Death of a Soldier

(Philippe Mora, Australia, 1986)


Philippe Mora is a generally underrated Australian director, doubtless because his garish pop-culture sensibility is virtually antithetical to the more sedate, naturalistic values ruling much Australian drama, particularly during the so-called renaissance of the ’70s.

Death of a Soldier represents in Mora’s career a strange rapprochement between the familiar Australian period film (based in this case on a true event, the Leonski murders of the ’40s) and his own characteristic sensibility. Those who have written approvingly of the film (eg. John Baxter in Cinema Papers) praise the provocative way it introduces strong elements of conflict and violence into what Pauline Kael called our cinema of good housekeeping (or alternatively, what Susan Dermody and Liz Jacka loosely dub the AFC genre).

By the same token, for a Mora movie it is rather restrained, more respectful of conventional dramatic unities and motivations than his usual pop work – so much so that Mora fan Philip Brophy in Filmviews (Winter 1987) found it “painfully conventional”.

The film is structured along two central, interwoven lines. The first charts the increasing madness of soldier Leonski (American actor Reb Brown) as he murders a string of women. Mora modulates from naturalism into more expressionistic passages (involving, for instance, blaring jazz music of the era) to evoke Leonski’s rising hysteria, and his barely contained, bull-like sexual violence. For most of the film, Leonski is portrayed as a straightforward psycho; but in the final scenes there is an interesting shift in tone, suggesting that he may be, rather, a victimised innocent, akin to a child. Such shifts in dramatic perspective are characteristic of Mora’s pop sensibility.

The film’s simultaneous second line, detailing the complex bureaucratic mechanisms of investigation and punishment set in train by the American army (James Coburn plays the central American official with his familiarly beguiling air of world-weariness) and the Australian army. In the often tense clashes between these two bureaucracies, we are invited to read an allegory of the relation between America and Australia as nations, a relation fraught with – again, barely contained – colonial envy, resentment and violence. This particular allegorical conflict is dear to much Australian cinema in the ’80s: Razorback (1984), Crocodile Dundee (1986), The Coca-Cola Kid (1985). Mora’s set-piece of a shoot-out between Australians and Americans at a train station is presented powerfully as an eruption of a national hysteria and will-to-power usually avoided or repressed by our more respectable period films with their famous recessive heroes.

Although less deliberately excessive in its stylistic mannerisms than Mora’s other films, Death of a Soldier is nonetheless full of typically spectacular touches. Due to the aesthetic constraints imposed by the nominal naturalism of this project, Mora restricts such touches mainly to scene transitions. Many scenes begin abruptly on surprising, disorientating shock-cuts, with a sound whose source is locatable somewhere in the shot (such as steam from a train) also extravagantly treated (in terms of echo, volume and so on) for maximum visceral impact.

Overall, the film is an oddity: not entirely successful (in normative, generic terms) as either straight drama or perverse exploitation, but nonetheless an intriguing, messy mixture of elements and impulses from both tendencies.

MORE Mora: Art Deco Detective

© Adrian Martin May 1991

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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