Donald Sutherland’s Oddball history: how true was Kelly’s Heroes?

Donald Sutherland and Clint Eastwood in Kelly's Heroes
Donald Sutherland and Clint Eastwood in Kelly's Heroes - Alamy

Donald Sutherland was on an early hot streak in his career when he agreed to play maverick tank commander Oddball in Clint Eastwood’s Second World War heist movie, Kelly’s Heroes.

He’d just come off another military black comedy, M*A*S*H, and was told that when Robert Altman’s Korean War satire was released, there was a good chance it would make him star. In the meantime, he was advised to pick a role he liked. The time might soon come when his Hollywood profile would make it difficult to choose smaller parts – which is when Oddball entered the story.

“I’d just finished M*A*S*H, and my beloved producer Ingo Preminger [who shepherded M*A*S*H to the screen] told me my life was going to change when it came out,” Sutherland revealed in a 2020 interview with Military Times, a magazine for America’s armed forces. “So I figured maybe I’d not get a chance to play this kind of a fellow again.”

When it reached cinemas in June 1970, Kelly’s Heroes was panned as an unsatisfying mash-up of action and comedy. “Supposed to be zany and funny – it isn’t,” said New York Magazine of the film, in which Sutherland and Eastwood lead a rag-tag of disillusioned US infantrymen on a daring raid to recover stolen Nazi gold from behind German lines in the final months of the war.

“Depresses the mind and bewilders the imagination,” agreed the New York Times, which criticised as anachronistic Sutherland’s portrayal of Oddball as a hippy marooned in 1944 (“Why don’t you knock it off with them negative waves? Why don’t you dig how beautiful it is out here?”).

But time would prove the critics wrong, and Kelly’s Heroes is today regarded as a classic war flick – and a showcase for the under-appreciated comedic skills and chaotic charm of Sutherland, who has died aged 88.

In the movie, Sutherland is the perfect foil for Eastwood’s taciturn Kelly – the latter a former lieutenant demoted to private after his superiors order him to attack the wrong hill and his platoon is wiped out. A smile never darkens Eastwood’s lips throughout the film –while Sutherland seems to stifle giggles from the moment Oddball is introduced, eavesdropping from a bunk-bed on the plan by Kelly and his co-conspirator Crapgame (Don Rickles) to seize the Nazi gold.

“You could probably use some armour,” says Oddball, who reveals he has three Sherman tanks at his disposal (his commander is dead, but Oddball has no intention of informing his superiors, as they would send him back to the frontline).

“I loved Oddball. Adored him,” Sutherland told Military Times, adding that he found Troy Kennedy Martin’s script “hysterically funny”.

Don Rickles, Clint Eastwood and Donald Sutherland in Kelly's Heroes
Don Rickles, Clint Eastwood and Donald Sutherland in Kelly's Heroes

It wasn’t all laughs during the shoot in Yugoslavia however. Sutherland almost died after contracting meningitis on set and going into a coma. “I got sick in the middle of shooting Kelly’s Heroes… I was out for six weeks,” he would say. “They took me to hospital – 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. I saw the blue tunnel, and I started going down it. I saw the white light. I dug my feet in.”

There were further complications when, back in Los Angeles, Sutherland’s wife Shirley Douglas was arrested by the FBI  and charged with conspiracy to possess unregistered explosives in relation to her support for the Black Panthers.

As she was led away, her lawyers wondered how they would contact her husband, who was off working in the Balkans. A message was eventually relayed to a colleague. He agreed to pass on details of Douglas’s detention.

Clint Eastwood came walking out of the sun like it was a spaghetti western and said, ‘I have some bad news for you. Your wife’s been arrested,’” Donald Sutherland would later remember.

“For buying hand grenades. From an undercover agent of the FBI. With a personal cheque,” he recalled Eastwood saying. “And when he got to the personal cheque he started laughing so hard he fell to the ground. I had to help him back up.”

An original poster for Kelly's Heroes
An original poster for Kelly's Heroes - Alamy

Sutherland and Douglas had married in 1966. They had two young children, Rachel and Kiefer, but would divorce in 1970, not long after he shipped back from Yugoslavia. It can’t have been the easiest period for Sutherland. He was returning to marital turmoil having spent much of 1969 sitting in a Yugoslav People’s Army Sherman Tank in the withering heat of Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula.

But then, making Kelly’s Heroes was not a particularly happy experience for any of the cast and crew. Croatia was remote and oppressively warm, except when it was swept by downpours And the filming seemed never to end.

“Bad weather, mishaps with pyrotechnics and the… enormous number of extras made for complicated logistics, and to [Eastwood’s] particular irritation, the shoot went on and on and on,” wrote David Sterritt in the Cinema of Clint Eastwood: Chronicles of America. And yet somehow from this upheaval and unhappiness emerged a beloved Second World War romp.

Kelly’s Heroes was loosely based on the true story of a hunt for Nazi gold undertaken as Allied Forces swept towards Germany at the end of the war. Verisimilitude, however, was not a priority for director Brian G Hutton. Where the original heist was rumoured to have occurred in Bavaria, now the location was north-eastern France, near Nancy.

Clint Eastwood on the set of Kelly's Heroes
Clint Eastwood on the set of Kelly's Heroes - Getty

The gold becomes an obsession for Eastwood’s Private Kelly. Taking advantage of the US military’s shambolic command structure, he leads a mechanised reconnaissance platoon of the 35th Infantry Division into Nazis lines in search of the loot. They laugh, they cry, they have a close encounter with a trio of indestructible Tiger Tanks.

Kelly’s Heroes is a mess but an endearing one. Under pressure from MGM, Hutton had made sure to include plenty of cartoon Nazis and blazing gun fights. As the New York Times pointed out in 1970s, Sutherland’s tank-commander, Oddball is a hippy adrift in the wrong time period. The wise-cracking tough guy quotient is ticked by co-stars Telly Savalas, comedian Don Rickles and Harry Dean Stanton (billed as Dean Staunton).

Never more taciturn, Eastwood, for his part, appears to have settled for parodying his Man with No Name character from Sergio Leone.

With its portrayal of the US military as a two-ring circus, the movie is, moreover, clearly coloured by American experiences in Vietnam in the late Sixties. Yet, and to Eastwood’s regret, Kelly’s Heroes ultimately found its audience not as social commentary but as rifles at dawn escapism.

“It is a Sixties film with Sixties attitudes, dialogue and even looks,” says Dr. Mark Felton, military historian, author and creator of the YouTube channel Mark Felton Productions. “For example, Oddball is wrong on several levels. Firstly, beards are not allowed in the US Army and any look at photos of soldiers in combat shows them clean-shaven or stubbly, but never with full face beards.

The cast of Kelly's Heroes
The cast of Kelly's Heroes - Getty

“He is essentially a hippy in uniform, and such people didn’t exist until the Sixties. The lax uniform regulations are again inaccurate, and nearly all of the actors are about 10 to 20 years too old.”

Little about Kelly’s Heroes sat well with Eastwood. Having belatedly recognised Vietnam as a disaster he signed on to the project under the impression he would be spinning an anti-war parable in the vein of Catch 22 or Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (the latter would trounce Kelly’s Heroes at the box office the following year). But then came upheavals at MGM and a decision from on high to pivot away from artier projects.

Halfway to the ends of the earth in Croatia, Eastwood could feel the film he’d agreed to make slipping away before his eyes. Anti-war satire was out, came the word from on-high. In place of a gonzo meditation on the madness of conflict, Hutton – with whom Eastwood had worked on 1968’s Where Eagles Dare –  had new orders: to churn out a rough ’n ready action flick.

“It was a very fine anti-militaristic script, one that said some important things about the war, about this propensity that man has to destroy himself,” is how Eastwood characterised the initial incarnation of Kelly’s Heroes. “In the editing, the scenes that put the debate in philosophical terms were cut and they kept adding action scenes. When it was finished, the picture had lost its soul. If action and reflection had been better balanced, it would have reached a much broader audience.

“I don’t know if the studio exercised pressure on the director or if it was the director who lost his vision along the way, but I know that the picture would have been far superior if there hadn’t been this attempt to satisfy action fans at any cost. And it would have been just as spectacular and attractive. It’s not an accident that some action movies work and others don’t. What makes the difference is the quality of the writing.”

Donald Sutherland as Oddball in Kelly's Heroes
Donald Sutherland as Oddball in Kelly's Heroes - Getty

Eastwood was underwhelmed, to put it mildly. As were audiences, with Kelly’s Heroes only a moderate hit on release (its US gross of $5.2 million was the 25th highest of 1970). Yet with time its fortunes would change. By the end of the Seventies, the movie had joined the pantheon of Second World War classics.

True, it may fall short of the iconic status of The Dam Busters or The Great Escape. Nonetheless, Kelly’s Heroes is loved for what it is: a big, silly war film. It helped that it had a cracking theme tune in the Mamas and Papas-esque Burning Bridges, penned by composer Mike Curb and his supergroup the Mike Curb Congregation.

Curb had written the song around the time he became president of MGM Records in 1969. He would, in the latter capacity, soon prove a controversial figure. In 1971 he ordered the label to drop 18 acts who “promote and exploit hard drugs through music”. Among those receiving the tap on the shoulder were Lou Reed’s Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. Encouraged by Ronald Reagan, Curb later entered politics, serving as Lieutenant Governor of California.

But if Curb’s trajectory was unlikely it was as nothing compared to the true life story from which Kelly’s Heroes allegedly took inspiration.

“The basis for the film is the disappearance of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of gold bullion and foreign currency that was evacuated from the Reichsbank in Berlin to Bavaria and Austria at war’s end,” explains Felton. “The US Third Army captured the bulk of the German gold and currency reserves at Merkers [in central Germany] in April 1945, but many more smaller stashes were discovered all over the region in the immediate postwar period.

“A minority of a few corrupt officers and men on the US Occupation Government in Bavaria who were tasked with collecting and collating this material stole many millions in gold and currency, and it has never been recovered. They did not represent the majority working in the occupation administration, but there was so much gold and other valuables around that it was quite easy to siphon off small amounts for themselves.”

Friendly fire is a constant danger for Kelly and his men as they bear down on German lines and all that gleaming Nazi gold. Ironically, the film itself was derailed by sustained shelling from the studio. Eastwood had already signed up when MGM fell into the clutches of casino owner and corporate raider Kirk Kerkorian (who, flying with RAF Command, had helped transport de Havilland Mosquitos across the Atlantic during the War). Grand epics such as Doctor Zhivago and 2001: A Space Odyssey had cost it a fortune. Kerkorian was determined to stanch the bleeding.

To that end, he hired former CBS television boss James Aubrey as head of production (at CBS his achievements included commissioning The Beverly Hillbillies). Aubrey was respected around Hollywood but not liked. Producer John Houseman once called him “a smiling cobra”. In the summer of 1969 he was spitting venom in the direction of Kelly’s Heroes – then still shooting under its original name of The Warriors.

Aubrey’s first decision was to cut a female role to be played by Polish-British actress Ingrid Pitt (she was about to leave for Europe when the call came through). And he pushed Hutton to lean into the gung-ho elements of the script. He also insisted the film’s title be changed from The Warriors to Kelly’s Heroes. And he cut a crucial sequence in which Kelly and Sgt “Big Joe” (Savalas) discuss the futility of war.

Eastwood went back and forth in his feelings for the movie. For instance, when footage was accidentally exposed and thus rendered unusable en route to the editing suite, Hutton begged his star to stay on for reshoots.

But Kelly demurred and was soon en route to Baton Rogue to make The Beguiled (later remade by Sofia Coppola), in which he was involved behind the scenes via his Malpaso production company. On the other hand, he obviously cared enough to beseech Aubrey to give him 12 hours to recut Kelly’s Heroes and restore some of its seriousness – a request the studio head rejected on the spot.

Donald Sutherland and Don Rickles in Kelly's Heroes
Donald Sutherland and Don Rickles in Kelly's Heroes - Getty

And yet, despite this dumbing down, Kelly’s Heroes was in several broad aspects truthful to the experience of the fighting post D-Day and the widespread disillusionment among American forces.

“The film takes place in late September 1944 by which time a lot of US frontline troops – infantry especially – had grown resentful that so many of their comrades in rear area units, such as supplies, logistics, intelligence, military police etc, weren’t pulling their weight and were living in comparative luxury while they got the short end of the stick and suffered pretty much all the casualties,” says Jonathan Trigg, historian and author of To VE Day Through German Eyes: The Final Defeat of Nazi Germany.

“In total some 21,000 American soldiers were tried for desertion during the war, the vast majority in Europe. By the autumn of 1944 it was becoming a real problem, so much so that Private Eddie Slovik from Detroit became the first US serviceman since the American Civil War to be executed for desertion. He deserted in early October 1944 and was shot by firing squad in January 1945, with Eisenhower himself confirming the execution order.”

Kelly’s Heroes got another thing right. When Kelly informs his co-conspirators that their Nazi gold is guarded by three Tiger Tanks they turn pale (the tanks we see on screen are actually modified Soviet T-34s). In real life troops were terrified of the hulking war machines (in the end Kelly’s solution is to convince the German crews to share in the plunder).

“The Tiger I was superior to every tank the Anglo-Americans had, apart from the British Sherman Firefly which was only available in small numbers. It was especially superior to the M4 Sherman which is what Oddball and his men drove in the film,” says Trigg.

“The Tiger’s gun – the 88mm – was a superb weapon, being capable of destroying a Sherman at 2,000m range, whereas – as in the film – the Sherman’s only hope of killing a Tiger was to hit it from behind or, if very lucky, from the side, where its armour was weakest. The Tiger had such a psychological impact on Anglo-American troops that they tended to describe every German tank they came across as a Tiger, and the phenomenon was called ‘Tiger fright.’”

Still, nobody should watch Kelly’s Heroes expecting an authentic depiction of the Western front, says Mark Felton, who cites Band of Brothers as a more truthful portrayal of the experiences of American GIs.

“[Kelly’s Heroes] is inaccurate on so many levels, but here are a few of my favourites,” he says. “Hollywood rifles and machine guns never have to be reloaded and the rate of fire of Kelly’s little section of men would require a truck load of ammunition following them at all times.

“They have no fire discipline or idea of tactics, the Germans are portrayed as both stupid and tactically incompetent, which they were not. And Kelly’s bunch apparently have no food or supply worries even though deep behind enemy lines.

“In reality, such an excursion would last about five minutes and have resulted in them all being killed or taken prisoner, and, if they returned to US lines, being court-martialled for desertion.”