There are a number of reasons that I decided to start this particular blog. Soldier in the Rain is one of them.
Now don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here. This is one of those movies that until a relatively short while ago I had never even heard of, and I’m going to bet that most of you out there haven’t either, but that’s exactly the point. I mean, yeah, I love going to see movies like Ant-Man or It Follows or looking at the S&S Top 250 films and then writing about them, or sharing the latest movie news or trailers or whatever, and those little snippets that catch my eye. But really all of those are things that plenty of other people will be or have been writing about, and in many ways when it comes to them, my voice is just one of the many joining the choir.
No, it’s times like this, when I find these little gems and get a chance to write about them and share them with other people that goes farther than just going to my friends and saying “You should watch this!” that I am reminded of why I do all of this.
Okay, enough of that. What about the movie itself?
Released in 1963, Soldier in the Rain stars Jackie Gleason and Steve McQueen. Gleason portrays Master Sergeant Maxwell Slaughter, a lifelong army man who has learned over the years just how to game the system, and has made for himself a home (and a very comfortable one at that) in the peace-time army. McQueen’s Sergeant Eustis Clay, on the other hand, is something of a rube, a big-dreaming country bumpkin type who is constantly coming up with new get-rich-quick schemes and dreaming of the day when he will be able to return to civilian life so that he can make his fortune. Like many things in this film, the relationship between Slaughter and Clay is at first very deceptive. Initially one might think that the movie is going to go one of two ways with the relationship between the two men: either Clay is going to be such a pain in Slaughter’s rear that we’re going to see him constantly yelling at Clay, or Slaughter is going to be constantly taking advantage of Clay’s slow wits and desire to please his superior to make his own bed just all that more cozy. As a matter of fact, the opening scenes of the film, which see Clay, who is also his company’s supply sergeant bartering with Slaughter for a fan – a trade which eventually sees Slaughter coming out way ahead and at the end of the day leaves Clay empty handed – definitely lead one to expect this kind of portrayal, the relationship between the two men actually runs much deeper than that. It’s actually more of an older/younger brother relationship in which we eventually see that Gleason’s Slaughter has taken the much younger McQueen under his wing, and as is the case in many such relationships, though Maxwell himself may very well take advantage of his protegee, anyone else who does had better be careful where they tread.
Now, to call the acting of either Gleason or McQueen here a “revelation” would probably be overselling things, while at the same time diminishing the other roles that the two actors have taken on. However, for anyone who only knows Gleason as the screaming and cursing Buford T. Justice of the Smokey and the Bandit movies, or for that matter, solely from reruns of “The Honeymooners”, and for anyone who only knows McQueen from his later action-hero movies, their portrayals of Slaughter and Clay may come as a surprise. Gleason gives the character of Slaughter a certain subtlety of portrayal that those unaccustomed to his more dramatic work may not be used to. For instance, the first glimpse that we get of the idea that Maxwell actually respects the army that he’s serving in and is not just out for himself comes when he stops a soldier who is rushing to get to the mess hall before he has to stop and wait for the bugle to sound retreat and makes him face the flag and salute until the call is over. He does this not by yelling at the man or being at all physical, but simply with a couple of words and his sheer presence.
McQueen, on the other hand, with his almost constant smile and look of profound… well, I called Clay a country bumpkin above and that’s pretty accurate, though not to the point of say Gomer Pyle, does seem to have a bit of a harder time handling the more downright comedic aspects of his role simply because it’s hard not to see the harder edge underneath coming through, but he still manages to give Clay a charm and restraint that keeps the character from straying into outright parody.
Of course, so far I’ve really only spoken about the film’s two stars, but they are not the only reasons this movie is such a treat to watch. Tuesday Weld, at this point only 20 years old, and really only beginning to show the signs of becoming the star who would be later nominated for an Oscar, an Emmy, and a BAFTA award, but who had already won a Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Female Newcomer in 1960, certainly shines in her role as Bobbie Jo Pepperdine,, a local teenager who Clay sets up with Slaughter on a double date in order to show him the benefits of civilian life. At first portrayed as an fluff-headed blond (upon first meeting, Slaughter actually calls her an “imbecile”) again, we see her role evolve over the course of the film until she too has become a part of Maxwell’s ‘family”.
I should also note that the cast includes other stalwart actors, or those who would go on to become such, such as Tom Poston and Adam West in smaller roles.
The film’s pedigree doesn’t end with the people in front of the camera, however. It actually begins with the screenplay, which was based on a novel written in 1960 by William Goldman. Goldman would, of course, go on to win two Academy Awards of his own, as screenwriter of All the President’s Men and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but is probably best known today as the author of another novel, The Princess Bride, which he also adapted into the screenplay for what is, justifiably so, recognized as one of the best action-adventure romantic-comedies of all time.
In this case, though, Goldman did not adapt his own screenplay. That task, was instead taken on by Maurice Richin and Blake Edwards Now, I realize that the name Blake Edwards may not mean much to today’s audiences, but Edwards was the director and screenwriter of the much loved Breakfast at Tiffany’s, most of the Pink Panther movies, Operation Petticoat, 10, and many, many other movies. Certainly not someone who would be considered a Hollywood outsider or who did not know how to turn in a top-notch screenplay.
Edwards did not, however, direct this movie. Instead, that task fell to Ralph Nelson, a man who began his career as production manager for Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, and from there went on to direct a number of acclaimed and Academy Award winning pictures such as Requiem for a Heavyweight, Charly, Lilies in the Field, and the Cary Grant starring Father Goose.
So with this much talent both in front of and behind the camera why isn’t this a better known film? Why is it one that even some of my most avid film fan friends seem to have no knowledge of? It’s a good question, and, again according to Wikipedia, the answer may come down to three letters: JFK. You see, the film was released to theaters on November 27, 1963. If that date seems to ring a bell, it’s because it was only five days after the assassination of the president, and America was still in a state of shock and mourning, and simply wasn’t in the mood to go to any kind of movie, and especially a comedy drama like this one which actually ends on a rather somber and thoughtful note as opposed to some kind of comedic razz-ma-tazz that would have drawn in audiences looking for a hilarious escape from what was going on in “the real world”.
Which is unfortunate, because it means this little gem seems to have simply become lost as time has gone by, possibly never to really be discovered by the wider audience that it should be. Fortunately, it has been made available as a print-on-demand release from the Warner Archives, and it’s also, at least as of this writing, available for viewing in full for free on YouTube.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find a good embeddable trailer, for the movie, but here’s a short clip featuring Gleason and McQueen to give you a taste of it.
- Plans call for saving Miami Beach’s Jackie Gleason Theater (miamiherald.com)