Tuesday, June 13, 2017
"Zone Troopers" (1985) like an engaging comic book
Of course, all war is hell. Mankind is to be scolded for ever having this tendency toward killing conflict come forward.
Perhaps the best war movie is one made on an absurd premise. It reminds us that cinema is not the best vehicle for realizing the awful truths about war. The war becomes a backdrop, an excuse for letting an improbable story come forward. "Zone Troopers" from 1985 employs science fiction. It is the classic sci-fi story of aliens among us. They have weapons which, if in our hands, would shorten the war. The American GIs in the story are so absolutely genuine and likeable. I have read that these characters seemed cliched. The cliche line is so handy for movie reviewers. Fact is, WWII soldiers were within very tight confines for how they could behave. Thus we have some predictability.
But the GIs in "Zone Troopers" break those bounds to seem totally human. They clearly represent the benevolent cause. They pine for home. An alien projects a mirage of a young woman who is the idyllic 1940s young woman - the perfect look. The music is so pure in presenting the 1940s motif. We hear the classic "In The Mood." At movie's end we see a plug for buying war bonds, "available in the lobby."
I wonder if the moviemakers realized how pure this 1940s motif was, how genuine the GIs seemed as they wandered in the morass of war. The movie doesn't preach on how bad war is. We can all just understand the premise. With that premise put aside, we can feel the simple joy of following a sci-fi story.
The setting is Italy. I remember watching the video of an obscure WWII movie called "The Battle for Anzio." Obscure, yes, but it starred the front-line actor for WWII movies, none other than Robert Mitchum. I watched the VHS tape, never having heard of this movie before. The obscurity is well-earned. The movie didn't really seem to have an interesting defining angle. As I recall, Mitchum is a correspondent who behaves like a pacifist. At the end he's finally forced to employ a rifle. If we were supposed to be moved by that, I just yawned. At the very end there's a victory parade scene with Mitchum watching. He says to a bystander: "Well, should we all just choose up sides and start over?" The statement was supposed to seem profound. It just didn't work, in my mind.
Mitchum also starred in the famous flick "The Longest Day." It was strangely made in black and white. John Wayne built the stature of that movie. It was a defining WWII movie with the good vs. evil meme and no truly bloody or gory scenes. We leave the theater feeling exhilarated, not prone to throwing up. D-Day may have been necessary. But it was tragic beyond words. Taking the beach hardly meant we were going to glide forward en route to Berlin. "Saving Private Ryan" would hit us over the head with how sad and violent it all was.
Oliver Stone would tell us that the Red Army from the east is what really crushed the Nazis.
The barter value of Lucky Strikes
"Zone Troopers" is delightful with its escapism. The aliens have weapons that cause targets to dissolve. A GI says "if we had those pea shooters, our boys would be home by Christmas."
The aliens have crash-landed. We see the GI named "Joey" perusing a sci-fi mag called "Fantastic Fiction." We wonder if the movie to come is a product of Joey's imagination. Joey has another piece of reading material in his possession, about "blonde dames from space." The GI named "Mittens" offers a pack of Lucky Strikes in exchange for the "Dames" book. Ah, the allure of a pack of "Luckies" - it surely transports us back to the 1940s. We get introduced to the "Sarge" character played by Tim Thomerson from "Trancers." "Sarge" becomes the defining character with his image of seeming impervious to danger.
This endearing group of GIs is caught behind enemy lines. They get nothing but static on their radio. Their compasses spin around. Along come the Nazis. The film was shot on location in Italy. Our GIs come upon a huge crash-landed spaceship. No wonder their radio and compasses don't work. The movie takes on the tone of action and conflict but the sci-fi element suggests the overriding air of fantasy. We don't need to see the action to appreciate war. What we really appreciate is the sci-fi element and its mystery. Where will this take us?
There is a somewhat low-budget look that is no bothersome distraction. We can love this flick in the same way as "Lobster Man From Mars." In "Zone Troopers" we appreciate the healthy mix of comedy, sci-fi and camp. The soldiers are so, well, "American." They are unrefined in an endearing way. We can understand the aliens being attracted to them.
The aliens themselves are most likable. They have a translator device that enables them to communicate. "Mittens" gets to punch Adolf Hitler in the face! Actors Tim Thomerson, Art Lafleur and Timothy Van Patton really lift this movie from the low-budget obscurity where it could have ended up. These characters could be the father of any baby boomer. These guys came home after the war and created the great American middle class. They spoiled their own children. Why not, after all they had been through?
Their own male children were vulnerable to being called to service for Viet Nam. The Viet Nam war was a world apart from World War II. We are learning more and more about the extent of the tragedy of Viet Nam, beyond even the most miserable movies. A primary tragedy, cited by some as the main reason we had to leave, was "fragging," the practice of American troops killing their own colonels. War is hell to an extent that even the most preachy movies don't record.
War movies always give us the premise that our GIs, regardless of the hazards faced, respond to command and support each other. Movies also notoriously support the idea that the battles were so well-organized. Andy Rooney took on this assumption once. He was there for WWII and he once commented that he thought it was "a mess."
Fragging a.k.a. "mutiny" actually happened toward the end of WWII. News of it didn't get out much. If you want to appreciate the impulse toward insubordination, check out "Bridge at Remagen."
Raw charm of our heroes
It's almost a blessing that "Zone Troopers" has a cartoonish tone with the violence. Let's just absorb the escapism and the raw charm of its American heroes. "Zone Troopers" is under 90 minutes and can grip your attention. It has appeared recently on the "Comet" TV network.
Was the movie intended as satire or is it just plain fun? I suggest the latter. Don't evaluate the movie as if it's heavy-lifting cinema. It has a real comic book quality and that's a plus. I grew up consuming stories like this from comic books. It was our escape from the dry school textbooks of our junior high years, to be sure.
There is a defensiveness among many of the reviewers of the movie. It's as if the movie is a guilty pleasure! No need for defensiveness. Let's just revel in the joy of an engaging sci-fi story involving "the greatest generation" in World War II. I love "Zone Troopers" just as I loved "Lobster Man From Mars" (with Tony Curtis).
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org