Steve McQueen had an interesting run through the first half of the 1960s, including his star-making role in The Great Escape with other strong parts in The Magnificent Seven, Hell is For Heroes, and two or three other parts. There were more positives than negatives, but the ones that missed have been generally forgotten. Unfortunately, 1963's Soldier in the Rain is on that short list of misses.
A few weeks away from getting his discharge papers, Sgt. Eustis Clay (McQueen) is dreaming of all that civilian life can offer him, all the freedoms the army has kept him from. A wheeler-dealer who trades for anything and everything he needs, Eustis has big plans to make a fortune once he's free of the army, but it all starts with one key caveat; he wants the help of friend and fellow supply officer, Master Sgt. Maxwell Slaughter (Jackie Gleason), who is similarly up for reenlistment but hasn't made his decision yet. As normal, everyday life goes by on the army base, Eustis does his best to convince Maxwell to join him in all his post-army plans, but can he do it?
With less than 30 feature length films to his name, McQueen's star burned fast and bright through the late 1950s, then into the 60s and 70s before his death in 1980 from cancer. He's one of my all-time favorite actors -- trapped in a dead heat with John Wayne and Clint Eastwood -- and this is one of the few films of his I had not seen. With so few remaining unseen, I'm sorry to report how disappointed I was with the effort. From usually reliable director Ralph Nelson comes a mess of a story, not sure if its a light buddy comedy or a significantly darker fare, slapstick goofiness or hardcore emotional. The most damning issue? If it's trying to be funny, it produces few to no laughs. If it's going for the drama, it's completely void of it up until the last 20 minutes.
As a huge McQueen fan, this is a bizarre film to watch because of the 33-year old actor's role. With later parts in Bullitt, The Sand Pebbles, and The Thomas Crown Affair (among others), McQueen perfected the part of the quiet anti-hero, the loner who works in society but only because he has to. Biographies point to him removing whole scenes of dialogue from scripts, insisting he could do something more efficiently with a glance or a quick sentence. Wouldn't you know it? It almost always worked. And then there's his part here....basically the polar opposite. Two years prior in The Honeymoon Machine, McQueen showed he could pull off a somewhat obvious comedic part. He had impeccable delivery and was able to do any physical scenes flawlessly. It's the type of part that made you wish he did more comedy in his career. Something doesn't quite make the transition to this flick then.
It's hard to describe why this performance doesn't work. As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, part of McQueen's appeal was this effortless cool. It never looked like he was trying too hard to impress you. His part in 'Soldier' is for lack of a better description.....obvious. It feels forced, like he's playing a stereotyped, cliched character so McQueen decided to ratchet it up a notch. His accent is supposed to be southern (I think?), but it sounds like he's got marbles in his mouth. Eustis is naive, innocent and a dreamer, but one key character ingredient is missing. It's hard to like him. Maybe I've just come to expect that much more of McQueen, but this is one of his lesser efforts although God bless him, he's certainly trying. Also in the shrill, annoying and overacting department are Tuesday Weld and Tony Bill in supporting parts. Ed Nelson and Lew Gallo have some fun with some adversarial parts, always tangling with Eustis and Maxwell.
The saving grace for 'Soldier' is Jackie Gleason. I grew up watching Gleason in some episodes of The Honeymooners where he was loud, exaggerated and all over the place. As I've found though in his best roles, Gleason was a great actor usually when he could underplay a part, like he does as Master Sgt. Slaughter. A nobody as a civilian, Slaughter enjoys all the perks of his job, but never really lets it go to his head. In Eustis, he has a friend and an adoring fan who looks at him like a hero in whatever he does. Rather than brush it aside though, Slaughter looks at country bumpkin Eustis and embraces him like a brother he's got to look out for. There is a friendly charm to Gleason here, just a good man who makes the right decisions to help others out. Don't mess with someone that's close to him, or he'll come after you.
So while I can't truly recommend this film, I can say that parts of it work extraordinarily well. Even when McQueen's performance can be a little grating, his scenes with Gleason have an easy-going natural charm (more impressive when you read about their on-set differences). A buddy film/relationship minimizes it to a point, but that's what it is. Two different people who end up being close friends. Still, the movie on the whole doesn't amount to a whole lot, especially in the final 30 minutes as it takes a turn to the extreme dark. Probably for McQueen completists and Gleason fans alike.
Soldier in the Rain <---Youtube clip (1963): **/****