January 14, 1943 [Immortal Sergeant]

Henry Fonda is dependable, but Immortal Sergeant is not--well, it is, if what we need to know is that one cannot be both sensitive and heroic--if by "sensitive" one means "weak." The Great Soul, Gandhi, is sensitive--and he has put up with more than most hard-bitten strong-silent types could manage. His "satyagraha" seeks to convert, not overwhelm, one's opponent--and that opponent can be within oneself, as with Fonda's quiet Canadian writer-turned-troop-leader.

But the film punishes him--shows him losing every time he resists the urge to raise a ruckus. There are embarrassing flashbacks--especially the nightclub scene, in which he and his girl are given a back table near the kitchen, and he does not complain enough to be moved. (And okeh, the woman is Maureen O'Hara, and I'm willing to admit she should've been able to light a bigger fire in his belly.) In the end, though, battle and the demands of leadership shed him of his weakness so that he can effectively growl away the home-front competition; but it seems--despite the war and all--too easy--even easier than the typical movie-conversion, usually involving a Popeye-like "That's all I can stan's, 'cause I can't stan's no more," followed by a sock in the puss. What if he had kept his quiet and found strength in it? Couldn't he have led as well? Couldn't he have loved and been loved?

The movie doesn't think so. But I remember Fonda as Tom Joad, that speech to his mother about where he'll be and what he is willing to witness, and become. Whether as Lincoln or an Oakie, a Corporal or what-have-you, Fonda convinces me to fall silent and pay attention. And I do, even when I'm not sure he's telling me the truth--even when he uses those solemn eyes of his to assure me he's a better man because he refuses to be pushed around by suave, more successful nightclub-frequenting authors. I suppose I'm trying to excuse him somehow--and I do. Damn his level voice and calm gaze.


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