Color, 1969, 94 mins. 49 sec.
Directed by John Dexter
Starring Lynn Redgrave, Hywel Bennett, Nigel Davenport, Nigel Patrick, Rachel Kempson, Jack Shepherd, Michael Gwynn
Indicator (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), Twilight Time (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), Sony (MOD DVD) (US R0 NTSC), UCA (DVD) (UK R2 PAL) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
Based on what was considered to be a pretty racy Leslie Thomas novel at the time, The Virgin Soldiers is an early entry in the low key, slice of life war dramedy style that would soon become popular in films like M*A*S*H and The Odd Angry Shot.
In 1950 Malaysia, the fellow soldiers of Brigg (Twisted Nerve's Bennett) are trying their best to get him to lose his virginity, most immediately with a pushy local prostitute, Juicy Lucy (Tsai Chin, immortal for "Darling, I give you very best duck" in You Only Live Twice). However, he keeps ducking out while his comrades are dealing with other issues like gonorrhea and sexual orientation. Brigg develops a crush on Phillipa (Georgy Girl's Redgrave), the disaffected daughter of Regimental Sergeant Major Raskin (Tales from the Crypt's Patrick), who's perturbed about rumors that his daughter's a lesbian. Stuck teaching at the local school, Philippa reluctantly goes to a dance social with the soldiers where she and Brigg end up crossing signals and ultimately end up with different sexual partners. Meanwhile Sergeant Driscoll (Davenport) tries to keep the boys in line as their lack of life experience makes it questionable whether they'll be able to function in combat in an area whose population just wants them to go home.
Though it makes little effort to orient the viewer in the nature of Britain's Malayan Emergency, The Virgin Soldiers works well as a general snapshot of military life among young men trying to function in a system that works better for some than for others. It didn't take much of a stretch to see how the film applied to the contemporary situation in Vietnam either, though today it's also possible to just watch it as a showcase for some top-rank actors at the peak of their powers. It's also quite funny, with some frank dialogue (including an ongoing "blue vein" joke that never would've flown a couple of years earlier) and fleeting nudity that were more than enough to earn it an early R rating in its U.S. release.
Still something of an under the radar film, The Virgin Soldiers first bowed on Blu-ray from Twilight Time in 2018 featuring a Sony-supplied HD transfer, an isolated music and effects track, theatrical trailer, and liner notes by Julie Kirgo. In 2019, Indicator brought the film to Blu-ray as a limited 3,000-unit edition complete with a 36-page booklet featuring new liner notes by Scott Harrison, thoughts on the film by Thomas, Redgrave and Chin bios, sample critical reviews, and a piece by Anthony Nield on Operation Malaya. The transfer appears to be the same one from Sony, which is excellent and true to the period with that somewhat heavy, dark look the studio favored in its film stock around the end of the '60s. The LPCM English mono audio is also in prime condition (with optional English SDH subtitles provided, which come in quite handy with the variety of accents), and the isolated music and effects track and trailer are also ported over here. In the new "The Virgin Actors" (28m58s), actors Roy Holder and Christopher Timothy recall how their early acting careers led to this film, including a trip to Malaysia and some rather hot shooting conditions as well as interacting with fellow actors of varying degrees of fame. They also touch on the unexpected audience reaction to one shocking scene, which probably isn't how most viewers will react now. "Some Confidence" (7m21s) features writer Ian La Frenais explaining how he was brought in for rewrites just after working on Tam Lin and felt at ease adapting a novel he liked very much, and there's also a fascinating discussion of how his "additional dialogue" credit has since become obsolete (as was the case with his later work on The Rock). A fascinating reel of raw location scouting footage in Malaysia and Singapore (14m20s) shows some of the familiar locations in their non-movie states, and an image gallery highlights some production stills and promotional material. Last and certainly not least, the feature-length Operation Malaya (66m40s) from 1953 is an in-depth documentary about the combat at its height, more or less following a squadron tracking down a hit team in the jungle and encountering the locals while absorbing motivational talks from their leaders. The narration is obviously very skewed to the British perspective on the lengthy conflict, making it a valuable time capsule and a reward companion piece to the main feature.
Reviewed on March 28, 2019.