Biloxi Blues (1988) is the second play in Neil Simon‘s semi-autobiographical “Eugene” trilogy, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Matthew Broderick, who originated the role on Broadway. Most of the story is set in the barracks of an army base in Biloxi, MS, in 1945, where 20 year old Eugene Jerome struggles with heat, mosquitoes, virginity, and an eccentric drill instructor (played by Christopher Walken) . As one of only two Jews in the barracks, he has to cope with the anti-Semitism of the sergeant and the other recruits, and with the general sense that he has somehow landed on an alien planet a long, long way from Brooklyn. His best friend is the other Jew, Arnold Epstein, played by Corey Parker.
Biloxi Blues is first and foremost a young man’s coming-of-age story, and as such, it follows the conventions, and accomplishes that in fairly conventional ways. One more interesting aspect of the film, though, is the way that two young actors, Broderick and Parker, portray the two Jews in the company. Some of the roles are clear in the screenplay, but the choices made by the actors and the director pose us a fascinating question: when one is a Jew, a new Army recruit deep in the bowels of the South, surrounded by mostly unfriendly anti-Semites, what is one to do about that fact?
Eugene experiments with various approaches: he wisecracks for a while, until it is clear that it will win him no friends. Gradually he attempts to blend in: he doesn’t hide his Jewishness, but he wears it lightly, shrugging off slurs, and laughing with the other guys when he can. He’s a lousy soldier, but he tries hard to fit in.
Arnold chooses another route: he is not concerned with popularity. He is in fact determined not to fit in, because he does not approve of most of what he sees around him. At one key moment, when asked why he is so pointed about his Jewishness and his insistence on his own values, he says, “The Army has its logic. I have mine.” He is utterly uncompromising about his values, and it costs him dearly.
The two Jews drive one another to distraction: from Eugene’s point of view, Arnold makes everything unnecessarily hard for himself. He admires Arnold’s “constant and relentless pursuit of truth, logic, and reason,” but it interferes with his own efforts to keep his head down and get along.
From Arnold’s point of view, Eugene seems to stand for nothing at all. Eugene’s real coming-of-age doesn’t happen among the usual trappings and conventions: it isn’t his first sexual experience, or his first experience of love, it’s his discovery that there is something in his life worth dying for. I won’t spoil the film by saying more.
How do you decide when to stand up for your beliefs, and when to duck the question? Has anyone ever made an anti-Semitic joke when you were in earshot? What did you say or do? How about a racist joke, or a homophobic joke? Where is the line (is there a line?) between “political correctness” and standing up for your values?
Biloxi Blues makes an interesting companion piece to Gentlemen’s Agreement. They portray the same period, although Biloxi Blues does so with forty years’ hindsight. Gentleman’s Agreement shows the workings of anti-Semitism in genteel New York society; Biloxi Blues shows it in the coarse melting-pot of an Army boot camp. What are the differences, if any?