A Book Review Essay by Andrew Kolarik.

There is something admirable in the blind positivity the book has towards Soldier and makes it a quiet strength, for better or worse.”

What is it about some films that makes us utterly embrace them, even the derided and forgotten ones? Why do some films work so wonderfully for some of us and mean so much, and go down like the Hindenburg for others? Soldier (1998), directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, tells the Western-inflected story of Sergeant Todd 3465 (Kurt Russell), an obsolete super-soldier who is beaten into the dust by a newer model, left for dead and unceremoniously dumped on a dustbin of a planet, then rises and proves his worth in defending a frontier township. In the process, he starts to regain the humanity that has been stolen from him throughout his martial indoctrination. Anderson’s career has spanned entertaining and commercially successful films such as Mortal Kombat (1995) and Resident Evil (2002) as well as visceral, remarkable and terrifying work such as Event Horizon (1997) that has garnered respect over the years, but Soldier has fared less well. On its release, Soldier was critically ripped to shreds and quickly sank without trace. But it must have struck a chord with Danny Stewart, the author of Soldier: From Script to Screen (BearManor Media, 2023). He clearly adores this film, and a lot of the sheer exuberance and affection the author has for the subject shines through the pages. The book’s avowed intent is to stimulate interest in Soldier, and it provides a lavishly detailed background for the film’s conception and design, interviews, analysis and an obsessional, forensic-level attention to detail (including a complete makeup rundown, a listing of all the weapons used in the film, and all the fun little references to other films that are embedded in Todd’s combat awards). But does it posit an explanation for why the film was taken to pieces when it came out, and offer a convincing take on why the film was misunderstood and deserves reappraisal? It takes a good stab at it, with an analysis in the context of Western genre conventions (although things here might not be quite as straightforward as the text suggests), more recent positive reviews of the film, as well as offering an insightful documentation of the fondly recounted memories of many of those who brought the film into existence, including cast and crew members. The book also offers a weird juxtaposition of the author’s interpretation of the themes and strengths of the film glossed with his unflinching adoration, alongside accounts of the critical vivisection and mauling the film was treated to on its release.

The initial critical response reflects the experience of Sergeant Todd 3465 (Kurt Russell), an obsolete super-soldier who is beaten into the dust by a newer model….

As the book points out, there is quite a lot to like about Soldier, especially Kurt Russell’s virtually wordless performance of a brainwashed, emotionally crippled military man who is brutalized, raised like an attack dog, and is utterly out of his tree. Or the instances where it is uncertain just how dangerous sticking a dedicated killing machine into the midst of a community of families might be. It features a very pleasurable death-by-snake scene as well. The book brings attention and depth to all the good bits of the film, not least screenwriter David Webb Peoples’ exploration of the profound effect of dehumanising individuals to make them ultra-proficient in soldiery at the expense of their soul. The soldiers are essentially slaves, like the genetically-engineered replicants in Blade Runner (1982), a film also scripted by Peoples. One aspect which the book explores is how for Todd and his bunch it is not genetic engineering that is creating individuals who are more (or less) human than human. The emphasis in Soldier is on psychological devilry, “and we are doing such wonderful things with the mind” as Colonel Mekum’s (Jason Isaacs) military dickhead puts it. Peoples is entertainingly slippery when interviewed about whether the film occurs in the same universe as Blade Runner. It blatantly is. The script hammers across that Todd fought at Tannhäuser Gate, where Rutger Hauer’s combat specialist-replicant Roy Batty watched C-beams glitter in the dark as told in his soul-wrenching speech at the end of Blade Runner. There is a series of questions about whether the film links to Blade Runner and its similarities to the Western Shane (1953) where Peoples’ answer is pretty much no, politely no, and you know what, that never occurred to me. But then he opens up, and we find out that the things he envisioned for Soldier, scenes more harrowing, more nuanced about the threat that Russell’s character poses, never came to be, and to date he has not seen the film for fear of being massively disappointed. If only he wasn’t so damnably polite about it. What comes across very nicely in the book, especially through the interviews, are the insights into the foundations of what goes into the film: the artistry of script writing, where story and situation takes precedence and allows the themes to emerge; letting the audience make up their own mind about the link between animal needs and the necessity of violence; and how psychological damage can be overcome through the redemptive power of being part of a loving community. All this comes across far more eloquently in the book than in the film.

Screenwriter David Webb Peoples is entertainingly slippery when interviewed about whether the film occurs in the same universe as Blade Runner….”

The analysis of Soldier’s story, theme and characters heavily links the film with the conventions of classic Westerns, especially that of the lone gunslinger coming to the aid of the downtrodden and standing against injustice. It is often mentioned that Soldier is in many ways Shane in space. However, the book might be overstating things a little when it draws comparisons to characters in those Westerns. Like the main character in Shane, Todd also forms a bond with the young child (Nathan, played by Jared & Taylor Thorne) of the family that adopts him, is attracted to Nathan’s mother Sandra (Connie Nielsen), and Stewart argues that Todd and Shane have very similar personalities. But the book leaves out that there is something wrong with Shane, and it is shown in Alan Ladd’s fascinating portrayal of heightened lethality kept in check within a gentle frame which makes Shane particularly dangerous, especially to those close to him, by risking drawing them into the violence that circles him. He wants to impress Joey (Brandon deWilde), the young child who idolises him, even if it is by ending up soaked in his own blood and those of everyone around him (“You wouldn’t want me to run away, would you?” he says, as he readies himself to single-handedly kick the living shit out of a room of people while Joey gleefully munches on a candy cane). His soft-spoken character has a strange masochistic urge to put himself in positions where he’ll be threatened with sudden violence, almost seeking ridicule and humiliation where he can justifiably fight or kill those who take him on. Or take John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956), who is fearfully dangerous to his loved ones, and it is never clear until near the end whether his hatred of Comanches will lead him to save or murder his abducted niece Debbie, who has been raised as one of them. The book talks in several places about how the shadow of Unforgiven (1992) hangs heavy over Soldier, and mentions similarities between Todd and William Munny (Clint Eastwood). Munny is monumentally terrifying in the final reel, having transformed from a penitent man ashamed of his drinking and criminal acts to an unstoppable wraith from hell whose horrific previous deeds are placed front and centre, and it’s unclear how just how far he will go once he has given himself over to the violence that once ruled his life, or if he will ever come back. But Todd, despite his brutal upbringing, has a child-like lack of experience with the wider world that precludes any question of acting in a way that is genuinely transgressive. He’s just too nice. Sure, he grabs Michael Chiklis’s gurningly friendly Jimmy Pig by the neck and chokes the bastard, but someone should have pointed out to Mr. Pig that it might be a bad idea to creep up and surprise someone who is visibly traumatised, and almost certainly in the grip of PTSD. When the community boot him out even after he has saved Jimmy’s life, and then the ungrateful sods come crawling back to apologise, still Todd never gets angry or resentful towards them. In contrast to Shane, Todd never relishes being violent, no matter how good he is at it. The threat Todd presents is only ever hinted at, not least the Shane-esque moments after husband and wife Mace (Sean Pertwee) and Sandra have taken Todd in, where Todd’s eyes rove with desire and longing over the slender body of Sandra as she carries out mundane domestic tasks. Or in the way that laughing, happy faces come across like rictus-faced horrors that trigger memories of Todd’s combat trauma. Although those moments are done well, the film would probably have been more interesting if Todd did decide to give in to his darker impulses, and explored what would happen if Todd took over the township (and Mace’s family) by force, and set himself up as some kind of rogue lord or governor. The book is content to praise the film on its own terms, but although Todd might fit in with the Western tradition of coming to the aid of the downtrodden, there is more going on with the characters of those classic Westerns, which means the comparisons only stretch so far.

Soldier (1998)
“What comes across very nicely in the book, especially through the interviews, are the insights into the foundations of what goes into the film….”

Another aspect the book only touches on is the approach that the camera takes to Kurt Russell himself. Despite the impressive presence that Russell has onscreen, the film lacks the hankering, slightly slavering approach that the camera takes to, for example, Vin Diesel’s protagonist in the Riddick films. Because the film is not really about drooling over Russell’s character so much as it is about feeling sympathy for the unbelievable crapness of his life, perversely this makes it less fun. Although Soldier has a sci-fi setting and is in many places a war film, it is also odd that the book does not make other substantial comparisons or consider possible influences beyond the Western genre in greater depth, apart from a nice but brief discussion in John Kenneth Muir’s review. Maybe shades of Full Metal Jacket (1987), with its scenes of marines being indoctrinated to become indestructible, unstoppable killers, might have fed into Soldier? Aren’t there reflections of Aliens (1986) in the rain-drenched shots of the exterior of the colony, or in the exciting flight into space by Todd and the others with a nuclear inferno at their tail?

Certain sections of the book do come across as an apologia for Stewart’s views on Soldier. Stewart is upfront regarding the poor reviews the film received, but his text rather likably never wavers from utter devotion, or tries in any way to mask the happily biased and one-sided view that this is a great film worthy of enjoyment and critical reappraisal. It is very strange how the text openly telegraphs the negative feelings raised against Soldier in its reviews and audience reception, and how this is presented side by side with the author’s polar-opposite earnest, honest love and affection for the same film. A lot of doggedly hard work has been put in by the author in chasing down the interviews and laying the ground work for the high levels of detail about the film’s making and content. It is itself not primarily a critical work providing a balanced view on what works about Soldier and what sits there lying dead or dying on the screen. Rather, it’s a book whose unvarnished love is very endearing without preaching or having any ill feeling whatsoever, makes its case well in many places, and does by the end make the film itself all the more enjoyable by virtue of the book’s insights. Nevertheless, a bit more aggression might have been compelling to explain just what it is about the film that drives the passions of the author. As pointed out in the afterword by Paul M. Sammon which highlights the enjoyably obsessional nature of the book, the seeds of a high-quality film were there, but were buried under a somewhat tiresome directorial style and sluggish pace, and many critics refused to look any further than this. Doesn’t that piss Stewart off? And doesn’t he want to take those irksome reviewers and make them eat their clever, clever words that mercilessly slag off his darling film? I guess not, and there is something admirable in the blind positivity the book has towards Soldier and makes it a quiet strength, for better or worse. Reading the book instils a craving for an additional chapter analysing just why the film works for Stewart and not for others. But that’s not what the book is for. Its purpose is to inspire joy and interest in Soldier, preserve the memories and pleasures of those who took part in its making, and give some depth to its themes and vision. In that it succeeds.

Andrew Kolarik is a Lecturer at University of East Anglia and has previously worked at Cambridge University, University of London, and Anglia Ruskin University. His criticism, poetry, and fiction have appeared in Pulp Metal MagazineSupernatural TalesCarillonEunoia Review, HorlaYellow Mama, and Between These Shores Literary and Arts Annual. His article, “Falling into the Realm of Chaos: Fusing Damnation and Technology in Event Horizon (1997),” will appear in issue 20.4 of Film International.

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