Sgt Ryker (1968) ***

Universal pulled a fast one with this tidy courtroom drama. The studio resurrected a two-part television piece originally made as the The Case Against Paul Ryker five years before under the Kraft Suspense Theatre brand to capitalize on the unexpected box office success of Lee Marvin, the decade’s most unlikely new star after a straight run of hits from the Oscar-winning Cat Ballou (1965) through western The Professionals (1966) to The Dirty Dozen (1967).

Re-titled and hoping audiences would not notice the sleight of hand, this was thrown out into first run. By normal standards it would be deemed a flop for a star of Marvin’s newfound magnitude but the $1 million notched up in rentals Stateside and more overseas prove a handy cache of found money for the studio. Audiences might have smelled a rat when the star’s name came at the bottom of the opening credits with an “And” billing, which generally denoted guest – rather than main – star.

Still, despite being promoted as an actioner, posters show Ryker with machine gun in hand in the midst of a battle scene – there is such a scene but Marvin plays no part in it – it’s actually a decent drama, especially given the unusual background. Set in 1951 during the Korean War there’s nothing gung-ho about it. The Americans are retreating, evacuating Seoul, when army attorney Capt Young (Bradford Dillman) feels Ryker was short-changed during a trial that condemned him to death as a traitor.

Young and Ryker’s estranged wife Ann (Vera Miles) embark on a deadline-dogged mission – he’s due to be hanged in a couple of days’ time – to clear his name. Strafed by enemy planes during a trip from Tokyo to Seoul, there’s a hint of nascent romance. And when they are later caught together in a clinch, this adds to the murky atmosphere, Young facing court martial accused of the deadly sin of having an affair with a colleague’s wife and deemed a pariah by colleagues. He has another strike against his name – he dug up a grave.

The situation is exacerbated by high command caught between troops needing the morale-booster of seeing a traitor hanged and fearing scandal if they are found after the event to have sent an innocent man to the gallows. And there is the irony that Young, in his capacity as prosecutor, was the man who found Ryker guilty in the first place. He only ends up on the opposite side as punishment for exposing technical irregularities in the defence’s handling of the case.

Ryker doesn’t help himself by initially proving to be an unreliable witness, remembering in erroneous detail minor matters but not the one thing that could clear his name, whether his commanding officer, now deceased, had left a note clearing Ryker. The sergeant, caught behind enemy lines, had claimed he was acting under orders during a counter-intelligence mission.

So the odds are heavily stacked against Ryker, at the re-trial the sheer malevolence of his boss Major Whittaker (Peter Graves), and sex-obsessed pal Capt Appleton (Murray Hamilton) and what seems like ranks of generals barely concealed. The investigation focuses on finding missing items – watch, pen, notebook – of the dead officer, none of which it transpires helps the case.

The courtroom has plenty of the usual twists including a surprise witness proving Ryker fraternised before the war with a Korean general. So, with army politics and a downbeat take on war thrown into the mix it’s a generally absorbing drama.

Bradford Dillman (A Rage to Live, 1965), usually relegated to leading man or supporting star in the credits, one or two places below the star in the billing, gets the chance to shine, essaying both a man standing up for his principles against heavy opposition and a lover guilty of attempting to steal another man’s wife. Appearing in virtually every scene, he gives a better account of his acting skills than in most of his movies, far more than the often one-note performances to which he was consigned. One-time Hitchcock protegee Vera Miles (Hellfighters, 1968) doesn’t bring quite enough of the internal conflict to her role but she’s a reasonable sidekick.

Had any big studio been paying attention, Lee Marvin gave pretty good notice of his potential for star status especially the menace he could impart with just a glance rather than the showy over-acting to which he was inclined in previous villainous outings such as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). He’s careful to allow the shiftier and gloomier elements of his character to come into play rather than playing the role as heroic innocent. There’s good back-up from Peter Graves and allowed, a little leeway from their normal movie personas, Murray Hamilton md Norman Fell (both from The Graduate, 1967).

Buzz Kulik (Villa Rides, 1968) directed from a screenplay by Seeleg Lester (Change of Mind, 1969) and William D. Gordon (Cotter, 1973).

At a crisp 85 minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome as long as you’re not taken in by the still-misleading poster. A good example of the species with excellent performances.

Plus, you can catch if for free on YouTube.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

10 thoughts on “Sgt Ryker (1968) ***”

  1. Remember this when it was shown on the annual anniversary of a cinema chain in my area at half price. Marketing gimmick as this must have been leased at a bargain!

    Liked by 2 people

      1. They seemed to pull pictures off very quickly in your parts. Did cinemas run split weeks, one programme at the start and another at the end, or did they put a film on and run it for as long as it made money?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. One program at the start and another at the end. All 1st run programs have an earlier one show Saturday midnight screening prior to normal showing on a following Friday. A program’s duration depends on its popularity/ box office receipt ie The Ten Commandments, The Sound Of Music, My Fair Lady etc ran up to +/- 3 months. A handful had only a one day screening and one of them was A Time To Sing starring Hank Williams Jr.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. To add, never did we have 1st run programs on a double bill! Those I watched like Omar Khayyam, The First Texan etc were screened individually, whereas I read they were paired with another overseas.

    Liked by 2 people

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