- Movie Rating -

A Soldier’s Story (1984)

| September 14, 1984

Perhaps only director Norman Jewison could answer this question, but I am wondering if A Soldier’s Story isn’t supposed to be an extension of In the Heat of the Night.  I know it sounds strange, but all through this movie I kept trying to figure out if Jewison was trying hit the same notes.  The story certainly rides the same rail, it has a similar structure, but something about it just rang awfully familiar.

In both films a black officer is assigned to solve a murder in a white segregated area and against all racial odds the officer finally gets his man.  In the Heat of the Night came out in 1967 and was set at that time, at moment of racial discord, when the issues of The Civil Rights Movement had become more complicated.  A Soldier’s Story treats its story as a historical document, takes us back to the days of World War II.  We are long past those years so the message doesn’t land in the same way.

Of course, I realize that the two films are not meant to complement each other, but coming from the same director and dealing with a similar story, it is hard not to compare.  A Soldier’s Story takes place in 1944 where a black officer, Master Sergeant Vernon Waters was murdered with a .45 caliber handgun.  Who did it?  Well, as in Agatha Christie’s “Mousetrap,” it could have been anyone.  Everyone is a suspect.  It could have been the white officers and soldiers who resent the induction of black man into the U.S. Army.  Could have been the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan.  Or, it could easily have been one of the men under Waters’ command who had been beaten down and verbally and physically abused by their Sergeant.  Everyone is a suspect.

Into this madness comes Captain Richard Davenport (Howard E. Rollins, Jr.) a black officer sent from the Judge Advocate General’s Corps against the advice of the base commander Colonel Nivens (Trey Wilson), a racist who wants the case dealt with and Davenport off the premises in three days.  So, Davenport delves into the case, questions suspects and witness and the movie weaves through a series of flashbacks that lead up to the murder and hopefully weed out the killer. 

But that’s exactly the problem.  What should be a Rashomon-style series of flashbacks showing different perspectives of the crime are not linear, they are unfocused and often confusing.  We see the build-up to the murder and we get to know Waters (played in a brilliant performance by Adolf Caesar) and why he was so hated.  We see him as an angry man, a self-loathing black man who thinks that credit to the black race has to come from impressing white officers.  The problem is that he is in command of a group of black men who don’t seem willing or able to understand this.

By the end, we know what the killer was but we are not exactly sure what has been gained.  What is the movie trying to tell us through this murder?  A Soldier’s Story is a murder mystery that takes place during the time a racial divide in the armed forces but it forgets to provide any real context as to why it takes place at this moment.  This murder could have taken place after World War I, Korea, Vietnam.  There’s nothing special about these circumstances.  This is a very frustrating movie.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1984) View IMDB Filed in: Drama