Why Biloxi Blues is an underrated wartime coming-of-age flick

How Neil Simon, Matthew Broderick and Mike Nichols created a very unconventional movie

Biloxi Blues

In Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, the dehumanising depiction of army training offers a vision of hell of earth which is in many ways scarier than the subsequent ‘Nam segments of the film. Five years previous to that, 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman’s Zack Mayo (Richard Gere) was reduced to hysterically pleading with his barbaric Gunnery Sergeant (Louis Gossett Jr.) to let him stay on the training program. But not every military camp chips away at the soul of its young infantryman. The exploits in both Kubrick and Taylor Hackford’s films are a far cry from Biloxi Blues, where Eugene Morris Jerome (Matthew Broderick) is stationed in Biloxi to begin his basic training for war.

Biloxi Blues
Il cast of Biloxi Blues

Written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon, 1988’s Biloxi Blues is a charming coming-of-age yarn which sits in the middle of the writer’s ‘Eugene trilogy’ of semi-autobiographical plays. The first of those, Brighton Beach Memoirs, followed the character as a teenager in Brooklyn, while Biloxi Blues see’s Jerome as a 20-year-old, somewhat cynical wannabe writer who enters into basic training with a bunch of fellow soldiers. Some are proudly patriotic, others (like Jerome) are indifferent, but one cadet, Arnold B. Epstein (Corey Parker), is anti-authoritarian, and is forever pleading his case to the camp’s non-nonsense drill sergeant Merwin Toomey (Christopher Walken).

Biloxi Blues
Matthew Broderick is Eugene Morris Jerome in Biloxi Blues

Biloxi Blues did fairly decent box office (it pulled in a worldwide gross of $51.7m), and aside from the prestige brought by Simon, the film was also directed by Mike Nichols, who knew about the rites of passage film with his 1967 hit The Graduate being the benchmark of the sub-genre. But for some reason, Biloxi Blues is rarely discussed now. You’d be hard pushed to find it on any essential cinematic coming of age lists, and it seemed to miss getting a mention when the lives of Simon and Nichols were being paid tribute to, following their passing. This is a little unjust for such a beautifully-observed film on the challenges faced by boys on the cusp of manhood, particularly in an era in which they were expected to hastily make that transition.

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Christopher Walken as Sgt. Toomey in Biloxi Blues

That we’re notified by Jerome at the end of Biloxi Blues that (spoiler) basic training ceased just as D-day was announced offers this already endearing film a little more levity by not tagging on that usually dour wartime cinematic epilogue, where we discover half the characters perished later on in combat. Jerome and the lives of his fellow infantrymen during training is, in hindsight, an enriching if sometimes punishing experience.

Biloxi Blues
Matthew Broderick and Park Overall in a scene from Biloxi Blues

Amongst the numerous run-ins with Toomey, the platoon’s brief leave from basic training also offers the biggest life-changing occurrence for Jerome, when he heads off with a group of fellow cadets for a little one-on-one with the local prostitute. The hysterical scene where Jerome loses is virginity is testament to Broderick’s talents as a performer – there’s a vulnerability to him here absent from his devil-may-care Bueller persona – but also acts as a reminder that being drafted into the army isn’t all toil and hardship.

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