During the Cold War, a survivalism movement flourished in the United States. Feeling threatened by atomic warfare and vilified foreigners, many citizens sought solace in stockpiling weapons, canned food, and medical supplies — whatever could turn a rec room into a fortress.
This strange combination of nesting instinct and intense machismo is all too relevant again today, when the very mention of terrorism makes Americans more than a little queasy. Columbia Pictures couldn’t have timed its release of The Survivors on DVD any better. And indeed, the film speaks not only about us 20 years ago as well as today, but mostly it speaks about what it means (then and now) to be a “real” white man. Real white men can get along just fine, the movie suggests, if they realize how similar they are to one another and, most importantly, how different they are from nonwhite men (and women).
The Survivors opens with Donald (Robin Williams) being fired from his office job by his boss’ pet parrot. Meanwhile, Sonny (Walter Matthau) has the unpleasant experience of watching his gas station (and livelihood) burn to the ground. While drowning their sorrows in cups of coffee at a local diner, the two men foil a robbery attempt in a hilariously bumbling manner, facing down a masked thief speaks in what might be termed excessively “black” slang, as when he calls the customers “honkies.” But his ski mask comes off towards the end of the scene to reveal… yet another white man.
In the universe of The Survivors, this revelation is only right. If the robber had been black (or any other race, for that matter), there would have been no chance for compromise or understanding later in the film. As it is, the men can all eventually relate to each other through the equalizing forces of masculinity and whiteness.
Through some mix-ups and mishaps, Jack, the robber, played by Jerry Reed, slips through a crack in the system and avoids jail time; however, he’s vowed to enact his vengeance on the men who turned him in. Freaked out by attempts on his and Sonny’s life by the aforementioned Jack, Donald decides to join a survival training camp in upstate New York. “When I return,” he tells his wife, “I’m going to be a real man!”
And Donald does become, if not a real man, at least a man with a whole lot of firepower. The Survivors starts to get interesting when Sonny and his 16-year-old daughter Candice (Kristen Vigard) make the trek to Donald’s reinforced cabin, where he is holed up in the woods with a bunch of militia-type — you guessed it — white guys. At the cabin Donald practices his shooting, knifing, and general survival tactics for “the new Middle Ages,” as Wes (James Wainwright), the camp’s director, calls it. As Donald observes, “Society’s deteriorating.” When pressed to name one thing that’s gotten better in the past 10 years in America, the only thing they can come up with is video games; fitting, since this advance in video games is essentially an advance in video mayhem and murder. In an attempt to protect the safety of middle-class social values, these crazed, mustached old men run around the forest and shoot things with big guns. Their ineptitude would be funnier if their principles weren’t so familiar.
The survival training camp is also filled with bizarre booby traps that will presumably prepare these men to “save” society. Donald comes across a cardboard cutout of a young man, who looks suspiciously urban and suspiciously nonwhite, carrying a boombox. After shooting the radio to bits, Donald explains that once you destroy “their” music, “they” lose all instinct to fight. Well. First, something’s not quite right when target practice on effigies of urban ethnic males is played for laughs. Second, we’ve already established that video games are the only things getting “better” in a rapidly disintegrating society. It’s probably time to start blaming violence on music, too. If it hadn’t been made in 1983, The Survivors might’ve benefited from Tipper Gore as executive producer.
Still, it’s not as though The Survivors takes its survivalists seriously. Their extremism is certainly played for laughs, but unfortunately, the laughs don’t hold up so well almost 20 years later. Perhaps the Reagan era violence and machismo would’ve all be a more amusing if we weren’t living under G.W. As it is, it’s a little scary that extremism and bloodlust are back in vogue and that so much of The Survivors plays like a direct response to terrorism and general fears for domestic safety. No fault of the filmmakers, certainly; but it’s a wholly disconcerting, if wholly unintentional, experience.
The “message” of The Survivors is pretty much summed up in Sonny’s speech to the militia towards the end of the film. Using a quote from MacArthur about how soldiers want peace most of all, Sonny argues that everyone’s a little too trigger-happy and we wouldn’t have to worry so much about getting killed if we weren’t trying to kill everyone else. I couldn’t agree more. But what Sonny seems to be arguing for is unity solely among white males. He’s only speaking to white males, after all (Candice barely counts for much besides comic relief; she never wields a weapon or mediates any disputes and thus never really does much of anything besides act disaffected). If white males would stop trying to kill each other, think of what could be accomplished! Why, they could take over the world!
Although on the surface the film seems touchy-feely liberal (guns are bad, shooting people is bad, militias are bad), The Survivors is less left-wing and more not-quite-so-right-as-David-Duke-wing. There are a few self-conscious scenes, like a brief interlude when Sonny picks up a book in Donald’s cabin entitled Kill or Be Killed. He flips to a page with pictures of men holding each other in headlocks and other fighting stances, but these illustrations make the book look more like a guide to sexual positions than a self-defense manual.
It’s a pretty great moment, when Walter Matthau’s perpetually arched eyebrows and subdued reaction acknowledge a connection between male-male violence and homoeroticism. But as quickly as the moment flares, it dies. That’s the way it is with The Survivors: you think you’ve gotten to a moment of comic and even political fire, and then you’re right back in Iron John territory. Sure, we can all just get along, so long as we’re all white and so long as we’re all male.