Soldier in the Rain (1963)
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Country boy Eustis is counting the days until his hitch is up, while the erudite, knows-all-the-angles Maxwell has made a home of what Eustis calls "this stupid old army." Theirs is a rather symbiotic relationship; Maxwell guides and educates Eustis, as well as helping him out of his little scrapes, while Eustis, with his devil-may-care enthusiasm, coaxes Maxwell from his comfortable cocoon and into various adventures.
McQueen gives an uncharacteristically animated performance, while Gleason displays ample justification for his nickname, The Great One. Indeed, it can be imagined that Master Sargeant Slaughter is exactly the person Gleason would have become had he chosen a career in the military rather than show-business. There is not so much a story here as a series of episodes in the day-to-day lives of the two friends and the colorful characters with whom they interact. There is able support from Tom Poston as a clueless lieutenant ("What's the poop, Sargeant?"), Tony Bill as Eustis' own sort-of protégé and Tuesday Weld, demonstrating the versatility for which she was already coming to be known. A pre-Batman Adam West also shows up, and has one of the film's best lines. Escorting a Batallion Major to Poston's office, he says "This company's in charge of Lt. Magee." "You mean, Lt. Magee's in charge of this company," corrects the officer, to which West replies with an uncertain shrug, "Well....."
SOLDIER IN THE RAIN moves deftly from farce to drama, and at 88 minutes, packs a lot into a small package. One can't help but wonder what the set of this film was like. Both Gleason and McQueen were uncompromising, take-charge kind of guys and, with the possible exceptions of billiards and broads (excuse the terminology), probably found little common ground over which to relate. Maybe that was enough. Whatever the case, they play off of each other beautifully.
Ralph Nelson was a more than capable director who had associated with Gleason the previous year on "Requiem For a Heavyweight." He wisely lets the charisma of his two lead players dominate, and the result is an unusual but thoroughly charming picture. Not available on video except for a years-old VHS release, it may be hard to find, but catch it if you can. "Until that time, Eustis, until that time."
Update: It's now available from TCM (online only) as part of their "From the Vault" collection, at a very affordable price.
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
The heroic action type seems to have dominated Mcqueen's career. As an actor he was capable of a lot more. As a likeable rogue he brought much charm to "The Reivers" similar to what we find in "Soldier in the Rain" though with an added edge of eccentricity.
Jackie Gleason, (who not only looks like Orson Welles but seems to sound like him to here), complements the duo with his own inimitable charm. Tuesday Weld, who as always has that special charm of her own, adds to the general good vibe this innocuous army life comedy has to offer.
While not exactly a film of much importance, its undeniable abundance of good nature plus talented cast make it a pleasant way to pass 88 minutes.
Most see the military as an organization that flits around "fighting wars", not realizing that (like any other huge organization) it's mostly bureacracy and tedium. Gleason and McQueen put this point across very well, pointing out the adaptive uselessness that Slaughter (a combat veteran; check out his decorations and CIB when he's in full uniform) has mastered as a typical career NCO in peacetime, and his agonizing over leaving the home he has known for so many years. His role alone is enough reason to take the time to watch this excellent movie.
McQueen may seem like a clown to some, but I can remember any number of similar clowns from my two years back in the 1970's, and I suspect that they are still there in the modern US (and in all other nations') forces to this day. Both he and Slaughter are "types" that anyone with military service can recognized from their own experiences, even though the fictional characters may be a bit more concentrated.
Those who doubt the Tuesday Weld portrayal might have been swayed by an hour or two with any of several of my young female acquaintances in the Louisville KY area in 1971. We soldier boys had groupies that were every bit as airheaded as the rock groupies of the Swingin' Sixties. A bit concentrated of a role, once again, but not very far from reality as I saw it.
And, the final coming of age of the McQueen character (after the abrupt and complete departure of Slaughter in one of the most unique death announcements in film (the only other case I can think of was how Daisy Miller's death was revealed)) is both priceless and true to reality. As long as that Coke machine was there and malfunctioning in the same fashion for the now re-enlisted McQueen, a little big of Slaughter would be there as well.
In the end, there is a lot more to Jackie Gleason than most suspected (his work in the music field, for example), and this movie role is one of the indications of what's hidden from the casual observer.
McQueen is known for his roles as a "tough guy," but in this movie, his remarkable comedy skill was shown. If you have seen McQueen only as a tough guy, then seeing him in this movie will impress you with the range of which he was capable.
Conversely, Gleason, the great comic, as the straight man here, is sweet and touching and tragic.
Tuesday Weld plays a ditzy bimbo who oddly enough, becomes a girlfriend for Gleason's character in a May/December pairing that is even more peculiar on account of her fluffiness contrasted to his quiet and sober nature.
The film is in black and white, which was very effective for the story.