Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Immortal Sergeant

The Immortal Sergeant. Thomas Mitchell as Sergeant Kelly, Henry Fonda as Corporal Colin Spence.

Kuolematon kersantti / Den odödlige sergeanten / Sergente immortale.
    Director: John M. Stahl. Year: 1943. Country: USA.
    Sog.: dal romanzo omonimo di John Brophy. Scen.: Lamar Trotti. F.: Arthur Miller. M.: James B. Clark. Scgf.: Richard Day, Maurice Ransford. Mus.: David Buttolph. Int.: Henry Fonda (caporale Colin Spence), Thomas Mitchell (sergente Kelly), Maureen O’Hara (Valentine), Allyn Joslyn (Cassidy), Reginald Gardiner (Benedict), Melville Cooper (Pilcher), Morton Lowry (Cottrell), Bramwell Fletcher (Symes). Prod.: 20th Century-Fox. 35 mm. D.: 91’. Bn.
    Print from 20th Century Fox.
    Viewed at Cinema Jolly, Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato, Immortal Imitations: The Cinema of John M. Stahl, 28 June 2018

Jeremy Arnold (Il Cinema Ritrovato): "Stahl’s first picture for 20th Century Fox was this World War II combat film set primarily in the Libyan desert that also works in scenes of home front romantic melodrama. Henry Fonda’s timid corporal finds himself in command of an army patrol when his tough sergeant is killed. Meanwhile, in a series of flashbacks, he remembers his life before the war in London, where he loved a woman (Maureen O’Hara) but was too shy to say so, and had to watch silently as another man pursued her aggressively. In other words, romantic hesitation is linked to a lack of physical courage."

"In telling this story, Stahl navigates a complex interplay of points of view. While the audience is kept aligned with Fonda’s journey and even shares his memory flashbacks, the overall point of view is objective. Stahl’s visual choices keep the audience as observers whose engagement is less of feeling Colin’s reactions to events and more of noticing that he has those reactions. The central question is whether Fonda will rise to the challenge and show the ability he needs as a leader; if he does, the story suggests, he will also gain the confidence he needs in love."

"The male-female sensitivity that Stahl brought to his romantic melodramas finds a fascinating place in combat, as Stahl conveys extraordinary intimacy between battle-weary comrades. The scenes of the men sharing their last cigarette and a tin of pineapple are almost ethereal in their formal presentation, and the sequences between Fonda and Thomas Mitchell, as the immortal sergeant himself, grow increasingly meaningful and poignant; their final exchange is so visually sensuous it is practically a love scene."

"Immortal Sergeant was very well received in 1943 but has become a neglected film in Stahl’s career. Made with propaganda value in mind, it stands on its own terms as visually and thematically coherent, well-paced and engaging, thanks to expert, subtle craftsmanship. Note: uncredited second unit director James Tinling directed the shots of combat not involving the main actors." Jeremy Arnold

AA: The switch from Universal to 20th Century-Fox was profound for John M. Stahl who started to explore new dimensions in his cinema and discovered a different set of female stars.

The master of the woman's film now directed a war film. Like in The Lady Eve, Henry Fonda plays a passive and inhibited man in this last role of his before war service. His next role would be Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine after the war.

Maureen O'Hara is strangely subdued. Perhaps Stahl tried to tone down her passionate temperament a bit too much. Valentine, the character she is playing, is the active one in the relationship, subtly frustrated when Spence does not make a move. She is responsive to Benedict's aggressive initiatives, but on a surface level only. She would like Spence to be a bit more like Benedict.

As a combat film The Immortal Sergeant is well made, thanks to the second unit director James Tinling. The desert trek seems hopeless with most of the men perishing, compass broken, and the experienced patrol leader, Sergeant Kelly (Thomas Mitchell) also killed. When an oasis is finally reached, it is immediately occupied by a superior German unit.

The Immortal Sergeant belongs to the war films (like The Dawn Patrol and Twelve O'Clock High) where the protagonist has to receive reluctantly the position of responsibility in a desperate situation. "I'm no leader. I can carry out orders, not give them", protests Spence.

The Immortal Sergeant is a growing-up story of Colin Spence. He has been living like a sleepwalker, without focus and determination. Facing danger, a situation of life and death, both for himself and his patrol, he has to grow up to his full potential. Perhaps he is a man who is at his best in crisis.

During his solo scout outing to the oasis Spence is calm and collected, totally focussed, able to get food and water for his men and all the reconnaissance details they need in preparation of their sabotage attack during the sandstorm.

The challenge forces Spence to discover his best qualities, and also his worst. "I'm no longer the man you knew", he warns Benedict. Spence discovers his aggressive side, and he is also brutalized. "I'll murder you if you don't" he says to Benedict when his friend hesitates to send Spence's marriage proposal telegram to Valentine.

The sandstorm in The Immortal Sergeant has a function similar to the hurricane in When Tomorrow Comes. Stahl integrates the force of the elements to the drama efficiently, in full command of the symbolic implications.

The studio echo of the soundtrack has a slight distancing effect.

A good print from 20th Century Fox.



The film's opening title card reads "Twentieth Century-Fox presents Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara in John Brophy's Immortal Sergeant." Lamar Trotti's onscreen credit reads "Produced and written for the screen by Lamar Trotti." HR news items reveal the following about the production: Studio production chief Darryl F. Zanuck was scheduled to produce the picture personally, but could not due to active military duty. In early Aug 1942, first Archie Mayo, and then Henry Hathaway were set to direct the picture, which was to feature George Sanders as "Cottrell." Sanders turned down the role, however, and was suspended and replaced by Morton Lowry. Although a HR news item included Ralph Byrd in the cast, his appearance in the completed film is unlikely. Art director James Basevi and photographer Clyde De Vinna, while not receiving onscreen credit, are listed in HR news items and production charts as contributors.

Immortal Sergeant was Henry Fonda's last film for the duration of the war. (The Ox-Bow Incident, which starred Fonda and was released later in 1943, was filmed prior to the making of this picture. Immortal Sergeant was released first due to its wartime theme, according to HR . Fonda's first film after the war was the 1946 Twentieth Century-Fox production My Darling Clementine.) Fonda enlisted in the Navy before production began, and in order to enable him to report for training, the studio hurried production. Accordingly, James Tinling directed a second unit of "battle and specific background shots," while John Stahl "devoted himself entirely to scenes involving the principals, particularly Fonda." The majority of the desert sequences were filmed on location near El Centro and Brawley, in the Mojave Desert, CA: and "Spence" and "Valentine's" swimming scenes were shot at Malibu Lake, CA.


While shy Canadian journalist Colin Spence is living in London, he joins the British Army and is stationed in Libya. There he serves under Sergeant Kelly, a longtime military man who is greatly admired by his men. Although Kelly takes an interest in Spence and tries to build up his ego, Spence remains unassertive.

One afternoon, Spence remembers a time before the war, when he went with his girl friend, Valentine Lee, to a party at which they met war correspondent Tom Benedict. Benedict was a self-assured blowhard who easily impressed Valentine, and Spence soon regretted introducing them.

Back in the desert, Kelly and Spence lead a reconnaisance patrol of fourteen men into the brutal heat. As they are traveling, Spence again remembers Valentine, who was further won over by Benedict when he impressed her on her birthday. Spence's mind returns to the present when the patrol stops for lunch, but before they resume their journey, they are attacked by Italian airplanes. During the ensuing skirmish, Spence and his men shoot down one of the planes, but it crashes on one of the patrol's trucks, killing eight men. With only Spence, Symes, Pilcher, Cottrell and Cassidy and himself left, Kelly moves the men onward, but that night, admits to Spence that they are lost. Spence is frightened when Kelly says that he must assume command if anything happens to him, but Kelly admonishes him to get the patrol home safely. The next day, a passing British plane warns them that an Italian armored car is ahead. Hoping to use the car for transportation, Kelly leads the men to it, but his plans go awry when Symes's gun goes off accidentally, and the enemy is alerted to their presence.

Symes is killed during the exchange of gunfire, and Kelly is seriously wounded. Spence gets the sergeant to cover, where he refuses to listen to Kelly's orders to leave him behind for the good of the group. While Spence is discussing the situation with the remaining three men, Kelly shoots himself, and the soldiers bury their brave sergeant. Spence then assumes leadership of the patrol and drives the men hard, as Kelly had instructed him. While they are walking, Spence's mind drifts back to Valentine, who spent his first leave with him and encouraged him to be more assertive romantically.

Spence's reverie ends when the group finds an oasis, which is held by German soldiers. While Spence waits for dark, he remembers the last time he saw Valentine, when it appeared that Benedict had completely won her affections. As darkness falls in the desert, Spence crawls into the oasis and hears Kelly's voice urging him on. Spence steals food and water, then dismantles the Germans' radio equipment before returning to his men. There, Spence tells them that they must try to take the German stronghold, explaining that it is the cumulative effect of every single man fighting in every position that will win the war.

Using Spence's strategy, the men split up and engage the enemy during a sandstorm. Spence is with Cottrell and fights hard until an explosion knocks him out. Later, Spence awakens in a Cairo hospital, where Cottrell tells him that he was wounded when Cottrell threw a grenade in the enemy munitions dump. The action was successful, although Cassidy was killed. Pilcher is recovering in the same hospital, and both Cottrell and Spence have been awarded distinguished conduct medals.

Spence is trying to assimilate the information when Benedict arrives and is his usual sarcastic self. Suddenly aware of his own strength, and no longer afraid, Spence orders Benedict to send Valentine a telegram saying that he wants to marry her. Benedict protests, but Spence intimidates him and sends him on his way. Soon after, Spence, who has been promoted to lieutenant, meets Valentine at a London railway station. There, Spence once again hears Kelly's encouraging words as he embraces Valentine.

No comments: