A Soldier’s Story

November 12, 2012

It was reasonable to expect that A Soldier’s Story might be a hot, juicy melodrama on the order of In the Heat of the Night, the 1967 best picture Oscar winner. After all, it shares that film’s director, Norman Jewison, as well as a sweltering Southern setting and a touchy, racially-oriented story.

Now, In the Heat of the Night, like many best-picture winners, was never really a great movie to begin with. Lots of these films win because of important or chancy “content” rather than their aesthetic value, and today Heat—buoyed by good star turns by Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger—looks like an overheated, if enjoyable, example of the concerned cinema of the 1960s.

Director-producer Jewison, who has also made Fiddler on the Roof, Jesus Christ Superstar, and …And Justice for All, has solidly ambitious credentials, although critical respectability has eluded him. It’s typical of him to take on the adaptation of Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize hit, A Soldier’s Play, which is the story of murder among the soldiers of a black unit stationed in the South in 1944.

Unfortunately, this tale is not nearly as shamelessly engrossing as In the Heat of the Night. It’s a disappointingly stodgy and predictable film, with its appeal stemming from Fuller’s intelligent screenplay, a groovy score by Herbie Hancock, and a solid gallery of supporting performers.

On a drunken ramble home from the local watering hole, a tough sergeant (Adolph Caesar) is murdered in the night. The black company suspects the Ku Klux Klan. The white company heads want to suppress any investigation of the shooting, which leads credence to the KKK suggestion.

It’s supposedly a tinderbox (though we don’t get much sense of that). Capt. Richard Davenport (Howard Rollins, Jr.) is dropped into the middle of this, as the officer in charge of the investigation. A natty black lawyer from Washington, D.C., his presence disquiets the other officers—who think he will ruin whatever chance there is of finding the killer—and astonishes the men, most of whom have never seen a black officer before.

Davenport questions the men, and we discover the character of the sergeant through flashbacks. He is by far the most fascinating person in the film: a short, wiry tough guy who is obsessive on the subject of his race. He hates black men who, consciously or not, propagate a shuffling, stupid racial image.

The object of his attention is a private named C.J. Memphis (Larry Riley), a gifted athlete and singer who is not blessed with much intelligence. Rather, he is an update of Melville’s Billy Budd: a perfect innocent, and perfectly unself-conscious of it. The sergeant loathes his simple, passive lifestyle, and after hounding him for weeks, indirectly causes C.J.’s death.

During the investigation, we see many possible suspects for the sergeant’s murder. As a whodunit, however, the film is uncompelling, and the culprit easy to guess.

Another drawback is Rollins, who played the central figure in Ragtime a couple of years ago. He’s not quite up to the demands of this role, in which he is required to appear as sharp as the crease in his standard-issue trousers. But the supporting players—especially Denzel Washington, Art Evans, and the very natural Riley—are great, and Caesar, as the growling sergeant, is just terrific. It comes as no surprise that he has played the role in more the 600 performances onstage.

First published in the Herald, September 30, 1984

Thought of this film because Denzel Washington is currently riding high with an authoritative performance in Flight. Howard Rollins later played the Poitier role in the TV series “In the Heat of the Night”; he died young, as did Adolph Caesar.