The teenage years are a time in everyone’s life when their minds are fertile for the seeds of change. A new experience can completely change a teenager’s personality, reading a new book or watching a new movie can radically alter the way that they self-identify. Peter Weir’s 1989 boarding school drama Dead Poets Society is one of those new movie experiences that I’ve often seen held up as a life changing experience. Multiple times in my high school career the movie was shown to my class by teachers trying to inspire a love of learning in the students. I’ve met more than one person bold enough to show me their “Carpe Diem” tattoo, which is the movie’s big rallying cry. In general it just seems that there is something about this film that resonates strongly and sticks with a large portion of the people who see it.
Daniel Petrie Jr.’s Toy Soldiers isn’t a movie that’s changed many lives. That’s okay though, I don’t think it was trying to. It’s mostly just an action movie. This one tells the story of a prestigious prep school being overtaken by a group of well-trained, well-armed terrorists, who then hold the student body hostage until the government meets their demands. It’s strange how little this movie is ever mentioned by anyone. It had a cast of young actors including Sean Astin, Wil Wheaton, and Keith Coogan, that were all up-and-coming names back in 1991. It was an explosion packed story about terrorists and machine guns, back before the action movie bubble burst. And it told the story of a group of young people banding together to take down less competent adults. Those types of movies rarely fail to stick with kids who see them at the right age, but I can’t remember ever once having a conversation with someone about this forgotten gem.
What do they have in common?
Both of these movies are about a group of boys living and learning in high priced boarding schools. Each group of kids is being stymied by an oppressive regime that is only interested in structure and discipline, and not about letting the boys grow as individuals. In Dead Poets Society the kids are more metaphorically oppressed, by the heads of their school and their parents, who think that teenagers shouldn’t be learning anything other than discipline, respect for their elders, and how to fall in line.
In Toy Soldiers the oppression is literal. The kids are under military occupation, their every action is monitored, any freedom they once had to express themselves has been taken away by men with guns. In both of these films the kids develop strong bonds with each other due a harrowing situation. And in both of these films a character meets a tragic doom because their lifelong issues with a domineering father reach critical mass. They’re coming of age movies for the cocky young male.
Why is Dead Poets Society overrated?
The biggest problem I have with Dead Poets Society is that it is so desperate to inspire its audience that it becomes pandering and lame. It tries so hard to make reading poetry seem dangerous and cool, but reading poetry isn’t dangerous and cool whatsoever. The boys who serve as our protagonists are inspired by a new teacher named Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) to put together a secret society where they go out to a cave in the woods and read to each other and giggle a lot. The results are embarrassing. These brash rogues pile together their cookies and sodas, they play some smooth saxophone while wearing berets, they rap along to a line from Vachel Lindsay’s ‘The Congo’ while keeping a tribal beat. Never in my life have I seen a group of kids seem more nerdy and spoiled. Their meetings are secret and secluded, hidden from the people in charge of the school, but any school administrators I’ve ever met, if they had stumbled upon one of these secret meetings, would have just laughed them off as geeky and weird and went back to the teacher’s lounge to make fun of them with the rest of the staff.
And the third act of this film is ridiculously melodramatic. After a second act where everyone has a fire lit in their belly by hearing a few choice lines from Wordsworth and Thoreau, the conflict starts. The authority figures here are over the top and needlessly evil. I never even got a sense of what they were railing against. A character named Neil’s Father loses his top because he finds out his son is acting in a play. Never mind the fact that Neil is still getting great grades in all of his classes and hasn’t let being in a play negatively effect any aspect of his life; his dad is blindly against it, for no reason. That leads to the climax of the film, where Neil makes a fatal, permanent decision, basically just because his dad kept telling him that he didn’t want him acting. The scene isn’t earned, it’s an over the top response to a conflict that had barely been established, the entire resolution of the film hinges on us being affected by the development, and it even includes a George Lucas-esque slow motion “NOOO!” to hammer home what a lame turn it is for the movie to take.
After this all of this goes down the heads of the school go on a witch hunt against Mr. Keating that is never effectively explained. It basically boils down to, “Did you inspire these kids to read poetry and act in plays?” And everyone just inexplicably acts like the situation is very dire, what they’ve been doing is dangerous and progressive, and that admitting to reading poetry and telling a kid he should try acting is a career ending breach of some sort of unstated rule. This movie is set in the late 50s, at this point the whole Beat Movement was in full swing, and we don’t even get any mention of Beatnik culture at all. Instead we’re supposed to treat some nerdy kid reading Longfellow and acting in a Shakespeare play as an act of rebellion. All of the conflict of the film is painfully false and contrived, and none of it resonated with me at all.
Why is Toy Soldiers underpraised?
This material isn’t as heady as all of the art and literature mumbo jumbo of Dead Poets Society. Really this is just an action movie that isn’t trying to do much more than entertain. But it’s a damn good action movie that does things right and gets you emotionally involved in what’s taking place. The first thing that it does well is establish a strong sense of setting. In the first act we’re introduced to our main characters, we watch them navigate their school, we learn about its locations, its secrets, the things that the characters we’re following know about the place that nobody else does. And then, once the terrorists show up and take over the school, we watch the place get wired with bombs. Nobody is able to leave, if anybody does the whole place blows up. Since we have a strong sense of the grounds, we know exactly where the characters can and cannot go, and the film takes on a bit of a claustrophobic feel. It’s a lot like Die Hard, where our characters are locked down in one location, the choice of fight or flight taken away from them. Here there is no flight, so they better stand up and fight. The stakes are huge and very clearly laid out, so everything the kids do takes on an urgent importance.
And once they come up with a plan of how they’re going to fight back, it, like the film’s setting, is laid out for us in a very clear, easy to understand fashion. The action elements are pretty heist-like, and they feel a lot like the third act of The Dirty Dozen. That was another film that very meticulously showed the audience where they were, what the plan was, and what limitations the protagonists were facing.
Consequently, when something doesn’t go according to plan, we know it instantly, and we’re immediately on the edge of our seats wondering what the consequences will be. Modern action is all a bunch of grandstanding and nonsensical noise. You’re never quite sure what the characters are trying to pull and it probably wouldn’t make much sense if you did know anyway. A great action sequence needs to be just that, sequential. It needs to logically progress from moment to moment, choreographed like a ballet. Toy Soldiers does just that and it feels like a throwback to what works.
Evening the Odds
Whenever I got shown Dead Poets Society in a class, with all of its high-minded ideas about getting invigorated by poetry, encouraging young people to be free thinkers, and marching to the beat of your own drummer, it’s message was immediately subverted by the teacher yelling at everybody to sit down and shut up once the lights went out. After we got done taking the film in class discussions showed no marked improvement, with at least half of the kids still never even reading the assignments.
Toy Soldiers I think could be inspiring in small ways. It shows a group of young punks putting their A-list pranking skills to good use. It doesn’t just keep telling us that living life and experiencing things are the best teachers, it actually gets the kids out of the stuffy class environment and has them do things. I could see using it to inspire a group of technical minded kids to get interested in things like electronics, military tactics, or the art of disguising vodka as mouth wash.
Dead Poets Society doesn’t even have a more inspiring teacher character than Toy Soldiers. It’s got Robin Williams doing funny voices and getting everyone to stand on their desks. The kids in Toy Soldiers have Marcus F’n Brody reading them books at gunpoint and taking pistol whippings for them when the goings get tough. Now that’s a teacher I’d be willing to address as “Oh Captain, my Captain.”