Making fun of war culture

Issue 

By Louis Proyect

Small Soldiers
Directed by Joe Dante
Dreamworks SKG
Available from most video shops

Stephen Spielberg was involved with one solid antiwar film in 1998. That film was Dreamworks' Small Soldiers, not the flag-waving Saving Private Ryan. Small Soldiers is a clever satire on the culture behind the testosterone-laden combat toys hawked on Saturday morning television.

Small Soldiers won praise for its animatronic designs, which gave its toys life-like motion and three-dimensionality, but the underlying story will last with you much longer than the special effects.

Denis Leary plays the head of a huge munitions conglomerate that is now gobbling up new companies in order to diversify. His latest acquisition is a toy company. Leary orders it to come up with a toy soldier that will really do the things on the television commercials: climb hills, swim rivers, jump from aeroplanes. Most importantly, this toy soldier must destroy its enemy, a companion toy called the Gorgothon.

Desperate to please the new boss, the toy company executives use a special artificial intelligence microchip from the munitions division to create a toy that does everything the boss wants and more.

The toy soldiers and their Gorgothon prey end up at a "warm and fuzzy" toy shop where violent toys are prohibited by the owner. However, the owner is away on a business trip and his teenage son, Alan (Gregory Smith), decides to sell the toys since business has been slow.

On their first night at the shop, the toy soldiers bust out of their boxes and gather around their leader, Chip Hazard (voiced by Tommy Lee Jones), who delivers a hilarious speech to his assembled troops. He manages to include just about every cliche ever heard in a war movie, while pacing back and forth in front of a huge US flag. To leave no doubt, the film score quotes the musical theme from Patton.

The gist of Hazard's speech is that the Gorgothon must be killed because they are "the enemy".

Meanwhile, the Gorgothons, while unlovely to the eye, are about as gentle and lovable a group as one can imagine. Their leader is Archer (voiced by Frank Langella), who bears a striking similarity to the extraterrestrial killer in Predator, who was pursued and destroyed by Arnold Schwarzenegger. This movie subverts these identities. The soldier becomes the insane pursuer, while the monster simply desires to live in peace.

Why are the monsters hated? The toy soldiers have the answer. They are different. They have been programmed to hate the "other".

After the Gorgothons take refuge in Alan's home, the toy soldiers decide to take his girlfriend (Kristen Dunst) hostage until he turns over the Gorgothons. His refusal to do so leads to a riotous climax.

Joe Dante directed both Gremlins and Small Soldiers. The combination of slapstick and violence is immediately recognisable as his signature. What makes Small Soldiers different, however, is that our fear ultimately is not of some green creature from outer space, but our own military culture.

The Hollywood moguls grouped around Dreamworks are solid liberals who can deplore war toys in one movie then turn around and make another that glorifies US military exploits.

James William Gibson, author of Warrior Dreams, a study of the film iconography of the Reagan era, states, "America has always had a war culture, and that long history of martial adventures provides a crucial background for understanding the post-Vietnam warrior."

World War I and World War II replenished the mythology of the warrior hero, so by the time the Vietnam War started, millions of young US men had already been acculturated to violence and domination.

As Ron Kovic put it in Born on the Fourth of July: "Every Saturday afternoon we'd go down to the movies in the shopping centre and watch gigantic prehistoric birds breathe fire, and war movies with John Wayne and Audie Murphy ... I'll never forget Audie Murphy in To Hell and Back. At the end he jumps on top of a flaming tank that's just about to explode and grabs the machine gun, blasting it into the German lines.

"He was so brave I had chills running up and down my back, wishing it were me up there. There were gasoline flames roaring around his legs, but he just kept firing that machine gun. It was the greatest movie I ever saw in my life."

This scene inspired Kovic to join the Marines and lose his legs in Vietnam. It is very similar to the blockbuster finale of Saving Private Ryan, a movie that might inspire the next generation of Ron Kovics to go off to distant lands in pursuit of warrior dreams.

It is a sign of the peculiar divided consciousness of late 20th-century US capitalism that it is simultaneously producing its most dedicated propagandists and social critics, often combined in the same individual. Such a tension cannot remain permanent.

[Louis Proyect is the moderator of the US-based Marxism List e-mail discussion list. For more information, visit or e-mail