Thursday, June 7, 2018

Death of a Soldier

In 1984 I was vacillating on what to do with an up until then haphazard college career.  Having spent most of two years just taking what interested me with no degree plan in sight, and with a year and a half off in the working world doing nothing but earning a living, I had no real goal.  I had always had an avid interest in history, especially the early twentieth century, the generation preceding my birth (which was 1961).

What attracted me initially to A Soldier's Story was that interest in life during WWII.   I had never heard of most of the stars in the movie.  The 1981 film Carbon Copy had featured Denzel Washington, but this was only his second film and although I knew the actor from the previous film, I had not seen him since.  (He spent several years on the TV show St. Elsewhere in between the two feature films, but I never watched that show, so this was only the second time for me to see him on screen).

As far as the rest of the cast, well, most of them were unknowns.  David Alan Grier was still years away from his fame on In Living Color, this only being his second film.  David Harris, whom some may recognize from The Warriors, had also been in very few movies.  (Norman Jewison in his commentary on today's movie says this was Harris' first movie, but Jewison is in error.  It may have been his first role with any "meat" on it, but he had been in at least 3 other feature films, including the aforementioned Warriors.)

Adolph Caesar, the Oscar nominated supporting actor for his role as Sgt. Waters, had been mostly on Broadway in the theater.  His credits included a few gigs as the voice-over narration for some theatrical trailers, but only a couple of bit parts on screen before this.  The only real name star, at the time, was Howard E. Rollins, Jr., who had been nominated himself for an Oscar for his role in Ragtime.

A lot of the reasoning for such a cast of unknowns was due to the worries that Columbia Pictures had about the commercial prospects of an essentially all-black cast and of a WWII picture.  They initially only granted $5 million to Jewison to make it.  (And he was lucky to get that.  Several other studios had turned it down outright.  This despite the fact that Charles Fuller, the author of the original play, had won a Pulitzer for Drama for the story.)  Jewison says they had to scramble to find authentic looking locations, due to budget constraints that wouldn't allow them to build sets.  He also says that he volunteered to do the film for free, but the Director's Guild nixed that, so instead he took the minimum pay allowed by the union.  But he got a piece of the gross, so he made out anyway.

Everybody involved in the movie put out great performances.   The movie garnered several Oscar nods, including Best Picture..

A Soldier's Story (1984):

In 1944 in rural Louisiana, a black sergeant, Sgt. Waters (Adolph Caesar), is killed.  The brass in DC send a black captain, Capt. Davenport (Howard Rollins, Jr.) to investigate.  The request stems from the white Captain in charge of the black regiment, Capt. Taylor (Dennis Lipscomb), who had been pestering his superior, Col. Nivens (Trey Wilson) to have it done.

Of course, Taylor never expected the brass to send a black investigator.  Given the climate of rural Louisiana at the time, and the fact that Taylor is positive that the Ku Klux Klan is involved, he would have preferred a white officer, but he is stuck with what he has.  He does attempt to withdraw his request and have the case quietly swept under the doormat, but the wheels are already set in motion.

Davenport begins his investigation by interviewing members of Waters' platoon.  With some excellent flashbacks, Davenport is given an impression of what a hard, cynical man that Waters was. Some of his platoon exhibit some hostility towards the sergeant, while others feign at least a reverence for him.

The platoon was basically formed because all of the soldiers could play baseball rather well, and the platoon has been racking up wins every time it plays.  One of the players, C. J. Memphis (Larry Riley) is a star player.  But Waters dislikes him intensely because he exhibits a backwoods uneducated side that Waters considers to be demeaning to the advancement of the black race.  As long as C. J. is around, Waters thinks, the white race will point him out as an example of the black race and they will never achieve a place in society with him around.

Davenport discovers that two white officers encountered Waters on the road the night he was killed.  Against Nivens' wishes, Davenport demands that he has a chance to interview the two.  While Lt. Byrd (Wings Hauser) exhibits the standard racist views of the time and admits to hostile words with Waters, his companion, Capt. Wilcox (Scott Paulin), adamantly states that he is a medical officer, that their guns were not issued with bullets, and that they left Waters on the road still alive.

Nivens thinks they are lying, but Davenport is convinced of their innocence.  More of the Memphis story is revealed when it is learned that Waters had staged an incident that ends up with C. J.'s arrest.  After C.J. eventually commits suicide while locked up, things deteriorate between many of the platoon members.  In particular, PFC Peterson (Denzel Washington), who has been at loggerheads with Waters throughout his tenure in the Army, has an intense dislike for what waters did to C.J.

The ending may surprise you.  I certainly didn't see it turning out like that.  Aside from Adolph Caesar's Oscar nominated role, some stand outs also are here.  You can see the potential that Denzel Washington had even in this early role.  Rollins also makes a great showing.  I was particularly impressed with Art Evans who has a role as Waters' confidant.  Having seen Evans in numerous roles over the years, and not being particularly impressed wit them, coming back to this one, I wonder what happened.  He certainly shines here.

This movie has an appeal to it.  Even if you are not particularly enamored with war-time drama (and really I don't guess "war-time" is an appropriate tem since it has no battle scenes), this movie can draw you in, especially with the excellent performances.

Drive home safely folks.



  1. Has been a long time since I saw this one; it is indeed a moving and absorbing film, and Caesar and Rollins are exceptional. I forgot a Denzel was in it! I thought he was great on St. Elsewhere but it was not until Glory that I saw him as a great actor he has become.

    A history buff often becomes a film buff— when done right, film can be a most pleasurable way to learn about the past! I almost always end up reading a book or two about the time periods of “true story” films that make an impact on me.
    - Chris

  2. Well, its the other way around for me. I constantly am reading history books and then seeking out movies that are about the subject matter. Got a couple of books I've read recently that have inspired me to keep an eye out for movies on the subjects. Thanks for reading.


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