Standing in the cold, two Mississippi farm boys listen to a neighbor's radio through a parlor window. The attack on Pearl Harbor has just occurred, and the older boy, Pete Grier (Ben Allison), is slowly realizing that he'll have to leave the farm to join the war, while his little brother, Willie (Jonathan Furr), can't understand the barest details of the news.
"What's Japanese? What's a pearl harbor?" Willie asks. A tearful family dinner ensues, and Pete leaves for the army induction center 80 miles away in Memphis. In the middle of the night, Willie packs up his slingshot and his egg collection and sets out for Memphis on foot. "I got to see Pete. Someone's got to chop the wood and tote the water. I'm going to Memphis. I got to get there today," he tells the sheriff who finds him halfway to his goal.
At that point, in the town square, the Academy Award-winning short feature film Two Soldiers, directed by Aaron Schneider, diverges from the 1942 short story, "Two Soldiers," written by William Faulkner. Two Soldiers is a beautiful film, sumptuous in the way that, for example, Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven's gorgeousness exceeds the emotional values of its narrative. Each frame of Two Soldiers' 40 minutes is intense, exhausting the viewer's senses. The camera glides over the boy's portion of the farm -- the forest where he hauls firewood, the reeds and bushes where he collects bird's eggs -- with the same lyricism as it follows the boy into the recruitment center.
The Academy Award is well deserved for this convergence of filmmaking techniques, with conspicuously magnificent lighting, scenery, cinematography and editing. As in an Edward Hopper painting, light seems like a character itself in the movie: the flaring lantern at the last dinner together as a family, the windows of the house where the brothers sneak to listen to the radio, and the crepuscular rays in the recruitment center.
Schneider filmed Two Soldiers in the Winston-Salem, N.C., area for under $200,000, but it looks like a major Hollywood production. Schneider had the good sense to employ a New Orleanian, C. Robert Holloway, as his production designer, and the movie is intensely designed in the habit of period films like a museum exhibition of 1942 farm life.
Unlike Willie, the movie is not yearning to catch up with its older avatar. In the film and short-story versions, Willie goes to Memphis for a brief, disappointing reunion with Pete, and returns to the farm instead of the war, but these are two different Memphises, different reunions, and, as a post-9/11 film, different wars.
Certainly a different figure presents itself at the climax of the story. Faulkner's novels and stories are full of colonels, but Schneider invents one, Col. James McKellog, played by great big Ron Perlman, who presents a feeling of gigantic warmth as he did in City of Lost Children and TV's Beauty and the Beast, all the while filming his scenes during breaks in the summer's successful Hellboy. Perlman reportedly agreed to play the colonel for about as much as it costs to Simonize his car. Here, in gentle monster mode, he makes the other soldiers scurry at the slightest gesture, but opens his arms to take care of the misguided child when he shows up at the recruitment center.
Problem is, in the short story it's not a comforting male figure who allows the story to resolve but rather a remarkable feminine force embodied in the colonel's wife. "In a fur coat, too, but she smelled all right," she takes charge of Willie at the recruitment center and takes him home for dinner, a farm breakfast of "ham and eggs and coffee, a glass of milk and a piece of pie." But Willie won't eat, and the colonel's wife has a soldier drive Willie home. The authority of Ron Perlman seems to suggest that the boy should grudgingly acknowledge his brother's duty to "be a man," but the colonel's wife gives a more truthful, ambiguous expression to the emotional coldness of war: it's a horrible deal, a damn shame, and nobody can explain it, so drink your coffee, kid, and go home.
Faulkner's story is notably non-Faulknerian, eschewing peregrine, stream-of-consciousness writing for a straightforward and lightly symbolic wartime tale, though it is full of the boy's sorrow. "It hurts my heart, Pete," the boy says, finally expressing his emotions instead of his bravado. Here the film soaks the moment with the diffuse and grainy texture usually reserved for romantic moments between middle-age actors. In the story, this moment is simple, stark and lonely.
Saturated by the natural world, Two Soldiers suggests that the sorrow of those left behind by war is as primal as the urge to fight in a war, and just as animal. &127;
Holloway will introduce the film and will speak at a post-screening luncheon in the Crescent Room of the Wyndham Canal Place. For more information about the luncheon, call 568-1609.
- Pete Grier (Ben Allison) and his little brother, Willie (Jonathan Furr), ponder life in the shadows of war in Aaron Schneider's Academy Award-winning short film Two Soldiers, based on the William Faulkner story.