Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Saturday, June 29, 2013


John Phillip Law and Rod Steiger
THE SERGEANT (1968). Director: John Flynn. Screenplay by Dennis Murphy from his novel.

"Rod Steiger Stuns as The Sergeant" -- poster tag line.

Although he's virtually unknown today [he passed away in 2005] Dennis Murphy garnered a lot of praise for his first and only novel, "The Sergeant," published in 1958. He wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation ten years later, and only did two other screenplays -- not exactly prolific. Murphy was married three times and was, presumably, straight. I have not read the novel, but from reviews it sounds like it might have been a triumph of style over content, with little in-depth characterization. And today would be considered hopelessly dated [like the movie]. In the film the two main characters are perhaps brought to life more by the actors than by Murphy's dialogue.

Master Sergeant Albert Callan (Rod Steiger), winner of the distinguished service cross, is assigned to a dreary maintenance outfit in post-war France. He is attracted by a young soldier, pfc Tom Swanson (John Phillip Law), who at first resists working as Callan's assistant when he offers him the job. But Swanson relents, and a kind of friendship develops between him and the lonely, rather unlikable Callan. Swanson is in the midst of a romance with a young lady named Solange (Lydmila Mikael), which Callan gets impatient with. He basically acts like a bastard with Swanson, until one day he can no longer control his passion ...

The Sergeant today comes off like a anti-gay diatribe against "queers" in the military. One review of the novel hinted that the Swanson character may have been a bit sexually ambiguous and conflicted, but there is no trace of that in the movie, which might have made it more interesting. While Steiger and Law both give excellent performances, and the film is professionally done, it is quite slow-paced and has no point to make aside from the obvious one: self-loathing closet queens in "macho" environments are doomed to miserable lives and suicide. There's no real attempt made to understand the sergeant and few attempts made to humanize him. A suggestion that Swanson might remind Callan of a young man he killed during the war is too ambiguous to make any impression. It's hard to understand why the film was even made, accept it may have been seen as a prestigious adaptation of a well-received literary novel. Old-fashioned "gay" movies like this can at least sometimes be entertaining, but The Sergeant isn't much fun at all.

Verdict: Steiger is fine but he's in the wrong movie. **.

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