Monday, December 23, 2013
Hello, everyone! Next February, I will be shooting my senior film for Webster University: an adaptation of Jack London's A Thousand Deaths, a story about a mad scientist obsessed with killing and resurrecting his own son.
Last week, I officially launched our IndieGogo campaign. Our goal is to raise a budget of $2,500. As of now, we've raised $410, but we still have a long way to go.
Please give what you can! To find out more about A Thousand Deaths, you can read the original Jack London story here.
For a window into my expertise as a filmmaker, check out the trailer for my previous film, Mark Twain's Bad Boy Without Grief, here.
Thank you, everyone, for your support. Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!
Monday, December 16, 2013
“Can I help you?”
Those are the first words spoken by Steven Spielberg in his memorable cameo as a mustached Chicago tax collector in John Landis’ The Blues Brothers (1980). Munching on a sandwich during his 5-minute break, he pokes his head through the door and asks if he can help our heroes. With no time to lose, the Blues Brothers grab him, drag him to his desk and plop him down.
“This is where they pay the taxes, right!??” frantically asks John Belushi’s Jake.
“…Right,” Spielberg replies.
Dan Ackroyd’s Elwood takes out a thick wad of cash from a briefcase and holds it up: “This money is for the year’s assessment on the Saint Helen of the Blessed Shroud Orphanage in Calumet City, Illinois.”
“Five thousand bucks! It’s all there, pal!” Belushi adds.
As hordes of hotheaded Chicago PD blast their way to the top of the building, Spielberg patiently signs, stamps, and completes the Brothers’ transaction. “And here is your receipt,” he concludes, attempting to hand it to the Brothers—just before their wrists are suddenly handcuffed and they slowly turn around, faced with the disconcerting sight of an untold number of rifle barrels pointed right at them.
Sure, the Brothers wind up going to jail. But at least Spielberg was able to help them first. And what’s more, he got to help out John Landis with a witty little cameo. Must’ve been his way of returning the favor after Landis’ own cameo in Spielberg’s 1941 (1979), where he played a dust-covered motorcycle messenger yanked off his ride by Belushi (and distracted when Belushi literally cries wolf—“baby wolf!” to be exact).
A couple of years later, Spielberg and Landis would help each other again on Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), for which they would both serve as producers and for which they would each direct one of the film’s four ambitious segments. It seemed like a marvelous attempt to combine their respective talents until Landis made a fateful, pre-dawn telephone call to Spielberg on July 23, 1982, informing him that the worst possible thing had happened: under Landis’ watch, actor Vic Morrow and child actors Renee Shin-Yi Chen and My-Ca Dinh Le had been decapitated and crushed by a helicopter on the film’s set.
“Do you have a press agent?” Spielberg asked Landis over the phone.
It would be the last time Spielberg ever helped Landis. And Twilight Zone: The Movie would destroy their friendship.
The long headache which followed began when a truck driver from the set began claiming that Spielberg had been present on the set that night. Landis called the allegations “preposterous”, and defended Spielberg. The truck driver later admitted he might have confused Spielberg with Frank Marshall, and Spielberg himself swore to the NTSB that he had not been on the set that night—“or at any other time.”
But the tension between Spielberg and Landis didn’t end there.
As the investigation dragged on, Landis’ attorney publicly demanded that Spielberg be investigated for his possible involvement in the hiring of the two children who had been killed alongside Morrow. When the DA’s office did nothing (the statute of limitations had already expired on the matter of the children’s’ employment), Landis’ attorney accused Spielberg of trying to be above the law: “What other major witness could avoid questioning by signing a piece of paper?” A couple of the films Spielberg would later make in the 1980’s (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Empire of the Sun) afforded him the luxury of being out of the country for much of the time and, thus, the luxury of dodging all attempts at being questioned during the investigation, as well as Landis’ involuntary manslaughter trial.
Landis was finally acquitted in 1987. By then, Spielberg had already gone to great pains to distance himself from him. Irreparable damage had been done to their friendship, and there was no avoiding it. When Joseph McBride tried to interview Landis, in 1995, for his Spielberg biography, Landis simply declared, “I haven’t talked to Steven in years,” and heatedly refused to answer questions about Twilight Zone: The Movie.
So, what of the movie itself? Is it any good?
I’ve always had mixed feelings about Twilight Zone: The Movie. I basically agree with the general consensus: that Landis and Spielberg’s segments are sometimes-interesting but mostly thin, whereas Joe Dante and George Miller’s segments are fun and imaginative—the way a Twilight Zone episode ought to be. Roger Ebert summed this up in his original review of the film: “The surprising thing is, the two superstar directors are thoroughly routed by two less-known directors whose previous credits have been horror and action pictures.”
Some critics believe that Spielberg’s segment is the least successful of the four. I think Landis’ segment is the least successful; it’s hurt not so much by its weak script as it is by the way it was butchered by the real-life tragedy that burned down its production.
Landis’ segment begins promisingly, with Vic Morrow’s bigoted William Connor introduced by Burgess Meredith’s narrator as “a sour man—a lonely man—who’s tired of waiting for the breaks that come to others, but never to him.” He enters a bar, miserable about a job promotion he lost at work to a Jew. He’s rejected by the waitresses. He goes on a tirade about black people and Asians, but reserves his most revealing discriminatory comments for Jews: “Them kikes. They always get more money, you know that, don’t you…What else the hell they want, for Christ’s sake? They own everything as it is!”
“Come on, Bill. Jews don’t own everything!” nervously laughs one of Connor’s friends, played by Charles Hallahan, from John Carpenter’s The Thing.
“The A-Rabs won’t let ‘em!” adds the other friend, played by Doug McGrath, most famous as the dopey cop from Black Christmas, and who later appeared as a dying bus driver in Spielberg’s Always (1989).
Morrow goes on one racist tangent on another. His character isn’t meant to be likable, but, as Landis’ dialogue begins to make clear, we are meant to at least empathize with him. “I love this country, dammit!” he roars. “And I fought for it in Korea!” Such dialogue suggests that this man is not entirely bad, that he’s done good things in his life but has been blinded by prejudice along the way. He is clearly meant to undergo some kind of redemption at the end of the segment by overcoming his prejudice.
And so he would have… had the helicopter incident not happened.
In the segment, the Twilight Zone takes William Connor to task for his prejudices by transporting him to Nazi-occupied Paris, a torch-lit Ku Klux Klan rally in the Deep South, and war-torn Vietnam. Along the way, he is chased by Nazis, Klan and U.S. soldiers who all mistake him for some kind of ethnicity and try to kill him. By the end of the segment, Connor was supposed to be so flustered by experiencing so much prejudice all at once that he finally overcomes his prejudices, and attempts to save two small Vietnamese children from an exploding compound while a U.S. helicopter flies overhead.
And so he would have… had the helicopter not crashed on the set, and claimed the lives of Morrow and the two children.
Unable to film the segment's original ending, now that his star had been killed, Landis and his editor, Malcolm Campbell, were forced to re-arrange the segment during post-production so that William Connor now suddenly (and rather abruptly) ends up back in Paris, is captured by the Nazis, is thrown into a boxcar with Jews and sent off to a death camp. For added insult to injury, the Twilight Zone contorts things so that he even spots his two friends from the bar standing aimlessly outside the train; his screams for them go unheard.
This is such a disgusting way to end the segment, for a number of reasons. For one thing, it trivializes the Holocaust. It’s also dramatically confusing; Landis' script has already made it clear to us that William Connor is a Korean War veteran, and Burgess Meredith’s narrator has made it clear to us that Connor is a “lonely” man and, therefore, something of a complicated, tragic figure.
What, then, has William Connor ever done in his life that is bad enough to merit a fate as ghoulish as being shipped off to die in a gas chamber? You’d think he’d have learned his lesson by the end of the segment, so… what is the Twilight Zone trying to prove, exactly, by not only disciplining him, but then proceeding to kill him as well? The other Jews in the boxcar are, of course, even more innocent than Connor is, which begs the question: If the Twilight Zone truly possesses the extraordinary power to catapult a perplexed bigot into three hateful periods of time, then why can’t it also, you know… somehow rescue all those Jews in the boxcar? Or, here’s an idea: reverse history completely and stop the whole Holocaust from happening? (The show would later try to do just that, of course, in the 2002 episode “Cradle of Darkness”). Furthermore, I also wonder what the hell must have been running through Landis' mind when he realized that by editing the segment this way, he would, essentially, be horribly killing off Morrow on-screen -- after Morrow had already died horribly off-screen.
All of these issues are just a lead-up to the very thing that killed this segment’s chances for success: the helicopter accident. It should never have happened. It was the worst possible thing that could have happened. It ruined post-production. It ruined the careers of everyone who worked on it. It even ruined Vic Morrow’s performance, which had so much potential.
On that last criticism, the filmmakers would disagree with me. At Morrow’s memorial service a few days after his death, Landis eulogized, "Tragedy can strike in an instant, but film is immortal. Vic lives forever. Just before the last take, Vic took me aside to thank me for the opportunity to play this role." And the film's associate producer, George Folsey, added, "If there is any consolation in this, it is that the film is finished. This performance must not be lost. It was Vic's last gift to us."
But the truth is that Morrow’s performance would have been far more affecting and cathartic had the segment ended as originally planned: with William Connor rescuing the two children, and becoming a better man in the process. Without that ending, the segment merely ends with a bigoted man getting shipped off to be gassed. It leaves us cold and disoriented. We don’t understand the point of it all, and we don’t understand why the segment was made in the first place.
Consequently, there is a kind of disturbing emotional detachment to the segment which colors my opinion of Landis as a filmmaker. I’m of the opinion that when Landis does screwball comedy, he can be brilliant (National Lampoon’s Animal House, The Blues Brothers), but that when he tackles a project that involves big emotions, he chickens out. An American Werewolf in London (1981) is, in many ways, his most well-directed film, but it is nevertheless compromised by a mean-spirited ending that shies away from the emotion that’s been building throughout the whole thing. We become so wrapped up in the romance between David Naughton and Jenny Agutter that when Naughton’s demise at the end of that film is followed abruptly by Landis’ tongue-in-check decision to play “Blue Moon” over the end credits, we feel hurt and betrayed by the director; the ending is not given the delicate attention it deserves. When Landis recently appeared on a European show alongside Terry Gilliam, another emotionally-frigid director, to discuss what they both think of other films and filmmakers, I was surprised that they never once discussed Spielberg, a far more emotional filmmaker whom they both have chilly relationships with (Gilliam has criticized Spielberg’s directorial style on countless occasions).
Spielberg’s own segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, a remake of the episode, “Kick the Can”, is, predictably, a far more emotional segment than Landis’, though not without problems of its own. Originally, he had been scheduled to remake a different episode from the show—“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”—but, after the helicopter accident, he wisely elected to avoid directing a segment involving young children and frightening special effects. In fact, Spielberg, according to Joseph McBride, “tried to abandon the entire project, but Warner Bros. lawyers, fearing that cancellation of the film could be construed as an admission of guilt, insisted he fulfill his contract.”
Of Spielberg’s “Kick the Can” remake, Roger Ebert was onto something when he suggested, “Spielberg's visual style in this segment is so convoluted and shadowy that the action is hard to follow; the master of clear-cut, sharp-edged visuals is trying something that doesn't work.” A more simpler way to put it is: The segment suffers from dull pacing. The tale of magical wanderer Mr. Bloom, who grants the gift of youth to a group of retirement home residents, just doesn’t benefit from the exuberant imagination that one expects from a Twilight Zone story (and which flowers beautifully in the Dante and Miller segments which follow Spielberg's).
There are three great moments in Spielberg’s segment, however, that make it worth seeing. The first is when sad-eyed Leo Conroy (Bill Quinn) waddles out of Sunnyvale Rest Home, a briefcase hand-in-hand, and attempts to hitch a ride with his son, a real estate agent.
“You said… maybe you think I could come visit,” Conroy pathetically asks his son, with deep sincerity. “Come visit?” The son is evasive, claiming “bad timing” and half-heartedly suggesting, “Maybe next week?” while he’s egged on by his wife to get going. The son departs with a quick, indifferent kiss and waves goodbye, while Leo Conroy walks miserably back into the rest home.
From inside, old playboy Mr. Agee (Murray Matheson) has been watching the whole thing, and informs a newcomer, Mr. Bloom (Scatman Crothers), that this is not the first time this has happened: “Every second Saturday, he carries those cases down to his kid’s car. And every second Saturday, he carries them back upstairs, here, and unpacks them.”
It is a surprisingly-moving way to begin the segment, and in some ways feels like Spielberg’s tribute to Yasujiro Ozu and Tokyo Story. An old man wants to spend time with his adult son, but is politely refused. In all its simplicity, this is an achingly visceral moment, one in which Spielberg makes us recognize the feelings of isolation that come with old age—all the more startling because it occurs in the Twilight Zone, where intimate, human emotions are rather uncommon.
The second great moment in Spielberg’s segment is a beautiful speech by Mr. Bloom (Spielberg described Scatman Crothers in this role as “the Black E.T.”), after the now-young retirement home residents tell him that they don’t want to remain children forever, and would rather return to their older lives. “Well,” sighs Mr. Bloom with a pearly smile, “you can always go inside, and go back to bed. Maybe, if you old folks had a little of that magic still left in you, you could wake up back in your old, nice bodies. But, with fresh, young minds.” Jerry Goldsmith’s music during this scene is particularly wonderful.
The third great moment in the segment comes close to the end, when Mr. Conroy, who had earlier refused Mr. Bloom’s gift of youth, witnesses a young Mr. Agee (Even Richards) fleeing out the rest home’s window. He stops him—not to try to get him in trouble, but because he, too, now longs for the gift of youth.
“Please...” Mr. Conroy begs, “Take me with you. I wanna go, too.”
The young Mr. Agee replies by paraphrasing Hamlet: “You can’t come with me, Leo. You’ll have to stay with yourself. There’s a destiny that shapes our ends, rough hewn though it may be. I’m sorry. Well… let’s AWAY!” before flying off into the night.
“I’m ready, now,” pines Mr. Conroy. “I’m ready.” The other residents comfort him with hands on his shoulders, as they all stare out into the night. The following morning, Mr. Conroy is found on the front lawn gleefully playing kick-the-can. Off to the side, Mr. Bloom observes Mr. Conroy at play, then looks into the camera and grins, “He’ll get it.”
These are the three great moments that make “Kick the Can” worth watching. For the most part, it’s a fairly tedious segment that drags during the long passages of the residents bickering in the rest home and, later, goofing around after they’re transformed into little kids. But every now and then, that invaluable Spielbergian magic kicks in during the segment and shows its face. “Although filmed in an excessively whimsical manner that blunts some of its emotional potential,” agrees Joseph McBride in his Spielberg biography, “”Kick the Can’ represents a further step in Spielberg’s maturation process. Under the sobering influence of the events of the previous summer, he made a bittersweet film about the need to turn one’s back on childhood and accept the coming of age.”
So, from my perspective, Spielberg’s segment, while problematic, is superior to Landis’ segment, mostly because it’s the more cathartic of the two and because it wasn’t butchered by real-life circumstances during its production. It is, of course, unfortunate that Twilight Zone: The Movie ultimately destroyed Spielberg's friendship with Landis, and the mystery behind Spielberg's possible involvement in the hiring of the two children will probably never be solved, but, at the end of the day, it cannot be ignored that three people died in a horrible accident. And Spielberg’s own subtle criticisms of Landis’ conduct during that accident are a painful reminder of the responsibilities of being a filmmaker:
“A movie is a fantasy—it’s light and shadow flickering on a screen. No movie is worth dying for. I think people are standing up much more now than ever before to producers and directors who ask too much. If something isn’t safe, it’s the right and responsibility of every actor or crew member to yell, ‘Cut!’”
Wednesday, September 4, 2013
Towards the end of Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers (1998), a band of pacifist toys make the crucial decision to put away long-held ideals and spring into action. The Gorgonites were designed to be kind, peaceful and educational to kids, but now the evil Commando Elite toys are taking over the neighborhood, and the life of Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith), the kid who has been sheltering the Gorgonites all along, is being threatened.
Archer (voiced by Frank Langella), emissary of the Gorgonites, steps forth. He cannot abide the cruelty of the Commando Elite any longer. He attempts to rally his comrades. “Gorgonites,” he commands, “we must help Alan.”
The Gorgonites are appalled by this idea. One by one, they make one desperate protest after another:
“But if we fight, we will lose!”
“Last time we fought, I woke up with AMFM!”
“I tell ya: War is nuts! And I know what I’m talking about!”
“We shouldn’t fight! We should hide!”
Archer listens to all of these protests. No doubt he understands their concern—for, being a Gorgonite, he knows what it means to run away from violence, to survive at all costs. But now the Gorgonites’ nonviolence may very well cost the life of the kid who trusted them and provided them safety. If they don’t act, Alan will die. Archer doesn’t particularly want to fight, but he has to. Hiding will no longer do them any good.
“If we hide,” Archer concludes, “…we will still lose. No more hiding.”
At age 7, when I saw Small Soldiers during initial release in the summer of 1998, it was these words spoken by Archer that led me to realize what a great movie this was. Up until then, I was enjoying Small Soldiers merely as gleeful, escapist entertainment, pumped full of big action, bad toys, dopey parents, a hot teenage Kirsten Dunst and an insecure teenage hero I immediately identified with in young Gregory Smith. But by the time Archer gave his speech, rallying the Gorgonites to fight, something about Small Soldiers appealed to the warrior in me, and I realized that this was a very intelligent film, treating me like an adult with its focus not just on the issues of growing pains, but the issues of warfare.
Watching it today, I still stand by what I felt at age 7: Small Soldiers is a great movie, perhaps even Joe Dante’s best movie, and this is the director who has also given us Gremlins, The ‘burbs, Gremlins 2: The New Batch and Matinee. That being said, I don’t always agree with interpretations posed by the film’s various fans. I sometimes hear the film described as “antiwar”, for example; I couldn’t disagree more with that assessment. Perhaps more commonly-quoted by fans is Jonathan Rosenbaum’s initial 1998 review, in which he awarded the film a generous 4-star rating but attempted contrast with a harsh 1-star review of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. In his review, Rosenbaum made his case by accusing Spielberg’s film of touting a specious message: “It’s ironic that every time a director decides to a make a war film more graphic in its violence than its predecessors the argument seems to be, ‘This‘ll make someone think twice about wanting to go to war.’ But the result may well be the opposite.” To Rosenbaum, Dante’s film provided a refreshing alternative: “One of the finer virtues of Small Soldiers is that it cuts through this kind of crap and makes the very idea of a war film look ridiculous.”
I disagree enormously with Rosenbaum’s review, though I must admit his points on Small Soldiers as being a satire of war films is well-taken and, furthermore, a much more convincing argument than that posed by fans who would proclaim the film to be “antiwar”. Now, certainly Small Soldiers does take a bit of pleasure in lampooning war films in general. The members of the jingoistic Commando Elite, for example, are all voiced by cast members from Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen, a hardcore war/action flick so celebrated for its jingoism that, even before Dante, Nora Ephron was already making fun of it in Sleepless in Seattle. The war-movie satiric agenda of Small Soldiers is also announced when the Commando Elite first come to life in the film: Major Chip Hazard (voiced by Tommy Lee Jones) rips his way out of a plastic box and gives a warmongering speech in front of a giant American flag, Patton-style. On the film’s soundtrack, we hear Edwin Starr's aggressively-pacifist “War! What Is It Good For?” And in a later scene, a drunken Phil Hartman (in his last film role) is heard to mutter the infamous line, “I think World War II was my favorite war” (Rosenbaum, in his review, wittily muses: “It seems like a line Steven Spielberg might utter”).
All of this is considerable, and yet I’ve always believed that the screenplay for Small Soldiers (written by Adam Rifkin, Gavin Scott, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio) has a lot more on its mind that just satirizing war and war movies. In an early scene, when young Alan (Gregory Smith) has first come into possession of Archer, emissary of the Gorgonites, he wonders why all the other Gorgonites have fled into hiding. “Monsters shouldn’t be hiding,” complains Alan. “They should be out fighting Commandos.”
“We would lose,” Archer mutters. “It is what we were programmed to do.”
Alan is flabbergasted. “Hide and lose? Those are some great options!”
In scenes like this, I’ve always felt that as much as Small Soldiers lampoons the mindlessness of violence, it also recognizes the consequences of simply ignoring violence. What good can “hiding and losing” do anyone, the films asks, after violence has already landed in your own neighborhood, on your front doorstep? At first, when Small Soldiers begins, we do indeed assume that the movie is going to be a simplistic antiwar satire; when manufacturing CEO Gil Mars (Denis Leary) plans to promote the more violent aspects of the Commando Elite and Gorgonites to little kids, he advises, “Don’t call it violence. Call it action. Kids love action—it sells.” A movie could hardly seem more antiwar after you’ve heard a line of dialogue like that coming out of the mouth of one of the human villains. But later on, when next-door neighbor, Kristy (Kirsten Dunst), is captured and tortured by the Commando Elite, the film’s attitude towards violence drastically changes with a key line of dialogue spoken by the film’s hero, Alan: “Major Hazard wants a war. We’ll give him a war.”
The character of Kristy is, like the Gorgonites, initially a pacifist herself. Her bedroom wall is plastered with a poster which reads, “War is not healthy for children and other living things.” We have no reason to disagree, at first. But when the Commando Elite transform Kristy’s “Gwendy dolls” (voiced by Christina Ricci and Sarah Michelle Gellar) into devilish little Bride-of-Frankenstein freaks, they rebel against Kristy and even attempt to decapitate her; Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown” plays on the soundtrack, as a way of signifying that Kristy’s peaceful ideals have no way of reaching her at this point—let alone saving her. It’s no wonder that when Alan comes to the rescue, not only does he wipe out some Gwendy dolls in the process, but even Kristy herself gets a taste for blood and finds herself actually taking pleasure in killing. “This is fun!” she squeals, chopping up her once-precious dolls with a club.
At age 7, I have to admit that I found all of this very exciting. That doesn’t mean that I think Small Soldiers works simply because of the visceral kick I got out of watching toys get clobbered; such an argument reminds me of Pauline Kael’s “shallow masterpiece” argument for Citizen Kane, and would be an act of moronic condescension toward such a great film. I just mean to say that for all of film’s points about the ridiculousness of warfare, nevertheless, the cathartic thrill experienced from such an incredible variation on warfare as toys destroying each other was never lost on me, even at such a young age.
Rosenbaum himself confessed in his review that the Gorgonites yielded an “emotional response” from him, and he added, “The fact that they’re programmed to hide as well as lose is poetically apt given the way such icons are routinely swept to the margins of a pop media culture that places a higher premium on the ‘action’ of explosive killing machines.” It’s this aspect of the film that first appealed to me, as a young kid often bullied in grade school; no doubt Small Soldiers, if not outright antiwar, is at least making heroes out of the side that generally loses in war, while rejecting the history of war as told by the side that usually wins. In the film, this manifests not only as Denis Leary’s hawkish CEO but also as Kristy’s macho biker boyfriend, who jeers at Alan for being a high school dropout but later chickens out when faced with the Commando Elite threat, his pants literally catching on fire as he screams hysterically out into the night (leaving the presumably-wimpy Alan to finish off where he started).
Joe Dante does, it must be said, tend to agree with critics who describe his films as parodies of Spielberg, his mentor; when Spielberg biographer Joseph McBride once asked him if Gremlins was meant to be “E.T. With Teeth,” Dante replied, “Yes, and Steven cooperated entirely with it. He got the joke right away." In an interview with A.V. Club's Joshua Klein, when Klein suggested that Spielberg is not known for his subversive qualities as a filmmaker, Dante claimed, “He leaves that to me!” (for the record, when Klein also suggested that Small Soldiers has "some antiwar themes", Dante did not correct him).
Small Soldiers, incidentally, was one of the first films Spielberg helped get made for DreamWorks. To date, it has also been, unfortunately, the last time he and Dante have collaborated together on a project. The film was a flop, perhaps because most parents that summer were too concerned with Clinton’s impeachment to take their kids to see it. Or maybe because Roger Ebert, in his 2 ½-star review, scared parents away with his dubious opinion that it was too scary for kids. I actually think Rosenbaum was more accurate on audience responses to the film when he observed, “I can’t think of a Hollywood entertainment I’ve enjoyed as much all year, and both audiences I saw the movie with seemed delighted as well.”
Rosenbaum further argues, “Spielberg’s encouragement of Dante’s anti-Spielbergian projects goes beyond tolerance.” But I would argue that Spielberg did, indeed, recognize the subversive elements of Small Soldiers, and didn’t greenlight it for Dante merely under the assumption that it would be another big hit like Gremlins. Spielberg himself is hardly an alien to films satirizing the ridiculousness of warfare; when 1941 (1979) was released, it inspired a Heavy Metal/Arrow spin-off comic book that opened with an introduction by Spielberg in which he stated, “I felt that after the war in Vietnam and the disillusionment the nation experienced, it was important to remind people that war doesn’t have to be a trip up the river to hell; it could also be a lot of laughs.” A film like Small Soldiers appeals to a similar philosophy, and it is difficult to believe it could have been lost on Spielberg, even during his more serious attitude towards war films by the late 90’s.
But the argument in Rosenbaum’s review that I disagree the most with is his assertion “that Small Soldiers ridicules the agenda of films like Saving Private Ryan.” In my opinion, the philosophy of the two films is actually quite similar. In Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg reaches the conclusion that war is hell, but that it can also inspire decency and heroism. In Small Soldiers, Dante reaches the conclusion that war is hell, but that it can also be fun—not just in Kristy’s exclamation of, “This is fun!” while chopping up her dolls, but also when Chip Hazard wryly asks, “Ain’t war hell?” while shooting at Alan in the climax, provoking Alan to roar, “Have I got a shock for you—you STUPID TOY!” before electrocuting Hazard to death. And by the time Kristy finishes off the rest of the lot by running them over with a lawn mower, she excitedly asks Alan, “Is this going to be a pattern for our relationship!??” which seems like nothing if not an indication of the sexual high she gets out of killing (no wonder Pat Benetar’s “Love Is A Battlefield” occupies its own special place on the soundtrack).
Small Soldiers leaves us with the realization that war is a lot of things. Yes, it’s “hell”, and yes, it’s “nuts”—but it can also be “fun”, and it can make heroes out of wimpy kids and societal misfits, and sometimes it can be liberating as well. “Gorgonites, we’re free!” declares Archer, after his comrades have emerged from the carnage unscathed. I never do fail, either, to get a little teary-eyed during the film’s touching final sequence, scored beautifully by Jerry Goldsmith, when the Gorgonites decide it’s time to go carve out a land of their own in the world (Dante seems to be alluding to the ending of Schindler’s List), while Archer leaves Alan with parting words of wisdom: “Even if you can’t see something, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.” For Alan, it means finding the strength within himself to fight for the things he loves, and by the time the movie is over, we are convinced he’s achieved just that. His own days of “hiding and losing” are over.