Death of a Soldier (1986) review

Rated: 3.5 / 5

“No rape, no robbery, and no motive. What the hell could he be after!?”

This is one of the most underrated films ever made. It has never made it on DVD, and virtually no one knows about it. It’s based on the true events that happened during the final years of WWII, during the period when the Allies were focusing their efforts against Japan. The United States used Australia as a temporary stopping point for their troops and supplies on the way to the Japans. This film talks about some incidents that occurred during that time period, incidents that are kept on the down-low to this day.

The film begins with General McArthur being greeted with cheers as he participates in talks with the officials, talks headed by James Coburn’s character Major Patrick Dannenberg. Everyone agrees have the soldiers allowed to party and blow off steam while in Australia, while being kept under control and not going too wild at bars and nightclubs.

At first, everything seems to be going just fine, until one soldier, Pvt. Edward J. Leonski played by Reb Brown, begins a series of killings known as The Brown-Out Murders (I wonder if that’s why Reb Brown was chosen for the role) that sets off the tensions between the Americans and Australians. Pretty soon the Americans and Australians begin getting into violent brawls and shootouts, disrupting the efforts of the higher ups of getting the soldiers from America to the Japans through Australia peacefully. In order to restore the peace, the American officials decide they need to find the killer and make a public example out of him.

The first half of the movie plays out like a thriller. When we are introduced to Leonski, he seems like a big goofball with great strength, who is childlike in his behavior. It’s obvious he doesn’t belong in the army before he even begins the killings. But then he changes once he begins binge drinking, as implied not-so-subtly by a poster of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The first scene of him binge drinking is a marvel to behold. It’s 47 uncut seconds of him pounding down two glasses of beer (mixed with ketchup, mustard, and mustard powder) followed by 3 shots of dark liquor. During this scene, the camera is slowly zooming in on his face, and he becomes less playful and goofy in his demeanor and more out of control and crazy. His reasons for killing the women are insane, to say the least.

“Why did you kill those women?”
“I don’t know. I only wanted their voices.”

Death of a Soldier (1986) | MUBI

So begins the second half of the film, which changes from thriller to courtroom drama. We learn that Leonski’s family has a terrible history. His mother and father are chronic alcoholics, his brothers are either in jail or penitentiaries, and he has mental problems that worsen considerably whenever he binge drinks. It turns out Leonski himself has leptomeningitis, brought on by excessive heavy drinking. It makes one wonder how the hell he stayed in the military for so long, let alone how he got drafted.

Regardless, the Americans need an example made, and they are determined to have him found guilty and hanged regardless of insanity. Moral and ethical questions are raised throughout this act of the film. In the end, he is inevitably hanged for his crimes, with General McArthur seeing to it personally that this happened.

The film contrasts the dissent of American soldiers against Australian soldiers with Dannenberg’s growing relationship with a few of them.

James Coburn is great, of course, but Reb Brown is surprisingly good too. He isn’t perfect, he still shows signs of questionable acting and dialogue here and there. But compared to his acting talent displayed one year prior in The Howling II, it’s a huge improvement. For him and for the director.

As for why the movie isn’t very well known, imdb.com states the reasons perfectly:
The movie was controversial on three fronts during production. First, the casting of American actors in lead roles upset proponents of Actor’s Equity. Second, there was an industrial relations dispute between the production and ATAEA, the Australian Theatrical & Amusement Employees Association. Third, the handling of the historically sensitive Second World War relationship between the USA and Australia on the latter’s home front.

There is also one scene in the film that is controversial as it is based on an incident that many claim is just a legend, while others claim it actually happened. The scene is a shootout between Americans and Australians at a train yard when tensions between them have finally boiled over.

This movie deserves to be seen not just because it’s a solid film with Reb Brown’s giving the performance of his career; considering he was actually nominated for a best supporting actor award in Australia, which is a miracle considering no one would ever thought this wooden plank would be capable of delivering any kind of performance that would generate anything other than unintentional comedy, this is about as good as he gets, though I argue he was better in Uncommon Valor. But also because it has historical importance with the reforming of the United States Uniform Code of Military Justice as a result of the events this movie portrays.

The movie can currently be seen here.

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