Donald Sutherland 1935-2024: His greatest role

Donald Sutherland died June 21 at age 88. Since the Canadian-born actor was a film star during the last six decades, it took only days for much to be written, heard or shown on every sort of media about his work in film and his life. There has been less presented about his political activism and his activities that helped resist the U.S. war against Vietnam.

For me, this was his greatest role.

Sutherland had parts in at least 87 films, including starring in popular hits like “The Dirty Dozen,” in 1967, “M*A*S*H,” in 1970 and in this century, “The Hunger Games.” My strongest memories were his playing a loving father in “Ordinary People” (1980), an extremely hateable fascist in Bernardo Bertolucci’s “1900” (1976), and a white professor waking up to the injustices of South Africa’s apartheid in “A Dry White Season” (1989). You could believe in all his characters.

Having skill and talent and working at improving it is one thing; how you use this skill, how you use your fame is another. In one period in the early 1970s, Sutherland contributed to the development of an anti-war movement in the heart of the U.S. imperialist military.

Some people might even believe, as I do, that what Sutherland and his fellow performers did with a tour called FTA contributed to the liberation of Vietnam. That’s big. It’s bigger than winning an Oscar.


For those who never knew or who have forgotten, FTA was a play on U.S. military advertising that promised new recruits fun, travel and adventure and delivered misery, racism and death. The U.S. service members gave their own meaning to FTA, namely, “F**k the Army.” The performers in the FTA troupe said, tongue in cheek, that it meant, “Free the Army.”

Some of the FTA cast.

Sutherland and Jane Fonda — both of whom had already reached star status by 1971 — and other professional entertainers used their talents for the FTA tour. They performed at or near military bases before 60,000 troops, first in the continental United States and then at Pacific bases in Hawaii, the Philippines, Japan and Okinawa.

Comedian Bob Hope had been doing pro-war shows at U.S. bases for decades. The FTA shows were a welcome antidote that provided an opportunity for rank-and-file soldiers, sailors, marines and air force personnel to come out en masse for a low-key but high energy antiwar demonstration. They did this surrounded by friends. And it was fun.

These shows took place while rank-and-file service people, from Fort Bragg to Vietnam, were finding hundreds of ways to throw a wrench in the U.S. war machine. Many soldiers didn’t want to kill Vietnamese people, and they certainly didn’t want to get killed in a useless, criminal war.

Some troops even chose to roll a fragmentation grenade into their sergeant’s or officer’s tent rather than follow orders into battle, thus giving birth to a new verb, to frag.

A simmering revolt

At the time a rebellion was simmering in the military, complete with an attempt to form a union — the American Servicemen’s Union — to break the chain of command. Full disclosure: I was part of that effort to form the ASU and as such especially appreciate what Fonda, Sutherland and company contributed.

The FTA troupe changed personnel over the course of the group’s existence. Besides Sutherland and Fonda, the FTA cast on the Pacific tour included folk singer Holly Near, poet Pamela Donegan, singer-songwriter Rita Martinson, comedian Paul Mooney, actor and San Francisco Mime Troupe-alum Michael Alaimo and singer-songwriter Len Chandler. Comedian-activist Dick Gregory and musical artist Nina Simone appeared at individual shows in the U.S.

The performers lampooned President Richard Nixon, ridiculed officers and roasted sergeants. The troops’ response fed the performers’ next lines and future scenes. The soldiers’ reaction was part of the show, allowing them to express dissent and develop resistance.

In the current century, Sutherland also expressed anti-capitalist sentiments, including participating in the Occupied Movement in Canada.

While Sutherland received no Oscar nominations, he was given a Special Award in 2017 from the Academy, a belated recognition of his contribution to his art. That same year declassified documents showed that he was on the National Security Agency’s “watch list” between 1971 and 1973, the FTA period.

In my view, the NSA’s act was an unintentional recognition of Sutherland’s contribution to humanity.

John Catalinotto was a civilian organizer for the American Servicemen’s Union between 1967 and 1971 and is author of “Turn the Guns Around: Mutinies, Soldier Revolts and Revolutions,” World View Forum, New York, 2017.

Simple Share Buttons

Share this
Simple Share Buttons