DVD: Soldier in the Rain
Release Date: May 5, 2009
Soldier in the Rain is one of those lost gems. It’s a film that should be better known if only for its pedigree. It stars Jackie Gleason, a comedic powerhouse from The Honeymooners, and Steve McQueen, fresh off his iconic role in The Great Escape. The script was written by Blake Edwards (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) based on a book by William Goldman (The Princess Bride, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). This is a true all-star cast that comes together to create a character study that is equal parts comedy and drama.
Gleason plays Master Sgt. Slaughter, a career military man who has mastered the bureaucratic system to allow him to get whatever he wants. One of the strings he pulls belongs to Steve McQueen’s supply Sgt. Eustis Clay. Clay is counting down the days until he is out of the Army so that he can start one of his many get-rich-quick schemes. The two men share a friendship that, at first, appears to be based on Slaughter’s desire to score the best supplies. Eustis clearly worships Slaughter and wants to emulate him, but always manages to get into trouble that only the smooth talking Slaughter can solve.
The film doesn’t have a clear plot. Instead is is a series of events that allows the characters to show what they are made of. The nice thing is that intentions are kept hazy. Is Slaughter really Clay’s friend or is it all a manipulation? Does Clay realize his mentor might have an ulterior motive, or does he even care? Edwards and Goldman are both writers who are able to deal with subverting expectations so it isn’t surprising that the script revels in keeping the audience off balance. Whenever you think you’ve finally got these guys figured out they manage to surprise you.
Gleason is well known for his comic ability but he also shows that he can play up the drama. Slaughter is a man who is deeply philosophical even though he hides it behind jokes. The film turns him into an unlikely romantic hero. There’s a romance with a very young Tuesday Weld that manages to be both uncomfortable and sweet. Steve McQueen also gets to stretch his acting chops. He plays Clay as a manchild with an Andy Griffith drawl that makes you forget that he is the king of cool.
The movie is perfectly charming all around. Great writing. Great acting. It is a true crowd pleaser. So, why is it so little-known? It is probably a matter of timing. Soldier in the Rain premiered on November 27, 1963. That was the week that Kennedy was assassinated. As you can imagine, not many people felt like going to the movies just then. So, Soldier in the Rain slipped through the cracks until Warner Archive released this DVD. It’s a great movie that deserves to be better know, and hopefully with this release it can find the following it deserves.