Judge Bill Gibron once scammed the military, but didn't wind up with a blonde high schooler on his arm.
Two highly irregulars, in the very regular army! And this is the story of the million-dollar schemes they dared, the fabulous dolls and dates, they shared.
In one week, Sgt. Eustis Clay (Steve McQueen, Bullitt) will be getting out of the Army, and he wants his best buddy—and get rich quick co-conspirator M/Sgt Maxwell Slaughter (Jackie Gleason, The Hustler)—to join him. Unfortunately, the middle-aged mixer has no desire to step back into civilian life. As base MP Sgt. James Priest (Ed Nelson, Peyton Place) tries to catch the two in various swindles, our deceptive duo get away with PX murder. Hoping for one last chance to lure his pal back into the real world, Clay sets Slaughter up with local "good girl" Bobbie Jo Pepperdine (Tuesday Weld, Lord Love a Duck). Still in high school, the blond bimbette thinks the Master Sergeant is a "jellybelly fatty." But as Clay's time grows short, Slaughter shows that he is willing to do anything to protect his friend's dignity, including putting his own safety on the line.
Soldier in the Rain is an oddity, especially for its formidable cast. No one cites this film, when referencing the work of talented thesps like Steve McQueen, Jackie Gleason, or Tuesday Weld, yet all excel in this example of armed forces irreverence. Released in 1963, before American became even more embroiled in the Vietnam War, this studied satire wants to mock the men who make the military more than just a career. Oddly enough, it's the rugged he-man that goes for the laughs, while The Great One is reduced to a patented pathos magnet. The entire film is based around their Frick and Frack relationship, Clay getting into all kinds of trouble and the slick Slaughter rescuing him time and again. With a script co-written by Blake Edwards (himself in the midst of a career epiphany, having directed The Days of Wine and Roses before and prepping The Pink Panther next), there is a tendency to take the whole country mouse/city mouse thing a bit too far. But thanks to the cast, any problems are conveniently overcome.
This doesn't mean Soldier in the Rain is a masterpiece. Indeed, director Ralph Nelson seems stifled by the material and the setting. All he seems to do is show GI's sweating, and stumbling around, and fighting. A TV stalwart before taking on features with films like Lilies of the Field and Requiem for a Heavyweight (which also offered Gleason in a serious turn), his compositions clearly come from a broadcast dynamic. He never uses the locations as anything other than stages, places for the actors to move about it. Similarly, Slaughter's domain is a wealth of interesting ideas (a rare air conditioner, a soda machine) and yet the novelty is never once exploited. In fact, Soldier in the Rain has more missed opportunities than taken chances, and yet the performances carry us across these pitfalls and—more often than not—into something equally successful. Gleason and Weld are especially good during an awkward date at a carnival. In between the insults and smugness, there is a real tenderness and heart.
Elsewhere, Nelson supplements the situations with excellent work from Tom Poston, Tony Bill, and Ed Nelson (no relation) as a despotic MP with a grudge against Clay. While one imagines William Goldman's novel being a bit more acerbic (this is still early '60s cinema we're talking about), there is still a nice tone of nonconformity here. Clay and Slaughter are seen as outsiders because they can play the Army for their own aims, and while the former can't wait to get out, the latter seems to like his life as a career con man. As the ending builds, as we sense the sadness in the air, we recognize that this duo may not stay solid for much longer. Luckily, Soldier in the Rain builds to its melancholy ends subtlety, never beating us over the head with what is likely to happen next. Of course, there are lots of unanswered questions once the finale arrives, things unexplained and never clarified. Had it found a better way to balance plot with personality Soldier in the Rain would be epic. As it stands, it's a fine forgotten film that misses greatness by the slimmest of margins.
For anyone interested in this title, you will have to travel over to the newly set-up Warner Archive Collection service and order it up directly from the studio. What you get is a technically proficient but contextually weak release. Let's get one thing straight right up front—kudos to the studio for making this type of direct marketing interaction possible. There are literally hundreds of films and a cabal of moviemaking concerns that could take advantage of this brilliant merchandising approach. And the DVD they provide is top notch. The original 1.85:1 aspect ratio is anamorphically maintained, and the print itself looks damn good. There are some age defects here and there, but the monochrome looks amazing and the level of detail impressive.
On the sound side, however, there is not much that can be done with a flat, tinny, Mono mix. Not even giving it the same speaker fake stereo 2.0 set-up will help. There are no subtitles offered, however, and no additional language tracks present. Additionally there are no bonus features offered. Again, that's part of the trade off. You get a movie that may otherwise never have seen the light of a digital release. On the downside, these excellent discs give "barebones" a new meaning.
For those who always thought Steven McQueen was nothing more than a macho
badass, or that Jackie Gleason was chain-smoking comedian from a bygone era,
check out Soldier in the Rain. You'll be pleasantly surprised by this
spirited romp, and perhaps wonder why it's been buried in Warner's vault for so
long. Sadly, the DVD offers no answers.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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