It has widely been accepted that Eastwood’s original hopes and intent for The Warriors (which eventually became Kelly’s Heroes) were regrettably destroyed. I have gathered a few notes together which I have had stored on file for some time now, in order to try and provide a clearer account of exactly what happened.
The late 60s were a turbulent time for MGM with a great deal of changes occurring. In particular, James Aubrey had been assigned as head of production by the studio. Within days of his hiring, twelve films were cancelled because of financial issues. The original project was announced by MGM in November 1968 under the title of The Warriors. The original script for The Warriors was written with much more of an anti-war sentiment at its heart. Upon completion of the film, it barely resembled the script that Clint had originally read and enjoyed so much.
Before examining what happened and how the changes came about, it’s perhaps important to look at a few changes which happened prior to any shooting. A Clint favourite, George Kennedy turned down a role despite an offered fee of $300,000 because he reportedly didn’t like the part. It’s hard to establish which role, but I could have visualised him comfortably playing Big Joe. Kennedy had appeared for MGM a couple of years earlier in their blockbuster The Dirty Dozen (1967). Big Joe was of course eventually played by Telly Savalas, another star of The Dirty Dozen, as was Donald Sutherland who also appeared in Kelly’s Heroes as Oddball. One of the other significant changes was Kelly’s Heroes inclusion of a female character. However, prior to filming, the part was cut from the script. Ingrid Pitt, who had already been cast in the role, (and had been in Hutton’s movie Where Eagles Dare with Eastwood the previous year), revealed that she was "virtually climbing on board the plane bound for Yugoslavia when word came through that my part had been cut."
According to Ben Mankiewicz in his pre-movie introduction of May 2015 for Turner Classic Movies, filming commenced in July 1969 and was completed in December. It was shot on location in the Istrian village of Vižinada in Croatia (former Yugoslavia) and London. Yugoslavia was chosen mostly because earnings from previous showings of movies there could not be taken out of the country, but could be used to fund the production. Another reason Yugoslavia was selected was that in 1969, Yugoslavia was one of the few nations whose army was still equipped with operating World War II mechanised equipment, both German and American. This simplified logistics tremendously.
Before Brian G. Hutton was on board, and ‘at Clint's behest, Don Siegel was offered the picture, but he was tied up on the post-production with Two Mules for Sister Sara, and so, with Clint's approval, the assignment went to the pyrotechnically inclined Brian Hutton. He, not unnaturally, wanted to stress the kind of action that had worked for him in Where Eagles Dare which went into its successful release just before Kelly’s Heroes went on location’.
Once filming was complete, the Post-production stages of Kelly’s Heroes were an even bigger mess than the shoot, which had now dragged on for nine months on location in both Mexico and Yugoslavia. As mentioned above, MGM’s new head was James Aubrey, who hadn't originally approved the film. Aubrey was no longer interested in epic-sized pictures, preferring small budget films that could still yield profits for the studio. After viewing Hutton's original cut, Aubrey insisted the film should be a simple "Clint Eastwood action-adventure" and ordered substantial revisions that wound up changing the whole tone of the film. Aubrey was also the man responsible for changing the title from The Warriors to Kelly's Heroes.
Approximately 20 minutes were cut from the film by MGM before the film’s theatrical release. Eastwood said later in interviews that he was very disappointed about the re-cut by MGM because he felt that many of the deleted scenes not only added depth to the characters, but also made the movie much better. Some of the deleted scenes survive through MGM promotional stills.
In the French magazine, Positif No. 287 (January 1985) Eastwood explained to Michael Henry:
‘It was a very fine anti-militaristic script, one that said some important things about the war, about this propensity that man has to destroy himself. In the editing, the scenes that put the debate in philosophical terms were cut and they kept adding action scenes. When it was finished, the picture had lost its soul. If action and reflection had been better balanced, it would have reached a much broader audience. I don't know if the studio exercised pressure on the director or if it was the director who lost his vision along the way, but I know that the picture would have been far superior if there hadn't been this attempt to satisfy action fans at any cost. And it would have been just as spectacular and attractive. It's not an accident that some action movies work and others don't. What makes the difference is the quality of the writing.’
The late Richard Schickel discussed the problems with filming Kelly's Heroes and Clint's displeasure with the finished film in detail in his book Clint Eastwood, a Biography:
‘Financed by MGM, and featuring an all-star cast, it was a self-contradictory enterprise. A military adventure, to be made on something close to an epic scale, it was also supposed to be an anti-war satire, somewhat along the lines of such contemporary films as Castle Keep, M*A*S*H, Catch-22 and Too Late the Hero, all of which, one way or another, spoke of public disgust with the war in Vietnam.
It was this aspect of the project that stirred Clint. Around this time he confessed that he had voted for Nixon in 1968 because he regarded Johnson's bombing halt as a cynical electoral ploy of Hubert Humphrey. But he still had no enthusiasm for the Vietnam adventure or for militarism in general, and Troy Kennedy Martin's original script expressed these feelings - in Clint's opinion, movingly and adroitly.
Running more than two hours, Kelly's Heroes is a messily contradictory and never fully resolved movie. Besides being, occasionally, an anti-war satire, it is also from time to time a caper (or bunch of guys-rob-a-vault) comedy, an old-fashioned service (or bunch-of-goldbricks-goof-off) comedy and, yes, a straight bunch-of-guys-on-a-mission piece. To put the point simply, it tried to be all things to all audiences and so, naturally, ended up a muddle - although, right up to the end, Clint thought it could be straightened out.
Hutton, who did not have final cut, had no choice but to oblige Aubrey, and when Clint saw what had been done to the film, he told the director, "Brian, you can't release this." To which the director, who had been fighting the good fight, replied wearily, "Well, that's the way they want to do it," adding that the studio had a release date "creeping up on them." The implication was that even if the studio liked Clint's ideas there wouldn't be time to execute them.
In general Clint felt that the film's comedy now played too broadly, and specifically he was dismayed at the excision of a transition scene between the picture's second and third acts in which, as he recalls, he and the character played by Telly Savalas "just sort of summed up the philosophy of those loose ends, and what the war had done to them." He goes so far as to say that "its soul was taken out, a little bit of its soul was robbed"’
In his book, Schickel goes on to describe how Clint tried unsuccessfully to convince Aubrey that he could fix the film himself if given just a single day in the editing room, but Aubrey wasn't at all interested.
Clint's displeasure with Kelly's Heroes was so great, especially coming on the heels of his disappointment and dragged out filming experience on Paint Your Wagon, that from this point on Clint would take fuller control of his projects, producing most of the remainder of his films, and within another year, he would also be directing most of them as well. It was also rumoured that Clint had made his own cut of Kelly’s Heroes, but as of yet, nothing has ever surfaced. Now that would really be something to behold…