Sergeant Ryker was a 1968 theatrical release for Lee Marvin but if you think it looks like it was made a few years earlier, you would be right. It’s just one of several aspects of this strangely intriguing, yet at the same time, run-of-the-mill production.
Why does it ‘look’ like it was made earlier? The original production was a 1963 two-part TV episode pilot of the Kraft Theatre originally titled The Case Against Paul Ryker, which is an infinitely more apt title than the theatrical title or the poster above. By 1968, Marvin was already grayer, craggier, and an Oscar-winning superstar. Making a film with such a macho sounding title sounded like a sure bet at the box-office. Only problem was it was a court-room drama, NOT a macho war movie.
To be fair, it’s TV-movie trapping aside, it’s a well done story. Marvin is Ryker, already found guilty of conspiring with the enemy — in this case the North Koreans — and is awaiting the hangman. New evidence may prove his claim of being on a secret mission behind enemy lines to be true, but the only officer who knew of the mission has died. A new trial is ordered and the truth may or may not finally come out. It begs the question, is Ryker an unrecognized hero or an undeniable traitor? Cool premise, huh?
The production boasts a terrific ensemble for its day, including Vera Miles as Ryker’s wife, the criminally underrated Bradford Dillman as Ryker’s lawyer, Peter Graves as the prosecutor, Murray Hamilton as a sleazy associate, venerable Lloyd Nolan as Dillman’s commanding officer and the always less than cheerful Norman Fell as a put-upon corporal.
Those are the plusses. On the minus side of the ledger, the production values are strictly from hunger. Even as a 1963 TV show it looks pretty bad. I can’t imagine what it must have looked like on the big screen. It’s style is so nondescript, costar Norman Fell didn’t even remember being in it when I asked him about it back in the 1990s.
He did, however, remember a similar project that was made for TV but later released theatrically. He worked with Marvin in The Killers and he is quoted extensively about it in Lee Marvin Point Blank, THAT was a much memorable experience, as far as he was concerned.
Pity the poor moviegoer of 1968 who wanted to see Lee Marvin in a ‘new’ release with a typical “rock-em-sock-em” sounding title like Sergeant Ryker, only to be treated to a TV courtroom drama (!)
There is one other interesting aspect to the film if one ever gets around to watching it. Veteran director Buzz Kulik told me a great anecdote concerning Lee Marvin and the filming of the project. It didn’t make the cut as far as my book was concerned, but was brought to life on the pages of this blog a while ago.
The advent of home video, cable TV, and now other digital media platforms, makes the likelihood of such a phenomenon near impossible today, thankfully. However, the sense of being ripped-off by Hollywood on occasion may never go away. I point to the plethora of superhero moves being cranked out as a prime example.
Want to know about some other less than savory doings that took place behind the scenes during the 1960s and 1970? There’s the time the time Lee Marvin was duped by a gay producer for starters. For that read Lee Marvin Point Blank.
– Dwayne Epstein