"Soldier Girls" is a snazzy little movie about Today's Army, a salvo of blow dryers, spit- and-polish and friendly fire. It's a bombastic 87 minutes of tightly woven genius, all of it real stuff, free of narration -- a documentary camouflaged as a feature film. What just happens naturally rips along as though scripted by Woody Allen with a hand from Alan Alda.
"Soldier Girls" follows three women -- one black, one white, one Chicano -- through basic training at Fort Gordon, Georgia. What these babes at arms encounter there is like something out of Dr. Strangelove's psyche. For example, to cope with the "friendly use of nuclear weapons," the rookies are advised to look away from the blast and to brush all radioactive dust from their clothes. That way, says the officer in charge, "You won't die or turn into The Hulk or anything."
Then there's the corps' Colonel Sanders, who shows the recruits how to dismantle a chicken in combat. When both hands are free, wring its neck, he says, giving the white chicken he's holding a swing. The privates moan. When you've only a hand and a foot, step on its neck and rip off its head, he advises. They're relieved when he doesn't. If quadraplegic, he taunts, you'll have to bite off its head, and he does. The women gasp at the macho cacciatore.
There's some from the cuckoo's nest, too. Pvt. Clara Alves, who X-rayed handbags at Newark Airport before enlisting, is the favorite victim of Sergeant Taylor, a kind of militaristic Nurse Ratchet. When Alves is found lacking in motivation, the NCOs give her a psychological working over that makes a ride with a kamikaze like flying the friendly skies. Finally they threaten to drug her. "You know what thorazine does to you? Makes you walk like a mummy and sound like Frankenstein."
Pvt. Joann Johnson also earns her superiors' wrath; her sin is grinning. "I swear the Russians trained you to come in here and screw us up," says her handsome drill instructor. Despite the dressing-down, Johnson smiles on and so spends much of her time in penitent squat-thrusting.
The third recruit, Pvt. Jackie Hall, makes General Patton look like a sissy. Eventually she finds herself at Fort Gordon and decides to become a paratrooper in a combat-ready division. Sergeant Abing says he'd hate to see a woman in a war zone and a little sexism, or maybe realism, creeps into a film that is otherwise refreshingly free of heavy statements and women's issues. It's not a women's film, really, but an anti-war study.
As Sergeant Abing, a Vietnam veteran, says in the final reel, war takes "a part of your humanity . . . your soul, or whatever the hell you want to call it -- it's never going to be there again. It's gone. And you don't know it . . . until it's over. And then, long afterwards, as you grow older, you start missing it."
Sure, "Soldier Girls" has its awkward moments, but mostly it's a moving, funny film. Nicholas Broomfield and Joan Churchill, director and producer, did it without Dolby or any of the trimmings. It's conservatively filmed, excepting one dark vision of bombs bursting at night. There's no question the film earned the honors it has received. It's a conscription for what ails you, a look at the war machine without its make-up on.
SOLDIER GIRLS --At the Inner Circle.