ON DVD & BLU-RAY
The Virgin Soldiers (1969) starring Lynn Redgrave Blu Ray (Indicator)
National Service during the Malayan Emergency
Hywel Bennett plays a Private Brigg, a young Britsh man on National Service who is stationed in Singapore in 1951 during the height of the so-called Malayan Emergency. This was a time when a communist guerrilla organisation named the Malayan National Liberation Army fought against the occupying Commonwealth forces.
The ever-present threat of death hangs over him and his fellow “Virgin Soldiers”, something quickly brought home to him when he is passed a blood-sodden notebook from another young man who was killed in battle. Nonetheless, the only action that he hopes to see is with the women, amongst them being Phillipa (Lynn Redgrave) - the cute but standoffish daughter of Regimental Sergeant Major Raskin (Nigel Patrick) - and a local prostitute named Juicy Lucy (Tsai Chin).
Watch a trailer:
Virgins in more than one sense of the word
The Virgin Soldiers is an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical novel written by Leslie Thomas. On screen, it seems like a rather odd marriage of bawdy British sex comedy and more serious depiction of the brutalities of war. Nonetheless, the mix actually works well, providing both laughs and food for thought in equal measure. Metaphorically here, “Virgin Soldiers” applies not only to the young men’s quests to get laid but also to their lack of experience of going into battle and the resultant baptism of fire when they do so. The reality of combat is, inevitably, far removed from the playground gunfights which they enjoy in the relative comfort of their office.
There’s a lot in the way of witty, earthy dialogue and some surprisingly interesting characterisations to boot. The troops include an openly gay couple, a corporal who would rather be reading books than going into combat and a sergeant who boasts about his military history but ultimately turns out to be a cowardly custard. It’s Hywel Bennett’s character who is very much the central protagonist as well as providing some occasional first-person narration. Bennett is convincing as a nervous, slightly tetchy young man - as so many young soldiers would be in reality when the threat of being killed in action hangs over their head. Top-billed Lynn Redgrave (then hot off the success of Georgy Girl) is funny and quirky as his love interest. There are also memorable supporting roles for veteran British character actors Nigel Davenport and Nigel Patrick.
While the budget here probably wasn’t huge, the production gets a lot of value for its money. Instead of simply spraying the cast with fake sweat and shooting it all in England, the filmmakers went to the trouble of trekking over to the other side of the globe and filming most of the exteriors in Singapore and Malaysia. Kenneth Higgins’s photography does a sterling job of bringing out the humidity and local colour. The action sequences are also well-handled, tending to go for an intense in-the-thick-of-it style in lieu of vast spectacle. A classic example of this is a train derailment which is shot entirely from within one of the carriages.
A more disappointing aspect of The Virgin Soldiers is that it tends to downplay the fact that the British perpetrated a lot of atrocities during the Malayan Emergency. Here, however, a riot by the locals is portrayed as being nothing more than a threat to be neutralised rather than looking more deeply into the reasons why they might be rioting in the first place. The only local given any real characterisation is that of a colourfully brazen prostitute named Juicy Lucy (Tsai Chin). While there is one scene where a bullying sergeant is shown intimidating some hapless villagers, it feels like a toothless and compromised reflection of true events which included the Batang Kali massacre of 24 unarmed civilians at the hands of British soldiers plus the internment of around 500,000 people in so-called “New Villages”.
Nonetheless, the film redeems this aspect somewhat by portraying war itself as a dark endeavour which invariably steals the lives of far too many far-too-young men. Although the depictions of combat aren’t overly graphic for the most part, there is an undeniable horror in the sight of one man being abruptly blown up by an incendiary device whilst in the midst of a lively beachside ball game, or a soldier staring into the fact an enemy combatant who, at close range, is clearly a young boy. The fact that the earlier scenes go for playful smut only serves to amplify the shock factor of these later moments.
Runtime: 94 mins
Dir: John Dexter
Script: John Hopkins, John McGrath, Ian La Frenais, from a novel by Leslie Thomas
Starring: Lynn Redgrave, Hywel Bennett, Nigel Davenport, Nigel Patrick, Rachel Kempson, Jack Shepherd, Michael Gwynn, Tsai Chin, Christopher Timothy, Roy Holder, David Bowie
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
It’s another wonderful Indicator restoration. The colour grading and detail are top-notch; the shimmering tropical heat and sweating brows come across in vivid detail here.
The Virgin Actors
Roy Holder and Christopher Timothy make for entertaining interviewees as they discuss their time filming The Virgin Soldiers. Director John Dexter and a number of cast members (including Roy and Christopher themselves) had come straight from stints working at the National Theatre in London. Christopher also knew actress Lynn Redgrave from drama school.
Working in Singapore and Malaysia was a challenge due to both the humidity and the wildlife - most notably the biting red ants which fell on the actors from the trees. At one point, Roy chased some lizards out of his hotel room only to find that it allowed the ants to invade it - big mistake!
Roy also points out a couple of blink-and-you'll-miss-them moments. Firstly, there’s a very brief appearance by a pre-fame David Bowie (then known by his birth name of David Jones), who can be seen in the background of a bar scene. Secondly, a plaster is visible on Roy’s face in one shot. This was applied because of a self-inflicted off-set injury whereby he attempted to remove a facial cyst with a knife and ended up causing it to bleed heavily.
An interview with writer Ian La Frenais, who was drafted in by producer Ned Sherrin in order to polish up the film’s script. He was originally given the credit “additional dialogue by” but this was later removed due to Writer’s Guild rules. He drew heavily upon his own memories of serving in the British National Service.
16mm Location Footage
We get about 14 minutes’ worth of silent footage of the Malaysia and Singapore shooting locations.
This 67-minute British film from 1953 blends documentary footage and reenactments in its endeavours to portray the Malayan Emergency. Needless to say, it presents a rather one-sided view of the conflict complete with a typically stiff-upper-lip narration. Nonetheless, it is of some historical interest as a depiction of jungle guerrilla warfare and as a window into a period in history when communist and capitalist forces vied for control of Asia’s eastern periphery
The other extras here include an isolated music & effects track, a theatrical trailer, an image gallery and a collector’s booklet.
The Virgin Soldiers is somewhat underrated and, despite its ribald comedic elements, is more memorable for its hard-hitting anti-war message than anything else. Recommended.