January 15, 2012

Queer Review: The Sergeant (1968)

The Sergeant
Director: John Flynn
Writer: Dennis Murphy. Based upon the novel by Dennis Murphy.
Cast: Rod Steiger, John Phillip Law, Ludmila Mikaƫl, Frank Latimore, Elliott Sullivan, Ronald Rubin

Made during the final gasps of the Hays Code, The Sergeant, although flawed, manages to be one of the best queer themed films of it's era that I have had the pleasure of seeing.

The year is 1952, Master Sergeant Albert Callan (Rod Steiger), recently assigned to a U.S. military base in France, finds himself attracted to Pfc. Tom Swanson (John Phillip Law). Circumstances of course force him to suppress this attraction and Callan is forced to act on it indirectly. This Callan does by first assigning Swanson to doing secretarial work in his office, then by gradually working his way into Swanson's personal life. However, when Swanson rebuffs Callan's increasingly overt advances, matters take a darker and more disturbing tone.

The Queering
The end of the 1960's thankfully also saw the final death convulsions of the Hays code, thereby allowing filmmakers to include overt queer characters in films, along with other material that had been previously been banned by the code. The Sergeant is perhaps the most notable of it's era to include an obviously gay man and the least problematic to boot. It does not include a bevy of over the top theatrics, like The Detective, nor wander off into the realm of tiresome literary pretentiousness, like the Reflections in a Golden Eye. Instead, The Sergeant sticks to more modest goals, tell the story of a man who due to his circumstances, must suppress his desire to be with another man.

Unfortunately, The Sergeant has become something of a forgotten oldie. It is not available on Netflix and I had to pay an exorbitant amount to order it through Amazon. The reason for the high price, I found out afterwards, was due to the fact that this was a one time print job. While I can see why it is not considered a Classic, the fact that it is so difficult to find is a shame, this a movie that deserves a wider audience then it is currently afforded.

John Phillip Law gives a somewhat bland performance as the object of Callan's desires, but that was the nature of the character as written. Rod Stieger gives a memorable performance as Callan, never giving into overt melodrama or the temptation to overact, at least until the end, although that instance is excusable given the fact that the character is drunk.

I won't claim there is anything extraordinary about The Sergeant outside of it's ordinariness and refusal to do anything to detract from the main story. There are subplots but each one only serves the main story, there are no detours into the lives of any characters other then how they impact on Callan and Swanson. This is notable, as too often films try to make force their stories into making sweeping statements about The Human Condition, even when their story does not deserve such high mindedness. See, for example, the aforementioned Reflections in a Golden Eye.

I did have one major problem with The Sergeant and that was with the ending, which can be considered the one major concession to the Hays Code stipulation that a sinner or a criminal would have to be punished or killed for their transgressions. However, the ending fits the story as it had progressed up until the point and does not betray the characters or force them to behave in a manor inconsistent with their development. Therefore I am willing to overlook the ending.

No matter the difficulty in tracking down this Sergeant, it is well worth it for those with any kind of interest in the history of queer cinema.

The Rating

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1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed The Sergeant many years ago when I saw it. It brought to mind another military film about the relationship of two men. I harbor a pet theory about "Soldier in the Rain" starring Steve McQueen and Jackie Gleason. I've always felt it could be interpreted as a gay love story between two very different guys, who didn't know (or couldn't admit) they loved each other. Anybody else feel this way???


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