The Greatest Split Second of Acting in Film History

Good actors can steal a scene with a line. But the best can still a whole film with none, such is the case with A Soldier's Story.

There are no awards for great small moments in acting: Movements where the artist transcends the art in a performance that goes beyond the reality a scene is trying to portray. There are no small roles, acting teachers say, only small actors. A real artist can steal a movie with a couple of lines. A master thespian can do it when there’s nothing to say.

In the recent documentary Marlon and Me, Marlon Brando explains that, in acting, it’s easy to do something, like slapping the singer Johnny Fontaine in The Godfather when he tells the singer he needs to “act like a man.” But doing nothing is hard, such as when he learns that his son was killed in the mob war.

There is a moment in A Soldier’s Story that I always thought was the most evocative, emotionally-packed half-second of acting ever caught on celluloid. It happens toward the end of the film when Pvt. Wilkie, played by Art Evans, gives investigating officer Capt. Richard Davenport, played by the late Howard E. Rollins, Jr., the final clue to the puzzle he has been probing. It’s a pivotal scene in the drama but it’s more important as an encapsulation of the very heart of rage and frustration.

A Soldier’s Story was a 1984 film directed by Norman Jewison. It was based on Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Off-Broadway production of the equally great play. A Soldier’s Play was originally staged by the Negro Ensemble Company at Theatre Four and directed by Fuller. It opened on Nov. 20, 1981, ran for 468 performances, and closed on Jan. 2, 1983. The original cast included many of the actors who would feature in the film, although neither of the screen actors in the scene appeared in the stage version. Both the play and the film rely heavily on flashback as the military detective from Washington D.C. tries to get to the bottom of a homicide on a military base in the deep south.

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A Soldier’s Story is a marvelous film with some of the best emerging talent of its time. The core of the cast is young, hungry, and fearless actors, clearly having a ball just acting. Future acting legend Denzel Washington reprised his role from the play as Pfc. Peterson, but at the time A Soldier’s Story came out, Washington may have been best known for his turn in the paternity comedy Carbon Copy with George Segal. It wasn’t a particularly good movie, and Denzel is a little wooden in it; he also might have been upstaged by a tiny scene where attorney Dick Martin sucks down a joint while listening to a client in his office.

Sgt. Waters, the central character of A Soldier’s Story, is played by the legendary Adolph Caesar, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role he originated on the stage. Waters is the victim of what might have been a racially motivated killing in the Jim Crow South of Louisiana near the end of World War II. He also might have brought his death on himself and not by pissing off the Ku Klux Klan. The sergeant, a deeply committed but clearly damaged man, is made even more important because he’s dead throughout the film. It is an amazing character study into a fascinating psyche and it’s played with everything Caesar has. He acted the shit out of that part. Everyone did. The leads may have peaked in performance even if this was long before the pinnacle of many of their careers.

Robert Townsend said he acted in A Soldier’s Story to earn money for his independent minor miracle Hollywood Shuffle, no less groundbreaking a film just because it was a comedy. But the appreciative look he gives Capt. Davenport is bigger than the hysterical historical thrill he was getting. It comes leaking in from the fun Townsend is having as an actor in a piece of work that is undeniably important, along with actors who are having as much fun as him.

Larry Riley plays the prime victim of the sergeant, Pvt. C.J. Memphis, the blues playing backwoods boy with surprising punchlines. The movie is dark and serious but it has great moments of humor, because each of the characters is so richly drawn. C.J. was the star player on the unit’s baseball team, a team so good they had a shot at playing the New York Yankees. That is until he hanged himself in a cell and the team threw their big game in protest.

David Alan Grier, who is as comfortable onstage as he is onscreen, in comedy or in drama, wasn’t in the original cast. Grier plays Cpl. Bernard Cobb, who visits C.J. while he’s locked up for hitting the sarge. Actor David Harris got Pvt. Smalls out of kitchen patrol by adding a blues flourish to the Sunday morning gospel organ, but he pays for that sin. The movie also added Patti LaBelle as Big Mary, who wasn’t in the play. I always think Aretha Franklin has the greatest voice in the world until I hear Patti LaBelle sing anything.

The ranking investigative officer was played by an actor who was the most-recognized of any of the cast members at the time: the late Howard E. Rollins Jr. His Coalhouse Walker in Ragtime is one of my favorite characters in any gangster movie, and I’m a gangster movie nut. Capt. Davenport steps up the emotion by playing both good cop and bad cop until you believe he himself might spontaneously combust under the pressure.

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But it all comes back to one supporting player, Art Evans as Pvt. Wilkie, who transcends his moment. In the scene where he is trying to tell Davenport what kind of crazy the sergeant went, Wilkie runs out of words. He explains himself in something between a gesture and a spasm, but the emotion pours out of him in an understandable explanation. We get it. The audience also feels how much this guy needs to have the captain understand.

The scene comes a second after he runs out of words, so this is something that the actor brought to it. It’s not in the script; it’s in the interpretation. Those moments belong to the actors. They are drum fills that make a song memorable. The rest between beats. Bogart did it in Casablanca when he answers an unasked question while dousing the flames in gin and Dooley Wilson’s piano. There’s a part of me that would love to hear if Evans could do it on cue; there’s a part of me that would be devastated if he were able.

The entire scene is musical. It’s less a soliloquy than a guitar solo, an angry lead played sloppily but perfectly. There is a flurry of notes that explode in the opening line, “He despised him,” where Evans pulls away from the band the same way David Gilmour might introduce a solo line in a Pink Floyd song. Evans is perfection in every bit of the scene. He is possessed by some acting muse that doesn’t come from lessons. He infuses every word with exactly the right electricity, attacks each chord at the proper trajectory. “A crazy kind of hate. You won’t believe it. I mean, sometimes you could just feel it,” Wilkie says. He runs, stutters, bends the notes on every space between the words, and when the script runs short of words, he acts with the harmonics of a guitar’s feedback.

This wouldn’t even be too far a stretch for him. A multi-instrumentalist, Evans played guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson in Leadbelly in 1976. I don’t know how much of the guitar Evans was playing himself, but he knew his way around the frets well enough to make it fit perfectly to the images on screen, unlike Dooley Wilson in Casablanca, who looks like he’s playing patty cake in a pair of catcher’s mitts with the ivories every time the band strikes up a tune. In music, the space between the notes is as important as the notes. In this scene, Evans gives us an aria of rests with a symphonic buildup, and a crashing glissando as a climax.

Art Evans started acting on the stage of Frank Silvera’s Theater of Being in Los Angeles. He rode the starring role in The Amen Corner to Broadway in 1965. He played Bubba on an episode of the Freddie Prinze TV vehicle Chico and the Man in 1976. He also appeared on TV’s M*A*S*H, Hill Street Blues, Monk, and The X-Files. On film, he’s probably best remembered as the guy who taught Bruce Willis how to land planes in Die Hard 2 but he gives a phenomenally moving performance as the stuttering club worker in Richard Pryor’s Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling.  

Evans did have a starring role in the music video for Stevie Wonder’s “Go Home.”

I remember I went to see A Soldier’s Story because Howard Rollins was in it. Rollins may have had top billing, but Evans was the star.

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A version of this story appears in Den of Geek’s San Diego Comic-Con special edition print magazine. You can read the full digital edition here.