December 13, 2013
No Time for Sergeants (1958)
Grade: 71/100

Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Stars: Andy Griffith, Nick Adams, Myron McCormick

What it's about. This Air Force comedy is set in the South. Young bumpkin Andy Griffith is drafted over the resistance and objections of his xenophobic and cantankerous father, William Fawcett.

Griffith immediately has the barracks reputation as a dangerous man, but is in fact naive and affable. He forms a close friendship with Nick Adams, a small man anxious to prove his worth to his family by transferring into the infantry. Their drill sergeant and foil is world-weary and aging Myron McCormick. Murray Hamilton is the antagonist whom Griffith must better (and inevitably will).

How others will see it. Based on a popular stage play, No Time for Sergeants was a box office success but, typical for a comedy regardless of merit, was ignored by the Oscars. Today, the film is fairly popular, but to a lesser degree than Griffith's long-running 1960s television series or the fascinating (and even better) A Face in the Crowd.

How I felt about it. Most people enjoy No Time for Sergeants strictly as a comedy. And certainly, that is how the producers would have wanted it. But the veteran film critic always looks for angles, and there are many of them in the present film. That is, there is much to talk about.

This was the second starring role for the talented Andy Griffith, who also played a bumpkin, though a far more sinister one, in his debut A Face in the Crowd. The present movie presents him closer to his role in the long-running (and still highly popular) television series "The Andy Griffith Show", though he is more a man of the world in the series.

Griffith's co-star in the series was Don Knotts, a man whose comic talents possibly exceeded even those of Griffith. Knotts makes his film debut in this film as a nasal and sputtering but well intentioned officer. Again, similar to his role as the lovable but often incompetent deputy in the series.

But Knotts is not alone in his inability to cope with Griffith. Military psychiatrist James Millhollin is even more exasperating at being unable to pin down Griffith with the usual plethora of psychosis. Could it be that anyone (aside from Ronald Reagan) is completely free from childhood-induced anxiety? One has to wonder how real psychiatrists view the character. Hopefully, they laugh.

Drill Sergant McCormick is forced to adopt various strategies. Ignoring him doesn't work, and neither does using him. Finally, he becomes his benefactor, shepherding him through the military bureaucracy. This strategy fails also, since Griffith gets himself, and the military, into further embarrassing (though ultimately harmless) difficulties.

But McCormick is not a stereotype. A drill sergeant is typically portrayed in film as a merciless taskmaster, most infamously in Full Metal Jacket. McCormick, though, is little interested in discipline, and simply wants to get through the day until he can retire and collect a pension. Notwithstanding that he already looks old enough to have gotten his years in.

Unlike Griffith, cynical and self-interested Murray Hamilton easily fits into military life. But he can't get the better of Griffith either, since Griffith can whup him in a fight. Indeed, Griffith is something of a stereotype of rural white Southeners, the Li'l Abner category who is naive, earnest, and brawny. Yet at the same time, Griffith shows glimpses of anarchist genius, though without the malevolence and self-interest he exhibited in A Face in the Crowd.

It is clear why Griffith and Adams are so close in this film. Each compensates for the other's weaknesses. Griffith knows nothing of the military, and needs Adams to fill him in. The small and nervous Adams needs the protection and friendship of Griffith.

One problem with No Time for Sergeants is that there are no blacks onscreen, more than a decade after Truman integrated the Army. Presumably, Hollywood feared that white Southerners would be offended by their mere presence, much like "The Andy Griffith Show" never gave black actors any speaking lines despite blacks making up at least 30% of the demographic.