The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Immortal Sergeant

Here's a fun game for you. Ready? Pick a movie star -- any movie star -- and go through their film career trying to pick their worst movie. That one that THEY would hate, not the one you hate. Let's start with Henry Fonda, a Hollywood legend who still had his fair share of duds in his career. I'm looking at you Tentacles, The Swarm, and Meteor. What's Fonda's choice? An odd one, but not because he's bad in it. It's 1943's Immortal Sergeant, and yeah, it has more to do with the making of the movie.

The North African campaign is still raging early in World War II as a British infantry unit arrives back at the front awaiting orders. Among these men are a squad led by Sergeant Kelly (Thomas Mitchell), a World War I veteran who talked his way back into the army. The squad looks to Kelly often to get them through thick and thin, the NCO an intelligent soldier with plenty of combat experience. Kelly's second-in-command is a young Canadian, Corporal Colin Spence (Fonda), a quiet, steady soldier who is nonetheless terrified of being placed in a position that will require him to command. He's scared to death of making a decision that will claim the lives of the men around him.  That fear is about to be put to the test. Tasked with a long patrol in the desert to see what the Germans are up to, Kelly, Spence and the squad board an armored vehicle and two trucks and head out from the camp. What awaits in the expansive desert?

Airing on Turner Classic Movies recently, I was able to check off 'Immortal' from my to-watch list finally, the airing being the premiere broadcast on TCM. I remember it being advertised as a preview on my old Sands of Iwo Jima VHS (In COLOR too!) but was never able to find it. So why did Fonda hold this film in such poor regard? Well, apparently it wasn't because the story was a disappointment or the character wasn't interesting. It was because his arrangement with the studio required him to do it. He didn't want to, the contract said he had to so he did. What did Fonda think of the end result? I can't find too much and according to TCM host Robert Osborne, Fonda simply refused to talk about 'Immortal.' So what's the moral of the story? This is far from Fonda's worst movie. He just hated making it so no worries in that department.

Released in 1943, 'Immortal' is an interesting war film. It avoids all the pratfalls of pure propaganda flicks that shove patriotism down your throat so director John M. Stahl gets credit there. Mitchell and Fonda are very good, and the Lost Patrol-angle ends up being pretty decent if familiar. The biggest issue here? In a movie about the immortal Sergeant, it focuses far more on the worrying, sad sack Corporal. There's a handful of flashbacks as Spence worries about the woman he's been seeing, Valentine Lee (Maureen O'Hara), being seduced back home by a dashing war correspondent (Reginald Gardiner). Obviously soldiers in combat, wartime situations worry about what's happening back home, but these flashbacks are rough. A quiet -- some would say emotionless -- Spence doesn't give Valentine much reason to stick around if you ask me. So whenever the camera lingers on Spence as he looks off into space.....yeah, I lost a little focus in flashback mode.

What becomes most disappointing is that the rest of the story -- you know, that part focusing on the war -- is pretty decent. Playing the titular character, Thomas Mitchell is solid as always, what I kinda assume I'll get with Mitchell, one of my favorite character actors. He's natural and believable and likeable from beginning to end, really giving the sense of why his men look up to him and respect him so much, despite his older age. His scenes with Fonda's Spence are solid with two professionals just doing their think. Obviously, their conversations lean toward the dark and foreboding nature, but that comes as no surprise considering the movie's title is about a sergeant but the main character is a corporal. Underplayed, emotionally effective parts for Fonda and Mitchell, providing a good base for the story. Dona especially shines in a scene with O'Hara when he explains why he enlisted, a proud if confused look on his face as it all comes together for him.

As for the men in the squad, look for Allyn Joslyn, Melville Cooper, Bramwell Fletcher, and Morton Lowry. I was disappointed in that part of the story, a wasted opportunity to develop some cool characters around Spence and Kelly but nothing really comes of it. Also look quickly for 20-year old Peter Lawford in a small part as a member of the patrol before an Italian plane gets the best of the future Rat Pack-er.  

This movie had some potential, especially when it focuses on the Lost Patrol angle. The story relies on small unit tactics, how a small group of men would still function as a fighting unit in an undesirable position trapped in the desert with little supplies and the enemy all around them. The battle scenes are quick and hard-hitting (especially for a movie released during WWII), including one scene that caught me by surprise in its brutality. It's not what you see, but that it happens at all in a surprisingly dark moment. A decent movie, one that could have been a lot better with some storytelling tweaks. But that's me. When I wanna watch a war movie, I wanna watch a WAR MOVIE, not a love story.

Immortal Sergeant (1943): ** 1/2 /****

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