In World War II, Kelly (Clint Eastwood), a former lieutenant who has been demoted to private as a scapegoat following a disastrous assault some time earlier, captures Colonel Dankhopf of German Intelligence.
When Kelly notices his prisoner has a gold bar in his briefcase, he gets him drunk to try to get information about the gold.Before he is killed by an attacking German Tiger tank, the drunken Dankhopf blurts out that there is a cache of 14,000 gold bars (worth $16 million) stored in a bank vault 30 miles behind enemy lines in the town of Clermont.
Kelly recruits the rest of his platoon, including skeptical Master Sergeant “Big Joe” (Telly Savalas), to sneak off and steal the gold. Eventually, others have to be recruited into the scheme, such as an opportunistic supply sergeant “Crapgame” (Don Rickles); and a proto-hippie Sherman tank commander, “Oddball” (Donald Sutherland) – who spouts a number of counter-culture lines such as “Always with the negative waves.” A number of stereotypical G.I.s are presented as competent but war-weary veterans who are as much fed up with their incompetent or self-serving superiors as they are with the Germans.
The expedition successfully breaks through a German-held town during a mortar barrage that has been arranged by Kelly. They then meet bad fortune when an American fighter plane mistakes Kelly’s group for the enemy, shooting up their vehicles and destroying them with rockets, forcing them to continue on foot, and three of their number die in a subsequent skirmish in and around a minefield. Meanwhile, Oddball’s tanks sneak and battle their way through the German lines, but their route is blocked when the last large bridge to Clermont is blown up by Allied bombers, prompting Oddball to let a bridge engineering unit in on the deal. When intercepted radio messages of the private raid are brought to the attention of gung-ho American Major General Colt (Caroll O’Connor), he misinterprets them as the efforts of aggressive patriots pushing forward on their own initiative and immediately rushes to the front line to exploit the “breakthrough”.
Kelly’s men race to reach Clermont before their own army. There, they find it defended by three formidable Tiger I tanks with infantry support. The Americans are able to dispatch two of the Tigers and most of the German infantry, but as they prepare to take on the last tank, which is parked right in front of the bank, Oddball’s last Sherman breaks down and cannot be repaired. Powerless to defeat the heavily-armored behemoth, on Crapgame’s suggestion Kelly offers the German tank commander (who was unaware of the bank vault’s contents) a share of the loot. After the Tiger blows the bank doors off, the assembled crew finds the gold cache. After dividing the loot, the men go their separate ways, just managing to avoid meeting the still-oblivious Colt, who is delayed by celebrating town residents.
Directed by: Brian G. Hutton
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Donald Sutherland, Carroll O’Connor
Released: June 23, 1970 (U.S.)
Running time: 143 minutes