Saturday, October 19, 2013

CLASSIC or ANTIQUE? Immortal Sergeant (1943)



 
            “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.
what am I doing on this sound stage,
I'm supposed to be in the Navy!

                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

14 comments:

  1. Wouldn't 'the first American war movie about the North African Campaign' be more appropriate? Casablanca had been released in 1942 (as well as A Yank in Libya, which isn't in MHM list, and probably in no list at all.).

    Apart from that, nice review of a very bad film indeed. So bad I guess not mentioning the soldiers are Canadians is in fact a favor to Canada. :)

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    1. the war movie buffOctober 22, 2013 at 8:10 PM

      Agree. I imagine the source for that "first" comment did not consider "Casablanca" to be a war movie. "A Yank in Libya" is indeed obscure.

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    1. the war movie buffOctober 22, 2013 at 8:04 PM

      Thanks. Great input.

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    2. Indeed there were a lot of politics within the Allies themselves - the North African campaign on its Western front being another example (Roosevelt's policy towards Vichy comes to mind).

      That said, I'm not sure at the time it had any implication on feature films, and I don't think Hollywood ever cared about accents or American actors impersonating any nationality - as numerous movies about local European resistance movies suggest.

      The thing is, there were hardly any American fiction films depicting any regular allied forces engaged in ground combat before, well, perhaps this one. And until probably the end of 1943, most of the images of terrestrial warfare came to the audiences through newsreels and documentaries. The British Desert Victory was a huge success in the U.S...

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    4. True about the supporting cast - but not for the leads. Errol Flynn as Norwegian, Joan Crawford as French, Brian Donlevy as Czech... "Resistance" movies of the era, from whatever studio, are remarkable in that respect.

      You're right about Commandos strike at dawn which was released two weeks before Immortal Sergeant. I find it interesting that it was an hybrid (resistance movie turning to infantry movie). About Wake Island, well... the enemy only lands at the very end.

      My guess is throughout 1942, the American public wasn't too enthusiastic about UK/AU/NZ/CA soldiers fighting in what was stilled viewed as colonial possessions, even if it was the Axis they were fighting. That could explain why victorious ground campaigns in N&E Africa and SE Asia weren't deemed fit for Hollywood... until Torch.

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    6. I was thinking about New Guinea, Syria, East Africa (the fantasy part in Hataway's Sundown seems to important for me to include it in what we're talking about)... in times when merely stopping an Axis advance could be considered a victory, and when even a defeat could be exploited in a heroic sense.

      Perhaps the absence of such films in 1942 can also be partly explained by a relative shortage of directors who met certain criteria: they had to be American citizens (and not already enlisted), with a proven record of juggling with complex technical issues and the associated budget.

      Another factor might be that already in the 30s, most Hollywood war movies which weren't set in Europe during WWI were already focused on single individuals or very small groups. The studios were good at them and the public enjoyed them - one only had to switch from exotic adventure to patriotic duty...

      I agree with you on public opinion, yet as far as the studios were concerned, my feeling is that their production was clearly pro-war. Not only didn't they release pacifistic super-productions like Intolerance or Civilization, but from 1939 on there had been a continuous thread of movies glorifying the struggle against Germany anywhere in the world.

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    8. Afaik, though the Italy-affiliated fascist movements in the USA had declined throughout the 30s, the invasion of Ethiopia induced a nationalist revival among Italian-Americans. It also became a serious bone of contention between Italian-Americans and African-Americans.

      So indeed, changing the bad guys to (unnamed) Germans probably avoided the Italian-American side of the problem, plus it was more in line with the current news - even if those news concerned North Africa or Middle East. Plus, Germans make excellent movie villains - even Johnny Weissmuller would fight them in Tarzan Triumphs (1943)!

      But the script was also heavily rewritten in its treatment of Africans, hinting at a post-war world which wouldn't necessarily be a colonial one (with the British replacing the Italians). Switching to a German enemy can also be understood as moving the focus away from colonialism.

      As I wrote above, I think this is one important key: you could feature Gary Cooper or Cary Grant as soldiers/adventurers anywhere in the world, but a large part of U.S. audiences didn't like the idea of their armed forces actually helping colonial powers.

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    1. In another world perhaps, but in Hollywood at that period, no way. The first script described the Africans as "wogs". Humanizing them a bit and hinting at a possible non-colonial future was about as far as it could possibly go. Remember, at that time the pianist character in Casablanca was considered extremely positive by mainstream critics.

      What seems certain is that Hathaway had problems with Blockade, and that he probably wanted to avoid controversy this time. I don't know if there was any reaction in the Italian-American newspapers to the novel (published as a series in the Saturday Evening Post) which portrayed the Italians as the foe.

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