An awfully corny bit of wartime propaganda about a meek army corporal whose unassertive nature and low self-esteem are transformed by battle, Immortal Sergeant (1943) is overrun with wartime and lost-patrol-in-the-desert cliches. Only star Henry Fonda's performance (and the charm of co-stars Maureen O'Hara and Thomas Mitchell) salvage this highly predictable effort. The similar Sahara, made around the same time, is much better.
The first thing one notices about the picture is that Nebraska-born Fonda plays a corporal in the British Army. His signature Midwestern drawl unconvincingly explained away by that old Hollywood standby for such improbable casting: he's Canadian.
Of course, Thomas Mitchell wasn't British either, nor was Allyn Joslyn, as the most prominent of Fonda's comrades-in-arms. They're okay, but some of the other fake accents are downright awful. Others in the cast, including an uncredited but very visible Peter Lawford, were genuinely British, but without much regard for regional accents or military authenticity. "I wonder if Liverpool's changed much?" one soldier asks in a decidedly un-Liverpudlian accent. Some fairly good location works appears to have been done somewhere in the High Desert north of Los Angeles, but most of the film was shot on expansive but obvious sound stage sets, whose air of unreality is further enhanced by the use of optically-printed sandstorms, painted backdrops and process screens.
In the film, Colin Spence is a meek would-be writer in love with Irish beauty Valentine (O'Hara). She clearly loves him too, but he can't bring himself to declare his feelings, despite her obvious invitations to do so. Colin's suave pal Benedict (perennial suave second banana Reginald Gardiner) tries to muscle in, and Colin is too mild-mannered to object.
All this is told in flashback, as daydreamer Cpl. Spence serves under salt of the earth, hard-drinking but saintly career Sergeant Kelly (Mitchell) during the African Campaign in Libya. Out in the desert, Kelly's platoon is decimated when a German plane crashes into a transport vehicle, and circumstances eventually force Colin to take charge of three survivors. Can he rise to the occasion? Will he step up to the plate? Is there any doubt?
Immortal Sergeant relies on one hoary war movie cliche after another (the cowardly soldier who wants to surrender, the fatally wounded man who bravely shoots himself off-camera to save his buddies), and the backstory with Benedict continually whisking Valentine away from Colin lacks subtlety. Only Fonda's believable portrait of a milquetoast and O'Hara's vivacious beauty makes the film tolerable.
(Beware - Spoiler)
The film's title is derived from Mitchell's character, who literally becomes immortal, rather like Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, dispensing sage advice to Fonda's Luke Skywalker, long after his character's death. This device is no more believable than the rest of the film.
Video & Audio
Immortal Sergeant is another good-looking Fox release, the full frame presentation using good source material that shows little damage or wear. The studio's usual faux stereo track is offered as well as the original mono. Alternate Spanish audio and subtitles (along with optional English ones) are available.
The lone extra is a Theatrical Trailer that includes narration but that's missing all text. DVD labels should be pointing these things out lest audiences assume that what's presented here is what 1943 audiences saw in theaters.
Immortal Sergeant's predictability is on display early on, in a line delivered by one of the men surprised by Colin's newfound assertiveness: "Good heavens, corporal! For a minute I thought it was the sergeant himself!" Maybe he heard the ghost, too.
Stuart Galbraith IV talks about Invasion of Astro-Monster in an audio commentary track that's just one part of Classic Media's upcoming Godzilla Classic Collector's Edition. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.