This post is part of the 1984-a-thon hosted by Forgotten Films.
We want to know: What’s wrong with the 1984 drama A Soldier’s Story?
The movie met with a cool reception when originally released. Film critic Roger Ebert, for one, was unimpressed. “A Soldier’s Story is one of those movies that’s about less than you might think,” he wrote. “Did this movie have to be so…trapped by its mechanical plot, so limited by a murder mystery?”
Others criticized it for a long-winded script and a perceived lacklustre performance by star Howard E. Rollins, Jr.
Even members of The Academy were conflicted about the film. A Soldier’s Story was nominated for three Oscars but wound up with nothing:
- Best Picture (lost to Amadeus)
- Best Supporting Actor, Adolph Caesar (lost to Haing S. Ngor, The Killing Fields)
- Best Adapted Screenplay (lost to Amadeus)
The scorekeeper of all things pop culture, ranker.com, lists the Best Black Movies of All Time. Out of 512 movies, A Soldier’s Story ranks a respectable 98th, but well behind White Chicks (#87) and Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (#70).
A Soldier’s Story, based the Pulitzer Prize-winning play A Soldier’s Play, was almost never made. Warner Bros, Universal, MGM and United Artists rejected the film because, according to director Norman Jewison, the studios felt “a black story…based on World War II, [would not be] popular at the box office.” Columbia eventually signed on with a modest budget of $5 million. (The film earned approximately $22 million in box office sales, but compare that to the top-grossing movie of 1984, Beverly Hills Cop at $234,760,478.)
Armed with all this scholarly research, we (as in, yours truly) were prepared to write this film off. Then we actually watched it.
In a row.
A Soldier’s Story is, as Roger Ebert pointed out, a murder mystery. Outside an army training base in Louisiana, an African American sergeant (Adolph Caesar) is murdered. It is 1944, and the sergeant was in charge of an African American platoon that’s being kept behind to play baseball instead of being sent overseas to fight.
The Brass in Washington dispatches a Captain Davenport (Rollins) to investigate the sergeant’s murder. Rollins’ character turns heads when he arrives on the base; he is the first “coloured officer” the men have ever seen. Rollins is told he has three days to find the murderer and is warned against arresting white civilians from the nearby town.
As Rollins investigates Caesar’s death, he discovers the dead sergeant had alienated his platoon and may have contributed to a soldier’s suicide. Not only that, Caesar’s character had strong opinions about race and how African Americans should behave.
This is a superbly acted film. Rollins is a tightly-wound character; he portrays Davenport with the defensive edge of a man who’s constantly being told he doesn’t belong. Caesar, who practically steals the entire movie, is mesmerizing as the twisted army sergeant. Denzel Washington, in an early screen role, is engaging as a smart young man who doesn’t suffer fools – even if they are his superior officers.
The film, which has an authentic World War II feel, takes an unflinching look at race and segregation. One character asks: “Who gave you the right to judge who is fit to be a Negro and who is not?” In another scene, Rollins finds a message scrawled on his bathroom mirror: “Welcome Snow Flake.”
A Soldier’s Story may have an oh-so-tidy ending, but that doesn’t take away from its thought-provoking themes or impeccable acting. We think it’s time this film is given another look.
A Soldier’s Story: Howard E. Rollins, Jr., Adolph Caesar, Art Evans. Directed by Norman Jewison. Written by Charles Fuller. Columbia Pictures, 1984, Colour, 140 mins.
This post is part of the 1984-A-THON hosted by the fabulous Forgotten Films. Click HERE to read the other entries.