THE VIRGIN SOLDIERS follows a group of young British troops into bars, beds and battle: the title letting us know they’re unfamiliar with more than one kind of action. Clunky comedy (of the embarrassing kind) is later replaced by an infusion of combat.
Billeted in Singapore in 1950, naïve recruits fulfilling their National Service duty spend energy drinking and trying to get some sexual experience before they’re shoved into action against insurgent guerrillas in the “Malayan Emergency”.
The feature film debut for theater and opera director John Dexter. The script by John Hopkins (Thunderball, Murder by Decree, The Offence) was based on Leslie Thomas’ best-selling semi-autobiographical novel.
Able cast and good production values but it doesn’t hold sufficient emotional involvement: it’s hard to care much about anyone. Mildly interesting as a period piece, helped by some location work done in Malaysia and Singapore.
Popular in Britain (#17 in ’69), the box office interest didn’t translate when it was released the following year in the States: American audiences were unfamiliar with Britain’s National Service idea, the previous decade’s Malayan Emergency drew a blank and screens were already being flooded with Vietnam-provoked military jibes like MASH, Catch-22 and a score of lesser anti-salutes. *
95 minutes, with Hywel Bennett (hapless anti-hero), Lynn Redgrave (tease time), Nigel Davenport (the tough sarge), Nigel Patrick (an unusually gruff role for this normally urbane actor), Rachel Kempson (going full bonkers), Jack Shepherd (screaming himself hoarse), Michael Gwynn (tut-tutting), Tsai Chin (bemused prostitute ‘Juicy Lucy’), Geoffrey Hughes, James Cosmo (debut) and Warren Clarke.
* ‘Absolute Beginners’—the movie gets a footnote for the feature debut of David Bowie, 22: he’s on-screen for maybe one second at the 34 min/20 sec mark.
A belated sequel of sorts—Stand Up, Virgin Soldiers—surfaced eight years later, bringing Nigel Davenport back and adding, among others, Edward Woodward: it came and went.