While cross-dressing plays a significant role in an English movie released during the early 1970s, its inclusion addresses male chauvinism and heterosexual discontent more so than any other pressing issue currently facing the LGBTI community. Mark Fraser explains why.
Oliver Reed played some brutes and scoundrels in his day, but perhaps his most comically brutish role is in Michael Apted’s 1972 World War II melodrama The Triple Echo.
Reed – who doesn’t appear in the movie until around the 38-minute mark – is darkly hilarious as Arthur, a tank sergeant in the English army who falls for an AWOL artillery private disguised as a female (Brian Deacon).
Not that Arthur is actually in love with the “woman”; rather he’s initially attracted by her “pretty little bum” and things spiral out of control from there.
With such a premise, it is reasonable to expect that The Triple Echo – which was adapted for the screen from a short HE Bates novel by Robin Chapman – will turn into a story about suppressed male homoerotic desire.
Not so. If anything, it evolves into something of a treatise on extreme male chauvinism and men’s stupidity in general.
In the case of the intimidating sergeant, he is both chauvinistic and gullible, albeit it in a testosterone-fuelled way. Aside from the fact he never tries to hide his charmingly arrogant and bullying nature, he also knows how to get what he wants – in this instance being a piece of skirt to take on a dancing date for a bit of slap and tickle. Ultimately it’s this insatiable sex drive that blinds this brute of a man to the fact his object of desire looks a little like a bloke.
Before Reed’s arrival on the scene The Triple Echo is more or less a conventional love story about Alice Charlesworth (Glenda Jackson), a small farm owner in Wiltshire who becomes involved with artillery gunner Barton (Deacon) while waiting for news regarding her Japanese prisoner-of-war husband Jack.
At first their rustic encounter is idyllic, particularly as her new lover is a competent farm hand. But when Alice agrees with Barton that he should desert, she comes up with a plan – to dress the young man as a woman and pass him off as her younger sister Jill from Coventry – thus setting in motion a series of complications for everyone involved.
While this has all the makings of a potential comedy (think Edouard Molinaro’s 1978 French farce La Cage aux Folles, Sydney Pollock’s Tootsie  or Chris Columbus’ 1993 Robin Williams vehicle Mrs Doubtfire), the whole thing is turned completely on its head with the arrival of Arthur who, from a distance at least, takes an immediate liking to “Jill”.
Indeed, the entire romantic mood of the movie shifts to one of threatening menace when it becomes obvious the sergeant (his family name is never revealed) is not going to give up pursuing the in-drag Barton, despite Alice’s stern rebukes.
To make matters worse “Jill”, who doesn’t like the name given to him by his host and stubbornly insists on calling himself Kath (short for Kathleen) instead, finally gives in to Arthur’s persistence by foolishly accepting the invitation to the tank corp’s Christmas Eve dance. It’s at this point that The Triple Echo firmly establishes its trajectory towards an inevitably tragic conclusion.
Although Jackson and Deacon do a competent job of carrying the film during a good portion of its 94 minute running time, it’s the arrival of Reed – who has all the dangerous charm of a leering bulldozer – that well and truly brings the movie to life.
From his frequent unannounced visits to Alice’s farm house to the night of the dance, when he pretty much tries to rape his date before it dawns on him that “she” has the wrong genitalia, it’s obvious Arthur only has one thing on his mind – and it’s not a romantic candle-lit dinner. For some reason, though, this doesn’t click with Barton until it’s well too late.
If anything, the sergeant and his corporal mate Stan (Gavin Richards) represent the worst of what men have to offer as they assume their respective partners are absolute pushovers (which in Stan’s case is actually true) while they try to get into their pants by whatever means available.
Moreover, it’s a role Reed seemed to have relished – a perfect vehicle for his double-edged persona, and one that shows just how good an actor he really was.
While physically threatening and intimidating, his performance is also full of verbal flourishes which, despite their underlying malice, are quite witty. In this regard his delivery is perfect.
Having said that, Jackson and Deacon manage, quite successfully, to highlight the precariousness of their own relationship once the cross-dressing ruse sets in.
Aside from jeopardising the plan by calling himself Kath instead of Jill (which he does because he doesn’t like the name Alice gives him), Barton starts spending his days doing his nails and brushing his hair instead of carrying out farm chores.
It also seems Alice, who at time chides her lover as if she is his mother and accuses him of really acting like a woman, is also a little jealous of her younger “sister” when Arthur showers the young man with attention, at one point calling him “my number one pin-up”.
Ultimately, though, it is really Barton’s clouded judgement that underpins his stupidity. After all, as a soldier himself he must have been aware of what was really on in this sergeant’s mind – especially as he had probably gone AWOL to escape such bullies. In this regard he really has no one but himself to blame for what eventually happens on Christmas morning.
Interestingly, The Triple Echo was released in the US during 1973 under the title Soldier in Skirts, suggesting it was going to be another British comedy in the vein of a Carry On movie or something like Ralph Thomas’ Percy (1971) which, while not about cross dressing, deals with male sexual emasculation in a more direct way.
One can only wonder what American audiences thought when confronted with a film that looked like a potential dark comedy, but then turned into something else altogether.
This is not to say the movie is totally devoid of humour – aside from Reed’s performance, there’s a throwback moment when Barton takes refuge in the makeshift female toilet of the army barracks as he tries to escape the dance, the urinals propping up a large sign reading “Happy Tinkles”. Meanwhile, the story’s brief focus on the military’s regimented protocols also shows just how odd life in the armed services of yesteryear must have been.
At this point it’s worth mentioning that this was the feature film debut of Apted, an English director whose subsequent British and Hollywood screen output has been as interesting as it is varied.
During his 35-plus year career he has shown an adeptness in dealing with actors – as evidenced in 1980’s Coal Miner’s Daughter (which saw Sissy Spacek win a Best Actress Academy Award and Tommy Lee Jones receive a nomination for Best Supporting Actor), as well as in works like Gorillas in the Mist (1988) when Sigourney Weaver was unsuccessfully put up for the Best Actress Oscar and Nell (1994), wherein Jodie Foster was again vying for Best Actress. .
While Apted elicits sturdy performances from Jackson and Deacon (an achievement assisted by Chapman’s thoughtful script), it’s Reed whom he allows to steal the show.
It really is a class take on a military man who – outside of his self-serving charm – is nothing more than a drooling male chauvinist pig.
Words by Mark Fraser
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The Triple Echo was released on UK Blu-ray on March 25, 2019.