The problem with Norman Jewison‘s 1984 film A Soldier’s Story is that while it tries very hard to be a movie with a message, and while it works for the most part on that level, it forgets one of the most basic characteristics of film making: In order to truly succeed, a film has to be populated with people that are actually three-dimensional characters and not just two-dimensional stand-ins for various points of view.
Written by Charles Fuller who is here adapting his own Pulitzer Prize winning off-Broadway play A Soldier’s Play, A Soldier’s Story wants to not only start a discussion about racial conformity and advancement, it wants to be that entire discussion, a rather heady goal for a film that is also trying to fit a murder mystery into its perhaps too tightly packed 101 minute running time.
Don’t get me wrong: A Soldier’s Story is a highly entertaining movie with some outstanding early performances by actors who would go on to have outstanding careers, and watching them in this film it’s easy to see why. Also, special recognition has to go to the late Adolph Caesar who unfortunately passed away only two years after the film’s release for his outstanding portrayal of the despised Sergeant Waters whose killing ignites the events portrayed in the film. Caesar received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for the role, and it’s easy to see why.
No the problem isn’t with the acting, nor with Jewison’s directing, (the film was also nominated for Best Picture, ultimately losing to Milos Forman’s Amadeus), though there are times when the movie’s origin as a stage play does come through, but with the script itself which simply does very little to move the characters beyond their representative types in a way that fleshes them out beyond the viewpoint that they are supposed to represent. Everyone involved really does the most they can with the material they’ve been given, it just feels, in the end, like they haven’t quite been given enough.
And ultimately, that’s a shame, because in many ways the argument that lies behind A Soldier’s Story is as relevant today as it was in the time the movie is set and the time in which it was made. Unfortunately, it’s also the kind of failure that keeps the film from being a true classic.