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On August 24, 1942, the day after finishing his work on The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Henry Fonda drove to a Los Angeles military induction center and enlisted in the navy. He did not tell his employer, 20th Century-Fox, what he was doing. He had decided that despite his age (37), he just couldn't sit out the war, and he hoped to enlist quietly. But word leaked to the press.
The next day he was sent to boot camp in San Diego -- where he was immediately detained by the Shore Patrol and returned to Hollywood! Fox studio chief Darryl Zanuck had used his influence to get Fonda a deferment so that he could cast him in a new movie, Immortal Sergeant (1943), which Zanuck claimed would help the war effort. Fonda later recalled bitterly: "So there I was back in Imperial Valley, California, in the hottest part of the desert, making a film called Immortal Sergeant. It was a silly picture. You want to hear the plot? I won World War II single-handed!"
This treatment by Zanuck left a bad taste in Fonda's mouth for the film, for Zanuck, and for 20th Century-Fox. For the rest of his life, Fonda routinely cited Immortal Sergeant as his least favorite movie. But judged on its own terms decades later, that appraisal seems overly harsh. Immortal Sergeant is hardly the greatest WWII movie, but it's not bad at all. Based on a bestselling novel by John Brophy, whose name appears above the title, the film is about a timid Canadian corporal (Fonda) serving in a British unit in Libya. He's taught a thing or two about courage and leadership by his beloved patrol sergeant (Thomas Mitchell) before the latter is killed. Fonda then must take command of what's left of the unit and complete their mission. (This was the first major Hollywood film to depict the British campaign in Africa.)
There's another story being told here, that of Fonda's romance with a girl back home -- lovely Maureen O'Hara, who at one point is seen emerging dripping wet from a shimmering lake. Through flashbacks, Fonda remembers his shyness in pursuing her, even as a rival (Reginald Gardner) romances her aggressively. For Fonda, tentativeness in love is connected to tentativeness in war. In the end, both must be resolved, and since this is a propagandistic war movie made during the war, it's no surprise how things turn out. (The flashbacks also allow Immortal Sergeant to become, in film scholar Jeanine Basinger's words, "the only combat film with a Cuban musical number!")
Reviews were mixed. Variety praised the "neatly-woven script" and "excellent photography," and said John M. Stahl "directs in deft style. Desert warfare is vividly displayed." The trade paper also gave Fonda good marks and noted "two spectacular sequences" -- one in which a plane crashes into a truck, and another in which the patrol launches an attack on the German encampment during a sandstorm. The New York Times found the film disappointing and "trivial," relying too much on clich, but even here Fonda's performance was praised.
Maureen O'Hara later remembered Fonda preparing for his war duties while on location: "I can still see Hank with his nose buried in books between takes, studying for his service entrance exams. The studio publicized our love scene as Hank's last screen kiss before going to war."
The day after Fonda finished with Immortal Sergeant, he returned to duty in the navy. He went on to work in naval intelligence, saw action in the Pacific, and was awarded a Presidential citation and the Bronze Star.
Immortal Sergeant would be released to theaters before The Ox-Bow Incident both because the former was seen as more important to get out as soon as possible, and because Zanuck personally hated the latter and had no idea how to market it. He ended up barely giving The Ox-Bow Incident a release at all, and then using its small box-office numbers to justify his low opinion of the film. But The Ox-Bow Incident has gone on to become a classic, one of Fonda's most respected movies, while Immortal Sergeant has basically become forgotten -- to the point of being underrated.
By Jeremy Arnold
Jeanine Basinger, The World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre
Devin McKinney, The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda
Maureen O'Hara with John Nicoletti, 'Tis Herself
Howard Teichmann (as told to), Fonda: My Life
Tony Thomas, The Films of Henry Fonda