After the outbreak of World War II, Australia was deluged by 60,000 American soldiers, dispatched there in the event of an attempted Japanese invasion, which of course never happened.
What did occur, however, were three fatal stranglings of young Melbourne women, which served to bring U.S.-Australian relations, strained from the start because of the Yanks' sheer numbers, to a boiling point. It was widely believed among Australians that an American was the serial killer.
From that incident, which was ultimately to have significant consequences for American military justice, director Philippe Mora and writer William Nagle have made the engrossing, provocative "Death of a Soldier" (at the Westside Pavilion). It's a suspense story that culminates in a good courtroom drama, a wry commentary on chronic American arrogance and a large-scale, meticulously detailed period piece. Indeed, the task of re-creating the Melbourne of the early '40s was no less challenging than that of resurrecting Los Angeles of that same era for "Swing Shift" and art director Geoff Richardson deserves full marks for his achievement.
Once the Yanks have landed, Melbourne nightlife starts resembling that of Tijuana in the '40s. Among the thousands of Americans hell-raisers, Edward J. Leonski (Reb Brown) naturally stands out, not only because of his towering height and Herculean physique, but because of his antics while under the influence. (He loves to walk on his hands the full length of a bar). Even sober he has a tendency to grab women on the street and give them a great big kiss.
On the whole, however, he comes across as sweet-natured and almost child-like in his changeable moods and emotions. But just as we're beginning to fear that he's going to be the patsy in the unsolved killings, Mora and Nagle disclose that he in fact is the killer, a compulsive psychopath as pathetic as he is dangerous.
They could have kept us guessing longer, but they have a larger point to make--if they hadn't, his identity wouldn't be revealed here. The top American brass, headed by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, is determined that Leonski be tried in an American military tribunal instead of being turned over to Australian civil courts because it has been decided that Leonski must be hanged to bolster the morale of American troops--and that under Australian law the most he could get would be life imprisonment. Never mind the effrontery to the Australians; never mind that the American military has managed to get Leonski declared sane--he was not allowed to be examined by civilian psychiatrists--and therefore capable of standing trial.
Ordered to defend Leonski is a sophisticated major (James Coburn) who realizes that the attempt to railroad the clearly deranged fellow is not merely a miscarriage of justice but gives the lie to the entire reason why United States has gone to war in the first place. That point is made with such passion and dispatch by Coburn that "Death of a Soldier" never seems preachy. But will Coburn be able to see that justice is done?
"Death of a Soldier" serves its cast very well indeed. Coburn is overdue for such a meaty role, and his characteristically shrewd, witty worldliness allows the idealism of the major to emerge as something of a surprise. Leonski is the best shot Reb Brown has ever had, and Mora elicits from him an impressive complexity and range of emotions. Bill Hunter and Maurie Fields, two Australian stalwarts, are Melbourne police detectives, representatives of Aussie fair play, sorely tested under the circumstances. Belinda Davey is a Melbourne socialite with whom Coburn has a pleasantly adult affair.
"Death of a Soldier" (rated an appropriate R for its discreetly presented but nonetheless brutal killings) is an example of solid traditional craftsmanship, and it offers much of the pleasures of the somewhat similar "Breaker Morant."