Master sergeant Callan was Rod Steiger’s second gay role of 1968 but, unlike “Dorian”, his flamboyant hairstylist persona in “No Way to Treat a Lady”, hardly anybody saw it.
The subject matter, its release during the Christmas season of 1968, and a couple of scathing (and homophobic) reviews by some of the major critics of the time (Kael, Crist, and Canby, were among them) that resembled a shark-feeding frenzy, quickly sealed its fate. Directed by John Flynn, making his directorial debut, and produced by his former boss director/producer Robert Wise, the film is by no means terrible. In fact, it is eerily similar, in so many ways, to John Huston’s “Reflections in a Golden Eye“, which was released the previous year with Marlon Brando.
Both movies feature a martinet who revels in the life of men among men. Callan rules over his military camp (in this case it’s rural France in 1952 – there is a black-and-white precredit sequence set during the closing days of WWII) with an iron fist, all the while lusting after a beautiful young man. In “Reflections” that obscure object of desire was Robert Forster, mostly bare-assed and riding Elizabeth Taylor’s favorite horse. Here it is John Phillip Law, looking beautiful between his star-making role in “The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming” and the blind angel in Roger Vadim’s “Barbarella”.
But while “Reflections” had the genius of McCullers and Huston (not to mention Brando, Taylor, Julie Harris, and Brian Keith), “The Sergeant” can only rise a little above its pedestrian screenplay, on occasion, and the sanctimonious parallel heterosexual romance, between Law and a young French woman (Ludmila Mikael), does not help matters. The best moments are thanks to the above-average performances of both leading men with Steiger – arguably the most flamboyant of all the great American actors – having a few memorable scenes, all of which border on camp.
There is a kiss, but it’s more of the Judas than the Cupid variety.
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