured in the movie, Soviet T-34s were converted above and beyond the movie making standard of the time. According to IMDB, local army specialists were brought in to ensure the vehicles looked just right.

Kelly's heroes
Credit: MGM Studios

Oddball Errors

Ever the wild card, Donald Sutherland’s counter culture character Oddball makes alterations to his Sherman Tank. By lengthening his gun barrels with pipe, he thinks he’s going to look more formidable and frighten the enemy. Actually, he was on the wrong track, and more likely to be blown up!

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Sherman crews reportedly tried to deflect attention from the length of their barrels, knowing that their opponents would be more likely to target them as a result. Of course, Oddball wasn’t your typical soldier, so his boo-boo can probably be put down to radical thought rather than military thinking.

The Math Seems a Little Off

Does Kelly’s Heroes have its sums right regarding the loot? Some sources have speculated that the sheer amount of gold mentioned by David Hurst’s Col Dankhopf would have flattened the single truck used to transport it. 14,000 bars reportedly works out at approx 16 tons, if you go by figures quoted in the movie.

Troy Kennedy Martin also wrote The Italian Job, the cliff-hanger of which featured the robbers’ truck dangling over the edge of a cliff, as its precious payload threatened to upend it. Might Kelly’s men have faced a similar dilemma post-heist?

Donald Sutherland’s Wife was Arrested

Donald Sutherland had an eventful time shooting Kelly’s Heroes, as you’ll discover. In one instance, trouble came calling thanks to his then-wife, actress Shirley Douglas. The story goes that she wanted to buy some hand grenades for the Black Panther movement. Unfortunately the person she chose for the transaction turned out to be working for the FBI!

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Clint Eastwood found out about her arrest before Sutherland, and duly delivered the news. While he was a supportive friend, Eastwood couldn’t help being tickled by one particular detail… Douglas had reportedly used a personal check to pay for the explosives. IMDB notes that Eastwood “laughed so hard that he fell to his knees and Sutherland had to help him up.”

No-One Was Supposed to Die

In true A-Team fashion, the ending of Kelly’s Heroes saw no character meeting their maker. At least, that’s how things were supposed to go, before a certain producer offered some ideas. His input resulted in a trio of US soldiers biting the dust.

Donald Sutherlands character ‘Oddball’ stole the entire show. He also died for real on set…for a few minutes anyhow.

Adding to behind the scenes tension, the eventual cut of the movie lost approx 20 mins of footage. Originally titled The Warriors, who knows what the film would have been like, had first choice director Don Siegel stayed and the original script been left intact…?

Donald Sutherland Died…Literally

In surely the most dramatic behind the scenes development, Donald Sutherland contracted spinal meningitis and could have ended his days in the former Yugoslavia. The reason his then-wife Shirley Douglas was in the country was due to this alarming news. With antibiotics reportedly tough to come by, Sutherland slipped into a coma.

Ironically, his time on the movie was only supposed to be a single day. Factor in hospital time and he extended his stay by 6 weeks! After waking up, he learned that doctors had pronounced him dead, though thankfully this only lasted a few seconds.