It should be recorded that Stephen Spielberg was involved with one solid antiwar film in 1998. That film is Dreamworks’ “Small Soldiers,” not the flag-waving “Saving Private Ryan.” “Small Soldiers” received some praise for the animatronic designs, which give the Small Soldiers life-like motion and three-dimensionality, but the underlying story will last with you much longer than the special effects.
“Small Soldiers” is a clever satire on the culture behind the testosterone-laden combat toys hawked to little boys on Saturday morning television. Denis Leary plays the head of a huge conglomerate that began in the munitions business, but is now gobbling up new companies left and right in order to diversify. The latest acquisition is a toy company run by a couple of na?fs. He tells them to come up with a toy soldier that will really do the sort of things that you see on the television commercials: climb up hills, swim across rivers, jump from airplanes. Most importantly, this toy soldier must destroy its enemy, a companion toy called the Gorgothon. Desperate to please his new boss, one of the toy company executives decides to use a special artificial intelligence microchip from the munitions division of the conglomerate to satisfy the big boss’s demands. To everybody’s shock, the chip does this and much more.
The Small Soldiers and their Gorgothon prey end up at a “warm and fuzzy” toy store, where violent toys are prohibited by the owner who is away on a business trip. Alan Abernathy , his teenage son (played ably by Gregory Smith), is watching the store and decides to sell the toys since business has been so slow.
On the very first night, the Small Soldiers bust out of their boxes and gather around their leader, Chip Hazard (voice by Tommy Lee Jones), who delivers a hilarious speech to his assembled troops. He manages to include just about every bloody cliché ever heard in a war movie, while pacing back and forth in front of a huge American 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.” This injunction, just as the ones that are given to raw recruits in the wars of our 20th century, is all that is necessary.
Meanwhile, the Gorgothons, while unlovely to the eye, are about as gentle and lovable a group as one can imagine. Their leader is Archer (voice by Frank Langella), who has the head of a lion and a quiver of arrows on his powerful back. There is a striking similarity between this toy monster and the extraterrestrial killer in “Predator,” who is pursued and destroyed by a Chip Hazard-like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the jungles of Central America. The movie subverts these identities, however. The solider becomes the insane pursuer, while the monster simply desires to live in peace. Why are the monsters hated? The Small 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 Small Soldiers decide to take his girl-friend (Kristen Dunst) as hostage. She will be returned safely if he turns over the Gorgothons. His refusal to do this leads to a riotous climax that owes much to the movie “Gremlins.” Since Joe Dante directed both “Gremlins” and “Small Soldiers,” the combination of slapstick and violence is immediately recognizable 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.
Hollywood’s ambivalence about military culture goes to the roots of our dilemma as a people. The Hollywood moguls grouped around Dreamworks are solid liberals who can deplore war toys in one movie and then turn around and make another that glorifies America’s military exploits. The reason for this is obvious. “America,” as James William Gibson, author of “Warrior Dreams” states, “has always had a war culture, and that long history of martial adventures provides a crucial background for understanding the post-Vietnam warrior.” “Warrior Dreams” is a study of the film iconography of the Reagan era, one that “Small Soldiers” is a pointed footnote to.
The Minutemen of the American Revolution were warrior heroes, who set an example not only for the Indian killers of the nineteenth century but Teddy Roosevelt’s “harum-scarum Rough Riders” as well. The legend of Roosevelt’s victory at San Juan Hill was actually recorded by Vitagraph. To make a more exciting newsreel, the Vitagraph photographers and the Rough Riders staged a mock battle at Santiago Bay after the real fighting was over. World War One and World War Two replenished the mythology of the warrior hero. So by the time the Vietnam War started, millions of young American 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 center and watch gigantic prehistoric birds breathe fire, and war movies with John Wayne and Audie Murphy. Bobbie’s mother always packed us a bagful of candy. 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 not only inspired Ron Kovic to join the Marines and lose his legs in Vietnam, it is also 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 American capitalism that it is simultaneously producing its own most dedicated propagandists and social critics, often combined in the same individual. Such a tension can not remain permanent.