This war movie borders on farcical at times. Kelly, played by Clint Eastwood is part of a platoon that has been on the front lines of the war since D-Day. Fed up with their captain and the army in general the platoon decides to follow Kelly on his plan to steal 16 million dollars-worth of Nazi gold 30 miles behind the front lines. Given three days for rest, the platoon bribes their way into supplies and get an artillery raid scheduled to cover their push. To get through the lines they have to bring a half mad hippy named Oddball and his crew of Sherman tanks. Oddball in turn brings an entire military engineer crew to get across a river. All of this activity eventually draws the attention of the higher ups.
From the beginning, the sergeant in charge of the platoon was reluctant. He knew it would be dangerous, and genuinely cared for his men, but as they pointed out, they were just as likely to get killed when they went back to the front, and they wouldn’t be paid nearly as well. This movie is something of a pointed joke at the expense of the military higher-ups that don’t see that much action, but expect soldiers to continue laying down their lives. The radio transmissions of the platoon are intercepted by an over-the-top gung-ho general that believes that some enterprising band of men is pushing through German lines in an effort to be heroes. That’s the point of the name, it’s ironic. The sergeant tells the men they’d have to be heroes, and the last time he checked “there were no heroes in this platoon.”
This movie examines, sometimes somberly, mostly humorously the misperceptions people have about wars and about the soldier that fight them. These men are definitely not heroes in any sense. They are deliberately breaking laws and ignoring orders in the pursuit of gold. But as they put it, why shouldn’t they? They have been fighting on the front lines in an extremely deadly and gruesome war without any rest. They are poorly paid, low on supplies, and generally fed up with their captain that leaves them behind to work on a ridiculous project (he can do this because he is the general’s nephew).
Kelly’s story is much darker than his platoons. Originally a lieutenant, Kelly was ordered to attack a position that was already held by Americans. With fifty dead from friendly fire the powers that be used him as a scape goat. This abuse and callousness towards the lower ranks is exactly what the movie mocks. The general rails at his staff, asking why no one else had managed to pull off this kind of forward movement. He immediately mobilizes his army to the spot where Kelly broke through. He arrives in a freed Clairemont surrounded by cheering French citizens while the platoon drives away with 16 million dollars of gold bars. The general plays the fool, while this front line platoon gets to go home rich.
Not everyone got to go home though. The fact is, they were in a war zone. Men were lost. These harsh realities are balanced against the humorous side of the movie. In the end, I don’t know that if given the option of going home or attempting this that the men would have done it. They were already going back to the front though, and so the reward far outweighed their risk. Finally, they got some kind of compensation for all the friends they lost, and maybe that was what they were after all along.