Paul Verhoeven's Soldaat van Oranje (aka: Soldier Of Orange), the religious excesses of his Flesh + Blood (1985) not withstanding, is probably the closest the director has come to an epic. At the equivalent of $2.5 million, it was the most expensive Dutch feature film made at that time. It was also the film which brought him to the attention of Hollywood, exemplified by Spielberg's call to him after seeing the film: "What are you doing in Holland? Come to the USA, things are better there!"
During his childhood in The Hague, Verhoeven had been witness to the activities of the occupying Nazis, which made a great impression on him. He remembers vividly his father hiding in a cellar and seeing dead bodies in the street, for example. As one biographer has noted, Soldier Of Orange "was a theme he could taste, feel, and breathe," a film shot with of honesty and verisimilitude, if perhaps less of the director's characteristic excess, though still with distinctive vision and style. There are some familiar faces in the large cast: Jeroen Krabbé (as Guus Le Jeune) who took the lead in De Vierde Man (aka: The Fourth Man) is a key protagonist, and the svelte and good-looking Rutger Hauer, as the central character Erik Lanshof. The blond Hauer, who had until now been utilised by Verhoeven as a working class hero in such films as Turks Fruit (aka: Turkish Delight, 1973), and afterwards in Spetters (1980) is here transformed into a prosperous war hero, modelled on Erik Roelfzema, the author of the original dramatic memoir. Much of the fraught virility usually associated with Hauer is suppressed here, although it briefly reappears during his dalliance with Susan (Susan Penhaligon).
That Erik/Hauer is the focus of the film is suggested by his first appearance, although the episodic nature of much that follows in the narrative sometimes sidelines his significance. He is inserted, Zelig-like into opening newsreel footage, the 'single aide' at the postwar return of Queen Wilhemina. Like so many of his Dutch contemporaries, Erik is comfortably well off, a man to whom (if only at first) the conflict seems just another grand adventure. Previously the middle class had been presented in Verhoeven's work as exploiters (as in Keetje Keeple, 1975) or as sexually ludicrous in Wat Zen Ik? (aka: Business Is Business, 1971). Such boisterous social irony is, in the present film, conspicuous by its absence as if the contemplation of war forced a different responsibility upon the filmmakers. Erik and his class of 1939-40 may sometimes be made effete, never risible.
Made at a time when Netherlanders were starting to face the realities of their wartime existence, unpleasant facts about home collaboration and acquiescence to occupation, Verhoeven's film confronts these issues with a tale of student friends torn apart by war, having to face moral dilemmas and choices. Soldier Of Orange, complete with its stirring title music, is a title with a singular subject, implying a monolithic view of an individual at war. But the film actually focuses on a plurality of men, an ensemble of half a dozen privileged students, each of them responding to the conflict in a different way. Although Erik is the nominal hero, his actions are often ineffectual and have dubious results. His counterweight is Alex (Derek de Lint). Having served in the Dutch army, he sees his mother interned and decides to join the Waffen SS. The two meet only twice after: at a parade, where the Dutch civilians give flowers to the Germans, and at a dance where the two tango face to face, with obvious connotations of identity and mutual resemblance. Of the other friends, Robby (Eddie Habbema) betrays his colleagues to save his girlfriend, while another stays out of it entirely - one of only two surviving out of the initial group picture.
Soldier Of Orange begins, aptly enough, with an initiation ceremony. Cowed, humiliated, then celebratory, Erik and the others have to undergo rituals to be accepted into the student body. Of course the mocking cruelties they undergo echo the Nazi repression of later on: the fear, the anal torture and the firing squads. More immediately the process confirms for us the circle of friends, frozen in a group photograph, set to be tested further - what begins as a student's club ends as a man's struggle. This opening initiation is the coming conflict in microcosm. Soon it will be the flames of war, rather than the soup comically poured over Erik's head, that offer a definitive rite of passage.
Verhoeven manages some exciting set pieces during the course of the film: the bombing attack on the barracks, the beach shootings scene, the initiation and the aborted seaplane rescue being standouts. There are also some quieter, poetic moments, such as the overhead and point-of-view shots of Jean's white shirted execution in the dunes. (A striking scene which makes one regret Verhoeven's recent descent into the special effects laden un-subtlety of the Hollow Man.) The episodic nature of the narrative is both a blessing and a curse: while the number of characters and subplots makes it possible to examine a society from a range of viewpoints, the lack of a single, strong momentum leads to occasional slacking of tension.
The abiding impression gained at the end of this long (167 minutes) film is that nothing in this war has been black and white, and Verhoeven has faithfully suggested the historical revisionism of the time. Out of these moral uncertainties, he has crafted an exciting and engrossing work, one that he now considers his best Dutch project. Although the ambiguities helped make Soldier of Orange's initial critical reception lukewarm, it was exceptionally well received by the Dutch public. Interestingly, for overseas release the film was renamed Survival Run - a change that suggests a work much less of a complex national portrait than it actually is.
DVD extras include a trailer for the original release and that for Survival Run, subtitles, profiles and an introduction.