Saturday, April 28, 2012

"Damn It Chappy, I'm Doing it My Way!"

These immortal words come via the unforgettable (for all the wrong reasons, I wish I could forget it) film Iron Eagle, one of the many cultural artifacts of the eighties that glorified war and martial values.  During my 80s childhood you couldn't swing a cat without hitting a Cold Warrior movie. This fact might indeed say more about America in the 1980s than anything else; even though our nation was not at war (except for those little incursions into Grenada and Panama) Americans went to the theater to have their wet dreams of the din of battle fulfilled by the likes of Rambo, Red Dawn, and Top Gun.

Disturbingly, a lot of this stuff was pitched at teenagers and children. God knows how many hours of my youth I spent playing with my GI Joe toys, and how many more I spent watching the corresponding TV show, which was really a half hour commercial for the toys. (Except for the fig leaf of the obligatory PSA at the end, which someone out there in Internetland has lovingly parodied.) The heroes of Iron Eagle, War Games, and Red Dawn were teens, and Top Gun really did the best it could to make flying Navy jets the place to be for teenage boys looking for good, homoerotic fun. (And you have to admit, that movie is one of the most homoerotic ever made, if not for the beach volleyball scene alone!) It all seemed designed to ensure that the next time there was a war my generation would duitifully rush to the colors instead of burn its draft cards. It couldn't have been any more different than the New Hollywood in the 1970s. One example will suffice: Tom Skerrit played one of the irreverent doctors in the anti-war satire M*A*S*H in 1970, but in 1986's Top Gun he was one of Maverick's square-jawed instructors.

It all fit so well with the general jingoism of Reagan's America, pervaded by a nationalism that sought to rhetorically exorcise the demons of Vietnam time and time again. The 'Nam revenge fantasy got its full expression in Rambo, when the barely articulate Stallone mumbles "We get to win this time." Chuck Norris, the poor man's bearded bemulleted Stallone managed to have not one but three 'Nam adventure movies with the Missing in Action trilogy. (Sidenote: his poster for Invasion USA might be the most brilliant of all time. Chuck holds not one but two uzis, and is dressed like a hired stripper while sporting a trim, blow dried mullet. Wow. Perhaps after seeing that image Gorbachev decided it was time to end the Cold War.)

Even films that were primarily about something else would indulge in a Cold War moment. Anyone remember the beginning of Predator? It starts with a bunch of commandos blowing up dozens of people in an unnamed country, referencing the many conflicts of the time in Central America. (And also bringing together a kind of action movie holy trinity never again to be equaled: Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, and Jesse "the Body" Ventura.) I guess slaughtering scores of brown-skinned commies on screen was considered box office gold at the time.

The militarization of pop culture extended beyond the movies, I remember wearing an outfit with camoflauge pants as a first grader, and my father bought himself a leather "bomber" jacket in the late 1980s. Toy guns started to look a lot more like the real thing, perhaps giving youngsters a little practice for being cannon fodder. Doubt me? Check out this commercial for Entertech squirt guns. (I wanted one of these babies so bad, but my parents would only buy me the cheap $.99 water pistols found at the local Walgreens.)

Yep, the 80s were a two uzi kind of decade. My father was no pacifist, but even he was disturbed by my childhood interests in war via Top Gun and GI Joe. As a result, in 1987 he took me to see Platoon, which did a good job of draining to the glory out of the bloody, blundering, business known as war. Too bad our President's father never did anything similar. Like a lot of people back in the 80s he had never heard a shot fired in anger, but glorified combat all the same. These days, knowing the realities of war contained in a still growing casualty list, the fevered jingo dreams of the 1980s seem a little quaint, and a lot misguided.

1 comment:

Debbie said...

How timely! For some reason I've been thinking that I'll spend an afternoon watching Rambo. It just seems like something I can do with humor now. Maybe I'll add one of these Chuckie-N movies to the experience.