Toxic Masculinity Tuesday: Donald Sutherland’s ‘Kelly’s Heroes’ & ‘The Dirty Dozen’


The passing of Donald Sutherland reminded me that he had the unique distinction to star in two of the most abjectly toxically masculine movies ever printed on film.  I am referring of course to The Dirty Dozen and Kelly’s Heroes.


It is true that Sutherland’s part in The Dirty Dozen is somewhat small, his best moment being his impersonation of an Army general, but that’s to be expected.  After all, when your co-stars include Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson and a psychotic Telly Savalas, there’s not much room for anyone else.


Arguably, it was one of Sutherland’s great strengths that he could dominate a scene and also merely fill in some of the gaps.  His dramatic range was immense, and during this period he was in high demand because of it.  He could be a reporter, professor, soldier, detective and even a ruthless Nazi spy.



A Mother Beautiful Bridge

This brings us to Kelly’s Heroes, which I would argue is the better film.  Certainly, the attention to detail is first-rate.  A screwball comedy like this could have phoned it in with the props, but Yugoslavia had tons of working Sherman tanks, so why not use them?


The same is true with the character of Oddball.  On the surface, he’s a proto-hippie screwup, shirking duty, growing out his hair and spouting New Age nonsense.


Sutherland plays that part to the hilt, but he also flips back into Oddball’s other side – a seasoned combat veteran with a keen understanding of tactics.  The discourse on the tank modifications is great – funny but also historically accurate.  American tank crews were famous for field modifications, and hot-rodding engines to run beyond spec was a thing.  Similarly, American crews learned to use deception and unconventional munitions to outwit their foes.


One of the (many) things Hollywood has lost is the sense of man’s duality (comically illustrated by trying to censor “Born to Kill” from Full Metal Jacket’s promotional art).  Real men are not stone-faced remorseless killers nor are they whiny little bitches – there is a balance that contemporary writer and actors completely miss.


Sutherland captured that perfectly.  One moment he’s talking about digging beauty and hope, and then next he’s hosing down German troops – and providing his own soundtrack while doing so.



Reality Check

Both films also highlight the fact that while there were many heroes in the WW II generation, they were not all saints.  The Dirty Dozen highlights and ugly truth – not everyone who filled out America’s vast conscript army wanted to be there or should have been in it.  The U.S. drafted 14 million men and had 1 million judicial cases against them (some servicemen getting more than one).  Fun fact: the much-derided Good Conduct Medal was instituted to try to cut down on chronic instances of insubordination and neglect of duty.  


The same is true with Kelly’s Heroes.  Yes, our boys liberated Western Europe.  They also carried home every firearm they could find.  I think it says something that there is an entire sector of the economy that is built around servicing captured enemy weapons – springs, magazines, firing pins, you name it.  Kelly’s men just take it to the next level.  Far from smearing the good guys, it simply makes them more realistic.



An interesting contrast to Sutherland is Telly Savalas, who also featured in both films.  Savalas’ turn in The Dirty Dozen is creepy as hell, while his Big Joe helps anchor Kelly’s Heroes, providing the necessary professional military contrast to Oddball. 


If you aren’t familiar with these films, you should be.  Shave your head or grow your beard, but just don’t come at us with negative waves. 




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A.H. Lloyd

Best-selling author and curmudgeon. Retired senior NCO. Read my other insights at and buy my brilliant books.