A Soldier's Story Blu-ray Review
A Soldier’s Story takes place during World War II on a racially segregated military base in Louisiana. Late one night in a secluded area nearby, Black Sergeant Vernon Waters (Adolph Caesar) is mercilessly shot dead. Suspicion initially falls on the local Ku Klux Klan, while others are convinced two bigoted white Officers are responsible. Washington sends Black army lawyer Captain Davenport (Howard Rollins Jr.) to investigate. His presence is clearly not welcome, with a lack of support hindering progress at every turn in this volatile environment, yet steadfast Davenport is determined to uncover the truth.
The story was adapted by Charles Fuller, from his Pulitzer prize winning off-Broadway production A Soldier’s Play, which first opened in 1981. It proved challenging at the time to get this to the screen, with many major studios reluctant to provide funding – Warner Bros. had been interested but got cold feet. After much persuasion by director Norman Jewison, Columbia Pictures finally agreed to back the film on condition it was delivered on a modest budget – he ended up working for scale.
The narrative unfolds through a series of flashbacks as Davenport interrogates various Officers, who present different perspectives, as he tries to piece together an accurate picture of what happened. The film works as both an absorbing murder mystery and a probing look at racism, shown here even within the Black ranks. Several cast members from the original stage version reprise their roles in a terrific ensemble, including an Oscar nominated Caesar as the self-loathing Waters, a cruel man whose resentment is often taken out on those under his command.
Watch for an early appearance by Denzel Washington as Private Peterson, excellent in only his second big screen role – and already showing a commanding presence. Other recognisable faces working so well together here include Robert Townsend, Art Evans and David Alan Grier (who would later appear in a Broadway revival at the start of 2020).
Despite the story’s theatrical origins, in Jewison’s assured hands this manages to avoid coming across as static and stagy. Numerous scenes take place outside such as a lively baseball game, all skilfully shot by Australian DoP Russell Boyd, helping to provide a more cinematic feel. The film is also infused with a wonderful blues score provided by Herbie Hancock, with soul legend Patti LaBelle cast as Big Mary, belting out some numbers to the troops.
A Soldier’s Story is the second in a trilogy of powerful films that Jewison made exploring racial injustice, beginning with his classic multi-Oscar winning In The Heat of the Night, and later concluding with The Hurricane - a biopic about Black boxer Rubin Carter who was wrongly convicted of murder. A Soldier’s Story might be less well known, yet this thought-provoking drama still resonates and deserves to be seen.
A Soldier’s Story makes its UK debut on blu-ray courtesy of Powerhouse Films, as part of the Indicator series and is a limited edition of 3,000 copies.
The film is sourced from Sony’s 2K remaster and is presented in the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. No signs of damage were observed. The image is bright and detailed throughout, with excellent levels of contrast that ably shows off Russell Boyd’s considered use of lighting.
This UK disc is region “B” locked – the film was previously released 8 years ago in the US by Image Entertainment, with region “A” playback only.
In terms of audio, the original stereo mix is utilised and shows no signs of defects. Crucially for a character driven film, dialogue is consistently well-defined. As with much of Jewison’s work, music plays an important part, with Herbie Hancock’s atmospheric blues score coming through with great vibrancy.
New and improved English subtitles are included.
A vast improvement over the barebones BD released in the US, this new edition incorporates worthy archival features from an earlier DVD release as well as quality new material.
DP/30 Interview with Norman Jewison (2010, 69 mins) – film historian David Poland conducts a lively 3-part interview where Jewison reflects on four decades as a director. This traces his career right back to the 1950s when a young Jewison was working on TV specials, starring the likes of Harry Belafonte and Judy Garland. Following encouragement from Tony Curtis, Jewison made the transition to making features for the big screen. What follows is a fascinating overview of all his work from early frothy comedies, then all the many successes that followed, including his breakthrough The Cincinnati Kid and Oscar winners such as In The Heat of The Night, Fiddler on the Roof and Moonstruck. He provides some entertaining anecdotes along the way, for instance we learn that Stallone proved difficult to direct on labour union drama F.I.S.T., and a frustrated Burt Reynolds took a swing at Jewison on the set of Best Friends. Amusingly, a chance meeting with Hitchcock only lead to disappointment, with the master of suspense only interested with acquiring movie gossip, rather than imparting some valuable advice himself. Jewison has nothing but admiration for stars like Cher and Denzel Washington – the latter evidently spending months in preparation for his role in The Hurricane.
March to Freedom (1999, 15 mins): a fascinating featurette on the experiences of Black American soldiers during World War II, narrated by Paul Winfield. It's such a shame that this is not longer, providing only a glimpse at some truly valiant figures. Absorbing archival interviews include Vernon Baker, who was initially turned away by US army recruiters in 1941 due to his race. He persevered to become a heroic platoon leader, later awarded a Medal of Honor - only after waiting more than 5 decades to finally receive the recognition he deserved.
Limited edition 36-page booklet (first pressing only) – features a new essay by Molefi Kete Asante, extracts from Norman Jewison’s autobiography recounting the making of A Soldier’s Story, an archival interview with cinematographer Russell Boyd, an overview of contemporary critical responses and film credits.
- Audio commentary with Norman Jewison (1999)
- Original theatrical trailer
- Image gallery: promotional and publicity materials