The Iron Giant

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Aug 10 11:45:42 MDT 1999

It is 1957. Home alone, the 10 year old Hogarth Hughes is eating Twinkies
and watching television, while his waitress mother is at work. He is enrapt
by a scene in a scary late-night science fiction movie about brains
crawling across a laboratory floor. Since reports have been circulating
about the arrival of a UFO into the ocean waters near his small seacoast
town of Rockwell, Maine, the self-reliant Hogarth is prepared for nearly
anything. When all of a sudden the reception on the television begins to
fade, he goes to the rooftop and investigates. Somebody or something has
taken a huge bite out the antenna. After noticing immense tracks in the
dirt leading away from his house, he descends in the woods with a BB gun in
hand to confront what must be a space monster.

So begins a powerful animated film titled "The Iron Giant," based on a
novel by Ted Hughes, England's poet laureate, written in 1968. Hughes, who
died in 1998, wrote "The Iron Man" to comfort his young son after the death
of his mother, the poet Sylvia Plath, in 1963. It is about, among other
things, the persistence of life in the midst of death.

Surely enough he discovers an immense iron giant robot eating metal parts
from an electrical power station in the dead of night, as languidly as a
gorilla nibbling on vegetation. When the iron giant accidentally touches a
generator, he is jolted by a huge electrical charge which threatens to kill
it. Making a snap decision--one that sets the plot in motion for the
remainder of this great animated film--Hogarth runs through falling metal
and arcs of high-voltage electricity to shut down the power. After the iron
giant regains consciousness, he follows Hogarth home. Although immensely
powerful, the giant is like a small child needing protection in an
unfamiliar setting. As it turns out, the iron giant is the source of the
rumors flying about Rockwell since it is he who has plunged into the ocean
a few days earlier and swum to shore. Wandering about the woods of rural
Maine, he has been subsisting on metal wherever he can find it--in parked
cars or power stations.

Hogarth soon learns that Kent Mansley, a government agent and the villain
of the movie, is on the tracks of the iron giant, since anything
un-American in 1957 is considered a threat to national security, whether it
comes from Russia or outer space. After discovering that the giant is
harmless unless attacked, Hogarth becomes his best friend and protector.
Hidden away in the barn next to his house, the boy is teaching the robot
the ways of the planet earth mainly through comic books like Superman and
Mad. As he turns through their pages, we learn that their omnipresent theme
is the threat of nuclear war. In one story, Superman defends the planet
earth against a radioactive monster. The iron giant, who is slowly learning
to speak, tells Hogarth that he wants to be like Superman. At school, the
threat of nuclear war is every bit as real as it is in the comic books and
in science fiction movies. They watch a movie called "Duck and Cover" that
shows children how easy it is to survive a nuclear attack. Just duck and

Hogarth finds an unlikely ally in the local beatnik sculptor Dean, who
lives and works at a junkyard. He works there because he can use the scrap
iron in his "far out" sculpture. After Hogarth has introduced him to the
iron giant, Dean wastes no time putting him to work. He directs the giant
to stack old cars one on top of another in a monumental sculpture. Those
that aren't used in the artwork go directly into the giant's stomach. Dean,
who is the polar opposite of Mansley, is a forerunner of the cultural and
political changes that would emerge in the 1960s. He was one of the rebels
"who distributed Supercommunist pamphlets in Union  Square weeping and
undressing while the sirens of Los Alamos wailed them down," as Allen
Ginsberg put it in the landmark poem "Howl".

This film has all the appeal of "ET" or "Terminator part two". The myth of
a child taking an extraterrestrial or dangerous monster under his wing and
teaching him the ways of his world is vastly alluring. What gives "The Iron
Giant" additional appeal is that this relationship is set against the very
real backdrop of global annihilation in the 1950s, when the threat of
all-out nuclear war was very much on the mind of all children, including
myself. Hogarth Hughes was exactly the kind of animated feature character I
could have identified with, and one, I'm sure, that contemporary ten year
olds, both male and female, can identify with. The movie offers an
alternative to the sentimental pap of the Disney studio as well. Instead of
presenting challenges drawn from the world of fairy tales with a
"politically correct" overlay, director Brad Bird confronts the real evil
that lived and lives in American society. The voice of Hogarth Hughes is
done by 12 year old Elie Marienthal, while Harry Connick Jr. is Dean and
Christopher MacDonald is the government agent Mansley.

Louis Proyect


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