War, Robbery, & Gold: Behind-The-Scenes Facts About The 1970 Film Kelly’s Heroes

In 1970, Brian G. Hutton’s war film Kelly’s Heroes was released on the silver screen. Starring Clint Eastwood, Donald Sutherland, Don Rickles, Carroll O’Connor, and Telly Savalas, the movie was a hit.

But there are still some little-known facts about the World War II soldiers who rob a bank that even the biggest fans don’t know. From the fictional robbery going down in the Guinness Book of Records to Donald Sutherland’s wife getting in a bit of trouble during filming, here are some facts about Kelly’s Heroes.

Donald Sutherland Contracted Spinal Meningitis

Donald Sutherland Contracted Spinal Meningitis
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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Actor Donald Sutherland traveled to the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia for one day of filming. Unfortunately, that one day would see him out and in a hospital for the next six weeks. While filming, Sutherland contracted spinal meningitis, a serious ailment that left him in a coma due to a lack of antibiotics.

During an interview with the Irish Examiner, Sutherland recalled the experience, saying, “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.” Thankfully, he made a full recovery.

The Filming Location Wasn’t “Historically Accurate”

The Filming Location Wasn't
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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Considering Kelly’s Heroes is a film set in the landscape of World War II Europe, one would think it was actually filmed in some cities in countries like Italy, Poland, or even France. But it is the movies, and not everything is as it seems, including the filming location for this 1970s war film.

The movie Kelly’s Heroes was actually filmed in a nation that no longer exists, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Not exactly historically accurate for this particular World War II film, but it worked out!

The Guinness Book Of World Records Recognized The Robbery

The Guinness Book Of World Records Recognized The Robbery
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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Written by Troy Kennedy Martin, Kelly’s Heroes was loosely based on “The Greatest Robbery on Record,” something featured in The Guinness Book of World Records from 1956 to 2000. Committed by United States military personnel and German civilians, the heist took place at the German National Gold Reserves in 1945.

Taking an estimated $2.5 billion in gold, the heist was subsequently covered up by the United States government. Even so, it still made its place in history as one of the greatest robberies on record (and it was the greatest for a few years!).

There Were Reasons For Filming In The Socialist Federal Republic Of Yugoslavia

There Were Reasons For Filming In The Socialist Federal Republic Of Yugoslavia
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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

There were two reasons why the filmmakers opted to shoot in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and not someplace historically accurate, such as France, Italy, or Poland. The first reason was that the Yugoslavian Army still had a solid number of Sherman tanks at their disposal, equipment Kelly’s Heroes wanted to use as props.

The second reason was money. By law, movie studios within the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia could not profit from movie screenings. That meant the film had more money to work with during production, as they didn’t need to worry about paying off third parties.

Clint Eastwood Only Took The Job On One Condition

Clint Eastwood Only Took The Job On One Condition
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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The film Kelly’s Heroes has a lot of big names on its roster, but one name, in particular, stands out among the rest, Clint Eastwood. One of the biggest stars in Hollywood at the time, Eastwood was in a position where he could make “demands” if filmmakers wanted him to star in their projects.

In this case, Eastwood wouldn’t consider taking on the role of Pvt. Kelly unless his friend Don Siegel directed. It was agreed. Unfortunately, more than one issue popped up during post-production of Siegel’s latest project, and he had to bow out of Kelly’s Heroes. Eastwood had already signed his contract, though.

The Plot Is Loosely Based On A True US Cover-Up

The Plot Is Loosely Based On A True US Cover-Up
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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

While Kelly’s Heroes might seem like a far-fetched fictional war story, it’s actually loosely based on a factual tale. After a nine-year investigation, Ian Sayer uncovered the truth of a theft involving the US military and Wehrmacht and SS officers, covered up by the US government.

The theft in question was of Reichsbank’s gold, an estimated $2.5 billion in gold bars. Sayer’s findings were published in the book he co-wrote with Douglas Botting, Nazi Gold — The Sensational Story of the World’s Greatest Robbery — and the Greatest Criminal Cover-Up.

A Producer Came In A Changed The Script

A Producer Came In A Changed The Script
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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Originally, Kelly’s Heroes was supposed to be a comedy, a family-friendly adventure war film that was supposed to pull a few laughs from viewers while also showcasing a few horrors of war. The big kicker was no one died. That is, until a producer came in, flung some money around, and changed up the script.

Director Brian G. Hutton fought the producer for as long as possible, but, in the end, he had to give in to the changes. The changes being three of the United States servicemen die in action. So much for family-friendly.

There’s A Hint As To Where Their Characters Are From

There's A Hint As To Where Their Characters Are From
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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The rag-tag group of soldiers who go AWOL to rob gold don’t exactly tell one another where they are from in the United States. They’re more interested in staying alive and becoming rich. But something in Kelly’s Heroes does give their home state away.

On each of the characters, a blue crosshair shoulder patch indicates that they are all from the 35th Infantry Division. This specific division of the National Guard includes men from Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri.

Eastwood Didn’t Like The Final Cut

Eastwood Didn't Like The Final Cut
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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Reading the script, Clint Eastwood enjoyed the way Kelly’s Heroes approached the idea of anti-militaristic mentalities within men who were, in fact, part of the military. But then the final cut came through, and Eastwood was not happy with the edits.

The actor felt as though the studio edited out some important parts dealing with character development, something that could have been very interesting and added some depth to the character’s going AWOL from their companies.

A Soon-To-Be Famous Director Has An Uncredited Role

A Soon-To-Be Famous Director Has An Uncredited Role
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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

In a “blink in you’ll miss it” moment, eagle-eyed viewers who have seen Kelly’s Heroes might have noticed a younger director on screen. Not yet famous, director and actor John Landis can be seen dressed in drag as Sister Rosa Stigmata.

His role is uncredited, but he told anyone who would listen that, one day, he would make it big in Hollywood. Landis even told Donald Sutherland, who, in turn, told the young director that if he ever made it big, he would come to work on one of his films. Eventually, Sutherland made good on the promise, working on projects such as Animal House and The Kentucky Fried Movie.

Sutherland’s Wife Got Into A Bit Of Trouble

Sutherland's Wife Got Into A Bit Of Trouble
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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

During his near-death experience, Donald Sutherland’s then-wife, Shirley Douglas, traveled to the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to be with her husband. After he made a full recovery, though, she didn’t hop back on an airplane. Instead, she found herself in a little bit of trouble.

While she was still in the country, Shirley allegedly attempted to purchase illegal hand explosives for a particular militant group in the United States. She was caught by an undercover FBI agent when she tried to hand him a personal check!

20 Minutes Was Cut From The Film

20 Minutes Was Cut From The Film
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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

By the time Kelly’s Heroes hit the silver screen, MGM had cut roughly 20 minutes of footage. Interestingly, some of the cut footage was used on promotional reels but didn’t make it to the final film. In the end, a total of eight scenes were cut.

One of the deleted footage includes Kelly driving away at the end of the film, with soldiers yelling that he’s driving in the wrong direction. Another showcased production designer John Barry as a British airman during the attack on the town.

There Was Almost A Sister In This Rag-Tag Band Of Brothers

There Was Almost A Sister In This Rag-Tag Band Of Brothers
Len Trievnor/Express/Getty Images
Len Trievnor/Express/Getty Images

Kelly’s Heroes might focus on a rag-tag team of AWOL male soldiers, but there was almost a sister in their band of brothers group. In the original script, actress Ingrid Pitt was cast as the lone female of the group. But right before principal filming began, the part was cut.

According to Pitt, she was virtually stepping foot on the airplane bound for the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia when she got the call telling her she no longer had a part in the film.

Michelin Tourist Guide Books Were Historically Accurate

Michelin Tourist Guide Books Were Historically Accurate
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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

One of the first scenes in Kelly’s Heroes shows Telly Savalas’ Big Joe looking at a Michelin tourist guide book of France. It might seem comical, a soldier looking at a guidebook in the middle of a war, but it’s actually historically accurate. During World War II, troops were worried the axis forces would remove or reverse road signs, confusing the Allies.

So, to remove all worry, the United States government mass-printed the 1939 Michelin guide. The book proved very useful during the invasion of Normandy and the rest of the war.

A Nod To Hogan’s Heroes

A Nod To Hogan's Heroes
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

From 1965 until 1971, a popular World War II-era sitcom, Hogan’s Heroes, aired on television. And what would Kelly’s Heroes be if it didn’t nod to the series? Eagle-eye viewers and fans of the series might have noticed the brief reference to the series, aside from the similar titles.

In one scene, Sgt. Crapgame calls “Hogan in Intelligence.” This references Hogan’s Heroes title character, Colonel Robert Hogan. In the series, he sets up a covert intelligence network.

Donald Sutherland Loved His Character, Oddball

Donald Sutherland Loved His Character, Oddball
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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Donald Sutherland had every reason to want to forget his time filming Kelly’s Heroes, including contract spinal meningitis and his then-wife getting arrested by an undercover FBI agent. But, as it turns out, he enjoyed his time on set! He loved portraying the character of Oddball and wouldn’t have changed it for the world.

During an interview, Sutherland discussed his experience on set, saying, “I thought it was a terrific script. Oddball took over my life. He inhabited me… I was in love with my Sherman tank…He was exactly who he was, and he carried me with him all the way through the six months of shooting.”

Filming Was Like Pseudo-Summer Camp For The Guys

Filming Was Like Pseudo-Summer Camp For The Guys
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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

With more than one big name starring in Kelly’s Heroes, it wouldn’t have been the biggest surprise if the actors were divas. But that wasn’t the case for the men working on the film. In fact, according to Donald Sutherland, they all had a blast!

During an interview with Military Times, Sutherland recalled his time on set, saying, “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. That’s what it was like 24/7.”

The German Tiger Tank Commander Is A Parody

The German Tiger Tank Commander Is A Parody
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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

One of the more memorable characters in Kelly’s Heroes is Karl-Otto Alberty’s German Tiger tank commander, solely because of his confrontation with the main group of soldiers. But viewers might have noticed his character is somewhat familiar.

That’s because the German Tiger tank commander is a parody of Marlon Brando’s German Lieutenant, Christian Diestl, in the film The Young Lions. From the way the German tank commander talks to the way he looks, the character is very similar to that of the 1958 character.

Swedish Superfans Recreated The Infamous Robbery

Swedish Superfans Recreated The Infamous Robbery
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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Kelly’s Heroes acquired a lot of fans, some of which lived in Sweden. In the ’90s, these “superfans” actually went through a lot of trouble to recreate a lifelike model of the town where the infamous robbery in the film goes down. But things didn’t exactly go as planned.

Wanting to get the village as accurate as possible, the designers hired a pilot to take aerial images of the modern-day Croatian town. Well, the Croatian authorities didn’t appreciate the fly-by, thinking the people taking pictures were actually spies. Whoops.

Clint Eastwood Had A Fleeting Music Career

Clint Eastwood Had A Fleeting Music Career
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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

During one scene of Kelly’s Heroes, actor Clint Eastwood shows that he’s not a one-trick pony when he sings “Burning Bridges,” the film’s theme song. Interestingly, Eastwood’s version of The Mike Curb Congregation song was produced by Allen Reynolds and Dickey Lee at Certron Records and released on vinyl.

The B-side of the record featured another song by Eastwood, “When I Loved Her,” written by Kris Kristofferson. Who knew the actor had such a soul for music!