'If I want anything worthwhile in this life, I have to fight for it. That's not a bad thing for a man to learn, is it...or a nation? To fight!'
Familiar but okay-enough WWII actioner. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find cult and library titles has released Immortal Sergeant, the 1943 war movie from Fox, based on the novel by John Brophy, directed by John M. Stahl, and starring Henry Fonda, Maureen O'Hara, Thomas Mitchell, Allyn Joslyn, Reginald Gardiner, Melville Cooper, Bramwell Fletcher, and Morton Lowry. Drawing inspiration from better sources like The Lost Patrol, Beau Geste, and All Quiet on the Western Front, Immortal Sergeant certainly won't offer any surprises to devotees of the genre, but it's an agreeably workmanlike effort, nonetheless, with good performances from the small cast, and a low-key but solid production. An original trailer is included in this nice-looking black and white fullscreen transfer.
The deserts of Libya, North Africa, 1943. Exhausted from their latest action, British Army Sergeant Kelly's (Thomas Mitchell) 14-man mechanized combat unit is again called upon by H.Q., this time for a simple reconnoiter patrol. Kelly, a savvy retired veteran of WWI who insisted on combat duty when he re-upped, is slowly taking into hand his second-in-command, Corporal Colin Spence (Henry Fonda), a former London journalist who's odd-man out in the group: he's Canadian. Quiet, reserved, and reticent in decision and action to the point where a few members of the group wonder if he's truly officer material, Spence relies heavily on Kelly's warm, assured guidance, as do the others in the unit, including career Tommys Cassidy (Allyn Joslyn), Pilcher (Melville Cooper), Symes (Bramwell Fletcher), and unit grouser and complainer, Cottrell (Morton Lowry). Once in the desert, the group is attacked by Italian planes, with Colin zapping one of them...which unexpectedly crashes into one of their trucks, killing eight of the British soldiers. With another truck out of service, their compass smashed, and gas, food and water low, the lost unit is given momentary aid by a passing British recon plane, with the pilot warning them of a stationary Italian armored vehicle between the unit and home. Realizing they have no choice but to mount a nighttime offensive against the Italians, Kelly's surprise maneuver is thwarted by Symes' rifle accidentally discharging, causing his death and Kelly's grave wounding. Knowing Spence won't leave him for the sake of the unit's safety, Kelly kills himself, leaving a thoroughly unprepared, frightened Spence in charge of leading the survivors back to base. All through these events, Spence has been having flashbacks to his deeply unsatisfying London-based relationship with gorgeous pianist, Valentine Lee (Maureen O'Hara), who couldn't help but be attracted to Spence's opposite: brash, forceful, smooth operator Tom Benedict (Reginald Gardner), a popular wartime journalist and radio personality. While these memories of his personal weakness and indecisiveness amplify the terror of his present situation, countering interior voices of his deceased Sergeant Kelly help Spence navigate the starving, thirsty unit's toughest obstacle: a do-or-die battle with 21 Germans at a desert oasis.
Critical opinion about Immortal Sergeant, back in 1943 and now, seems to be pretty well divided between those reviewers who didn't cotton to all the cliches in this actioner, and the others who gave the brisk outing conditional approval. Count me among the latter. Based upon the bestseller from John Brophy (apparently, it was a popular enough novel to have Fox refer to the movie adaptation, in the opening on-screen credits and on the poster art, as "John Brophy's Immortal Sergeant"), this smaller-budgeted "A" war film was rushed through its tight 30-day production schedule before star and enlistee Henry Fonda was due to report to the Navy. The prolific, skilled Lamar Trotti, who had already penned three of Fonda's biggest hits, Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk, and the soon-to-be-released The Ox-Bow Incident (and who would go on to script important Fox titles like Guadalcanal Diary, A Bell for Adano, The Razor's Edge, Captain from Castile, Cheaper by the Dozen, and American Guerrilla in the Philippines), was also tagged to produce his own script (according to what I've read, Darryl Zanuck wanted to personally produce this outing, but was unable to, due to his wartime duty). Several directors more associated with action-oriented titles were assigned to the script in pre-production, including Henry Hathaway and Archie Mayo, before John M. Stahl, more noted for his melodramas (Imitation of Life, Back Street, Magnificent Obsession, Leave Her to Heaven), was finally assigned. Released on January 29, 1943, Immortal Sergeant received mixed reviews, but performed well at the box office.
There isn't a lot of "there" there in Immortal Sergeant, so I'm not going to spend a lot of time picking it apart. Regardless of Immortal Sergeant's lack of freshness and novelty, one can't find fault with either Stahl's ultra-smooth direction (the preponderance of studio mock-ups over the few set pieces in the California desert is a budgetary necessity that Stahl mostly overcomes), or the performances. Lovely O'Hara has the sketchiest character , playing a fickle filly we never get a chance to understand (sure Fonda's a weakling any girl would throw over...but for deliciously unctuous, ineffectual snot, Reginald Gardner?). Thomas Mitchell does his standard avuncular, loveable uncle bit (flawlessly, I might add), while Fonda is appropriately weak and sniveling without the loss of too much of his dignity, before he grows, convincingly enough, into his leadership role. As for producer Trotti's script, its billboarded message about personal courage, both martial and romantic, won through war-time adversity, isn't at all ambiguous or even remotely "hidden" within a layered, complex narrative, while Stahl's smooth, assured directorial approach is equally straightforward and uncomplicated. You get exactly what you think you're getting in Immortal Sergeant, no more, nor less. Certainly, aspects of the storyline are going to remind you of other, better movies--you'd be hard-pressed to find a wholly "original" war movie from any studio in 1943. John Ford's classic The Lost Patrol gives you a far more convincing depiction of a patrol lost in the desert; William Wellman's Beau Geste is the definitive example of doomed military bravery in the face of overwhelming opposition; and Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front gives a more compelling look at the relationship between a raw recruit and his kindly, wise martial mentor, and that recruit's subsequent growing competence on the front line. Just because Immortal Sergeant rehashes these and other conventions of the "patrol lost in the desert" subgenre of war films doesn't make it inherently "bad" for the borrowing itself, but rather just...ordinary, for its competent, if unremarkable, approach.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.