Starship Troopers (1998)

Pander 3 (Autumn 1998)

Starship Troopers, directed by Paul Verhoeven, screenplay by Ed Neumeier, based on the novel by Robert A. Heinlein – with Casper van Dien, Dina Meyer, Denise Richards, Jake Busey, Neil Patrick Harris, Michael Ironside – (USA, 1997).

Paul Verhoeven, dir.: Starship Troopers (1997)

A strange, circular film. How does Geoffrey Hill put it, in “Ovid in the Third Reich”?
is distant, difficult. Things happen.
Too near the ancient troughs of blood
Innocence is no earthly weapon.

There is a moment, early in the narrative, where our hero and his friends are being lectured on the duties and responsibilities of citizenship, when Dizzy – toughest girl in the football team – quotes her mother’s view that “violence never solves anything.” The one-armed veteran who is their teacher (Michael Ironside, skewed sideways from his villainous role in Total Recall) refutes this brutally with the example of Hiroshima, where violence did solve – or at least end – something. Things, after all, happen. After that, the film’s “issues” are discussed in terms of surface violence and omnipresent irony.

Paul Verhoeven’s decision to make his version of Robert Heinlein’s classic, Hugo-award winning militaristic tract so overtly fiction for young Nazis does, however, raise important questions. There is a sense, here, of a wiser, more experienced, Old World deconstruction of Hollywood’s fatal fondness for the authoritarian solution. I am not saying that this is a remake of Jean Renoir’s Grande Illusion, but it isn’t The Green Berets either, however much it may resemble it on the outside (I swear there is a moment when the lieutenant actually says: “Come on, you apes! Do you want to live forever?”)

Not a soapy, pious, flag-waving film – no Seven Years in Tibet here, nor is there any mistaking the relish with which the scenes of war and death were made – but not a recruiting film, either. I said above that this was fiction for young Nazis, but I should revise that to fiction about them – the Aryan look has been carefully cultivated, the crisp clean camera style resembles Leni Riefenstahl – but we should always remember that Goebbel’s favourite propaganda films were musicals and cartoons. “If they’re inside watching pretty girls, they’re not out on the streets organising,” was his working motto. The 1933 film Hitlerjunge Quex [Hitler-youth Quex], depicting the heroic life and death of a young Brownshirt, was absolute anathema to him, and that classic piece of overkill The Eternal Jew was made against his express wishes. Those were the last things he wanted his audiences thinking about. Walt Disney was his model of what a film-maker should be.

On the surface, then, Verhoeven’s film is great fun: one wham-bam fire-fight after another; crisp young cheeks tucked into uniform blues; cute-as-a-button killers sharing cocktails after the senior prom. There are plenty of good gags, too. I single out the scene where Government scientists, led by a sinister Gestapo version of Doogie Howser, M.D., are “probing” the brain-bug’s motives near the end of the film – with chain-saws and drills, and the huge word CENSORED plastered over the bloodiest bits. Nazi aesthetes, too, thought a tarpaulin as good as a feast.

You can get away with anything nowadays if you look clever enough as you do it, but Verhoeven must be aware of the dangerous territory he is entering when he ventures into the subject of his own country’s love-hate relationship with Nazism. Holland could supply 25,000 volunteers for the Russian front as late as 1944, and the Dutch and Flemish were always particularly susceptible to myths of blond superiority. Why does he do it then? Perhaps because only he can. It wouldn’t be worth doing if it were mere historical reconstruction, but of course these things never are: a Nazi is any bully in a black coat who can shoot you if you get out of line, and American iconography is so full of them.

Samuel R. Delany, in a classic essay about the original (1959) novel, attempted to excuse its appalling attitudes and implications by pointing out that its hero is black, and yet the fact is only intimated a couple of hundred pages into the story, thus adroitly subverting the racial stereotypes of that era. Does what I am saying in defence of the ideology (setting aside for the moment the superb craftsmanship) of Verhoeven’s film have the same air of special pleading? I think not.

It is clever. It works. It may sidestep the issues its ironies raise, but that’s no reason for us to do so. We have eyes, we have brains, we can think. Hollywood is, after all, a kind of barometer. The paranoid scenarios of films such as Airforce One and The Peacemaker show a state of psychosis in the American mind that should worry all of us. Starship Troopers is, by contrast, a wakeup call. The question is, are we ready for the burden of citizenship?


Pander 3 (1998): 21-22.

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Pander 3 (1998)

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