You are here

Marketing Masculinity in Jean-Claude Van Damme's Universal Soldier

Invoking defense of the family as the primary motivation for the activities of a standing army operates on several cultural levels.
Jeff Akeley

Issue #16, October 1994

Masculinity doesn't seem to have a place in late capitalism, at least not the thick-wristed, essentialist masculinity that never questions its own usefulness. Even in what some might consider its unassailable citadel, the action-adventure movie, there is a distinct lack of tangibility written around these flamboyant displays of flesh and firepower.

Staging this image of the masculine in the military or paramilitary has intuitive advantages — strong men make good soldiers, and soldiers are necessary to the preservation of domestic tranquility. Nothing could be more useful. This staging properly directs consumption of masculinist commodities so that the desire to emulate them does not become subversive. At the end of Predator, and the Terminator movies, for instance, the survivors ride off into a sunset of narrative closures that promise an eternal global (and perhaps galactic) conflict where heroic masculinity will always have a place and a reason for being: defending civilization. In Universal Soldier, however, as in most of Jean-Claude Van Damme's films, the military body rises to defend the home and the family. This re-routing of the combat myth away from the future and into vaguely recognizable material relations requires a somewhat different strategy.

In The Remasculinization of America, Susan Jeffords maintains, and I think quite rightly, that successive popular restagings of the Vietnam Conflict have tried to recuperate the militaristic ideal of masculinity from the battering it received from both the Feminist and the Anti-war movements. If that is the case, however, Universal Soldierraises more interesting questions about the cinematic performance of utopian masculinity. Why, for instance, does the film privilege Devereux's bourgeois subjectivity in the Bildungsroman of a hapless soldier who 'just want[s] to go home,' while it denies Sgt. Scott the pathos of the tragic death into which he is scripted? Why does it associate military service with brutal sodomy? And why, at the end, are we left with the uneasy intangibility of a masculine ideal that seems to have no final place to be?

At first glance Universal Soldierappears to be little more than a publicity vehicle for its stars, Jean-Claude Van Damme (Luc Devereux, GR47) and Dolph Lundgren (Sgt. Andrew Scott, GR13). The film begins in 1969, with Devereux unsuccessfully defending a Vietnamese home and family from a feral Sgt. Scott. It also ends with Devereux defending home and family from a feral Sgt. Scott, only this time it is Devereux's own home and own family in Louisiana. The transit from Vietnam to America suggests that the 'universal' in Universal Soldier is, in part, militarism's imperative to protect the family and the home from all aggression, whether it manifest itself as war or as personal psychosis.

Invoking defense of the family as the primary motivation for the activities of a standing army operates on several cultural levels. A mercenary army has loyalty only to its patrons, and then only as long as the rewards continue to accumulate. A patriot army, however, will, like Hector in the Iliad, presumably fight to the death in defense of its patria, however that is defined. In Universal Soldier, though, the transit from battlefield to home front is much more complicated than Hector's remove from the battlefield to his house in Troy. Scott and Devereux kill each other in the Vietnamese village; are purposefully misclassified as M.I.A.s; are technologically resuscitated, their metabolism speeded up to heal wounds rapidly; and are genetically altered to have almost superhuman strength. They become part of a top-secret, elite commando squad called 'The Universal Soldiers' (Unisols) and, to ensure their efficient execution of orders, their memory and capacity for judgement are periodically suppressed with memory clearance medication. The remainder of the film involves Devereux's journey both home and to self-knowledge with the help of his chain-smoking side-kick Veronica (Ronnie) Roberts, with whom he eludes and finally destroys Sgt. Scott.

This movie 'brings the war home' in a particularly interesting way. Devereux's escape from the Unisol unit begins with a Proustian flashback to the Vietnamese family he could not save, and proceeds through successive restagings of that event at key moments in the film. When Sgt. Scott threatens 'the family' in the establishing sequence, he is also threatening the first ideological institution of the state and of civilization. In the Vietnam sequence, however, the family really only serves as a backdrop to heighten the terror of Scott's psychosis. The attack on the Vietnamese family is described as a violation of 'procedure,' and not necessarily a violation of the normative moral codes restricting the exercise of militarism; procedure could also dictate destroying a family or a home when tactically advantageous to do so. This sequence profits from but says nothing terribly insightful about the fact that Vietnamese resistance to the incursions of NVA, Viet Cong and US military forces made determining an 'enemy' almost impossible. The 'enemy' (those Vietnamese opposed to US troops or willing to help VC operatives against them) was a segment of the Vietnamese population, not all of it. The 'mistake' Scott makes in his psychosis is to think Vietnamese are fundamentally antagonistic, a condensation that the film does not try to deconstruct in the context of the Vietnam Conflict.

Rather than confront the justifiability of imperialism or racism, the film brings the war back to the United States where it is much easier to establish criteria for determining 'ally' and 'enemy.' The film firmly establishes the Devereux family farm as the coterminus for resolving the spatial (narrative), psychological (Post-traumatic Shock Disorder), sexual (sodomy/masculinity) and ideological (militarism) elements of the film. The 'ally' is the propertied, heterosexual family; the 'enemy' is Sgt. Scott. This domestic restaging of the war accomplishes an ideological sleight-of-hand that could easily go unnoticed. War is always a threat to domestic stability; if not ours, then it is a threat to somebody elses. Devereux's repetition of 'the war is over,' is a fact that Universal Soldiercannot allow until the last scenes of the film. Scott keeps the war going, only this time, he is attacking a domestic space that the audience can recognize as a domestic space without much reflection. If that is the case, then what kind of enemy is Sgt. Scott? He is, oddly enough, no longer a US soldier, but a terrorist.

In their first appearance, the Unisols dispatch a group of generic 'terrorists' holding hostages and threatening Hoover Dam unless their 'comrades' are released from prison. The reference to another ideologically quirky war, the Cold War, is obvious. Not surprisingly, when Scott takes over a supermarket meat department in order to resuscitate wounded members of the Unisol squad, news media report that a 'terrorist group' was responsible for this action. The film creates Scott as an enemy in a series of codes that say much about American attitudes on economic justice, and in a way that attempts to guarantee the subjectivity embodied in Luc Devereux. Scott is, all things considered, a member of the unpropertied working class.

In order to preserve a continued respect for militarism, a nation must not only stimulate a desire to reproduce military skills, but also create a marketplace to sell those skills. Of the wars in recent U.S. history, the Vietnam Conflict most readily lends itself to being analyzed as a market for warfare skills. Barring more detailed discussions of the official military objectives and the withdrawal of American troops from it, the war theatre is commonly perceived to have become a gradually accelerating market that provided both a reason to encourage military skills and psychologies, and a place to sell them. While official statements described the military presence as one that would contain Communism and protect the American way of life, the conflict provided a testing ground for experimental military hardware (e.g., the M-16) and logistical procedures. For working-class adolescents with limited educational horizons, military service promised opportunities for experience, education and employment that would otherwise have been unattainable.

When the war ended, the marketplace for warfare skills ended with it, especially the market for those skills necessary to successful combat. While Universal Soldierdoes not consciously comment on these labor relations or the post-war experience of many returning soldiers, it does reproduce them in a rather oblique way that most curiously sexualizes the position of the combat soldier. The hired combat soldier in a standing army is paid to be in the line of battle, and in no other place. Many cultural incentives (courage, manhood, camaraderie) encourage him to stay there, but he is also forced to be there, as John Shay points out in his recent Achilles in Vietnam, because he is trapped between two prisons. If he goes too far forward, he will be imprisoned as a POW by the enemy. If he goes too far backward against orders, he will be arrested as a deserter. If he mutinies, he will be arrested for subversion. If he suffers combat trauma, he will be institutionalized as a psychotic. The line of fire is the only legal place to be. Maintaining the discipline and obedience to keep people on the battlefield in defiance of all contrary instincts for self-preservation is the ethical objective of combat training. This in itself raises an interesting paradox about the narrative of military success, a paradox that the film stages in a rather interesting way.

One of the more interesting images in Universal Soldier, the delivery system for the memory clearance medication, suggests that the Universal Soldier's obedience has been bought at a rather high price. Bare-torsoed soldiers rest on a row of salon chairs. On order, the Unisols press a button that activates the memory clearance system. A needle penetrates the base of their skulls from behind and injects them with this useful nepenthe.

A high-tech fantasy world such as this could imagine any number of less suggestive delivery systems for this procedure, systems that would at least have a more reliable failsafe than the recipient's voluntary cooperation in being penetrated from behind. That the producers chose to have the hypermasculine perform this operation voluntarily in order to engender ideal soldiers either betrays a telling sense of humor, or underscores the anxiety with which we embrace military masculinity. They don't know what they're doing, but they're doing it to themselves anyway; on orders from the top, so to speak. Even at its most powerful, the warrior can still be forced to submit, and it is entirely possible that involuntary submission is a pivotal moment of military service.

The film makes no specific commentary on this image, but it does not fail to imply the connection to sodomy more explicitly. When GR13 (Sgt. Scott) finally realizes that his efficient obedience has been bought at the cost of his manhood, he forcibly impales one of the technicians on the prong of his own ideological humiliation, accompanying this metaphorical rape with a cheery 'It's memory clearance time!'

I dwell upon this image not only for its titillating sadism (discovering such things is, after all, why analyzing these films is such a hoot) but because it marks a nodal point that the film uses to differentiate the two disobedient Unisols. Devereux flees with the help of a woman. Sgt. Scott, however, solves the problem of masculine hierarchies in an easily predictable way: Fuck or be fucked. With the reciprocal rape of the technician, Scott enters an exclusively masculinized world of violent penetration, death and unconstrained ecstatic psychosis from which he cannot escape through the loophole of memory.

This distinction between Devereux's 'healthy' construction of masculinity and Scott's 'deviance' operates on more than one level. The action-adventure film's target audience is adolescent males. Even though both Scott and Devereux have been forced to a humiliating submission, their return to consciousness allows them to take control of their masculine prowess and overcome the humiliation. Scott can no longer be penetrated — he is the one who penetrates now. Devereux gets a girl and escapes. Military prowess allows both of them to escape.

Devereux escapes this depersonalizing techno-sodomy into a world that, much like himself, time forgot, and it is with his escape that the film beats a hasty retreat from the complications of 'the present'. He and Ronnie flee through backroads America encountering a series of small mom-and-pop businesses. Images of a pre-chain store America dot the landscape: advertisements left over from the 1950s and 60s, service employees with their names ('Joe' and 'Brenda') embroidered on their uniforms, lunch specials featuring meatloaf, hot dogs and mashed potatoes, the maid answering the doctor's door. Devereux, and with him the audience, have fled from the corporate political economy caused by 'present day' investment bankers to be received in a simpler time. The movement is nostalgic to the extent that the family farm, that unicorn of American Way iconography, emerges from the mists of near extinction for a last stand. Luc Devereux finally returns home to a political economy that was viable on the day he died. Even though the war is over, nothing has changed.

Luc returns home to defend the family from the excesses of the military ideal, and re-enters history into a productive heterosexual environment — the family farm, a unit of production where heterosexual coupling is a categorical imperative for survival. Devereux and Ronnie might not marry at the end of the movie, but their liaison has produced a 'story.' Scott, by contrast, does not return home. He merely moves from one market to another until, unable to find a resting place, he tracks down and attempts to destroy the ideological core of bourgeois society.

At this point we need to ask precisely who it was that 'produced' the story and who the 'enemy' is once the film has brought the world back home. Devereux, even though he is the protagonist, does not initiate events in this film. He appears to be a victim of circumstance, a recalcitrant soldier who only wants to go home. The one who produces the actions (assassination, pursuit, confrontation) to which everyone reacts is Sgt. Scott. Despite Scott's importance to the film, his point of view never overlaps the camera's historical gaze. We first see Scott over his shoulder from Devereux's point of view. The flashbacks to the Vietnam sequences all occur through Devereux's reminiscence. This strategy effectively imbricates Devereux with the supposedly 'objective' eye of the camera, itself the neutral eye of 'history' and privileges what amounts to a petit bourgeois subjectivity as the film's normative point of view.

Sgt. Scott's decisions are rendered inaccessible, beyond comprehension. The film grants him no sense of interiority, nor does it explain the events that in hundreds of Vietnam veteran's stories make sense of the trauma that lead to his psychosis. It might seem superfluous to ask why the bad guy has to die at the end of the movie, but considering the consciousness Scott is not given and his importance to the emergence of the story, I think it is worth re-examining his presence and the way he generates meaning in this context. His most distinguishing characteristics are his inaccessibility and his death. In another context, the 'strong, silent' expression in a generic western or in a Schwarzenegger movie serves as an indicator that the protagonist can mete out normative justice and restore order without asking for permission or explanation. We just know that his sense of moral rectitude is the one we should emulate. In Universal Soldier, however, Scott's nearly silent administration of violence is far from salutary and merely casts him as the 'enemy' once more. While Scott's death is overdetermined, the film nevertheless marks it with some ambivalence. When he is impaled on the tines of the baling machine, for instance, the film gives a closeup of a point protruding Christ-like from his right hand. His body is later dismembered and scattered in a final sparagmos when Devereux switches on the baling machine.

As I mentioned before, the imbrication of the historical cinematic gaze and Devereux's gaze effectively privileges his point of view, a point of view that is also sexualized, politicized and classed: heterosexual, patriotic, and petty bourgeois. Scott's effective exclusion is also the exclusion of a similar set of subversive values: sadistic homosexual, rebellious, and proletarian.

It might seem foolhardy to make a Marxist allegory of this metageneric film. Marx did not believe in zombies and this film clearly wants us to. Nevertheless, Scott's exclusion from the redemptive institutions of private property, heterosexuality and patriotism places his constant return and final destruction into an ideological register precisely because both the Unisols and the family farm are ideological zombies technologically resurrected in a cinematic utopia (the farm as symptomatic nostalgia, Sgt. Scott as symptomatic terror) to make an argument about proper conduct for those who choose to practice the ways of military masculinity.

It is perhaps a fortuitous coincidence that Scott stages his most daring public display in the meat section of a supermarket, a market that, unlike the family farm or the mom-and-pop business, is the private property of a corporate interest, not of an individual proprietor. Without a home, a family or an ideological institution into which he could be reassimilated, he must find a place for himself by going to the marketplace, the institution his skills were directed to protect by preventing the spread of Communism. Sgt. Scott (or maybe the lumpen proletariat as symptom of late capitalism) has, unlike the petit-bourgeois Devereux, forgotten that he is supposed to have finished the business of dying, so he returns as a fantasy of the bourgeoisie: the undead proletariat demanding exposure and execution of the people who have betrayed it. The film dismisses the fantasized horrors of a disobedient working class consciousness by imbricating it with a truth about combat as old as the Odyssey: Once a war has ended, so has the market for military skills. You cant bring that part of the world back home.

The standoff in the marketplace is charged with suggestive tensions that underscore the dilemma of a civilian who has no independent means of producing a living or an identity once he is no longer useful as a soldier. Scott has returned as a monster because his behavior is out of context even though an eerie familiarity locates him in this setting. Without access to the unalienating productivity of the family business, Scott, had he been a real person, would have had to return to the marketplace in order to sell his labor after the war. In contrast to the farm, the cycles of production in the marketplace, especially the marketplace controlled by corporate interests (the supermarket), are determined by competition, not by heterosexual coupling, the former being the arena in which Scott has proven himself a champion. At this point, Scott's mutiny has given the military masculine ideal a decidedly subversive consciousness that, considering the film's ideological nodal points, must be destroyed.

Scott's ideological undesirability demands his exclusion from the empathy that would make sense of the images surrounding his death. His final assault against the system that refuses to acknowledge him is his attack on the family, where he is finally impaled on the prongs of a baling machine, one protruding through his chest, the other through the palm of his right hand. The prong through Scott's chest evokes the sodomy suggested by the memory clearance system. To underscore the perversity, Scott vainly tries to kill Devereux by forcing the protruding point into his mouth.

The pierced, Christ-like hand and the subsequent mutilation and sparagmos of his body when Devereux switches on the baler script this death into standard codes of tragedy and underscore the film's ambivalence about what to do with Scott's rage. As a result of this ambivalence, some things remain untold, things that we *do* learn about Phaedra, Oedipus, and other tragic protagonists. We do not learn the cause of his madness, for instance, or the source of his perversions. These aspects of his character merely emerge as givens in the film amassed under the cliche of the psychotic Vietnam war veteran. Neither do we learn anything about his character before the emergence of his psychosis, as we do for Achilles, even though he is perhaps more important to the actual text of the film than Devereux.

This allegorical interpretation of Universal Soldiermakes sense of the film's blindspots and its exploitations of the blindspots surrounding the Vietnam Conflict. But I want to close with one final argument about the action-adventure movies relation to the real. These films target adolescent male audiences and in part promise to provide a reason for participating in a body-builder culture from which respectable bourgeois families discouraged their boys throughout most of this century. In movies like Arnold Schwarzenegger's Predator, this context is provided by deferring the potential for global (or even pan-galactic) combat into the future. In Van Damme films, however, the future anterior of the family as resting place for this version of masculinity satisfies the demands of narrative closure and audience cathexis, but only at the expense of the masculine utopia it promises to house. The military ideal must be restrained just as much as it must be maintained. While these films promise their audiences a tangible representation of how this reified form of manliness could be incorporated into the quotidian for some useful purpose other than its cosmetic allure, they ultimately fail to fulfill that promise. Like Sgt. Scott, or even one of Van Damme's real-life imitators, John Wayne Bobbitt, humdrum late capitalism has only a market, but not a home, for undomesticated masculine utopias. The hint but deferral of this masculine sublime is, perhaps, left with only one other purpose: it entraps the desire of the moviegoer, leaving his desire to imitate unsatisfied and ready to spend more money on gym memberships, kickboxing classes and Van Damme movies. This is, perhaps, their only relation to the 'real.'

At the time of this last revision I have just returned from Van Damme's latest release — Timecop — where the temporally and physically indestructible family home emerges intact from an impossible time warp, perhaps only to put a cap on Van Damme's hypermasculine years. Of course, this conveniently leaves unexplained the conundrum of our decades commodified version of masculinity: Why is it that a large chest, a thin waist, and the virtual absence of body hair are currently desirable features for both men and women?

Jeff Akeley is a graduate student in the Comparative Literature Department currently completing his dissertation 'Self-Articulation and National Identity,' on the role of national fantasy in identity formation.

Copyright © 1994 by Jeff Akeley. All rights reserved.