Judge Gordon Sullivan knows the horrors of war movies.
Our review of The Henry Fonda Film Collection, published June 7th, 2013, is also available.
A shy corporal must get the soldiers back to safety!
One of the more interesting byproducts of the Hollywood studio system is the fact that they needed to keep people working to justify their continual operating costs. Actors, crew members, and rent had to be paid whether they were being used or not, which meant that it was in the studios' best interest to keep everybody working all the time. That was true whether or not there was a picture worth making available. When filmmaking trends collided with the necessity to work, we can find even dependable writers, directors, and actors working on pictures that are B grade at best. Such is the case with the 1943 war picture Immortal Sergeant. It's helmed by John Stahl, who directed the first adaptation of Imitation of Life; adapted by the screenwriter responsible for Young Mr. Lincoln and Drums Along the Mohawk; and stars the dependable Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara. Not even this pedigree, however, can keep Immortal Sergeant from being a massive mess of tired war clichés.
Corporal Colin Spence (Henry Fonda, Once Upon a Time in the West) is a shy young Canadian fighting in the British army during World War II. In flashbacks, we learn that even though a beautiful woman (Maureen O'Hara,The Quiet Man) is obviously in love with him, he can't get up the gumption to tell her how he feels. Back on the front line, Corporal Spence learns lessons from his sergeant (Thomas Mitchell, Gone With the Wind) about the horrors of war.
There are three reasons to watch Immortal Sergeant. The first is Henry Fonda. If you can get past the goofy idea that his accent is Canadian (even though he sounds like he's from the American Midwest), Fonda's performance is a fine, understated take on a stock character. He goes from mild-mannered wimp to warrior over the course of the film. Although clichéd, his transformation is believable in Fonda's hands. The second reason to watch is Maureen O'Hara. It's not hard to see why Corporal Spence would be madly in love with her. O'Hara always had a magnetic screen presence, and that's certainly visible here. The third reason to watch is Thomas Mitchell. He's given the thankless job of being the rousing sergeant, the one saddled with being Spence's mentor and generally a mouthpiece for nonsense about war. Luckily, Mitchell gets a few moments to rise above the tired character, in one case delivering a surprisingly affecting speech.
Sadly, that's about it for Immortal Sergeant. Otherwise, it's just a mess of tired clichés about war. We've got the wimpy guy who learns to stand up for himself after the brutality of war. We've got the gutsy sergeant who keeps his men alive at all costs. We've got self-sacrifice on the part of soldiers. The flashbacks feature a typical love story, albeit one where the guy can't bring himself to admit his feelings. When smooth-talking Reginald Gardiner shows up to woo Maureen O'Hara, he does everything but twirl his moustache and kick sand in the weak Spence's face. There's nothing necessarily wrong with any of it, but the level of mediocrity on display is staggering.
The film deserves some credit for not making the film all about American patriotism, which would have added another feather to the cap of clichés. Instead, the film seems to be more about individual heroism than the fitness of the American fighting man, a surprising turn given the fact that it was released in the dark days of 1943, with victory still years ahead. Some viewers would probably have welcomed a bit more "rah rah America" at the time.
Immortal Sergeant was previously available as part of The Henry Fonda Film Collection, but this release is from the no-frills "Cinema Archives" collection. This appears to be the same version used for the box set. We get a 1.33:1 transfer that showcases strong detail and good color reproduction. Wear and tear are surprisingly not a problem. Overall, the film looks really good for a budget release of its age. Audio options include a stereo and a mono track; both are easy to listen to, with only a bit of distortion keeping them from great examples of 1943 technology. Subtitles are included as well. The disc's lone extra is the film's theatrical trailer.
Immortal Sergeant is a bland war picture that's only going to be of interest to fans of its three leads. Otherwise, everyone involved has done better work, and the genre has given us much more interesting films.
Not great, but not guilty.
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