Soldier Girls (1981)
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Without explaining it in middle school terminology, the way so many modern movies and TV shows do, filmmaker Nick Broomfield lets the principals do the explaining with their actions and their own words. Many times, the hazing of the girls may seem excessive. It's not. The mission is to prepare these future soldiers to survive life and death confrontations, by learning to follow the orders of their superiors instantly and without question. Those who can't or won't are "encouraged" to leave, and they leave. This weeding out is necessary, to save them and their comrades in arms. It ain't beanbag, it's war they're being prepared for!
Finally, the last 2 minutes of this movie are an elegy for Sergeant Hill, the tough male drill instructor. A recruit asks him what effect the (Vietnam) war had on him, and in his plainspoken eloquence, he gives the lie to the glory of battle so exalted in speeches like Shakespeare's Henry V (the famous "Band of Brothers" monologue before Agincourt). His mourning for the death of his soul in the jungles of Vietnam is a moving as anything I've ever heard, and I've often wondered what became of him. And pay attention to the cadence the girls repeat over the closing credits. The hairs will stand up on your neck.
Winner of the 'Flaherty Documentary Award' at the 1982 BAFTAs, and the Grand Jury Prize at that year's Sundance Festival, this was, overall, a relatively satisfying viewing experience. Yet, the very fact that the US military were prepared to allow Broomfield and Churchill such unfettered access to their training techniques at Fort Gordon, Georgia, also makes this enthralling to watch. The audience enter the arena of Sergeant Gregory Abing, who from the outset indoctrinates the soldiers as to the philosophy of General Patton, that 'in peace we should train for war.' Such training involves the crushing of any form of individualism. There is something unnerving about the 'cadence calls' which the unit uses to punctuate its military drills in order to both promote unstinting loyalty to the collective view and to dehumanise the enemy. So palpable is that in this case - 'I wanna be an Air Force Ranger/I wanna live a life of danger/I wanna go to Iran/I wanna kill an Iranian/ Blood/Guts/Kill/Hardcore' - that Bono used it to accentuate the fear of military excess in U2's song 'Seconds' from the 1983 album 'War'. The content of the training veers from the extremely distasteful decapitation of a chicken with bare teeth to the sublimely ridiculous advice on what protective measures to take in the event of a nuclear strike - lying prone away from the blast and subsequently just washing off radioactive dust with water from the canteen. The feature focuses on the female recruits to Charlie Company undertaking their basic training, and in particular on the merciless psychological attempts to 'break' under-performing Privates Johnson and Alves. The former is incapable of acculturating herself to the stony-faced acquiescence of her fellow recruits in the face of the discipline required, while the latter reveals her ineptitude forms part of a deliberate attempt to be ejected from this career choice not of her making. Such dehumanisation as practised here may pale in comparison to the brutality inflicted by Sgt. Hartman in 'Full Metal Jacket', and, given the much more commonplace appearance of women in the ranks of the military, appear far less shocking to today's audiences. However, on its release this insight into such harsh treatment of women, albeit in the ranks of the infantry, would have been much more alarming. Where the film lacks is in providing enough of a counter-weight to this aspect by focusing more on the likes of Private Hall who ends up volunteering for active duty. This is unfortunate because the undoubted best scene centres on her questioning of Aping on how active service has affected him personally. In a heartfelt confession he reveals how he has been left emotionally scarred by losing his sense of humanity and not having sufficient sentiment and empathy to enter a marriage or support his dying mother. This early outing for Broomfield only received funding upon completion, and pre-dates what was to become his much more personalised trademark style.
I would be interested to see what has happened to most of the women highlighted in this 20+ yr. old documentary. To find out how big of an impact that joining or quiting the Army had on their life.