“Immortal Sergeant” was the first American WWII film set in North Africa. It may be set there, but it was filmed on a sound stage. It was directed by John Stahl and was based on the novel by John Brophy. Although named after Sgt. Kelly (Thomas Mitchell), the main character is Cpl. Colin Spence (Henry Fonda). Fonda hated the movie and looks miserable in it. The 37 year old actor volunteered for the military and was set to go into the Navy when studio head Daryl Zanuck pulled strings to get his entry postponed so he could make one more film. Fonda was pissed. After the film, he served in Naval Intelligence and was awarded the Bronze Star (I’m sure he did something very brave to earn it).
Kelly and Spence are in the British 8th Army in the Libyan Desert. Kelly is quickly canonized as emblematic of the greatness of the British Army. Spence, on the other hand, is a milquetoast wuss who entered the Army to assuage the humiliation of losing his girl Valentine (Maureen O’Hara at her loveliest) to a cad named Benedict (more like Bene-dick!). We know about this love triangle through frequent flashbacks that makes us want to slap the wimpy Spence across the face. One reason Spence joined up was to grow a pair and a suicide mission seems to be the ticket.
Spence and Kelly lead a patrol of fourteen (place your bets on how many will survive) behind enemy lines to blow stuff up. Things do not go smoothly, naturally. First, they come under attack from Italian fighter planes dropping bombs they do not have (how many times have I seen that in a war film?). Spence tells one of the soldiers to “try for the pilot” and another to “go for the rear gunner” with their rifles! LOL But wait, I apologize because they shoot down one of the planes. The plane makes a crash landing while aflame and proceeds to chase the patrols truck and ram into it killing eight of the men. LOFL This is one of the most hilarious scenes in war movie history.
The remainder of the patrol continues on and receives a note sealed in a tin can dropped by a British plane. The note warns them that there is an Italian armored car up ahead. The note reads “Don’t worry, it’s only an Italian armored car”. Just kidding. They decide to take on the very fake looking vehicle. In the ridiculous action scene, Sgt. Kelly gets wounded by a grenade even though he’s shielded by a sand dune. Spence insists on dragging Kelly along so Kelly belies the title of the film by taking his own life. He leaves behind his voice in Spence’s head.
Kelly leaves some big shoes to fill (and a halo to wear), but Spence’s feet suddenly grow four sizes. The remaining three soldiers find out quickly that Spence is channeling the tough sergeant. It’s tough love as he shares his last cigarette. They pass it around like a joint and then the last toker buries the butt because it could give away their position. LOL
The quartet approach an oasis, but before they can reach it the Germans swoop in and take possession. Spence goes to scout and it turns out he’s not alone. Kelly is with him and they debate what to do. Spence sneaks into the German camp and steals water and food. He convinces his mates to attack the Germans in a sand storm. They kill all the Germans, use a grenade to blow up the German transport plane, and explode the ammunition dump. Piece of cake.
The film closes with Spence lying wounded in a hospital. He is a hero now and when Benedict comes visit he gives him the old what-for. Now Spence is going to fight for what he wants, just like America should. Buy war bonds!!
|a fiery redhead and her wimpy beau|
Even if you cut this movie some slack because of when it was made, you cannot get around the fact that it is atrocious. I think Fonda hated it partly because of the circumstances he was forced to make it in and partly because he knew it would go on his resume. The flashbacks are incredibly sappy and aggravating. The Spence character is pitiful and his transformation into Rambo is ludicrous. The acting is substandard. What do you expect when your star is seething? The sound stage is disconcertingly fake. The music is hammy mood music. The special effects are embarrassing, even for 1943. The dialogue is corny and having Spence talk to Kelly in his head does not help matters. The only positive thing I can say is the weaponry appeared to be realistic in the oasis attack scene. I recognized bolt-action rifles, a Lewis gun, and Mills bombs.
Classic or Antique? Definitely an antique. You should only watch this if you want to see what a 1943 propaganda film was like or if you want a good laugh.
grade = F