15 Behind-the-Scenes Facts We Didn’t Know About ‘Kelly’s Heroes’

Photo Credit: moe / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / MovieStillsDB

Kelly’s Heroes (1970) is among the most popular World War II-era films ever released. The basis comes from the famed book by Ian Sayer and Douglas Botting, and covers a heist perpetuated by a combination of renegade German and American officers. It was also listed as the “Biggest Robbery Ever” by the Guinness Book of World Records in the 1960s.

The following is a list of behind-the-scenes facts fans might not know about the movie.

Background of Kelly’s Heroes (1970)

Still from 'Kelly's Heroes'
Kelly’s Heroes, 1970. (Photo Credit: Hope72 / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / MovieStillsDB)

In 1945, as Allied bombers continued to pound Berlin, the Germans began moving assets south, for safekeeping; vast trainloads of gold and currency were evacuated from the country’s capital. It’s a mystifying story and one that caught the attention of Sayer and Botting. At the time of the original investigation, the fabulous treasure was estimated to be worth around $2,500,000,000.

It’s also a story of an attempted whitewash in a US scandal that predated Richard Nixon and Watergate by nearly three decades. Investigators were impeded every strep of the way as they struggled to uncover the truth, and they were left fearing for their lives.

The authors’ quest led them into a murky, dangerous post-war world of racketeering, corruption and gang warfare. Their brilliant reporting, matching eyewitness testimonies and declassified top-secret documents from the American archives lay bare this monumental crime in a narrative throng with SS desperadoes, a red-headed queen of crime and US military governors living like kings. Also revealed is the authors’ discovery of some of the missing treasure in the Bank of England.

Now, let’s take a look at some bizarre trivia from the fantastic film that is Kelly’s Heroes.

Donal Sutherland nearly lost his life while filming

Donald Sutherland as Sgt. Oddball in 'Kelly's Heroes'
Kelly’s Heroes, 1970. (Photo Credit: MoviePics1001 / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / MovieStillsDB)

While filming on-location in Yugoslavia, Donald Sutherland, who portrays Sgt. “Oddball,” contracted spinal meningitis. As with other types of meningitis, this version can prove fatal, as it causes inflammation of the fluid and membranes around the spinal cord and brain.

Sutherland’s wife received a telegram, telling her to immediately travel to Yugoslavia. It also warned her that her husband would likely be dead before she arrived. Thankfully, he survived the infection and continues to have a successful acting career.

Using the sound of the Tiger tanks’ turrets in Aliens (1986)

Sigourney Waver as Lt. Ellen Louise Ripley in 'Aliens'
Aliens, 1986. (Photo Credit: Flaying / Twentieth Century Fox / MovieStillsDB)

Talk about making use of what you have! The noise made by the electric motors in the Tiger tanks’ turrets in Kelly’s Heroes was later adopted by the filmmakers behind Aliens (1986). They used the sound for the movement of the power lifters in the sci-fi movie.

Donald Sutherland’s wife was arrested for aiding the Black Panthers

Donald Sutherland and Clint Eastwood as Pvt. Kelly and Sgt. Oddball in 'Kelly's Heroes'
Kelly’s Heroes, 1970. (Photo Credit: Moviefan2 / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / MovieStillsDB)

While shooting in Yugoslavia, Clint Eastwood, who portrays Pvt. Kelly, informed Donald Sutherland that his wife, Shirley, had been arrested for attempting to buy grenades for the Black Panthers, a far-left political organization. She’d attempted to do so with a personal cheque, and it turned out the person she was dealing with was actually an undercover FBI agent.

According to Sutherland, when Eastwood got to the part about the personal cheque, he was laughing so hard that he collapsed and had to be helped up. He then assured his friend that he would completely support him in his predicament.

The Yugoslavian Army’s fleet of M4 Shermans

M4 Sherman parked in a field
M4 Sherman. (Photo Credit: PhotoQuest / Getty Images)

Those aware of Kelly Heroes‘ production are aware the film was largely filmed in Yugoslavia, but have you ever wondered why? It’s because the Yugoslavian Army had a large quantity of M4 Shermans at the time, meaning they could feature the armored vehicles in the movie.

The Tiger tanks in Kelly’s Heroes were actually Russian T-34s

American soldiers deactivating a T-34 while a Russian paratrooper stands nearby
T-34. (Photo Credit: Leif Skoogfors / Getty Images)

The Tiger tanks featured in Kelly’s Heroes weren’t actually German tanks. They were Russian T-34s that had been modified to look like Tigers. You can see this when you look at their suspension. The t-34s feature a modified Christie suspension, while the Tigers’ wheels were more elaborate.

A parody of Marlon Brando

Marlon Brando as Lt. Christian Diestl in 'The Young Lions'
The Young Lions, 1958. (Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox Pictures / Sunset Boulevard / CORBIS / Getty Images)

Even though Marlon Brando doesn’t feature in the film, doesn’t mean he doesn’t make an appearance… Sort of. The German tank commander played by Karl-Otto Alberty is actually a parody of Brando’s character in 1958’s The Young Lions, Lt. Christian Diestl.

Clint Eastwood, the musician

Clint Eastwood as Pvt. Kelly in 'Kelly's Heroes'
Kelly’s Heroes, 1970. (Photo Credit: DrrnHarr / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / MovieStillsDB)

A vinyl was recorded of Clint Eastwood singing the theme song for Kelly’s Heroes, titled “Burning Bridges.” It was released by Certron Records on a 45-RPM disc. It also featured a B-side – “When I Loved Her” – which was written by Kris Kristofferson and, again, sung by Eastwood!

What does the blue “crosshair” patch mean?

Don Rickles as Staff Sgt. "Crapgame" in 'Kelly's Heroes'
Kelly’s Heroes, 1970. (Photo Credit: Hope72 / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / MovieStillsDB)

The blue “crosshair” shoulder patch worn by Pvt. Kelly and his men actually indicates they’re members of the 35th Infantry Division, a section of the US Army National Guard (AMG) that was called into federal service during the Second World War.

The infantry division is comprised of Guardsmen from Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska.

A play on words… Or names

Clint Eastwood and Don Rickles as Pvt. Kelly and Staff Sgt. "Crapgame" in 'Kelly's Heroes'
Kelly’s Heroes, 1970. (Photo Credit: arrakis / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / MovieStillsDB)

First Sgt. Mulligan, portrayed by George Savalas, is known for his inaccuracies – and there’s a reason for that! In the golf world, a “mulligan” is known as a do-over, meaning a chance to repeat a poor shot. What a clever play on words by the filmmakers!

Who was John Landis in Kelly’s Heroes?

Portrait of John Landis
John Landis. (Photo Credit: Evening Standard / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Famed Hollywood filmmaker John Landis served as a production assistant on Kelly’s Heroes, but did you know he also made a cameo in the film? If you look closely enough, you’ll see he’s one of the three nuns.

There’s an error in the aircraft featured

Soko 522 parked in an urban area
Soko 522. (Photo Credit: Marko M / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

While the filmmakers were able to obtain WWII-era tanks, they weren’t so lucky when it came to the aircraft. The American fighter that attacks Pvt. Kelly’s group is actually a Soko 522, a two-seater Yugoslav military trainer that didn’t fly until 1955.

The only reason Clint Eastwood signed on for Kelly’s Heroes

Clint Eastwood as Pvt. Kelly in 'Kelly's Heroes'
Kelly’s Heroes, 1970. (Photo Credit: Hope72 / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / MovieStillsDB

Clint Eastwood only signed on to appear in the film because his friend, Don Siegel, was supposed to direct it. However, the director ran into post-production issues while finishing up work on 1970’s Two Mules for Sister Sara and had to withdraw.

Following Siegel’s departure, Brian G. Hutton signed on to direct Kelly’s Heroes. Eastwood, who’d already signed a contract to appear in the film, couldn’t pull out.

The man behind “Burning Bridges” held another important role

Mike Curb looking to the side
Mike Curb. (Photo Credit: ABC Television / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Mike Curb, the lyricist behind “Burning Bridges,” wasn’t just a famed musician and composer. He also served as the lieutenant governor of California between 1978-82, and as of 2023 is the last Republican to have served in the role.

Sgt. Oddball carries the wrong sidearm

Donald Sutherland as Sgt. Oddball in 'Kelly's Heroes'
Kelly’s Heroes, 1970. (Photo Credit: moe / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / MovieStillsDB)

Throughout Kelly’s Heroes, you’ll notice Sgt. Oddball carries a Luger P08 “Parabellum semiautomatic pistol, despite the weapon only being in service in Switzerland and Germany. An American serviceman wouldn’t have had such a weapon assigned to him.

Kelly’s Heroes wasn’t always titled as such

Still from 'Kelly's Heroes'
Kelly’s Heroes, 1970. (Photo Credit: Hope72 / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / MovieStillsDB)

Prior to Kelly’s Heroes hitting theaters, it underwent a number of changes. Approximately 20 minutes of footage was cut by MGM studio boos James T. Aubrey, and the movie was even renamed, with the original title being The Warriors. In post-production, it was retitled Kelly’s Warriors, before the decision was ultimately made to go with Kelly’s Heroes.

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In later interviews, Clint Eastwood revealed how disappointed he was in how the film was recut, as many of the deleted scenes gave the characters much more depth. Some were still shown on promotional stills and were described by the cast and crew in Cinema Retro‘s special edition article about Kelly’s Heroes.