Two stories run parallel in Philippe Mora’s Death of a Soldier, made in Australia in 1986 and inspired by a true story.One is of Private Ed Leonski (American Reb Brown), a baby-faced hulk who charms women and then strangles them in an effort to “capture their voice”. As he’s one of thousands of American troops stationed in Melbourne in 1942, the murders are a public relations disaster for the visiting US military authorities.
The investigation of the murders provides the second thread. Bill Hunter and Maurie Fields (who even works in a bit of signature singing and piano playing into his part) are the local police authorities; Major Dannenberg (James Coburn) represents American conscience and winds up defending Leonski at his court-martial.
The screenplay is by William Nagle, who wrote the Vietnam War novel that was made into The Odd Angry Shot. In trying to tell both stories, Nagle is attempting too much. The military hierarchy is rendered in cartoon fashion, not helped by poor imitation American accents. Death of a Soldier wastes too much time on clichéd squabbling amongst the military authorities, at the expense of credibly exploring Leonski’s motivations. You can almost sense Mora’s frustration at having to explicate the martial and political goings-on, when he’d rather be expounding on themes of justice and the innocence of madness.
Mora is obviously recreating the period on a limited budget, but he manages to convey the strained US-Australian relations caused by an intense and stressful co-habitation - the tension permeates nearly every scene. There’s a powerful and shocking set piece when American and Australian soldiers open fire on each other at a railway station. Besides adding to the atmosphere, however, it feels disconnected from the rest of the story.
Coburn is gruff and noble and steadfast and uninteresting, and Hunter and Fields are the laidback Aussie cops of countless primetime television shows. Leonski is peculiarly characterised, but the towering, muscle-bound Brown manages to make him compelling.Leonski’s a psychotic taken to binge drinking, singing falsetto, crying a lot and regularly emitting a curiously high-pitched snorting cackle. Despite initial misgivings that this was a one-note stunt performance, and very much to Brown’s credit, Leonski gradually becomes the most interesting thing in the picture.