On Starship Troopers (and Peckinpah)

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Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 19/04/2022 - 12:01am in


aesthetics, art, Film

Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls has gone through the complete cycle. It was initially received as a notorious turkey, then it became a cult hit that college students watched while playing Showgirls-themed drinking games, and before long it gained a reputation among highbrow commentators including legendary New Wave director Jacques Rivette) as one of the greatest American films of the era.

Good-bad films culture is a space where transgressive movies that are rejected by initial audiences can begin the process of reappraisal and rehabilitation...there is a high degree of overlap between good-bad movie fans and art cinema fans. Film maudit culture emerges from this overlap. I don't mean to say that a legendary film maudit such as Heaven's Gate or Showgirls should be seen as good-bad. Rather, I mean that film maudit sits at the nexus where the concepts of cinematic merit and artistic seriousness are problematized and reshaped.--Matthew Strohl (2022)Why It's Ok to Love Bad Movies, p. 19.

I have been living with Strohl's book for a few weeks now. I avidly search, often without luck, the streaming networks for the movies he discusses and I watch (or re-watch) them in light of his sophisticated and amusing analysis. I quietly mourn the days when my laptop had a DVD player and I could go to the university library or rent from Netflix's once enormous supply. 

The passage quoted above got me thinking of Verhoeven, and especially about (1997) Starship Troopers which has always troubled me. The film has stilted dialogues, an insipid story, but a lot of amazing visual imagery. On Twitter I asked Why think Verhoeven's Starship Troopers is satire? And that went viral with everyone assuring me that it is best understood as a parody/satire of fascism. I am not so sure.

Verhoeven's first major cinematic work was a documentary, Mussert (1968)--Anton Mussert was the leader of the Dutch national-socialists and executed for treason after WWII. I have been unable to find it in order to re-watch it on short notice. But I recall it as an engaging character portrait of Mussert, who is humanized in virtue of the kind of ordinariness of the perceptions of people that knew him. It's important for what follows that I do not mean to say that Verhoeven is interested in defending Mussert's ideology or choices. What is important is that Verhoeven has a documented interest in fascism (no surprise given his biography). 

Soldaat van Oranje (1977) is part of Verhoeven's period of great success in the Netherlands. It's based on a true story. What's distinctive about it (other than the nudity which made all his movies appealing later to my teenage self) is that it starts as a kind of group portrait of students and the choice to collaborate or to resist seems largely arbitrary and driven by ambiguous motives. It's a movie that repays multiple viewings because it's also unusually reflexive about the power of images and the way mutual surveillance is internalized. But I wouldn't call it an antiwar movie because it also treats war as an adventure. (Feel free to challenge this; it's been a while.)

This all by way of prologue. In what follows I want to argue that Verhoeven's Starship Troopers actually expresses a fascist viewpoint. At a high level of abstraction this actually echoes the initial unease about and reception of the film that by now is widely thought inadequate. Since the film also clearly and repeatedly parodies and satirizes a world government that deploys an explicitly fascist aesthetic and propaganda methods most people I know disagree with me.

Moreover, if I am right it also goes against how Verhoeven's claims about the film are usually interpreted (2014). Verhoeven is quoted as follows:

"I stopped after two chapters because it was so boring," says Verhoeven of his attempts to read Heinlein's opus. "It is really quite a bad book. I asked Ed Neumeier to tell me the story because I just couldn't read the thing. It's a very right-wing book. And with the movie we tried, and I think at least partially succeeded, in commenting on that at the same time. It would be eat your cake and have it. All the way through we were fighting with the fascism, the ultra-militarism. All the way through I wanted the audience to be asking, 'Are these people crazy?'" Empire. By Adam Smith, Owen Williams

Interestingly enough, Neumeier is on record (see here) of being a huge fan of the novel.

In what follows, I take for granted that Verhoeven's intentions are anti-militarist. Even so, there are two weird things worth noticing about Verhoeven's claims. First, the main points of the first chapter of Heinlein's Starship Troopers, are the fear and adrenaline in the confusion of battle. The first sentence of the narrator is "I always get the shakes before a drop" despite being full of drugs! I am not suggesting Heinlein's Starship Troopers isn't fascist -- that's a different debate --, but it is quite striking that Verhoeven claims he could tell after the first two chapters. (The second chapter is a flashback to the narrator's decision to join the service which is how the movie starts.) So, I want to suggest that this passage is worth being cautious about.

Second, Verhoeven himself explicitly qualifies the success of his own effort, he claims he only "partially succeeded." Verhoeven is not known for modesty, and I suggest that he must have discerned something of the argument I intend to offer.

Now, in the quoted passage fascism and ultra-militarism are equated. And such militarism and fascism are indeed on display in the first visual of the movie with the logo of the federal network (and the soundtrack playing a marching tune). The first scene of the movie is a slick recruitment video for the mobile infantry. Strikingly, this is a racially and gender integrated force. (The US Armed forces did not allow women in combat roles until much more recently.) We also learn that the world is imperiled ("help save the world") and something of the ideology of the federation: "service guarantees citizenship." (I return to this below.)

The second scene is shot as if embedded with the infantry in the process of invading Klendathu (the planet of the bugs), "which "must be eliminated." This invasion turns out to be disastrous not the least for the reporter and camera man embedded with the troops which are destroyed by the local bugs. This scene is not slick at all. 

That Klendathu "must be eliminated" is an echo of Cato's famous genocidal claim about Rome's arch-rival, Carthage (censeo Carthaginem esse delendam). This is important to my argument. For, the political ideology of the federation, as presented (and mocked and satirized) in the film, is a militaristic form of civic republicanism. This is, in fact, explicitly articulated in the third scene.

The third scene is a flashback (partially analogous to the second chapter of the book). And we find ourselves in a high school classroom where we are introduced to the hero -- or (if he you disagree with me) main character -- of the film, Rico, a conventionally attractive young man, who is drawing a picture of a boy and a girl and not paying attention to the teacher (Rasczak) who we learn is veteran missing part of an arm (and later turns out to be lieutenant commandeering an elite infantry unit that Rico joins after his initial unit is largely wiped out).*

In the flashback, Rasczak immediately summarizes the main point of the year: "the failure of democracy and the social sciences who brought the world to the bring of chaos."+ We learn that humanity is united in a federation akin to the United Nations (and Star Trek's federation). This federation has been transformed by a coup d'état of veterans who have created a system characterized by social stability for generations.

As we hear the teacher intone, Rico returns to drawing and we see the girl (Carmen Ibanez), who is his model. And as she smiles to him (into the camera), we clearly see her and a portrait of Spinoza. (I return to this below.) Raszcak switches to a Socratic method, and asks another student why are only citizens allowed to vote? And so the audience gets a civics lesson of the ruling ideology, which has a number of distinct elements:

  • A distinction between citizens and civilians. The distinction is political and moral.  
  • Citizenship is gained through service, primarily (perhaps exclusively) military service.
  • The political distinction is that the voting franchise is limited to citizens.
  • The moral distinction is that citizenship is freely chosen, and accepts personal responsibility for the safety of the body politic. (Later, by focusing on Rico's parents, we learn that the life of a civilian is basically hedonist enjoyment without responsibility.) This moral distinction is characterized in terms of civic virtue. 
  • Importantly, while the students view citizenship as a means toward social benefits (including college entry), as reward for services rendered, the teacher rejects this. Gifts are never of value.**
  • Voting is treated as an expression of political authority, which rests on force, especially violence.
  • Violence is the supreme authority from which all other authority is derived. (This is much quoted.)

A student (Dizzy Flores, who is interested in Rico) objects that her mother claims violence does not solve anything. We then get another look at Spinoza, when Raszcak asks Carmen Ibanez (the student who is being portrayed by Rico), what the "city fathers of Hiroshima would say about that," (to which the astute and chilling response is, nothing because they are dead). Near the end of the scene we see a drawing of Hannah Arendt and a bust of Marcus Aurelius. It's not silly to have images of Spinoza, Arendt, and Marcus Aurelius in the classroom if one's ideology is a kind of realist, civic republicanism. 

At the end of the scene -- it's only 90 seconds long -- the question is asked (of Rico) if he believes the ruling ideology and Rico honestly says, he doesn't know. And Raszcak responds that he doubts any of them would 'recognize civic virtue if it bit them in the ass.'

I have spent some time on this because the federation's self-understanding and its structure is formally not fascist. (I don't deny, by the way, that there are important connections between, say, the roman republic and fascism.) We also learn quickly that the federation's military is a meritocracy. And there is some freedom of speech in the federation because there is no suggestion that there will be dangerous consequences for Dizzy Flores' mother doubting of official ideology (and Rico's own lack of conviction). 

Now, the film goes on to show that much of this is sham. The aesthetics of the federation are openly fascist (we see Neil Patrick Harris --  of Doogie Howser, MD fame -- visually transform into a Gestapo officer), it seems committed to open-ended wars of aggression, its claims about citizenship largely a sham because soldiers are treated as expendable; many of the scenes provide us a window into the propaganda that the federation directs at its own citizens. In addition, the federation clearly presents itself as superior to bugs (whose intelligence it constantly underestimates). And it is this fact, this exposure of the militaristic hollowness of the federation, alongside the sheer craziness of its way of life, that is taken as representing the viewpoint of the film and this, in turn, is treated as its anti-fascist message. 

The problem is, however, that exposing that civic republicanism and the duties of citizenship are a sham is itself a feature (not a bug [sorry]) of fascism, or at least what we now call the alt right. In addition, Rico's journey in the film is treated sympathetically. And his species of masculinity is also familiar from contemporary alt right. 

That is to say, while some viewers may end up thinking that Rico is a kind of idiot, I don't think that's the perspective of the movie itself. Initially, his decision to join the service is a rash rebellion against his parents and motivated by his desire to stay near Carmen Ibanez. (This plan fails because Carmen, who is much smarter, is sent to space-force to become a pilot.) He has a change of heart once he is responsible for the death of a fellow trainee (and Carmen far away), but he rescinds his decision to leave the military after his parents (and the city of Buenos Aires) are destroyed by the bugs. After this, this decision is existential. and he devotes his life to killing bugs. 

Rico never questions his decision. And whatever limited growth he shows, it's primarily in the art of killing and military tactics. Rico shows himself to be brave and a good, loyal platoon leader, who rises through the ranks because infantry has a high mortality rate. Importantly, while the smart kids who become officers are uniformly shown to be awful and true believers, in the infantry we see mutual care and comradery of beautiful young people willing to sacrifice for each other and the greater good. 

Now, for some people it's obvious that in virtue of serving an awful regime, which is parodied in the film, Rico and his friends are also so satirized. On social media Liam Kofi Bright suggested, with a knowing nod to Stanley Fish, that it represents a kind of surprised by sin structure. I actually think that's right. For Kofi Bright the lesson is, for the viewer, 'you too can be made to empathise with and root for the villains.' This may be Verhoeven's intention, although it is worth noting that we never root for the senior officers or the federation while watching Starship Troopers

My response is that to be surprised by sin just is the human condition. And it does not follow that in virtue of serving an awful regime -- in Kofi Bright's words "objectively what they're doing is aiding a fascist war of conquest...[a]ll their virtues and vices play out against that unquestioned background" -- Rico and his friends are also satirized or parodied. It's not even obvious that Raszcak is satirized in the film. (He turns out to be rather brave and caring of his troops.) In fact, we see Rico taking on the virtues that Raszcak extolls (and exemplifies). 

My position is illustrated by Sam Peckinpah's (1977) Cross of Iron, which appeared the same year as Verhoeven's Soldaat van Oranje. Cross of Iron, which explores the comradery and conflicts of a German platoon on the Eastern front, was a flop Stateside and was panned by critics. (Interestingly enough it did very well in West Germany.) Now, Cross of Iron is very violent, but there is no reason to think that in virtue of coming to sympathize with Corporal Rolf Steiner (James Coburn), whose home is on the front, and who is shown to be courageous and have quite a bit of humanity toward the enemy, we end up admiring the Wehrmacht or Nazi Germany.++ It's pretty obviously an antiwar movie, even though we are shown that for some men war is preferred over domestic life (a good part of the movie explores a romance between Steiner and his nurse Eva, who he ends up rejecting). 

Of course, Cross of Iron is not satire, so structurally it is not identical to Starship Troopers. And whatever aesthetic surrounds Coburn's Steiner, it is by no means fascist. But the aesthetic surrounding Rico and his friends is fascist. The ones that survive keep their beauty. And at the end of the movie Rico even 'gets' Carmen, while the morally superior Dizzy Flores dies. And so while insipid militarism is clearly criticized, Rico's military service is not. 

Now, one might object that Rico's inability to see through the lies and his dedicated service to a corrupt regime make him flawed. Obviously, I am not interested in convincing you otherwise. But I don't think the movie manages to convey this; unlike the smart elites of the federation, he is not obviously "crazy." In fact, he remains likeable and heroic to the end; he is a fascist poster boy. 

If  am right then this episode also illustrates something else: that so many people defend the movie as merely satire also shows something of how difficult it is to distance ourselves from fascism.









*In the book, the teacher is Dubois (who turns out to be a colonel in the service).

+This is an important difference from the book, where the 'old regime' is described much latter as a form of "unlimited democracy."

**This turns out to be false. In war, Raszcak teaches Rico that what's freely given by another should be accepted.

++I don't mean to suggest that Steiner is unambiguous hero.