Rewind: Films of the 60s, 70s, 80s – A Soldier’s Story (1984)

by RICHARD WINTERS

This film is based on the off-Broadway play that won the Pulitzer Prize for best drama in 1982 and was written by Charles Fuller. Many of the performers in the play ended up reprising their roles in the film including the stars, Adolph Caesar and Howard E. Rollins, Jr. Director Norman Jewison spent many years trying to get the green light for the project and ended up being rejected by just about every studio. Finally Columbia Pictures gave the go-ahead, but only after Jewison agreed to do it for no salary and all the performers agreed to be paid at the minimum union scale.

The story is actually pretty well written and I’m surprised that so many studio heads refused it by using the excuse that it wasn’t ‘commercial enough.’ The plot involves the murder of a black army sergeant (Caesar) and the subsequent investigation by a black army captain (Rollins) brought in from Washington. The period is around the end of World War II and the setting is an all black army base in the deep South, which leads to many expected racial tensions. What sets this story apart from others of its type is the fact that the racism and underlying tensions is not just white vs. black, but also, and more prominently, black vs. black.

Caesar plays a memorable victim. He is hated by his own men due to his harsh treatment of them. When he is killed everyone is a suspect and as his men recount their dealings with him, it is easy to see why. Yet this is also no one-dimensional character. The story does a very good job of letting us understand why this man has become the way he is. The viewer can’t help but come away feeling sorry for the man and genuinely sad for the way he ended up. The suspects are equally complex, so the film easily becomes quite riveting as it goes along.

Rollins gives an outstanding performance as the head of the investigation. It’s sad that his career, and ultimately his life, was cut short by his drug addiction because he makes a solid impression here. I liked the way he remained stoic throughout despite having to deal with a myriad of different personalities and at times overt racism. Denzel Washington is also very good in a pivotal role.

There were a few things that were thrown in that I felt were not necessary and ended up hurting the film as a whole. One of them is the musical score. It has a very bouncy, ragtime sound to it that would be good if this was a comedy. However, for a drama it seems completely out of place and at times is even jarring. The film has a few musical interludes as well. A couple of them are by Patti LaBelle, who I think is a great singer, but in this film she is out-of-place. It starts to take away too much of the grittiness of the story, which should be the central theme. I also found the use of slow motion to be distracting. It occurs twice. Once during the murder scene and another time during a baseball game between the soldiers.

Overall the film succeeds enough with its story and characters that the viewer is forced to think and feel, which is always a good thing. I can’t say that the resolution was anything shocking, but it does manage to keep you guessing. However, this is one rare case where I might have actually preferred seeing the stage version.

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Denzel Washington directed and appears in a supporting role in The Great Debaters, a dramatization of the true story of a debate team from a historically black college in Texas that broke the color barrier in a contest against Harvard University.

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