review for Sergeant Ryker on AllMovie

Sergeant Ryker (1968)
by Bruce Eder review

Universal Pictures got a lot of mileage out of the property known as Sergeant Ryker. The script was originally filmed as part of a two-part installment of Kraft Suspense Theatre on NBC in October of 1963, entitled "The Case Against Paul Ryker," and it also served, in that form, as the pilot for the series Court Martial (aka Counsellors-at-War), a short-lived Anglo-American co-production starring Peter Graves, Bradford Dillman, and Angela Browne, that ran from 1965 through 1966. Two years later, in the wake of Lee Marvin's Oscar win for Cat Ballou and his sudden box-office stardom coming off of The Dirty Dozen, Universal retrieved the television show and recut it while adding new footage, intending to show it as a TV movie. But the resulting movie, Sergeant Ryker, was so good that it was actually released to theaters domestically, with a heavy advertising campaign. The movie is filled with first-rate performances by everyone, most especially Marvin -- who, if he'd done this in a theatrical film, might have earned an Oscar nomination -- and Murray Hamilton, playing Dillman's cynically pragmatic fellow officer. Director Buzz Kulik, working within the confines of a television script, managed to make this movie into something so much better than Universal expected that it sent it out theatrically. This was no ordinary script, either -- contained in the midst of its examination of the limits of a soldier's dedication to duty and obedience to orders (and a brilliant study by Marvin of a man who admits that, hero though he may be, he's no mental acrobat) are echoes and resonances that recall the reality of the early '50s and the Red Scare, and even echoes of the blacklist (and the red-baiting that took place during that era) in the questioning to which Ryker is subjected. No ordinary Hollywood film of 1968 would broach such subjects in a wartime context, but this movie does it, precisely because it is a hybrid, combining the best elements of the finest television courtroom dramas (co-author Seeleg Lester was a veteran writer/producer from Perry Mason) and the best cinematic trial dramas, including Anatomy of a Murder and Twelve Angry Men. The film even offered just enough expansiveness in its plot and setting to make movie audiences feel they were getting their money's worth, as well, and not simply looking at some canned TV entertainment. Additionally, Sergeant Ryker was released just as public opinion was starting to swing against the Vietnam War, and the script questioned enough about the military and its sense of right and wrong, and commitment to truth, to find an audience among younger filmgoers as well as older viewers in search of good drama and an engrossing war film.