Soldier In the Rain, the 1963 Blake Edwards film taken from William Goldman’s novel, may at first seem like it hasn’t much going for it: a buddy movie set in an army camp during peacetime does not sound like scintillating viewing. But give it a chance and you’ll find it’s one of those gems that never got the recognition it deserved.
Steve McQueen plays Supply Sergeant Eustis Clay, a naive southern boy who is not particularly bright but has plenty of ideas and schemes for getting rich. He finds an unlikely friend and mentor in Master Sergeant Maxwell Slaughter, played by Jackie Gleason. Slaughter is also a schemer whose office is filled with creature comforts like a Pepsi machine (an early example of product placement), a reel to reel tape player, air conditioner, and shelves stocked with books. He is smart and spends time delving into crossword puzzles when he’s not assuring Clay about how great their futures are going to be-living in languid luxury on a tropical island. Both actors play nicely against type. McQueen's Clay is slightly bumbling, hero worships Slaughter and is caught up in his dreams, while Gleason's Slaughter is soft spoken, quietly confident and a charmer.
Clay sets the usually sedentary Slaughter up with Bobby Jo Pepperdine (Tuesday Weld), which Slaughter doesn’t appreciate until he finds they have more in common than he at first assumed. He agrees to double-date with Clay and his gal, and the foursome enjoy good times golfing and going out on the town. The lightheartedness quickly dies when Clay receives bad news, the consequences of which change the lives of Clay and Slaughter permanently. The end of the film is a testament to the strong bond these men formed, and is a poignant reminder of how lasting a friendship can be.
Somewhat surprising are references to transvestism and women’s breasts. Although tame by today’s standards, these mentions would have surely been regarded as risque and “taboo” in the early ‘60s.
The star power is impressive. Jackie Gleason and Steve McQueen were major stars of the day, while Tuesday Weld was one of the ’60’s most popular screen beauties. The prominent cast, an entertaining screenplay and top notch production should have made this movie a hit. But its release a week after President Kennedy’s assassination may have had something to do with its lackluster box office performance.
Soldier In the Rain is a film that is both amusing and moving, and one no film buff should miss.