In 1984 the movie landscape was rich with Oscar hopefuls and “prestige” films. That year’s Best Picture winner was the beloved classic Amadeus while other nominees included renowned films like A Passage to India, Places in the Heart and The Killing Fields. It was also the year of The Natural, Broadway Danny Rose and The River. But the fifth Best Picture nomination in 1984 was reserved for a film that in my view has certainly been overlooked in the ensuing years, the Norman Jewison directed A Soldier’s Story.
Howard E. Rollins, Jr. had been nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Colehouse Walker, Jr. in the acclaimed 1981 film Ragtime with his role in A Soldier’s Story 3 years later coming next on his resume.
Based on A Soldier’s Play, the 1984 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and adapted for the screen by playwright Charles Fuller, A Soldier’s Story features many young actors who went on to long and successful careers in Hollywood. Some had even featured in the original Off Broadway version of the play produced by The Original off-Broadway Negro Ensemble Company, Inc. that played from 1981 to 1983 in New York City. That production had been a critical and commercial success so when the adaptation came to the attention of director Norman Jewison, he felt strongly enough about the content that he offered to make the movie while taking no pay. Jewison had previously directed the Oscar winning film In The Heat Of The Night nabbing a Best Director trophy for himself along the way. He brought the same passion to A Soldier’s Story as he had to his earlier successes.
But besides the magnificent script, the greatest asset in A Soldier’s Story is the cast. As I said above, a few had starred in the stage production so they had already deeply invested in the characters that they had played on stage for nearly two years. Among these are Larry Riley as Memphis, Adolph Caesar as Sergeant Waters (himself nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance) and a nearly brand new to the screen Denzel Washington as PFC Peterson. Other standouts in the cast include Art Evans as Private Wilkie, David Alan Grier as Corporal Cobb, Robert Townsend as Corporal Ellis and William Allen Young as Private Henson. Patti LeBelle also made her big screen debut as Big Mary in the film.
Additionally, the picture’s leading man was Howard E. Rollins, Jr. who portrayed Captain Davenport in the movie. At the time he was best known for his Oscar nominated performance in Ragtime in 1981 and A Soldier’s Story was probably the high water mark of his career. Sadly he only made three more feature films after this one and he died very young from complications of lymphoma at the age of 46.
Denzel Washington’s role in A Soldier’s Story was only his second on the big screen after the 1981 film Carbon Copy. Here he reprises the role he played on stage with A Soldier’s Play and his career took off from there.
But what is is about you ask? Well surely you know if you’ve visited Movie Treasures Rediscovered before that our goal here is to persuade you to give a movie a chance that you may have forgotten about or might never even have heard of. If you are someone with passing interest in cinema, A Soldier’s Story has probably escaped your notice. But I am here to tell you today that this is a scintillating story that examines racism from a unique perspective with a provocative murder mystery to boot. So while I will give an overview of what this story is about I don’t want to give away the ending. Therefore from here on in I’ll tread carefully.
Set in 1944 in Tynin, Louisiana at a segregated US Army Base, the movie begins with the murder of Sergeant Waters, a Black non-commissioned officer in charge of a platoon of Black soldiers. Divulging this point isn’t a spoiler as this is literally how the movie begins. The rest of the story is told primarily in retrospect as a Black officer, Captain Davenport, is sent from Washington DC to investigate the murder which most assume was perpetrated by the local Ku Klux Klan. His interviews with the men of the platoon and the accompanying flashbacks as each soldier shares their perspective are what drives the story forward.
Adolph Caesar had knocked around with few successes on stage or on screen until he was cast as Sergeant Waters in A Soldier’s Play. Then his Oscar nominated performance in the film adaptation brought him great success. Sadly it was short lived as he died only two years after the film was released.
We learn that the platoon is made up of mostly former Negro League baseball players who have been put together as a team to face other teams made up from units of white soldiers. Their success on the field has brought them some notoriety among the ranks and there is even talk they might face off in an exhibition game against the New York Yankees. Sergeant Waters is not only the commanding officer of the platoon, he is also the manager of the baseball team. He is a strict disciplinarian with a quick temper and a cruel streak so we learn through flashback that his murder is not surprising as nearly none of the men who served under him have anything good to say about him.
Except for C.J. Memphis, the best and most popular player on the team. The Sergeant is hardest on him as he bullies and cajoles him at every turn, yet Memphis is the only one who will defend Waters with his teammates when the Sergeant is not around. Unfortunately we learn that before the murder of Sergeant Waters, Memphis had become such an object of scorn to Waters that he had framed Memphis for the murder of a white MP. While in the brig Memphis hangs himself out of fear and in protest the team loses their last game of the season permanently ending all talk of a game against the Yankees. For a magnificent scene featuring nearly all of these actors and a very compelling part of the story click here. Be warned, there is language including usage of triggering racial epithets.
Larry Riley as C.J. Memphis is one of the emotional centers of A Soldier’s Story. He had played the role in the Off Broadway production and brought all of that experience to his performance on the big screen.
Again in flashback, we learn what the real source of the Sergeant’s disdain and hatred is for C.J. Memphis. In the chilling scene, Waters describes a time when he was serving in France during WWI and the actions that he and other members of his platoon undertook. It’s a stunning examination of what motivates a man and the underlying prejudices that can lead to horrifying consequences. It’s a scene (and a performance from Adolph Caesar) that is seared in my memory.
There are many other discoveries and a few diversions along the way, but the conclusion of the mystery and the discovery of the killer is appropriate and satisfying with a hauntingly memorable line uttered by the murderer upon being revealed. I’ll leave you to hear that for the first time as you watch.
Here I also have to say a word as well about the musical score for A Soldier’s Story. As I wrote above, this movie was made in 1984 – the height of the synthesizer era. Few sounds are as immediately recognizable as music from the 80’s which is extremely distinctive. To give the movie a catchy feel, director Jewison opted to hire Herbie Hancock to provide the music for the movie. A move that may have been interesting in 1984 but now makes the film feel very anachronistic as the time period for the picture is 1944. As you watch, take particular note of the fact that Hancock scored the film in a live performance style where he recorded the music on a synthesizer based on what he felt as he watched the film. Interesting technique but in my view a result that hasn’t passed the test of time.
Though the original 1981 stage version of A Soldier’s Play only appeared Off Broadway, the show has been revived twice. First it played Off Broadway again in 2006 starring Taye Diggs and Anthony Mackie and then a Broadway production was mounted in 2020 starring Blair Underwood and David Alan Grier. This revival received several Tony Award nominations from the 2020 Broadway season.
So this is the point where I encourage you to give A Soldier’s Story a chance. You may never have heard of it and if you have you may well have not given it a bit of notice, but for the above reasons and many more I offer A Soldier’s Story as an excellent addition to our Movie Treasures Rediscovered library of films. From storytelling to direction to acting it’s a marvelous piece of filmmaking that I give my highest recommendation.
⭐ For more information on where to Buy, Rent, or Stream A Soldier’s Story, click here for the A Soldier’s Story JustWatch page.