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The Sergeant

The Sergeant(1968)

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teaser The Sergeant (1968)

Although the role is not one for which Academy Award® winning actor Rod Steiger is widely remembered forty years later, his star turn as The Sergeant (1968) crystallizes the range of his performances over the course of a long and varied career. A martinet Army master sergeant growing older and increasingly more disillusioned while stationed in postwar France, MSG Albert Callan allows Steiger the opportunity to bark authoritatively as he did to memorable effect in Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night (1967), to suffer in agonized solitude as he did in Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker (1964), to evince moments of reassuring calm as he had as the voice of reason in Guy Green's The Mark (1961) and Philip Leacock's 13 West Street (1962) and to stalk and creep obsessively as he did so persuasively as the randy ranch hand Jud Fry in Fred Zinnemann's Oklahoma! (1955) or the overbearing Komarovsky in David Lean's Dr. Zhivago (1965). Adding to the mix is the fact that the autocratic Callan is a closet homosexual suddenly and devastatingly in love with a lowly enlisted man (Barbarella's [1968] John Phillip Law) and the result is edgy, complicated filmmaking that seems to ruffle as many feathers now as it did in 1968.

As is William Wyler's The Children's Hour (1961) and William Friedkin's Cruising (1980), The Sergeant is routinely shortlisted as one of those works of art "setting the Gay Rights Movement back fifty years." Certainly, the tale's downbeat finish seems to affirm the stereotype of the homosexual as nonviable entity, doomed to desperation, disgrace and early death. Nonetheless, there is much to admire, in particular John Flynn's unfussy, verite-style of direction and Steiger's intense central performance as a war hero adjusting to a purposeless peacetime existence. Social critics may carp that the etching of Sgt. Callan is dated, however, there are few Hollywood leading men even today who would take on such a role. (The closest contemporary comparison may be Dame Judi Dench in Richard Eyre's Notes on a Scandal [2006]). If The Sergeant disappoints in comparison to Steiger's work elsewhere in the decade it may be in the paucity of memorable supporting characters. Notable among the secondary players is American actor Frank Latimore, whose career began in Hollywood at 20th Century-Fox with supporting roles in The Razor's Edge (1946) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) but who was working on the Continent by 1950 and enjoying a secondary career dubbing foreign films into English.

Ditching high school to join the US Navy in a bid to escape the unhappiness of a broken home, Rodney Stephen Steiger studied acting on the GI Bill with Stella Adler at The Actor's Studio. He made his Broadway debut in a 1950 revival of Clifford Odets' Night Music, codirected by Cheryl Crawford. Around the same time, Steiger found regular work on live television, with appearances on such programs as Suspense, Danger and Philco Television Playhouse. His breakthrough performance was as Paddy Chayefsky's lovelorn butcher Marty (1953) for NBC's Goodyear Television Playhouse. When Burt Lancaster's production company approached Steiger to star in their 1955 film version, the actor balked at the prospect of signing an exclusive contract; the title role (and an Academy Award® for "Best Actor") went to Ernest Borgnine. Steiger went on to plum supporting roles in Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront (1954), Robert Aldrich's The Big Knife (1955) and Mark Robson's The Harder They Fall (1956) and played the eponymous mobster in Richard Wilson's Al Capone (1959) but it was The Pawnbroker (for which he received his first Oscar® nomination) that made him marketable. While shooting The Sergeant in France, the actor learned that he had won the "Best Actor" award for In the Heat of the Night. Rod Steiger died from complications related to gall bladder cancer in July 2002. His costar, John Phillip Law, succumbed to pancreatic cancer in May 2008.

The Sergeant was adapted by Dennis Murphy from his own novel, published by Viking Press in 1958. Family friends of writer John Steinbeck, Dennis and his brother Michael were rumored to be the inspiration for the troubled Trask brothers of Steinbeck's 1952 novel East of Eden. (A decade later, Michael founded the Esalen Institute, a sprawling retreat devoted to the exploration of human potential, inspired in part by the writing of Aldous Huxley.) Dennis Murphy began writing The Sergeant as a Stanford University undergrad but filled in its particulars while stationed in France with the United States Army. Before it was published, the novel earned advance praise from Steinbeck and Wallace Stegner (The Big Rock Candy Mountain) and struck a nerve with a young Hunter S. Thompson, then employed as a groundskeeper on the Murphy estate in Big Sur. Murphy adapted Robin Estridge's Day of the Arrow for J. Lee Thompson's quasi-supernatural thriller Eye of the Devil (1966), starring David Niven, Deborah Kerr and Sharon Tate. He scripted The Todd Killings (1971), a fictionalized account of the murders committed by American serial killer Charles Howard Schmid, Jr., the "Pied Piper of Tucson." Although a bright future had been predicted for him while he was still in his twenties, Dennis Murphy published a second novel only shortly before his death in 2005, at the age of 73.

Director John Flynn got his start in Hollywood as an assistant to Robert Wise. Hired by Wise to do research on a stillborn project about war photographer Robert Capa, Flynn served as an apprentice on the set of Wise's Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) and was his script supervisor for West Side Story (1961). The Sergeant marked the journeyman director's feature film debut. Fortunately for Flynn, Rod Steiger had wanted to film the book for quite some time and agreed to headline the production for a considerably reduced salary. (Steiger's notoriety at the time won him the role over Simon Oakland, who had lobbied energetically for the part of Albert Callan.)
v In a 2005 interview, Flynn remembered Steiger as introspective during principal photography, lonely and intensely troubled by his failing marriage to actress Claire Bloom. Long associated with muscular B-films in the crime genre, Flynn's resume is difficult to assess due to the unavailability of many of his key films on DVD (such as The Outfit [1973] and Rolling Thunder [1977]) . Despite directing such popular action film stars as Sylvester Stallone (Lock Up [1989]) and Steven Seagal (Out for Justice [1991]), Flynn's output degraded to impersonal assignments and slightly more interesting TV movies (Nails [1992]) through the 1990s. His final film, Protection, was completed in 2001 and released direct-to-video. John Flynn died in his sleep in Los Angeles on April 4, 2007, at the age of 75.

Producer: Richard Goldstone
Director: John Flynn
Screenplay: Dennis Murphy (novel and screenplay)
Cinematography: Henri Persin
Art Direction: Marc Frederix
Music: Michel Magne
Film Editing: Francoise Diot
Cast: Rod Steiger (MSgt. Albert Callan), John Phillip Law (Pfc. Tom Swanson), Ludmila Mikael (Solange), Frank Latimore (Capt. Loring), Elliott Sullivan (Pop Henneken), Ronald Rubin (Cpl. Cowley), Philip Roye (Aldous Brown), Jerry Brouer (Sgt. Komski), Memphis Slim (Himself).
C-108m. Letterboxed.

by Richard Harland Smith

John Flynn interview by Harvey F. Chartrand, Shock Cinema, No. 29, 2005
Rod Steiger interview by Larry King, 1997
John Phillip Law interview by Michael Murphy, Psychotronic Video, Spring 1992
Dennis Murphy obituary, San Francisco Chronicle, October 11, 2005
John Phillip Law obituary by Ronald Bergan, The Guardian, May 16, 2008
Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion by Jeffrey J. Kripal
"The Seven-Ton Typewriter: Hunter S. Thompson's Chronicles of Rage," by Peter O. Whitmer, Gadfly

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