This 1963 gem had the misfortune of premiering just five days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. With America still deeply in mourning, it never received the attention it deserved. Directed by Ralph Nelson and based on a book by Academy Award-winning author William Goldman, it stars Jackie Gleason in a dramatic role as Army Master Sergeant Maxwell Slaughter. The talent-heavy cast includes Steve McQueen as his sidekick Sergeant Eustis Clay; a 20-year-old Tuesday Weld as Gleason’s girlfriend, Bobby Jo Pepperdine; character actor Tom Poston; and Adam West, who went on to greater fame as Batman. Also featured is 22-year-old Chris Noel as McQueen’s girlfriend. This was the first of many roles for Noel, but her true claim to fame was as the “Voice of Vietnam,” the nickname she acquired because of her Armed Forces Network radio show, which was broadcast to U.S. troops and earned her millions of adoring fans during the war.
The film takes place in peacetime on a Southern Army post in between the Korean and Vietnam wars. The actual filming location was Ft. Ord, California. Slaughter is a career Army sergeant. Bright and articulate, he knows his way around the Army and he knows how to play the game. He is idolized by his sidekick, a not so bright draftee who is about to finish his hitch in the Army and return to civilian life. While Slaughter’s main concern centers around his creature comforts, including Butter Brickle ice cream and endlessly working crossword puzzles, Clay is full of get-rich-quick schemes. He is determined to get Slaughter to leave the Army and join him in some sort of business venture, where they’ll surely make millions. Part of his plan includes introducing Slaughter, who has found a home in the Army, to the charms of civilian life via the golf course and setting him up with a girl.
Certainly a drama, there are several comedic scenes that come off well, as does the chemistry between Gleason, Weld and McQueen. There is also an exceptionally realistic barroom brawl that sets up the movie’s conclusion. This movie is definitely worth watching, as is listening to the music by Henry Mancini. The title track is a classic in its own right.
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To listen to the title track, click here.
For a clip of Chris Noel entertaining the troops, click here.