Drama · War

Proposal: Let’s Reappraise A Soldier’s Story

This post is part of the 1984-a-thon hosted by Forgotten Films.

Howard E. Rollins is the new, unwelcome sheriff in town. Image: lksdjf aioewf
Howard E. Rollins, Jr. is the new, unwelcome sheriff in town. Image: Cinema 1544

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 Playwas 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.

Twice.

In a row.

Denzel Washington (left) tells Adolph Caesar alksdj fskdj. Image: ksdj f
Denzel Washington (left) tells Adolph Caesar where to go and how to get there. Image: Total Film

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.

(Digression: There is some terrific music in this film, featuring the fabulous Patti Labelle and Larry Riley performing their own compositions. Herbie Hancock provides the film score.)

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.

1984_blogathon

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21 thoughts on “Proposal: Let’s Reappraise A Soldier’s Story

  1. Great post! I liked this one a lot (I paid to see it back in ’84), but I think it definitely got buried under the Oscar buzz for a few other and better promoted films. I only vaguely recall seeing TV ads for this one, while Amadeus was everywhere and I think even The Killing Fields got some bigger buzz for its larger scale dramatic scope.

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  2. For me, there is nothing to “re-evaluate.” I already find this to be an amazing piece of cinema. “Superbly acted” is an understatement. Adolph Caesar is simultaneously magnetic and repulsive. I would have given him the Oscar. It’s just a magnificent performance. More than that, the story is truly compelling. For what it’s worth, I also paid to see it way back in ’84 and really loved and appreciated it, even as a 13 year old. Watching it years later as an adult has only made me appreciate it more. Great review.

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    1. This IS an amazing piece of cinema, just like you said. And I find it really difficult to believe that Adolph Casear did not win the Oscar, even though “The Killing FIelds” is an important film. Thanks for dropping by. 🙂

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  3. Wonderful post Ruth! I don’t understand why the reception to this film was so lukewarm – I think it’s great, but maybe critics and audiences weren’t ready for some of the themes it contained. I didn’t watch it until the early 2000s so perhaps I came from a different era and perspective. Sometimes it’s really all about the timing.

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  4. Ruth, my our family actually got lucky enough to see A Soldier’s A Story in theaters with my brother, and friends who were lucky enough to see in on Broadway, if I recall correctly. We thought it was a searing film, with great performances. It deserves a fresh look today! Great post, my friend! 😀

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    1. Thanks, Dor! It would have been something to see the original play, wouldn’t it? At any rate, I agree that the film deserves a fresh look today. It’s sure held up well over the years. Thanks for stopping by!

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  5. While it s no surprise that it lost out to Amadeus and the Killing Fields at the Oscars, it’s lack of success with critics then and now is a mystery. I rented it on video since it was not in theatres for long in my city, and it was an unpleasant introduction to the institutionalized racism in the United States at the time. As you point out, Adolphe Ceasar’s performance of a man twisted by racism is riveting. Definitely an excellent film.

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    1. Yes, The Killing Fields and Amadeus were both juggernauts that year, and not undeservedly, but A Soldier’s Story could have and should have had a better reception. Adolph Caesar was amazing, wasn’t he? Thanks for stopping by!

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  6. Thanks for your review of this movie. I am glad to find out about it. It has everything I love in a movie – a mystery, thought-provoking themes, and Denzel Washington!:) It’s funny, I basically do not remember the 80’s. I was a new teacher, and there was no time left for anything else – movies, music, etc. Then I began to have children of my own, and there was still no time left. So thanks for letting me know about a great movie that I missed. I really appreciate it, and will put it on my list.

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  7. I finally caught up on my project and watched the whole movie last week, I’d seen the last two thirds a month or two ago, it really is a fine film. I do think It got battered because it is a message picture passing itself off as a murder mystery. Adolph Caesar is the main reason to watch, but the cast of young actors is pretty impressive. I listened to Jewison’s commentary and he said because of the budget, they could not spend a lot of money on sets. Those locations were close to the same in 84 as they were in 44, I’ve been through some spots like that and in 2014, there are still places that look like these. I’d like to see what your opinion is of my take on the film, I hope you can come by and read.

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    1. Adolph Caesar alone is worth the price of admission, isn’t he? Never mind the rest of this terrific cast.

      It’s interesting to hear that some places in the US still resemble the way they looked in the 1940s. This was something I wondered about when I first saw the film.

      I will be by to check out your review. Thanks!

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  8. it was about what white audiences would accept… and what they wouldn’t… how white america wanted to perceive black people… a wise cracking… clowning eddie murphy of course would be accepted… black people in drama… hardly ever… our job was to make white america laugh… black audiences shied away because they felt the ending was a cop out… a story about an era when black soldiers were strung up routinely… and the one movie about the period has a black man as the killer… we weren’t crazy about that…

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