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August 14, 2007

Two films by John M. Stahl

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The Immortal Sergeant
John M. Stahl - 1943
Twentieth Century-Fox Region 1 DVD

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The Keys of the Kingdom
John M. Stahl - 1944
Twentieth Century-Fox Region 1 DVD

I first became aware of John M. Stahl through Andrew Sarris' American Cinema. Stahl is listed in the "Expressive Esoterica" section. In the almost forty years since publication, Stahl seems to have become more esoteric, though not less expressive. I had the opportunity to attend a screening of Holy Matrimony quite a while ago which I enjoyed. I had also seen Leave Her to Heaven though I am fuzzier about when and how I saw what may be Stahl's most famous film. What had stuck with me in reading Sarris was his description of a scene in The Immortal Sergeant.

I finally got to see The Immortal Sergeant which was quietly released on DVD last Spring. The scene in question is of Henry Fonda's desert dream. A soldier, trekking through the desert, with little water left, Fonda's mind wanders to a memory of water, actually a lake, and the woman of his dreams, Maureen O'Hara. The scene was not quite what I had imagined. But the film goes into a direction that was unexpected and satisfying.

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What little is written about John M. Stahl mostly is about Leave Her to Heaven or his other so-called "women's pictures". Stahl's reputation also rests on the fact that two of his films Imitation of Life and Magnificent Obsession were remade by Douglas Sirk. Very few of Stahl's films are available on tape or disc. One key early sound film that would be most welcomed, if still preserved, would be Strictly Dishonorable, Stahl's 1931 film from Preston Sturges' hit Broadway play. What The Immortal Sergeant and The Keys of the Kingdom accomplish at the very least is that they are reminders that Stahl also made at least two worthy films about men.

Although both films were essentially works for hire, they share some key elements. Both films are about men who discover their strengths after being sent to remote parts of the world. Both Fonda and Gregory Peck are encouraged by mentors who die in the course of the film. One could also say that both films are about protagonists who seek balance between following orders and their own inner direction, and between personal beliefs and and a more expedient greater good. Also shared is a core belief of the two main characters in the inherent dignity of others, a respect given to all. Whether as soldier or priest, that respect is accorded everyone regardless of who they are, unless that person demonstrates that the respect is not mutual. Both Fonda and Peck are self-effacing, and view whatever they have accomplished as no more than the job that they were assigned.

The Immortal Sergeant is an unusual war film, especially for its time. Henry Fonda is motivated to enlist not because of patriotic ideals, but because he has seen newsreel footage of how the Nazis have imprisoned his favorite French waiter. Fonda also chooses to enter the war as a Private, playing on the notion that as a civilian his character is a very private person. Even though the Italian and German soldiers are virtually unseen, war is presented as a waste of human life. There are really no winners or losers, just the survivors and the dead. Fonda calls himself a tinpot hero. Military victory is less meaningful than developing a backbone, and considering oneself worthy to propose marriage to Maureen O'Hara.

The Keys of the Kingdom may strike some as being shockingly liberal when viewed at a time when concepts as Christianity and faith seem so narrowly defined. Gregory Peck's Father Francis chooses to have converts come to him rather than force conversion on the Chinese. Faith is something one come to out of personal conviction and sincerity. Francis comes in conflict with the church because of his pluralistic viewpoint, that how people treat each other is more important than the particular faith that is embraced. In this way, Keys of the Kingdom is as unusual a film about faith as The Immortal Sergeant undermines itself as a war film. In The Keys of the Kingdom, it is less important to be Catholic or even Christian in one's identity than it is to do good in the world.

Both Fonda and Peck are encouraged by their mentors in the form of voices that they hear from Thomas Mitchell and Edmund Gwenn respectively. That these two idiosyncratic mentors are dead almost suggests that one could almost retitle either of Stahl's films about men with a mission, "Leave Him to Heaven".

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 14, 2007 02:45 PM


The only two Stahl films I've seen are Imitation of Life, which I think somehow seems less dated that Sirk's version, and Leave Her to Heaven, which I think is a stunningly beautiful film.

Posted by: Edward Copeland at August 15, 2007 12:00 PM

I enjoyed reading this and learned a bit which is always nice. I can remember catching The Keys of the Kingdom on TV one afternoon many years ago and finding it interesting enough to watch until the end which was partly do to the gorgeous Gregory Peck who I can never get enough of and Stahl's direction. The story is something that would normally be of no interest to me. You've made me curious about his other films.

Posted by: Kimberly at August 15, 2007 03:32 PM

Imitation of life, as done by Mr. Stahl, was finally a much needed look into the life of Women of Color.

The fact the film was produced is a wonder all of its self..Holly wood tried to cite miscegenation volition, "in spirit,not in fact". I am glad to be two generations away from the blatant, B.S. of Hollywood past,(however subject to different levels of BS now)

In all Mr. Stahl did a fine job recapturing and portraying the angst and frustration, the denial- truly- of simple being a human being- who is black.

Can an award be given for understanding?

Posted by: Sahre at September 24, 2007 04:48 PM