John M. Stahl

Sog.: dal romanzo omonimo di John Brophy. Scen.: Lamar Trotti. F.: Arthur Miller. M.: James B. Clark. Scgf.: Richard Day, Maurice Ransford. Mus.: David Buttolph. Int.: Henry Fonda (caporale Colin Spence), Thomas Mitchell (sergente Kelly), Maureen O’Hara (Valentine), Allyn Joslyn (Cassidy), Reginald Gardiner (Benedict), Melville Cooper (Pilcher), Morton Lowry (Cottrell), Bramwell Fletcher (Symes). Prod.: 20th Century Fox. 35mm. D.: 91’. Bn.

T. it.: Italian title. T. int.: International title. T. alt.: Alternative title. Sog.: Story. Scen.: Screenplay. F.: Cinematography. M.: Editing. Scgf.: Set Design. Mus.: Music. Int.: Cast. Prod.: Production Company. L.: Length. D.: Running Time. f/s: Frames per second. Bn.: Black e White. Col.: Color. Da: Print source

Film Notes

Stahl’s first picture for 20th Century Fox was this World War II combat film set primarily in the Libyan desert that also works in scenes of home front romantic melodrama. Henry Fonda’s timid corporal finds himself in command of an army patrol when his tough sergeant is killed. Meanwhile, in a series of flashbacks, he remembers his life before the war in London, where he loved a woman (Maureen O’Hara) but was too shy to say so, and had to watch silently as another man pursued her aggressively. In other words, romantic hesitation is linked to a lack of physical courage.

In telling this story, Stahl navigates a complex interplay of points of view. While the audience is kept aligned with Fonda’s journey and even shares his memory flashbacks, the overall point of view is objective. Stahl’s visual choices keep the audience as observers whose engagement is less of feeling Colin’s reactions to events and more of noticing that he has those reactions. The central question is whether Fonda will rise to the challenge and show the ability he needs as a leader; if he does, the story suggests, he will also gain the confidence he needs in love.

The male-female sensitivity that Stahl brought to his romantic melodramas finds a fascinating place in combat, as Stahl conveys extraordinary intimacy between battle-weary comrades. The scenes of the men sharing their last cigarette and a tin of pineapple are almost ethereal in their formal presentation, and the sequences between Fonda and Thomas Mitchell, as the immortal sergeant himself, grow increasingly meaningful and poignant; their final exchange is so visually sensuous it is practically a love scene.

Immortal Sergeant was very well received in 1943 but has become a neglected film in Stahl’s career. Made with propaganda value in mind, it stands on its own terms as visually and thematically coherent, well-paced and engaging, thanks to expert, subtle craftsmanship. Note: uncredited second unit director James Tinling directed the shots of combat not involving the main actors.

Jeremy Arnold

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