GROUPS of men in uniform have been the heroes, the protagonists, the subject of so many films— from All Quiet on the Western Front to Oh, What a Lovely War! — that at first The Virgin Soldiers ("X," Odeon, Leicester Square) seemed just the opening of another chapter in the saga.
Raw recruits drilling in a barrack square, whether in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur might he the prelude to any fashionably anti-military war film. So for a time, it seems.
Then, very early. as we meet the innocent, ignorant clerks and schoolboys, National Servicemen in 1950, sorting out their effects in Panglin, a fresh note is struck. These callow, thoughtless boys are authentic enough, not particularly interesting in their inexperienced preoccupations, but promising material for film as for life.
Some of the sketches that make up the action are funny, some are touching. Nearly all the acting is splendid. But none of the issues. none of the characters, seem developed in depth or built into a coherent whole.
Private Briggs (Hywel Bennett) is a round-eyed, cropheaded innocent, eager with early curiosity for sex, but too uncouth to take the opportunity of his first meeting with the local prostitute. Juicy Lucy (Tsai Chin) though she later, as the synopsis puts it, "successfully initiates" him.
Col. Pickering (MichaelGwynn) is one of the more attractive figures with his ineffectual concern for the welfare of his young soldiers.
Sergeant-Major Raskin (a lovely sketch by Nigel Patrick) is a bit of a bore. though not enough surely to account for relations with his daughter (a luscious, warm and wayward performance by Lynn Redgrave) bad enough to make her a wilful wallflower at the frightful camp dance or so clumsy in handling her incipient attraction for Briggs that she cheerfully accepts a complaisant sergeant (Nigel Davenport) in his stead.
When Briggs helps her and her hysterical mother (Rachel Kernpson) to escape from one of the sporadic riots which punctuate the action, and even takes his rifle to protect them, the attackers ihe shoots at prove to be friendly Chinese, The mistake was quite understandable to me. Jungle warfare on the screen (and I suppose in reality) is always confused, but 1 have seldom found it so confusing as here.
At the end the boys entrain for home, unchanged apparently but for a few losses. Perhaps Leslie Thomas's original novel succeeded in giv
ing the pointlessness of it all a context.
The picture never seems to have been conceived as a movie by the director John Dexter or by the producers, Leslie Gil!iati and Ned Sherrin, or by John Hopkins who wrote the screenplay (with adaptation by John McGrath and additional dialogue by Ian La Frenais). So as a whole, in spite of good touches, it disappoints.
An exceptionally vigorous double bill at the New Victoria includes one uproariously enjoyable Western, The Good Guys and the Bad Guys ("A"). Robert Mitchum plays an ageing Marshal Flagg, who captures a famous outlaw, Big John Mackay (George Kennedy), of his own generation.
Between hold-ups and fights
they establish that their standards and traditions give thorn more in common than either has with the flash modern
political mayor (Martin Balsam) of the small pioneer town of Progress. New Mexico.
This is an authentic, basic Western, set in the I900's, with e magnificent cast of old-tieriers (and an occasional son, like John and David Carradine), an hilarious chase of a train by bandits pursued in turn by townsmen on horseback or in a fleet of early cars worthy of the veteran run to Brighton, though this goes through stupendous scenery on the Colorado border.
The director is Burt Kennedy, whose vigour with Westerns I have often appreciated. And there is a splendid moral. when Marshal Flagg hands over to his young successor with the advice: "You gotta learn to tell the Good Guys from the Bad Guys".
The double bill is made rather a feat of endurance by the very long 90 minutes of Gwangi ("A"), about the discovery by an old professor (Laurence Naismith) of supposed prehistoric animals in "them thar hills."
I suppose it is a compliment of some sort that, although these "eohippus and allpsaurus" are clearly property-department monsters, the attempt to recruit them for a Wild West show causes almost as much concern as though they were alive.
The even more powerful and distinguished double bill at the Times Theatre, Baker Street Station, consisting of Eisenstein's Ten Days That Shook the World ("A") and De Sica's Bicycle Thieves ("U") gave me a chance to see De Sica's masterpiece yet again.
The latter is still a satisfying and deeply moving film, though its documentary use of non-professional actors and the impetus of the early Italian "nee-realism" are inevitably less striking than when I first acclaimed the film at a film festival in Belgium in 1948.