Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Sergeants Rock

We saw Hacksaw Ridge Sunday night, Mel Gibson’s film about WWII conscientious objector Desmond Doss. It’s a good movie about an almost unbelievably true story, built largely around a bravura performance by former Spider-Man Andrew Garfield, but also featuring a great turn by Hugo Weaving as his father, a drunken and embittered WWI veteran. The biggest surprise for me though, was appreciating Vince Vaughn in a non-comedic role.

Vaughn plays Sgt. Howell, Doss’s platoon leader, who not only takes his recruits through basic training but on to the field of battle at Okinawa. But during his introduction, we get treated to the special kind of insightful and creative abuse so endemic to recruiting sergeants and drill instructors, at least in the movies.

Sgt Howell: I have seen stalks of corn with better physiques. Makes me want to pull an ear off, Private! Can you carry your weight?
Desmond Doss: Yes, Sergeant!
Sgt Howell: It should be easy for you then. Corporal!
Corporal Jessop: Sergeant.
Sgt Howell: Make sure you keep this man away from strong winds.

Or consider the following, as delivered to a completely naked individual:

Sgt Howell: Have you ever roped a goat, Hollywood?
Hollywood Zane: No, Sarge.
Sgt Howell: Have you ever looked into a goat's eyes?
Hollywood Zane: No, Sarge.
Sgt Howell: Good. That would be unnatural.

You can have a decent war movie without a colourful sergeant (Black Hawk Down did it, after all) but a good NCO makes a good movie better.

Full Metal Jacket - Sgt. Hartman is probably the gold standard for modern movie sergeants, probably due in no small part to R. Lee Ermey’s experience as a real life Marine Corps sarge. A perfect storm of well written content and the vocal delivery equivalent of CAPS LOCK.

Gunnery Sergeant Hartman: I am Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, your senior drill instructor. From now on you will speak only when spoken to, and the first and last words out of your filthy sewers will be "Sir". Do you maggots understand that?
Recruits: [In unison in a normal speaking tone] Sir, yes Sir.
Gunnery Sergeant Hartman: Bullshit I can't hear you. Sound off like you got a pair!
Recruits: [In unison, much louder] SIR, YES SIR!
Gunnery Sergeant Hartman: If you ladies leave my island, if you survive recruit training, you will be a weapon. You will be a minister of death praying for war. But until that day you are pukes. You are the lowest form of life on Earth. You are not even human fucking beings. You are nothing but unorganized grabastic pieces of amphibian shit! Because I am hard, you will not like me. But the more you hate me, the more you will learn. I am hard but I am fair. There is no racial bigotry here. I do not look down on niggers, kikes, wops or greasers. Here you are all equally worthless. And my orders are to weed out all non-hackers who do not pack the gear to serve in my beloved Corps. Do you maggots understand that?

Heartbreak Ridge - Clint Eastwood’s tough-as-nails Gunny Highway is almost as abusive as Sgt. Hartman, but is committed to the development of his men, and actually deploys with his platoon during the invasion of Grenada. Plus, other than Sgt. York, not a lot of war movies have a sergeant as the main character, right?

Highway: My name's Gunnery Sergeant Highway and I've drunk more beer and banged more quiff and pissed more blood and stomped more ass that all of you numbnuts put together. Now Major Powers has put me in charge of this reconnaissance platoon.
Lance Corporal Fragatti: We take care of ourselves.
Highway: You couldn't take care of a wet dream. God loves you.
Collins: I know that!
Highway: You men do not impress me!

Gettysburg - Sgt. Kilrain is a Mick after me own liver and kidneys, a campaigner from the Auld Sod who admonishes his colonel, a former college professor, for walking instead of riding the horse he’s been provided.

Pvt. Buster Kilrain: Colonel? Colonel, darlin'. Rise up, me bucko. (Chamberlain groans.) Oh, I'm sorry, darlin', but we've got a bit of a problem here, Colonel, would ye like to hear about it? Would ye wake up, sir? We got a whole company comin', sir. This way. I'll give ye time to wake up, but we've got quite a problem. Altogether, 120 men are comin'. We're to be havin' them as guests.
Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain: (still half asleep) What?
Pvt. Buster Kilrain: Yeah. Should be here any minute.
Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain: Who?
Pvt. Buster Kilrain: Mutineers. Mutineers, Colonel, me lad. 120 men from the old 2nd Maine which has been disbanded.
Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain: 120 mutineers? (gestures for Kilrain to keep talking.)
Pvt. Buster Kilrain: Yes, sir. Ye see, what happened was the enlistment papers on the old 2nd Maine run out. So they were sent home. All except these 120 fellows who'd foolishly signed 3-year papers. 3 years, that is. So these poor fellows, they got one more year to serve, only, you see, they thought they was signin' to fight only with the 2nd Maine and the 2nd Maine only. So, they, uh, quit. They resigned, ye see. 120 men! (Chamberlain puts his head down.) Colonel? Are ye all right?

Aliens - Sergeant Apone doesn't get a lot of screen time, but every time he is on screen he exudes discipline and proficiency. Another real-life sergeant, actor Al Matthews was the first black man promoted to E-5 in the U.S. army.

Sergeant Apone: All right, sweethearts, what are you waiting for? Breakfast in bed? Another glorious day in the Corps! A day in the Marine Corps is like a day on the farm. Every meal's a banquet! Every paycheck a fortune! Every formation a parade! I *love* the Corps!

Fort Apache - This one’s a twofer; you get Ward Bond and Victor McLaglen from The Quiet Man as Regimental Sergeant Major O’Rourke…

Lt. Col. Thursday: This Lt. O'Rourke - are you by chance related?
RSM Michael O'Rourke: Not by chance, sir, by blood. He's my son.
Lt. Col. Thursday: I see. How did he happen to get into West Point?
RSM Michael O'Rourke: It happened by presidential appointment, sir
Lt. Col. Thursday: Are you a former officer, O'Rourke?
RSM Michael O'Rourke: During the war, I was a major in the 69th New York regiment... The Irish Brigade, sir.
Lt. Col. Thursday: Still, it's been my impression that presidential appointments were restricted to sons of holders of the Medal of Honor.
RSM Michael O'Rourke: That is my impression, too, sir. Will that be all, sir?

...and Sgt. Mulcahy, respectively.
[in the storeroom at Meacham's trading post, the soldiers find boxes marked "Bibles" - Col. Thursday tells the men to open them - when they do, they find kegs of whiskey instead]
Sgt. Quincannon: Bibles, sir!
Lt. Col. Owen Thursday: [Col. Thursday hands a cup to Sgt. Mulcahy] Sergeant, pour me some scripture.
[Sgt. Mulcahy dips the cup into a keg and hands it to Col. Thursday. He takes a sip and spits it out]
Lt. Col. Owen Thursday: What's in this? Brimstone and sulfur?
Silas Meacham: You know what it is and I'm entitled to keep it.
Lt. Col. Owen Thursday: Your license may permit you to keep a medicinal store of whiskey, but this is no whiskey.
Silas Meacham: Perhaps you're not used to frontier whiskey.
Lt. Col. Owen Thursday: I don't know... I've tasted most everything.
[to Sgt. Mulcahy]
Lt. Col. Owen Thursday: Sergeant, you a judge of whiskey?
First Sgt. Festus Mulcahy: [looks around at the others] Uh, well, sir, some people say I am and some say I'm not, sir.
Lt. Col. Owen Thursday: [hands him the cup] Tell me what you make of this.
First Sgt. Festus Mulcahy: [takes a drink - makes a face at Meacham - takes another drink] Well, uh, it's better than no whiskey at all, sir.

And after being told to destroy the whiskey, and handing out cups to the other men:

First Sgt. Festus Mulcahy: "Destroy it," he says. Well, boys, we've a man's work ahead of us this day.

But my favourite probably has to be the straight and proper, cool and unflappable Colour Sergeant Bourne from Zulu, as portrayed by Nigel Green. His admonishment of the incarcerated preacher who tries to convince his guard to desert is delivered as coolly, professionally and impeccably as his bayonet strikes:

“Mr. Witt, sir, be quiet now will you; there's a good gentleman. You'll upset the lads.”

I don't know if Vince Vaughn's Sgt. Howell will resonate with me through the years the way some of these cinematic NCOs have, but he makes a worthwhile contribution to the canon.

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