Biloxi Blues [50 New-Old Movies for the 51st Year #27]

Mid-last year, I turned 50 years old!  And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of my life (thus the “Old-New” terminology), and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #27–which puts me over halfway there. However, we are well over halfway through my 51st year, so I’ve got to step it up a bit.  Spoilers ahead.  

Biloxi Blues

Directed by Mike Nichols

Release Date:  March 25, 1988
My age then:  17 years old

What it is about:  Young New Yorker Eugene Jerome is drafted into the army toward the end of World War II, and is sent to Biloxi, Mississippi for basic training. There he must cope with the challenges of being in the army, including prejudices and tensions amongst his fellow recruits and especially the difficulties presented by his sometimes harsh drill sergeant, Sgt. Toomey.

Starring Matthew Broderick as Eugene Jerome. Also starring Christopher Walken as Sgt. Toomey. Featuring Corey Parker, Markus Flanagan, Matt Mulhern, and Casey Siemaszko as Eugene’s fellow recruits. Penelope Ann Miller plays the local girl that Eugene falls in love with, and Park Overall is a prostitute that Eugene loses his virginity to.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  Well, I knew that it had Matthew Broderick in it, and tat it was written by Neil Simon. So I guess I expected it to be pretty funny. I think I thought it had something to do with life at college.

Reality: Well, I was completely wrong about the university thing. These guys are in the army!

But the movie is pretty funny, in a sort of bittersweet type of way. The “plot” of the movie is really just that Eugene and his colleagues all arrive in Mississippi for basic training together, and it doesn’t go easily, and that’s kind of it. Eugene himself has no real interest in serving in the military, and all the others have his fellow class of recruits have got their own general personality problems. They tend to blur together a bit…maybe the most distinct amongst them is Epstein. Like Eugene, he is a Jew and so faces some prejudice from other soldiers, but he is also intentionally withdrawn and purposely isolates himself from the others, refusing to bond with them, and is frequently argumentative with everyone. Corey Parker does a fine job with the character, helping him stand distinctly in a small sea of otherwise similar (though still well-played) guys.

The script has some clever dialogue and any number of of insightful observations into people’s behavior or about the military, but the movie is not highly memorable. I’ve always found Matthew Broderick to a likable but unremarkable actor–not the kind of artist who creates a character who are lasting and memorable in and of themselves. And for most of the movie, that’s actually who Eugene is–a decent guy who does not make a huge impression. Indeed, even Epstein understands better than he what it is to believe in something, and the value of taking a stand. “You’re a witness,” he tells him. “You’re always standing around watching what’s happening, scribbling in your book what other people do. You have to get in the middle of it. You have to take sides. Make a contribution to the fight. Any fight. The one you believe in.”

The real standout of the movie, though, is Christopher Walken as Eugene’s drill sergeant–Platoon Sergeant Merwin J. Toomey. Walken’s performance brings out depths that you don’t really see in the movie otherwise. It’d have been tempting to take any “unhinged drill sergeant” character and just turn him into raging lunatic, but Walken does so much more with the character. He makes Toomey an uncomfortable mixture of restrained politeness and broken insanity, which makes him a far scarier character than he’d have been otherwise. Walken steals the screen every time he is on; he’s by far the most memorable part of the story.

Fittingly, the climax of the film comes when Toomey finds out he is being transferred away, and almost loses it completely. It’s the one moment of the story where we are really holding our breath about what is going to happen next. It’s both sweet and surprising when we see the grace and even appreciation that Eugene is able to express for Toomey as the film is drawing to a close.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? Biloxi Blues is not a bad movie, by any means, and there were definitely parts where I was strongly engaged or where I laughed. But it’s also a bit forgettable–it’s just not quite funny enough, or dramatic enough, or deep enough, to make it one of the greats.

See here for the Master List.

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