This obscure 1972 thriller features excellent performances by Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed, and marks the feature debut of the great director Michael Apted. The wartime home front drama takes a surprisingly precocious and sensitive view of a bizarre incident that probably happened in real life: to escape his military service, a reluctant soldier cross-dresses as a woman.
The Triple Echo
Region B Blu-ray
1972 / Color / 1:85 / 94 min. / Soldier in Skirts / Street Date March 25, 2019 / available from Powerhouse Films UK / £18.36
Starring: Glenda Jackson, Oliver Reed, Brian Deacon, Anthony May, Gavin Richards, Jenny Lee Wright.
Cinematography: John Coquillon
Film Editor: Barrie Vince
Original Music: Mark Wilkinson
Written by Robin Chapman, from the story by H.E. Bates
Produced by Graham Cottle
Directed by Michael Apted
Billy Wilder would have given the makers of The Triple Echo cautioning advice about putting male actors in drag and passing them off as women: it’s a very difficult ruse to pull off, especially in a picture as realistic as Michael Apted’s fascinating, impressive first feature.
Hemdale Films exploited a 6-week gap in the work schedules of then- hot actors Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed, and tapped the efficient Michael Apted to direct. Up until that point Apted had worked on tight TV schedules, and had just released the first sequel to his 1964 Seven Up!, the documentary series that returned to visit a group of children every seven years.
English movies about the rural homefront in the war years are generally nostalgic in nature, even though the champion was an eccentric tale made by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger during the war: A Canterbury Tale. As oddly patriotic as that was, it isn’t quite as controversial as this adaptation of the last novel written by Herbert Ernest Bates, the author of the source for the superb Robert Parrish film The Purple Plain. Those viewers not tempted to see the second filmic pairing of actors Jackson and Reed might remember the superior The Purple Plain, one of Gregory Peck’s best pictures.
Bates’ storyline was probably too controversial when he began writing it in 1943; he didn’t finish it until 1968. The screenplay by TV writer Robin Chapman alters several elements. Not long into WW2, farmer’s wife Alice Charlesworth (Glenda Jackson) is struggling on her own to keep her small farm going, mainly by selling eggs to the local grocer. She meets Barton (Brian Deacon), a young conscript soldier in a nearby camp preparing for the upcoming invasion. Although Alice is at first hostile, she warms to the young Barton. She reveals that her husband has been captured; all she knows is that he is in a Japanese POW camp. The inevitable happens, Alice and Barton fall in love. After a time he conceives of a mad plan to desert and hide out with her. They disguise him as Alice’s sister. To their dismay, a pushy, aggressive tank Sergeant (Oliver Reed) begins visiting uninvited and without warning, trying to get either Alice or her ‘retiring, sickly sister’ to step out with him. After months disguised as a woman Barton becomes irritable and refuses to hide himself — and even seems to enjoy the Sergeant’s otherwise unwelcome visits. Barton then agrees to go to a Christmas dance with the Sergeant. Alice can’t convince him how insane that is. The vulgar Sergeant doesn’t disguise the fact that he wants to do more than dance, and he’s not the kind of man one can say No to. It will surely mean exposure, arrest and perhaps worse for both of them, but Barton won’t be talked out of it.
The premise of The Triple Echo sounds silly until one takes into account that there’s no predicting human nature when sex, and confused sexual roles come into play. Of the thousands of men that desert in wartime, it’s likely that many cross-dressed as a disguise, and it’s also likely that some underwent radical personality changes. The movie makes Barton less disturbed at the outset, and makes the relationship between Alice and Barton more romantic.
The Triple Echo is convincing most of the way through its premise, and the caliber of writing and acting is so good that we accept the marginal elements that don’t work perfectly. Billy Wilder was right — putting men in drag is a risky business. The disguise of the fine actor Brian Deacon fails to convince us that anyone would consider him a woman. Yet the performances of Deacon and Oliver Reed sell the situation so well that we accept the notion. The movie is strong enough to support more telegraphed content and foreshadowing — there’s a malfunctioning shotgun, and at one point Alice’s husband’s old dog falls sick and needs to be put out if its misery.
The fact that war scrambles gender roles is established right at the outset. Alice uses a malfunctioning shotgun to kill rats, but cannot target the rabbits on her farm. She can’t repair her tractor, a problem that Barton, an unhappy farm boy himself, soon corrects. Not a skilled Land Girl (the central subject of A Canterbury Tale), Alice nevertheless knows how to stand up for herself. Mark Wilkinson’s beautiful music complements scenes of Alice keeping her farm in order, and she doesn’t relinquish the role of boss in her extramarital affair. She immediately knows that the bullish, insinuatingly vulgar Sergeant is a major threat.
This is a really good role for Oliver Reed, who gets to play a character close to his own personality. The Sergeant never takes No for an answer, something that Apted and Deacon affirm goes for Reed, when they tell stories about being forced to go drinking with him. The Sergeant gets away with being borderline insubordinate to officers, and runs his barracks like a terror cell. He’s no dummy — he admits to a buddy that he has a plan to transfer out of tanks, for the simple reason that he ‘doesn’t want to die in a sardine tin.’
When Barton eventually goes on his fateful dance date, the basic brutality of soldiering comes to the fore. The Sergeant and his pal Stan (Gavin Richards) will settle for nothing but sex with their dates, on their terms. Stan browbeats and bullies his girl into a storeroom, and mistreats her even though she’s willing. The Sergeant expects the same from Barton. From that moment forward tragedy is unavoidable.
Some critics felt that the later plot developments are not credible, that Barton would be all too aware how brute soldiers behave when given the chance. I’ve also read that some critics didn’t follow the logic of Alice’s final act. Perhaps Apted and The Triple Echo doesn’t fully convey the kinds of irrational, crazed things people will do under stress, especially where love and sex are involved. But the powerful ending as filmed seems logical to me.
Apted’s direction is quite good. His camera placement and fluid camera moves in the real farmhouse location are flawless — we follow the characters, unaware of the directorial technique. The production fronts a believable farm location, a small hamlet and a bustling army camp with a well-mounted Christmas party attended by scores of local girls. A tank is used for some scenes. The era is established in the very first scene when a pair of RAF fighter planes swoop over Glenda Jackson’s head.
Best of all, Apted and his skilled cast give the entire enterprise a feeling of life being lived, of things happening by accident as opposed to a script being performed. I have to admit that if I knew about the cross-dressing theme ahead of time, I might have chosen another disc to check out — the story could easily have deteriorated into ‘Bosom Buddies 1942.’ Thanks to the judgment of Apted and company, this is a show I can recommend to viewers looking for more good pictures with Jackson and Reed.
Powerhouse Indicator’s Region B Blu-ray of The Triple Echo is a new 2K restoration by Powerhouse Films of this largely unknown feature. Colors are excellent; it’s one of John Coquillon’s best-looking shows on Blu-ray. Michael Apted also includes a sensitive tone to his soundtrack, which makes good use of natural noises from the English countryside.
Please note that this Region B coded disc won’t play in standard domestic Region A Blu-ray players.
PI outdo themselves with the extras — I usually sample them, but this time I found myself auditing everything. Michael Apted is candid about the experience of making his first picture and dealing with such prominent actors. Although Oliver Reed was a BIG personality as prepossessing as his character in the film, Apted credits him with coming up with some inspired improvisations, and supporting the other characters. Actor Brian Deacon’s lengthy piece is a must-listen, as his stories about getting along with the commanding, hard-drinking Reed and the equally forthright Glenda Jackson are hilarious. The editor takes 25 minutes when ten should have sufficed, but he has good stories to tell — the movie once bore a flash-forward teaser prologue, which was kept until the 11th hour and then dropped. The costume designer how she concocted Brian Deacon’s drag costume, and we also hear from the composer. Once again, Neil Sinyard provides an excellent critical overview of the film’s strengths and weaknesses.
PI’s fat insert booklet has the expected essays and interviews, plus a piece on the film’s trailer, an optical job that riffs on the ‘triple’ motif to multiply images. I especially like the label’s roundup of critical bites, that let us know how a picture was received on release. It’s no mystery why the film saw little exposure in the U.S. — it was later retitled Soldier in Skirts, with a poster suitable for a comedy.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Triple Echo
Region B Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good +Plus
Supplements: Interview featurettes: A Matter of Life and Death (2019, 15 mins): director Michael Apted speaks out; Identity Crises (2019, 29 mins): actor Brian Deacon recalls his first film role; A Different Perspective (2019, 25 mins): editor Barrie Vince recalls shaping and structuring the film; Dressing Up (2019, 9 mins), with costume designer Emma Porteous; The Emotion of the Moment (2019, 8 mins), with composer Marc Wilkinson; A Sense of Justice (2019, 23 mins): an analysis by author and film historian Neil Sinyard. 20-minute Super 8 condensation, original trailer, teaser trailer, Image gallery; Limited edition 36-page booklet with an essay by Pasquale Iannone, an archival interview with Michael Apted, an overview of contemporary critical responses and an analysis of Jean Fouchet’s theatrical trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 25, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson