Supply Sgt. Eustis Clay (Steve McQueen) idolizes his friend and superior Master Sgt. Maxwell Slaughter (Jackie Gleason). The two men couldn’t be more different in temperament, personality or skills. Eustis is the male version of a dumb blonde. He is not the brightest of men, but has no problem running swindles, even if Maxwell often has to rescue him from trouble. Eustis never fails to scrounge up hard to find items for himself and Slaughter. He is also always full of new ideas of how he and Max can make “a million, maybe even a billion” dollars rather easily. Eustis is close to retiring from the army and desperately wants his friend to join him in an idyllic civilian life. As he tells Slaughter, “Max with your brains, and my ideas…”
In contrast, Slaughter is an Army lifer and has no desire to leave his only family. However, Eustis won’t take no for an answer. To that end he fixes his buddy up with the beautiful but very young and ignorant Bobby Jo Pepperdine(Tuesday Weld). Slaughter is not so easily convinced, especially since Bobby Jo is half his age. When she calls him Fatty and a host of other cruel names, it brings up all his past insecurities.
However, time is running out for Eustis and Slaughter’s friendship and Eustis is determined. He can not imagine life without Maxwell in it. Through thick and thin these friends stick together and balance each other out.
The first time I saw Soldier in the Rain I cried and decided it was going on my list of all time favorite films. Ever since then, I’ve been wanting to re-watch it. When it finally aired again on TV, I cried again at the innocence and poignancy of Eustis and Maxwell’s friendship.
I went into my first viewing of this film blind, so I was surprised by how moving and sincere this story of a friendship between two opposites could be. In a rare role, McQueen plays the goofy, ignorant, and comedic foil. Other reviews have criticized his performance, but I think it is only because it is so out of character for him. He makes Eustis absolutely convincing (and also occasionally annoying) as an almost childlike man deeply committed to the hero worship of his superior. This is a man who is twenty something going on thirteen and one wonders why on earth a man like Maxwell Slaughter would tolerate him.
But there is more to Eustis than meets the eye. This is a man who genuinely loves his friend. Simple yes, but not without heart. A man always with a scheme, but never discouraged by the practical reasons they won’t work. A dreamer. And if it takes almost the entire length of Soldier in the Rain to see the depth of this man’s heart, it is entirely worth it. In the last ten minutes, McQueen unveils Eustis real character with slight changes in facial and body expression in a sacrifice he makes for his beloved friend. It is the culmination of the whole film in those last ten minutes which always makes me cry.
However, as much as I love McQueen, Soldier in the Rain really belongs to Jackie Gleason and his portrayal of the emotionally isolated Maxwell Slaughter. This performance was my biggest surprise. He plays Slaughter with pathos and honesty. Maxwell is a man whose life has been shaped largely by his weight. Always teased, never quite accepted, he found a home in the Army, a place to belong. If this means he sacrifices other comforts in life, so be it. He has accepted that this is the best life will be for him. If I ever wondered why Slaughter puts up with Eustis single and simple mindedness, it is for this. Eustis accepts and loves him for who he is and provides Slaughter with his only real significant human connection. Though Slaughter is much more intelligent and practical, he values Eustis for this reason.
The devotion between the two friends manifests more and more as the film progresses. It is one of the most simple and beautiful depictions of friendship I’ve ever seen.
Setting this friendship against the backdrop of daily life on an army based is a welcome change of pace. Most films featuring the military are set during war time or show them in international places as a peace keeping force. But Soldier in the Rain, gives us a good glimpse at the monotony, the routine, the chain of command and even the shenanigans of an American army base during peace time.
Soldier in the Rain is a funny film, but more importantly it has depth. It has pathos and heart and portrays friendship at its’ finest – a force which can enrich and change lives. This is a movie which deserves more attention than it receives. I hope more people have the chance to discover the special friendship of Eustis Clay and Maxwell Slaughter.
Clay: See ya later, Maxwell
Slaughter: Until that time, Eustice, until that time.