Picks and Pans Review: A Soldier's Story

updated 10/01/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/01/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

All hail Adolph Caesar, an astonishing actor who brings this film version of Charles Fuller's Pulitzer Prize-winning A Soldier's Play to gritty life. Though some Hollywood slickness has seeped in, Caesar—repeating his stage performance—is always on target and at the center of this drama set at an Army base in Louisiana near the end of World War II. He plays an aging, bantamweight bundle of muscle and malice, a drill sergeant contemptuous of his white superiors for keeping his black platoon functioning as a baseball team and out of the war. He's scornful, too, of the subservient men under him. Twisted by self-hatred, exacerbated when he drives a "yassah-boss" soldier (touchingly played by Larry Riley) to suicide, Caesar is a ticking time bomb of racial tensions. The film opens with his murder (the killer is not revealed until the climax) and continues in flashback as a black Army attorney, played with movie-star handsomeness and stinging intelligence by Howard (Ragtime) Rollins, interrogates black and white suspects on the base. Director Norman (In the Heat of the Night) Jewison has encouraged Fuller, who wrote his own screenplay, to emphasize the whodunit aspects of the story. As a result, much of the play's trenchant observation about prejudice within the black community is compromised for the sake of conventional movie narrative. But the sergeant is a character that nags at the conscience, and, thanks to Fuller's writing and Caesar's performance, the power of this Soldier's Story is impressive. (PG)

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