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Sentemental military comedy revolves around two contemporary army buddies, Master Sergeant Maxwell Slaughter (Jackie Gleason), a smooth operator, who supply Sergeant Eustis Clay (Steve McQueen) idolizes and hopes will join him as a civilian in a private business enterprise. Clay endeavors to be a player in the military, just like Slaughter, but it seems as though Clay still has a lot to learn from his mentor. They are joined by Tuesday Weld as a shrill dizzy blonde teenager named Bobby Jo Pepperdine and Tony Bill as bumbling Private First Class Jerry Meltzer, McQueen's screwball sidekick. Written by
Ralph Nelson's "Soldier in the Rain" is a wonderful movie about the true power of friendship. But it is also Blake Edwards' film. He may only be the writer and producer, but it is as personal as his best films.
The movie features two exceptional performances from Jackie Gleason and Steve McQueen, each cast against type here. The stunt works: Gleason is tender and convincing and McQueen is surprisingly funny and sensitive. I've read that the duo were real life friends and I think that adds another dimension to this film. We really believe that they could be friends and it makes the ending of this film, which I will only describe as a real surprise, even more effective. Like I stated before, Edwards only wrote and produced. But his script (co-written with Maurice Richlin, his co-writer on "The Pink Panther", "The Great Race" among others) doesn't preoccupy itself with the plot. It is content to simply observe these characters and Ralph Nelson has directed it well enough to make it a strong and honorable film.
More over, this film confirmed that "Days of Wine and Roses" was no fluke; that Blake Edwards was a talent that was here to stay. After making a string of disappointments ("Operation Petticoat" was a good film, but Edwards had no hand in the script and was only a contract director there), "Days" showed us a great new talent and "Soldier in the Rain" confirms it. After this, he would write and direct "The Pink Panther", which would make him bankable. "Soldier" is better than "Panther", but lesser known. Perhaps people bought into the mystique of "Panther" but wouldn't want to see a movie about character rather than plot. Hollywood must of thought the same, because "Soldier in the Rain' received zero nominations from the usual gang of idiots we call the Academy. Too bad.
"Soldier in the Rain" is not available on home video at this moment, unfortunately. It is a shame that some of Edwards' lesser films are easily available ("Switch", "High Time")but this neglected masterpiece isn't. I think that smart audiences that want to laugh, cry and think will love this tender little masterpiece. It airs often on AMC in both pan-and-scan and letterboxed versions. Tape it when you get a chance. You never know if it'll ever be seen again.
**** out of 4 stars
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