I may be a film curator, but I certainly haven’t seen every film ever made. First, such an aspiration is impossible. When do you do the laundry? Second, discovering a film one has not yet seen is too much fun to give up. Recently I came across the 1958 comedy No Time for Sergeants on WNET’s Saturday-night Reel 13 Classics program. I’m not much for movie watching on TV unless I watch Turner Classic Movies (TCM), but since Reel 13 Classics is commercial-free, I sometimes take a look to see what’s on. Mervyn LeRoy’s comedy about a strapping country boy named Will Stockdale who’s drafted into the United States Air Force gripped me right from the start. The star of No Time for Sergeants, Andy Griffith (1926–2012), was the draw for me, as I was minimally acquainted with this screen career and wanted to know more. The depth and veiled meaning of the deceptively uncomplicated narrative drew me in further.
Like most Americans who watched TV as a child, I was well acquainted with The Andy Griffith Show, particularly toward the later years of its eight-year run (1960–68). Andy Taylor (Griffith) was the kind-hearted sheriff of Mayberry, North Carolina, where not much happened in the way of crime, but he was usually preoccupied with keeping the silly citizens from mayhem and mischief. Sheriff Taylor always had time to nurture his little boy, Opie (Ron Howard), and extend a kind helping hand to his fumbling deputy, Barney Fife (Don Knotts). However, before he was the compassionate, widowed Andy Taylor, Griffith was developing a robust screen and television drama career.
Debuting in 1957 on The Steve Allen Plymouth Show, Griffith then went on to star in Elia Kazan’s feature A Face in the Crowd (1957), a satire about the cult of personality. Griffith went back and forth between television drama—which was burgeoning at the time—and feature film roles. In A Face in the Crowd Griffith plays the wily and not-so-simple country bumpkin Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes. Lonesome is discovered by Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), a patrician college co-ed impressed with his down-home, corn-pone philosophy. But hiding just under the surface is a man who becomes drunk on the power and influence that comes with a popular radio show and a public willing to sit down and sip the poisoned Kool-Aid. Lonesome’s handlers eventually realize there is a problem when he begins to influence public opinion and dominate political outcomes. Like contemporary reality television, in which celebrities are created by being ubiquitous in the press or for manifesting scandal, A Face in the Crowd examines how quickly undeserved power corrupts.
Lonesome Rhodes is such a polar opposite of Sheriff Andy Taylor, it’s as if Griffith needed to make No Time for Sergeants in order to metaphorically cleanse his acting palate. While the gentle hulk Will Stockdale (Griffith) lazes around his family farm, his rifle-toting dad has been hiding the call notices sent by the local draft board. Will has been called for duty to serve in the peacetime military, in this case the Air Force, but his pappy knows what happens to simple country boys who get mixed up with cunning city fellows…. To prevent any trouble, pappy pockets the letters, but when a representative from the draft board shows up, Will is eager to leave and see something of the world.
Upon arrival at the Callville town meeting point, Will is handcuffed to a gas pump, as befits a dangerous draft-dodger. The other recruits are sitting around smoking, whistling at passing girls and playing cards. Inductee Irving S. Blanchard, who has gone through one year of ROTC training, is put in charge of getting his fellow privates on the bus. The good-natured Will tries to engage with the arrogant Irving, but immediately the latter takes a disliking to Will. Enter Ben Whitledge, reporting for duty carrying a letter from his mother asking that her boy be transferred to an infantry division. Everyone laughs at Ben, especially the more sophisticated Irving, who snatches the letter away. Ben, your typical 98-pound weakling, can’t fight back. Will politely asks Irving to return the letter and, when he is ignored, Will easily pulls apart a shaft on the gas pump and disengages the handcuffs. When Irving sees this, he backs down and gives Ben the letter. This action is evidence that the unfussy Will has a boiling point, but he uses his might to stand on the side of fairness and justice.
When the recruits arrive at basic training they meet their C.O., Sergeant King. King wants to run a ship-shape barrack and demands quiet, cleanliness, and no fuss. Fuss is equated with paperwork and King isn’t doing any! When the barracks lights go out, Irving leads a group of his new buddies to messing with Will and Ben, but going up against four or five opponents is no big deal for Will and he soon trounces Irving and company. King realizes he needs to keep Will close by and busy to avoid any further confrontations. Like Peggy Parish’s children’s book character Amelia Bedelia, who accepts things at face value, the guileless Will sees the world as a black-and-white, straightforward place. When housekeeper Amelia is asked to dust the furniture, she thinks it is a foolish request, but she finds dust and soot and sprinkles the mixture over the tables and chairs as asked! Will is the same as Amelia and when asked to clean the latrine and told it is an honor to do so, he takes on the task as if it were a promotion. King bestows the rank of P.L.O. on Will, and the young recruit is beaming as the new barracks Permanent Latrine Orderly.
Following basic training Will and Ben are often faced with challenges that arise from their turn in the Air Force—and sadly they are unable to meet them with their lacking military skills. Their reactions are often slapstick and broad, but it all works, especially with Ben’s Harold Lloyd–like eyeglasses. Ben was played by Nick Adams, and it was something of an odd role for Adam’s to take on. Best known for starring in the late-1950s television series The Rebel, Adams was also famously friends with mid-century Hollywood’s coolest stars, James Dean and Elvis Presley. He even appeared in a small role in Rebel without a Cause (1955). The naive but feisty Ben Whitledge was a stretch for Adams, but he developed the character perfectly, and he and Griffith developed a great Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn chemistry.
No Time for Sergeants was based on a novel by Mac Hyman and first adapted as a stage play by Ira Levin (best known for writing the novel Rosemary’s Baby). The influence of this lighthearted comedy was also quite enduring: television’s Gomer Pyle was based on Will Stockdale, and even the latter day Forrest Gump borrows from Will’s childlike worldview.
What I take away from No Time for Sergeants is a film that, while billed as a comedy, is also a powerful story about a young man tested by those who either mock or misunderstand him. Not only is Will Stockdale physically powerful, his spirit is warm, open, tolerant, and inclusive—even when he is being called Plowboy or being ridiculed for his gee-whiz demeanor. About 10 years ago MoMA published a book called The Hidden God, which focused on how filmmakers considered the absence or presence of God in their films. If a volume two of this book were to be published, I’d certainly like to write more about the clandestine characters in No Time for Sergeants.
No Time for Sergeants is included in MoMA’s film collection.