A murder mystery set in the Deep South directed by Norman Jewison? It sounds exactly like his Oscar-winning In the Heat of the Night, but it’s actually his other southern fried whodunit A Soldier’s Story. Based on Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, A Soldier’s Story is fast paced, gripping entertainment. The mystery is a fine one with a decent number of suspects and is directed compactly by Jewison with never a wasted moment. While nominated for a handful of Oscars (including Best Picture of 1984), it’s never been shown much love even though the filmmaking and the story hold up very well decades after its production.
A Soldier’s Story (Blu-ray)
Directed by Norman Jewison
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 97 minutes
Audio: PCM 2.0 stereo English
Subtitles: SDH, Spanish
MSRP: $ 17.97
Release Date: January 31, 2012
Review Date: January 31, 2012
Captain Davenport (Howard E. Rollins, Jr.) is sent from Washington to Fort Neal, Louisiana, to investigate the murder of the demanding Sergeant Waters (Adolph Caesar). Though the first inclination is to place the blame on the Ku Klux Klan, it becomes obvious very soon than the Klan had nothing to do with the man’s shooting. The segregated black platoon under investigation (it is 1944) is a baseball playing outfit headed by Colonel Nivens (Trey Wilson) and the platoon’s immediate commander Captain Taylor (Dennis Lipscomb), both white men who are eager for the investigation to be concluded before any kind of race wars with the locals get stirred up. As Davenport begins interviewing suspects, he gets a clearer picture of the type of man Sgt. Waters was, one who had great pride in his black heritage and one who made enemies of many of the black men under his charge who he felt weren’t measuring up to his expectations for African-Americans in a changing world.
Norman Jewison’s direction is fastidiously tidy with brisk pacing and concise storytelling. Even sojourns to the black enlisted men’s club which features three snazzy blues numbers from chanteuse Big Mary (Patti LaBelle) and the squad’s star player C. J. Memphis (Larry Riley) (“Pourin’ Whiskey Blues,” “Low Down Dirty Shame,” “Red Zoot Suit”) serve the story very well indeed and help establish an unmistakable time frame for the events of the picture. Jewison also captures the look and feel of the sweltering South to perfection and even finds time to mount a marvelous baseball game sequence which shows the major characters (and suspects) in their element. As the mystery unfolds, through flashbacks we get to know just how nasty the sergeant could be and how many people in his platoon he had alienated with his sharp tongue, unforgiving nature, and even dirty tactics. The mystery elements in Charles Fuller’s script adaptation of his stage play thus flower nicely, and the author plays fair with his whodunit: a careful attention to various pieces of information which are revealed through his series of interviews will lead one to the correct culprit. And it’s all done while revealing some eye-opening reminders of the status quo in terms of race relations in the service during World War II where not only was there tension between white and black soldiers but among the black soldiers themselves who had different dreams about the world for them after this war.
Howard E. Rollins, Jr. who does very nicely has the leading role but the least colorful part as the determined Army lawyer dedicated to finding the truth no matter whose toes he must step on to get the answers. The suspects are a very vivid lot indeed: Art Evans as the bitter Wilkie stripped of his sergeant stripes for a single indiscretion, Denzel Washington as the proud Peterson who won’t let Waters trample on their rights even if it means fighting him, David Alan Grier as the sensitive Cobb whose best friend committed suicide after mistreatment by Waters, and Wings Hauser and Scott Paulin, two white officers who resented Waters’ superior attitude despite his lower rank. In other roles, Larry Riley makes a memorable smiling and simple C. J. Memphis who’s victimized by Waters for being the kind of black man he abhorred while Dennis Lipscomb has some fiery give-and-take with Davenport about proper protocol on the base with both the whites and the blacks there mistrusting the first black officer they’ve ever seen. Patti LaBelle sings up a storm as entertainer Big Mary. And in the key role of the ornery, blustering Sergeant Waters, Adolph Caesar walks away with the movie. Nominated for a slew of awards for his charismatic performance (and winner of Best Supporting Actor from the Los Angeles Film Critics Circle), Caesar draws and holds focus every moment he’s on screen.
The film’s theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 is faithfully delivered in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. The picture features excellent color saturation without the slightest bit of blooming, and flesh tones are natural and appealing. Sharpness is usually excellent apart from a few establishing long shots which seem a bit soft and a trifle dated looking near the beginning. Black levels aren’t the deepest either with the transfer, but they’re fine and shadow detail passes muster, too. The film has been divided into 16 chapters.
The PCM (1.5 Mbps) 2.0 stereo sound mix offers a very clear and resonant audio experience. Dialogue (very important in this film version of an important stage play) is handsomely recorded and is always completely audible. The music sounds simply wonderful from the singing by actors in the film through the standards on the soundtrack (The Andrews Sisters among others) to Herbie Hancock’s background score. Sound effects are also handled with aplomb and never overpower the dialogue at crucial moments in the action.
There are no bonus features on the disc at all.
4/5 (not an average)
A Soldier’s Story is an excellent whodunit with a social conscience, a beautifully made film version of Charles Fuller’s prize-winning play with superb performances and masterful direction from a film master. Despite no bonus features at all, the film itself on Blu-ray is certainly recommended!