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GENERAL’S DAUGHTER, THE(director: Simon West; screenwriters: Christopher Bertolini/William Goldman/ based on the novel by Nelson DeMille; cinematographer: Peter Menzies Jr.; editor: Glen Scantlebury; cast: John Travolta (Paul Brenner), Madeleine Stowe (Sarah Sunhill), James Cromwell (General Campbell), Timothy Hutton (Colonel Kent), Leslie Stefanson (Elisabeth Campbell), Clarence Williams 3d (Colonel Fowler), John Frankenheimer (General Sonnenberg) John Beasley (Colonel Slesinger), James Woods (Colonel Moore), Rick Dial (Cal Seivers); Runtime: 118; Paramount; 1999)
“A bizarre murder case comes to Fort MacCallum, Georgia, in this exciting, over-the-top detective thriller.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A bizarre murder case comes to Fort MacCallum, Georgia, in this exciting, over-the-top detective thriller. The general’s daughter is found naked and strangled to death with her arms tied with tent pegs while spread-eagled outdoors, where she was mock raped. Capt. Elisabeth Campbell (Stefanson) is the victim. Her Army job on the base — where her father, Joseph Campbell (James Cromwell), is the commanding general — is to teach “psychological operations” or, as the attractive blonde explains to the CID Army investigator, Warrant Officer Paul Brenner (John Travolta), who coincidentally meets her when she changes his flat tire, the night before she is killed: “Is to f*ck with people’s minds.” It is later learned that the mind she wants to f*ck with, is her father’s. Her mind has already been f*cked with.

The director infuses a dark, sobering mood around the Army base and drives home the point how power is used as a corrupting influence, with military rank counting for everything. The dialogue is well-served in the hands of the capable cast as confrontations between the gruff Travolta and the officers he suspects on the base, which is all of them, are highly charged. His first meeting with the general is full of pomp as he is ushered into the general’s antebellum mansion, which is richly decorated with expensive leather furniture and his collectible military trophies. The eager Travolta seems to be only too willing to please the war hero general, someone he respects and served under when he was in Vietnam. The general is retiring within a week and is considered to be a possible vice presidential candidate, and is not pleased that this murder could turn ugly and get out to the public. He tells Travolta that he wants the Army investigators to get the ‘son of a bitch’ who did it–that in another 36-hours the FBI is mandated to take over the case, and if that happens the newspapers will have a field day with all the sexual gossip and gruesome details of the murder.

James Woods, in his small part as Elisabeth’s boss, has some great dialogue-dueling scenes with Travolta who suspects him of being more than Elisabeth’s mentor in psychological warfare. Woods is a career soldier who is afraid he will have to resign from the service if his secret is revealed. Other major suspects include Col. Kent (Timothy Hutton), the provost marshal, who seems to pop up everywhere and always looks like he’s the cat that swallowed the canary. The general is overly protected by his loyal aide-de-camp, Col. Fowler (Clarence Williams III), who tells Travolta, he can investigate the murder: “The right way, the wrong way, or the Army way. But if he values his career, he will do it the Army way.”

Travolta is assigned an Army investigator partner, an old lover from his days in Brussels, Sarah Sunhill (Madeleine Stowe). Their conversations and snide remarks while carrying on the investigation brings on an element of comedy, which seems absurd in the face of how horrid the murder is; but, it is diverting. While they are in Elisabeth’s private residence off base they uncover a secret passage to a sexual bondage room with S&M props, where she had sexual encounters with almost everyone on her father’s officer staff. Travolta while further snooping around, asks Stowe — “What have we got here?” — as he stumbles onto a collection of pornographic videotapes. He then says, “Ten bucks says these are not the lost ‘Honeymooners’ episodes.” He’s right, they are videos of her sexual encounters. When he tries to remove them from the premise, he is jumped by a masked man who steals the tapes from him.

Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.

Through some thorough police work on the part of Stowe and Travolta, we learn via flashback that something traumatic happened to Elisabeth seven years ago when she was a sophomore at West Point. Evidently James Woods knew something, as he tells Travolta “When you find something that is worst than a savage rape, you’ll find out what this murder case is about.” Evidently, Elizabeth couldn’t work out her severe psychological problems from that time and find closure, so she chose to reenact the awful incident. This explanation of what she did seems far-fetched and takes away a lot of credibility from the story, which had been thus far a lucid jigsaw puzzle murder mystery.

Director Simon West (Con Air) has succeeded in creating a daring but clichéd film, that involves a cover-up from the bottom of the chain of command upwards. He uses the gruesome murder for all its shock value to somehow intermingle the sex-murder investigation with comedy. The feminist role in the military and the male attitude toward women in the military is sharply touched upon. This story points out the dangers there are from having a promiscuous female Army captain serving with military personnel who are training for possible combat. The film was adapted from Nelson DeMille’s best seller, where the former Vietnam veteran expressed displeasure at the increasing role of women in the military. The most difficult task of the filmmaker, was in stepping on that thin line between investigating the brutal murder and exploiting the dead woman’s body and sex life.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”