Film: A Soldier's Story

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Film:

A Soldier's Story

Director: Norman Jewison
Honors:
Genres:
Distributor: Sony Pictures

Charles Fuller adapted his Pulitzer Prize-winning A Soldier’s Play for the big screen in 1984. The film version, A Soldier’s Story is essentially a murder mystery, played out against a background of inter and intra-racial conflict at a Second World War training camp. To the consternation of his white opposite number at the camp, a black captain (Howard W Rollins) arrives to investigate the death of a black sergeant (Adolph Caesar). Suspicion immediately falls on a pair of bigoted white officers but as the tale unfolds in a series of flashbacks, it…

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Charles Fuller adapted his Pulitzer Prize-winning A Soldier’s Play for the big screen in 1984. The film version, A Soldier’s Story is essentially a murder mystery, played out against a background of inter and intra-racial conflict at a Second World War training camp. To the consternation of his white opposite number at the camp, a black captain (Howard W Rollins) arrives to investigate the death of a black sergeant (Adolph Caesar). Suspicion immediately falls on a pair of bigoted white officers but as the tale unfolds in a series of flashbacks, it soon becomes clear that a different kind of prejudice is also at work. Assisted by some excellent performances, director Norman Jewison opens the story out from its stage roots. There’s a wonderful baseball scene (filmed on location at Little Rock) in which the double standards of Dennis Lipscomb’s fidgety white captain are exposed with neat irony; he’ll cheer his successful black team all the way home in the name of sport. His gradual, forced liberalisation provides the film with an important comic element. A Soldier’s Story wears its heart on its sleeve without being superficial in any way. It’s a compelling tale, well told and often highly entertaining, in which nobody gets off lightly, least of all the good guy.

On the DVD: The widescreen presentation helps give an epic feel to what could, in other hands, have been a claustrophobic production. The picture quality is fine. But the monaural sound track is often rather muffled, leaving you straining to catch some of the dialogue. This is also a shame because the blues music—an inspired job by Herbie Hancock, assisted by Patti Labelle singing her lungs out as bar owner Big Mary—is an important element of the film’s underlying theme and deserves to be better heard. The extras are valuable. Norman Jewison’s commentary is detailed and sensitive. As he says, the film deals with “ideas in racism never seen on screen before”, and he acknowledges the strength of his actors in getting those ideas across. “March to Freedom” is an excellent short documentary which features the moving testimonies of black servicemen on the insufferable prejudices they encountered while attempting to defend their country during the Second World War; A Soldier’s Story is thus put sharply into context. —Piers Ford

Director Norman Jewison’s (In the Heat of the Night) 1984 adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play explores the ramifications of racism and loyalty through the prism of blacks in the military, revealed through a murder mystery set in the 1940s deep South. Howard E. Rollins (Ragtime) plays a military investigator assigned to the murder of a drill instructor (Adolph Caesar) in charge of a black platoon. Under pressure from his superiors to wrap his investigation up quickly, Rollins instead delves deeply into the relationships between the despised drill instructor and his men, uncovering lies and animosity, and confronting the question of what it means to be black in a white man’s world. Rollins is a riveting, stoic, and emotional lead, and Denzel Washington makes an early appearance as a soldier with a deep grudge against the drill instructor and a deep mistrust of Rollins’ investigator. A powerfully written story that makes the most of its large and impressive ensemble cast, A Soldier’s Story is a deeply affecting and worthwhile film. —Robert Lane

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