Theater and opera director John Dexter (1925-1990), born 93 years ago today, created spellbinding worlds on stage, with his Tony®-winning efforts on the unforgettable original Broadway productions of Peter Shaffer’s Equus (1974) and David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly (1988) being only two of many noteworthy achievements on a resumé that included other memorable intersections with distinguished playwrights Shaffer (The Royal Hunt of the Sun), Arnold Wesker (Roots, Chips with Everything and the ill-fated Shylock aka The Merchant) and the mismatched trifecta of Arthur Laurents, Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim (Do I Hear a Waltz?). His first feature filmmaking foray (one of only three) would, like his proscenium productions, prove to be both subversive and immersive, and quite timely to boot.
Presented by veteran executive producer Carl Foreman (screenwriter of High Noon, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Guns of Navarone and Mackenna’s Gold), The Virgin Soldiers (1969) is a cheekily funny and ultimately heartrending look at young men-at-arms, in this case raw British National Servicemen striving to survive boredom, sexual frustration and the fear and shock of combat stationed near Singapore in 1950 during what was termed the “Malayan Emergency.” Based on a 1966 comic novel by Malayan campaign veteran Leslie Thomas and fashioned into a trenchant screenplay by John Hopkins (Thunderball, The Offence, Find Your Way Home), it achieved what the best antiwar movies did well, capturing the uneasy camaraderie and black humor of untested fighting forces in a faraway locale through strong individual characterizations, all the while commenting on the futility of warfare and the fallibility of military leadership. The timing of its arrival was right – debuting in the U.S. during the ongoing, explosive divisive Vietnam conflict, against which the drawing of painful and poignant parallels was inevitable – and also wrong, because its superbly cutting British wit and cynicism tended to be overshadowed at the time by a similarly themed movie that captured the public imagination even more: the all-American, Korean-War-set, Robert Altman-directed M*A*S*H (1970) arrived a week earlier in all its nose-tweaking glory, also adapted from a comically slanted tome by an actual veteran (Richard Hooker) of the conflict it covered.
Shot partly on location in Malaya and Singapore (with interiors done in England) by Ken Higgins (Darling, Georgy Girl), The Virgin Soldiers stars Lynn Redgrave (whom Dexter had recently directed for her Broadway debut in Shaffer’s Black Comedy) as the schoolteacher daughter of a regimental sergeant major (Nigel Patrick) and Hywel Bennett (The Family Way, Twisted Nerve, Loot) as Private Brigg, both inexperienced and longing to change that status, and both attracted to each other; their respective adulthood initiations will occur differently, hers with a gruff but tenderhearted career sergeant (Nigel Davenport) and his with a saucy but sentimental prostitute (Tsai Chin). Prominent critics responded to this “remarkably pertinent, unpretentious film that creeps up on its terrifying climax with near-comedic ease” (Judith Crist, New York). Bernard Drew of Gannett News Service considered it “rich, very real and compassionate entertainment, as much an antiwar film as M*A*S*H! The most motley crew of sad-funny characters since Mister Roberts.” “One way to condemn war is to depict peace. Director John Dexter cleverly leads us toward revulsion by concentrating on the tribulations of raw British soldiers cut out for anything but dying…suddenly there is battle, and death becomes real, stupid, wasteful, abhorrent,” Cue’s William Wolf wrote, noting “an ample supply of barracks humor, leavened by sensitivity and an appealing cast. Highly effective, memorably intelligent.” Dexter opted to direct only two more movies, each startlingly topical and contemporary, the New York-set counter-culture riff The Sidelong Glances of a Pigeon Kicker aka Pigeons (1970) and the pioneering transsexual drama I Want What I Want (1972), but The Virgin Soldiers remains his most admired screen work. With its stirring score by the rare-to-movies British composer Peter Greenwell showcased on an Isolated Music Track, it reports for duty August 21 on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray. Preorders open August 8.