Donald Sutherland’s off-beat, counter-cultural roles reflected his leftwing politics

Donald Sutherland’s off-beat, counter-cultural roles reflected his leftwing politics

Donald Sutherland, who died on June 20 aged 88, was few people’s idea of a classically handsome Hollywood actor. When he asked his mother if he was good-looking, she replied: “No, but your face has a lot of character.”

He didn’t let his unconventional looks deter him despite being rejected for a film role with the cutting remark: “This part calls for a guy-next-door type. You don’t look like you’ve lived next door to anyone.”

If anything, Sutherland used his looks to his advantage, bringing his offbeat character to his many onscreen roles that spanned six decades. These roles revealed a wide range, an elasticity that made him somewhat of a chameleon, albeit a sardonic, non-conformist one. He used it to great effect in a series of anti-establishment and countercultural movies that reflected his leftwing politics.

From the early 1960s through to the 2000s, Sutherland appeared in some of the most iconic if unconventional films of the second half of the 20th century. Those of us born in the late 1960s and early 1970s will remember growing up with Sutherland. I recall watching him in war films such as The Dirty Dozen (1967), Kelly’s Heroes (1970) and The Eagle Has Landed (1976).

It was in The Dirty Dozen that Sutherland first came to the attention of many filmgoers, when he played one of the convicted sociopaths recruited for a suicide commando mission during World War II. His character had almost no lines until the director Robert Aldrich, who didn’t even know his name, told Sutherland to replace another actor, shouting: “You with the big ears — you do it!”

And when Sutherland masquerades as a “plain, ordinary, everyday, home-lovin’ American general”, he steals the show by playing his commanding officer’s instructions to the letter: “Just walk slow, act dumb and look stupid.”

Sutherland’s anarchic attitude towards the military hierarchy continued with his role in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H in 1970. It may not have been the first anti-military movie of the period (that honour belongs to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove in 1964) but it is perhaps one of the most remembered.

As the wisecracking womaniser Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce Jr, a combat physician in a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean war, Sutherland helped elevate this thinly disguised attack on the contemporary Vietnam war into a work of art. As an expert in US history on film, and how film can be used to study history, I regularly use this film in my classes.

The following year, in Klute, he played the private detective John Klute. In that role, Sutherland helped to kickstart the first in director Alan J. Pakula’s paranoia trilogy (The Parallax View and All the President’s Men being the other two) which anticipated the growing feeling of mistrust and suspicion of the government, typified by the administration of Richard Nixon.

On the set of that film, he met and began an affair with his co-star Jane Fonda and they went on to become the leading leftwing couple of the era, appearing in an anti-Vietnam war documentary together. In 2017, documents released by the US government revealed that Sutherland, a Canadian by birth, had been on the National Security Agency’s “watchlist” from 1971 to 1973.

A rich second act

In his mid-forties, Sutherland did a cameo turn in National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) as the cynical, pot-addled academic-novelist who’s only teaching to pay the rent while he completes his magnum opus. Here we see him channel the spirit of M*A*S*H as he encourages his students to get high, passing on the baton to a new generation of countercultural activists.

The twist ending of Philip Kaufman’s 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers – one of those few remakes that arguably surpasses the original – is made unforgettable by the contortion of Sutherland’s screaming face as he reveals (spoiler alert) that he too is a victim, having been transformed into another conformist pod person – all the more shocking because on and off set he was anything but.

Sutherland in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978).
Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy

In 1991, he took on another cameo role as Mr X, an anonymous government informant in noted leftwing filmmaker Oliver Stone’s JFK, an attempt to uncover the truth behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Sutherland only appears in one scene but it is a crucial one where he delivers a lengthy monologue implicating the CIA, FBI, Lyndon B. Johnson, the mafia, and the US Secret Service in a massive conspiracy to kill Kennedy because of his desire to withdraw from the Vietnam War.

Continuing the activism of his film roles, between 2012 and 2015, Sutherland played dictator president Coriolanus Snow, the principal antagonist of The Hunger Games film franchise. He asked to appear in the original film because he saw in its political themes a similarity to Stanley Kubrick’s anti-military movie Paths of Glory (1957). He saw his role as an opportunity to encourage younger viewers to organise for change.

One film stands out from the others, but not for its leftwing politics. That film is 1973’s Don’t Look Now in 1973, a psychological study in grief resulting from the death of a child. Sutherland’s performance set against the backdrop of a claustrophobic Venice turns the film into a gothic horror masterpiece that, just like his numerous performances, haunts the viewer long after the credits have rolled.

The post “Donald Sutherland’s off-beat, counter-cultural roles reflected his leftwing politics” by Nathan Abrams, Professor of Film Studies, Bangor University was published on 06/26/2024 by