Film Review by Sean Gabb
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Tristar Pictures, 1997, 129 minutes
21st February 1998
I have two qualifications for reviewing this film. First, I broadly agree with the political, economic and social views of Robert A. Heinlein, on whose novel of the same title the film is based. Second, I have never read that novel. This gives me an advantage over those who have. Screen adaptations of a favourite book nearly always disappoint. Last Christmas, for example, I watched a BBC adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. I was horrified by the removal of the legal complexities that drive the plot smoothly forward through 500 closely printed pages, and their replacement by something about child abuse. This kept me from appreciating what others tell me was an exciting television play. Not having read Starship Troopers, I am better able to judge the film on its own merits.
This being said, I will organise my thoughts on the film under two headings: the political shape of the Federation; the credibility of the Bug War.
First, I was surprised by the libertarianism that Mr Verhoeven allowed to remain in his portrayal of the Federation. He is some kind of leftist with a settled dislike of what may broadly be called the American Way. Certainly, he is on record as having said his film was based on a “fascist novel”. The British reviewers have generally followed this line, sprinkling their articles with phrases like “fascist utopianism”, “totalitarian nightmare” “aryan shocktroops”, and so forth. I have never trusted film reviewers since they nearly put me off watching Star Wars when I was 17. But this time, I can only doubt if they have actually bothered to watch the film.
Though the word has been so overused as to have lost any precise meaning, the essence of fascism is hostility to individual rights. The collective, and its embodiment in the State, is everything: the individual is nothing more than an expendable element of the collective. This cannot be seen as the guiding ideology of the Federation in the 22nd century.
Too much is made of the fact, revealed early in the film, that voting has been turned from an automatic right into a privilege that must be earned by military service; and that the Government is a sort of military council. There is nothing inherently fascist about this. Both England and America enjoyed their greatest freedom under limited franchises; and both have been, or are being, ruined by systems that give almost absolute power to whoever can lie most convincingly to the masses. Salvation lies in hoping that economic growth can reproduce the middle class majorities that existed before democracy, or in a direct limitation of democracy itself.
And we are told this even as the restricted franchise is explained. It comes from the lecture that Mr—later Lieutenant – Rasczak (Michael Ironside) gives to Johnny’s class. The social scientists brought humanity to the brink of disaster, he says. Only the Veterans’ Revolution saved us. They took over and limited the franchise to those who could be trusted to use it in the public interest. Since then, there had been generations of political stability and social and economic progress.
There is nothing in the film to contradict the old liberal belief that having the vote is far less important than having the right to live as we please. The Federation is built around respect for this right. From what we see of Buenos Aires, the Federation is America writ large. Everyone speaks English with an American accent. The teenagers enjoy the hedonistic lifestyle that emerged in America during the 1950s. They go to dances. They make love. They study as they please, free to do badly in their examinations. In short, they live as free people do nowadays.
So do the adults. Look at the family of Johnny Rico (Casper van Dien), the film’s hero. His parents are wealthy. They seem to have managed this without being connected to the military. Indeed, they are openly contemptuous of a military life, and are not afraid to say so. When Johnny comes home after joining up, they do every thing to persuade him to back out. His father even threatens to go public with disinheriting him.
Again, looking at the news bulletins that punctuate the film, there is evidence of limited constitutional government. There are peace activists who oppose the war against the Bugs, claiming that we should all live and let live. We are supposed to laugh at the Mormon colonists who disobey the Government’s advice and build their Joseph Smith City in the neutral zone, and get eaten by the Bugs. No attempt had been made to stop them from emigrating. Like all free people, they had been left alone to direct their own actions and to suffer the consequences.
Nor is there any evidence of the racial and sexual supremacy that, while not inherent to it, has been central to our historic experience of fascism. Non-whites are present at every level in society and the military. Women are integrated into the military. Half way through the film, we even have a Melanesian woman appointed to the supreme command after a white man has failed in the job.
Then let us look more closely at the military itself. We are also supposed to laugh at the official recruiting advertisements, and to see these as “fascistic”. But they are not. Under real fascism, there is no need for official inducements to join up. Young people are recruited by force. Here, they need to be persuaded. The general message of personal responsibility is rammed home in the scene where Johnny asks Mr Rasczak if he should join up. He is told that this is a matter purely for him to decide.
Nor is there any effort to recruit under false pretences. The news bulletins are occasionally censored—as, for example, when we are not allowed to see a Bug rip a cow to pieces. But we do see humans have their arms and legs torn off in the reports of the failed attack on Klendathu, the Bugs’ home planet. This admission of military failure would be unthinkable under a fascist government. In the Second World War, we were allowed to see the newsreels of the disasters at Dunkirk and Tobruk—though with a soothing commentary. The German people never saw the full horrors suffered by their forces at Stalingrad; and many smaller defeats were never admitted at all, in case they called the leadership’s abilities in question.
Again, when Johnny joins up, he signs at a desk manned by a veteran who has had been horribly wounded in action. We are given another opportunity to laugh as the veteran announces that service “made me the man that I am today” and he pushes back his chair to show the stumps of his legs. But this is entirely consistent with the those of a libertarian society. Recruits are encouraged to join up—but only on giving their fully informed consent.
Not only this, but once signed up, recruits can walk out just as they please. Only this makes sense of the scene in which Johnny’s father tries to get him to change his mind: even in Old England, once you had taken the Queen’s Shilling, there was no going back. And it entirely undercuts the pacifistic message we are supposed to take from the brutality of Johnny’s training and the punishments handed out for breaches of discipline. See what happens when Johnny lets one of the trainees in his unit take his helmet off during a manoeuvre with live ammunition, and gets his head blown off. Several trainees resign immediately. Johnny is almost thrown out. He is only allowed to remain in the military if he takes his punishment. In this context, his flogging must be seen not as an act of military sadism, but as a free acceptance of responsibility.
Moreover, having taken his punishment, Johnny decides that he is not good enough for military service, and signs his discharge papers. The war then starts, and his parents are killed int he bombing of Buenos Aires, and he wants to rejoin. He can only do this because his immediate superiors connive at a breach of law in tearing up his discharge papers before they are filed.
And it is worth recalling that, harsh and dangerous as it is, military service is accepted partly in exchange for the vote. This is perhaps the most decisive argument against the fascistic nature of the political system. In a real fascist state, the vote is so worthless—because elections are always rigged—that it can be safely given to everyone. The vote is only useful to the authorities because it can be used as an endorsement of their rule. No one would lift a finger, let alone risk life and limb, for a right so absolutely empty. In the Federation, the vote means something: it means the right to take part in the government of a free people. And that is why it is seen as worth all the risks involved in earning it —risks that are deliberately brought to the attention of those thinking of taking them.
I can understand the intellectual idleness of the reviewers. What I find astonishing is Mr Verhoeven’s belief that he has filmed a “fascist novel”. Probably, Heinlein was far more explicit in his portrayal of a libertarian society. But enough remains of this in the film to put it almost in the same class of libertarian cinema as The Fountainhead, or High Noon, or Star Wars. Mr Verhoeven is a great director—anyone can realise this who has seen films like Robocop and Total Recall. But his greatness is surely most fully revealed in Starship Troopers, where he has unknowingly created a powerful and dignified vision of a future that contradicts his own leftist views.
Turning to the Bug War, I was less happy. As shown in the film, the Federation strategy makes no sense. The war begins with the destruction of Buenos Aires. The Bugs achieve this by hurling an asteroid across the galaxy. I cannot believe that a civilisation able to build interstellar spaceships could fail to see this coming months in advance, and fail to do anything about it. Nor can I believe that, after one failed attack on the Bugs, in which Federation ships have been blasted out of low orbit over Klendathu, the same positioning of forces could be risked in the next attack.
Nor do I find the use of ground forces at all convincing. The soldiers are sent into combat against a numerically superior enemy with horribly inadequate weapons. They have small atom bombs, and these are occasionally used to good effect. But otherwise, they only have standard calibre machine guns that are plainly inadequate against the Bugs. Hundreds of rounds of fire from more than one weapon are needed to kill just one Bug. The sort of guns used in Star Wars—indeed, even the guns now used by the American and British military—would make far greater sense. They would cut the death toll from hundreds of thousands to perhaps a few hundred.
And that is on the assumption that ground forces need to be committed at all. In one scene, we are shown a very effective aerial attack on the Bugs. Why was this not continued to the point where only a few Bugs remained? Then ground forces might have been committed for a mopping up and the capture of the Brain Bug—and could have acted under the same umbrella of air supremacy as Allied forces may be about to enjoy in the Persian Gulf.
The answer is that a more sensible strategy would bring the war to an easy conclusion, and this would rob the film of much of its excitement. And the set piece battles are exciting—they remind me of the best Second World War films, and even in places of the Spartan defence at Thermopylae. But the excitement is always undermined by the knowledge that the actions make no military sense.
Moving to generalities, I was impressed by the portrayal of sexual equality—which is what we can expect in a libertarian society. But I was not convinced by way in which the sexes are integrated in the military. The shower scene, where we see male and female recruits naked together, is conceivable—but only, I think, on the assumption that the recruits do not regard each other as sexual beings. But this is not the case in Starship Troopers. Johnny does get into a sexual relationship with a member of his unit while on active service. I may be wrong, but this must be bad for discipline.
As an aside, I notice that his lover (Dina Meyer) is able to go through weeks of active service against the Bugs with an undamaged perm; and when she eventually gets into bed with Johnny, her armpits are smoothly shaven. Is this, I wonder, more evidence of the goodies on offer in a free society? Or is it just Hollywood?
I enjoyed Starship Troopers. I may even watch it again. And I will certainly get round this year to reading some Heinlein.