Cult Cinema: Death of a Soldier (1986) - Reviewed

Character actor/retired B-movie legend Reb Brown, best known for the 1979 Captain America television film, Yor and Mercenary Fighters, exists in an unusual category of ‘80s action movie stars ala Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal.  That Reb Brown didn’t appear in any of The Expendables movies remains one of life’s greatest mysteries.  Known for brawnier roles sporting absurd amounts of beefcake and machismo, Reb Brown is that ‘80s cult hero who isn’t remembered for his acting abilities so much as his larger than life onscreen presence.  Which brings us to the 1986 WWII drama Death of a Soldier, the true life account of American G.I. turned serial killer Eddie Leonski.  

Dubbed the ‘Brownout Strangler’, Leonski was stationed in Melbourne, Australia to assist with the U.S.-Australian military alliance.  Soon however, the allied relations are threatened when Leonski, after a nightly routine of heavy drinking, goes on a killing spree murdering women in order to ‘possess their voices’.  Stranger still is Leonski’s own voice which borders on high pitched falsetto, almost as though he was trying to emulate female vocal cords.  In an effort to contain the incidents and maintain civil relations with Australia, the American military embarks on a race against time to find the killer before the Australian police department does.

An important chapter in military history, notably for the role it played in the eventual creation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Communion director Philippe Mora’s tragic yet fascinating period piece functions as a crime scene investigation drama, character study and even morality play as the fate of Leonski becomes secondary to maintaining the shaky international alliances.  Largely lead by James Coburn as Major Patrick Dannenberg (Lieutenant Ira C. Rothberger, Jr. in reality), the film finds Dannenberg on both sides of the fence as the investigation and trial bores on.  On the one hand, yes Leonski’s nightly murders need to be brought to a halt.  On the other hand, Dannenberg can’t help but argue against rescinding the perpetrator’s rights to a fair trial.

Initially hearing of this film thanks to website content creator Noah Antwiler, Death of a Soldier is a criminally overlooked somber gem about an insane man who becomes a pawn in a greater political battle.  Scenes circulating online of Reb Brown howling like a rabid dog before downing beer after beer amid giggling onlookers suggest typical over-the-top Brown fare.  Yet in the context of the film itself, Brown’s portrait is remarkably close to the real figure. 

He gets the high-pitched singing voice right, the sociopathic shifts between uncontrollable crying and lively party animal, it’s a performance that comes off as awkward and stilted yet winds up being strangely perfect for this role.  Unlike Brown’s other roles of goofy overplayed machismo, Death of a Soldier represents a brief moment where his acting chops were put to the test and he truly rose to the occasion.  James Coburn is dependably stoic and mannered as Major Dannenberg in a solid but otherwise unremarkable performance, upstaged by Brown’s psychopath despite having a fraction of Coburn’s screen time.

Production design by Geoff Richardson is painstaking and transports you the viewer right back into 1942 Australia with many of the bars and strip clubs Leonski and crew would frequent.  As with the eventual WWII actioner Memphis Belle, particular attention is paid to the music of the period with lively crooning and jazz dominating the soundtrack when it doesn’t veer into horror thriller compositions by Allan Zavod.  Visually Death of a Soldier is a splendid looking widescreen production thanks to Communion cinematographer Louis Irving and frequently alternates between wide-angled crane shot spectacle and confrontational close-ups of the actors’ faces. 

Take for instance the aforementioned clip of Reb Brown downing beer after beer, getting more and more fired up with each drink.  The camera slowly closes in on his face, creeping ever closer as the alcohol unleashes his inner beast.  The film also contains numerous tight close-ups of naysaying Australian citizens, including one scene with a reporter decrying the presence of American allies on his land.  And there are times when the film switches to a point-of-view perspective of the victims whose last sight they see is the mad, frenzied grimace of Leonski as he strangles them. 

A still controversial topic of military history and crime investigation, Death of a Soldier nearly fell through the cracks a few times in the early production stages.  Financing fell through and director Philippe Mora was taken off the film before the project changed production companies and Mora was subsequently reinstated.  To make matters worse, the Australian Actors Equity circle objected to Mora’s casting of three American actors followed by the Australian Theatrical & Amusement Employees Association complaining the crew was underpaid.  Lastly, the subject itself proved to be a still sore spot for residents and the film was black-banned for a year before it could be eligible for theatrical release in Australia.

 In 2015, the Netflix company presented the documentary series Inside the Mind of a Serial Killer with Eddie Leonski being the very first episode to air on the show.  Coupled with Noah Antwiler’s video review, both programs managed to renew my own interest in this overlooked historical drama.  While far from a masterpiece, Death of a Soldier is truly an interesting crime scene investigation period piece and highlights a crisis that nearly ruined the U.S.-Australia military alliances at a time when civil relations were needed the most.  And even without taking into context the gravity of the fallout caused by Leonski’s actions, Death of a Soldier can be easily characterized as Reb Brown’s finest hour as an actor where his over-the-top performance finds itself in perfect union with the subject being portrayed. 

- Andrew Kotwicki