A SOLDIER'S STORY. Directed by Norman Jewison; writteb by Charles Fuller; produced by Norman Jewison, Ronald L. Schwary and Patrick Palmer for Columbia. Starring Howard E. Rollins, Jr. and Adolph Caesar. Rated PG (some objectionable language)
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After a summer of ghostbusters and gremlins, enjoyable as they may be, it's nice to start seeing some movies you can sink your teeth into. A Soldier's Story is a good example of this kind of serious moviemaking. Its plot is a murder mystery. But in its real substance are questions much deeper than "whodunnit?" And the acting is superb.
The movie is set at a fictional army post in 1944. Hundreds of black troops are there, marking time, waiting to get into the war. One of these men, MSgt. Waters (Caesar), is killed on a road outside the post one night. And the Army sends Capt. Davenport (Rollins) to investigate. He is a black attorney, and the first black officer many of these soldiers have ever seen.
The killing is shown at the beginning of A Soldier's Story (hiding the identity of the murderer, of course). For most of the rest of the movie, flashbacks are used as the men in Waters' unit talk to Davenport about him, events of the past year at the post and, ultimately, about their feelings on being black in a white society.
Hard-core mystery fans will be somewhat disappointed by that angle in A Soldier's Story. There are some logical flaws, loose ends and unanswered questions here. The sort of thing one just does not find in Agatha Christie.
But this movies is not about the murder so much as it is about the victim, his killer, his comrades—people, in short. Particularly, people struggling to find an identity for themselves in a world dominated by others who insist they are inferior. Each of the characters copes with this situation in a different way.
These ideas are interesting and important, especially when filtered through the events and changes of the past 40 years. But what really makes A Soldier's Story an uncommonly good movie is the acting.
Rollins and Caesar are excellent, one as the appealing, incorruptible lawyer, the other as the tough, insensitive and eventually pathetic sergeant. (Caesar played Waters in the original play from which the movie is made, but has been in no other films.)
However, the real "star" is the entire ensemble. Art Evans, Larry Riley and Denzel Washington deserve special mention. But even the most minor roles are performed to perfection.
A Soldier's Story is a movie with important things to say. And it says them very well.
NOTE: this movie made my 10-best list for 1984.
October 17, 1984