Friday, May 12, 2017

Looking Back: The Sergeant (1968)

Rod Steiger in The Sergeant (1968).

The Sergeant, poor cow of a movie, never had a chance. The critics of 1968 – faced with Rod Steiger’s miserable Army lifer, Sergeant Callan, pursuing John Phillip Law’s dewy-eyed Private Swanson on a godforsaken supply post in 1952 France, and then killing himself – were unanimous in panning it. “In the context of today’s liberated movie-making,” Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times, “this study of repressed homosexuality seems almost quaint. It also is basically confused.” Steiger, Canby felt, “comes on with all the subtlety of a drag queen,” while Law seemed “remarkably dense.” In The New Yorker, Pauline Kael made more or less the same complaints, while voicing regret for the loneliness and pathos she believed were the homosexual’s lot in life. New York’s Judith Crist, with a sensitivity typical of herself and her peers, dismissed it as “a sleazily commercial film [about] a fag non-com.”

For straight critics like these, The Sergeant was mainly an offense against two hours of their time. Later, with queer critics to the fore, it became an offense against gay liberation: a mainstay on the list of “daring” sixties Hollywood movies that were seen as retrograde, even toxic in their sexual politics, with a preponderance of gay or lesbian characters either killing themselves, killing others, or getting killed. (Among the others were 1962’s The Children’s Hour and Advise and Consent, 1967’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, 1968’s The Fox and The Killing of Sister George, and 1969’s Staircase.) In Screening the Sexes (1973), the first study of homosexuality in the movies, critic Parker Tyler placed The Sergeant in the “Homeros in uniform” subgenre, calling it “a clean-cut, well-tailored movie like an expensive suit that has had only one wearing, then been relegated in a plastic wrap to the closet, where it will stay indefinitely.” By 1981 and The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo’s definitive history of gay cinema, the AIDS holocaust was imminent, and The Sergeant’s stock was even lower. Rather than suggesting that homosexuality might be associated with anything healthy, The Sergeant dealt “only in sexually motivated manipulations, spitefulness and petty jealousy, most of it unconscious and unexplored. The result is caricature.”

Broadly speaking, Russo was right – as was Kael when she scored the film’s droopy hetero romance and general listlessness; as was Canby when he used the word “confused.” Not that the story doesn’t have a solid literary tradition to lean back on. Directed by John Flynn, produced by Robert Wise, and adapted by Dennis Murphy from his 1958 novel, The Sergeant evokes other tales of gays in military drag (“Homeros in uniform”). Chief resemblances are to Melville’s Billy Budd, with an only slightly less angelic Billy and a Claggart more pathetic than demonic; and Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, in the homo-pathological maneuverings of a superior (Cummings) on an inferior (Hearn) whom he both desires and despises. But where those works (and, indeed, Murphy’s own novel) provide sufficient character and story points to suggest possibilities without imposing explanations, The Sergeant’s equation is missing some essential variables – which is to say, its muddy psychologizing is from ineptitude and compromise rather than purposeful ambiguity. The tone is set by a wartime prologue in which the sergeant, on patrol in a French forest, destroys a German machine gun nest, then chases and strangles an escaping Nazi. This memory recurs at the climax, when the sergeant runs into a different French forest to kill himself. The structural implication is that Callan’s fixation on Swanson has been rooted in this combat killing, and that the sergeant has sought to resurrect his youthful victim in the private’s innocent form. But in terms of the encompassing drama, this explanation is utterly inane, its only function being to preempt the possibility that Callan’s obsession might be erotic, physical, instinctual – that is, natural. On top of this basic disjunction, the movie is hobbled by direction that is studiously unimaginative, except when banally lyrical; secondary acting only a notch above zombie energy; and a score which, while not quite bad, is badly used. 

All of this negativity is not meant to clear ground for a recuperation of The Sergeant. Not exactly. This is no neglected gem, because a) its historical importance means it has gotten more attention than most films of comparable subtlety, coherence, and wit; and b) it has almost no subtlety, coherence, or wit. What then does it have, and why think about it?

It has, simply, a core of power, a nagging substance that even its own foolishness cannot quite erase. Most of that power and substance (and not a little of the foolishness) radiate from Rod Steiger, who manages some masterly effects while giving the overall impression of bulldozing his character into the ground. As Callan, he is alternately ferocious and bagged out, either wound up or depleted; his fury is unproblematically convincing, but his show of soldierly bonhomie is demented, and his heartbreak as stylized as a ballerina’s swoon. Yet for everything that seems misjudged, for all the too-muchness of the performance, not for an instant is it less than fascinating, less than alive. Kael suggested that Steiger was cast only because his renown as a gifted actor-impersonator would assure the public that he (and hence the character) wasn’t “really” gay. While that may indeed have been the moviemakers’ intent, it ignores what had always been Steiger’s latently pansexual talent: no actor of his generation combined such stout male physicality with such delicacies of expression, voice, and movement. (The one who came closest, Marlon Brando, was more Weimaraner than bulldog.) The outrageously epicene Mr. Joyboy in The Loved One (1965) saw Steiger playing freely with feints and flickers of body and voice that had been visible since the fifties, not only in the (implicitly gay) Hollywood studio boss of The Big Knife (1955), but also in roughneck characters like Jud in Oklahoma! (1955) and the title gangster in Al Capone (1959).

John Phillip Law and Rod Steiger in The Sergeant (1968).

In the late sixties, having capped a series of highly praised performances under strong directors with In the Heat of the Night (1967), for which he won an Oscar, Steiger entered a brief but interesting wilderness period of working on marginal material with inexperienced or mediocre directors. In movies like No Way to Treat a Lady (Jack Smight, 1968), The Illustrated Man (Smight, 1969), and Three into Two Won’t Go (Peter Hall, 1969), as well as The Sergeant, he worked at developing, or merely pushing, his worst tendencies: mannered virtuosity, battering-ram intensity, a wasteful worrying over every picayune mental or emotional process. (“He gives you too much for your five cents,” Sidney Lumet said of Steiger, who he directed in 1965’s The Pawnbroker.) But these performances have interest as a study in a great actor’s unapologetic defiance of good taste and rational proportion to make a style out of objectionable traits.

In The Sergeant, two scenes in particular show Steiger in defiant mode. One is Callan’s kiss of Swanson, though it is far less a kiss than a violently coerced, prolonged mashing of mouths. (In the novel, Callan simply grabbed the private’s genitals – a more direct indicator of physical lust, and another of the film’s compromises.) The moment, its build-up and aftermath are acted, shot, and choreographed, if that’s the word, as brutally as the strangling of the prologue. It’s a ripping away of the homosocial fa├žade, a point of no return, and dramatically everything it should be. But it’s also more, and worse, than everything: it’s painful, embarrassing, awful. We look away from it, or want to. The dramatic climax is reached, but does it have to be reached in such an ugly, awkward way? As ugly and awkward as it would be in life? The moment is Steiger’s more than anyone’s, and to the degree he determines it, the answer is a defiant yes.

The second scene comes soon after, when the post’s commanding officer – a cowardly gentleman drunk over whom Callan has established alpha dominance early on – is forced to relieve the sergeant of his duties before the assembled company. Callan, horrified, disgusted, outraged at the indignity, informs the C.O. that he has never been relieved of duty in his life, and that if he were, “it—would—not—be—by—someone—like—you.” Steiger’s stagy intensity threatens to implode the scene, but he forces it to completion through the impacted burden of his own too-muchness: his eyes water, his features pull in three directions, his voice shreds each word like a strip of flesh from the loathed body of the other man. Like the kiss, it is pure overindulgence, an indecent display of Thespianizing. It is also unstinting and magnetic, and may leave a bruise on anyone who watches it without surrendering to the easy laugh or superior snort.

With a true artist’s perversity, Steiger has dared you to find him likable, “relatable,” even tolerable. Judith Crist’s palpable recoil from both character and actor – her use of words like “sleaze,” “repulse,” “nausea” – brings to mind Lester Bangs’s essay on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, an album released the same year as The Sergeant. Bangs focused particularly on two songs, one an ode to an aging drag queen, the other a pedophile’s masturbatory daydream. “The beautiful horror of ‘Madame George’ and ‘Cyprus Avenue,’” he wrote, is that “we are looking at life in its fullest, and what these people are suffering from is not disease but nature, unless nature is a disease.” It was necessary, Bangs realized, to breach the polite distance of tasteful art, the veil of mere well-meaning, to get at something raw – for “only sunk in the foulest perversions could one human being love another for anything other than their humanness: love him for his weakness, his flaws, finally perhaps his decay.” This art was about “the absolute possibility of loving human beings at the farthest extreme of wretchedness.”

Rod Steiger as Sergeant Callan in The Sergeant.

Of course, the signal difference between The Sergeant and Astral Weeks is that the latter is, by almost any standard, beautiful: subtle, ethereal, tuneful, soaring. Its style is crystalline, its emotionalism held in an unfaltering poise. Whereas The Sergeant, like its star, is morose, ungainly, and uncomfortable with itself. But it may be that Steiger’s lack of restraint takes us closer to “the farthest extreme of wretchedness” than we’re accustomed to in acting; that what makes us squirm is the unusual empathy we are being asked to summon in order to see this man as a human being; and that when we ask an actor to delineate pathos and pain with exquisite degrees of control, we may in fact be asking for a seemly, aestheticized distance from the very emotional truth we claim to be seeking. Place Steiger’s sergeant next to, say, Meryl Streep’s Sophie (or Meryl Streep’s anything), and you have the analogy: Steiger is as wet, furious, and self-consumed as an angry baby, while Streep is as dry, correct, and exteriorized as a hologram. Steiger rejects decency and distance in order to embody wretchedness – even if that means that many viewers will reject him; and that’s a risk most actors never take a single time in their lives.

One other thing has lodged The Sergeant in my memory: the sequence of shots that end it. Vito Russo described them this way: “John Phillip Law sees Steiger go into the woods with a gun and realizes what is about to happen, but he makes no move to stop it. The virginal young private, hardly aware throughout the film that there is such a thing as homosexuality, knows enough finally to allow the suicide to take place unhindered. At the sound of the gunshot, he sighs in resignation; another doomed faggot has bitten the dust.” Actually, the ending is somewhat different (as opposed to the novel’s ending, which more closely conforms to Russo’s description, but is complicated by the open-endedness of all that has preceded it). It’s true that Swanson doesn’t try to stop Callan from carrying out the inevitable. But instead of resignation, his face shows a dawning torment not remotely like any expression it has carried thus far. Hearing the rifle’s report, Swanson stares in its direction for a few seconds; then looks down and takes a step or two away; then stops, turns, and stares again at the woods. Law’s face looks blasted, flayed. Far from shrugging off the demise of “another doomed faggot,” Swanson seems caught in a moment of life-changing realization.

Of what? For once, The Sergeant captures a perfect ambiguity, an Astral Weeks-caliber enigma. It may be the only multi-dimensional facial expression John Phillip Law crafted in his entire career; and while there has been a not-uninteresting contrast throughout the film between Steiger’s surplus of technique and Law’s deficit of same, it’s as if some of Steiger’s feeling has passed over to Law in this moment, and the film’s rampant confusions of mind and motive have been engraved in his face. The camera, attaining a belated wisdom of its own, can only stare at him, wanting answers and seeing only questions. Then the screen goes black, and the movie is over.

Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is devinmckinney.com.

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