From “Animal House” to “Zulu”?

As with so many great moments in life, I have no idea how the conversation started. Several of the grad students, including your humble narrator, had gathered at the grad student and faculty watering hole (which served craft beer and real food). Dr. McD, a Canadian who specialized in British military and diplomatic history, and Dr. T, one of the Asianists, were talking with some of the guy students about being a guy, and what happens in times and places without women when you don’t have military discipline to keep the chaos somewhat in check. One of the guys, who came from a family of four large Midwestern farm boys, grinned and said, “The movie Dumb and Dumber? Yeah, that was us when our parents were out-of-town. We totally tried some stunts as crazy as those.”

Which led to the movie Animal House and the shenanigans that went on, which led to my chiming in with the story I’d heard about the Georgia Tech ROTC vs one of the fraternities and a raid-in-force one night that left the frat house . . . Well, everyone knew who had won, I’ll just stop there. The guys agreed that that was a very good example, and the conversation shifted to the best of when men get together. Someone suggested the film Zulu, the 1964 movie about Rourk’s Drift. “Oh yes,” Dr. T averred. “Precisely that.”

“So, if I, a female-type person, want to sum up the best and worst of undiluted guy-ness, Animal House and Zulu would be it?”

“Yes! Absolutely so,” Dr. McD exclaimed, pointing his cigarette and waving the other hand briefly before returning it to his beer stein. “Those two sum it up nicely. Because you can’t explain it, just watch it unfold.” The others at the table thought for a bit and agreed, and the topic drifted to other things, including a truly dreadful, tedious new book about the early national period in US history.

I’d seen Zulu several times by then. It happens to be one of my favorite movies for a number of reasons, a young Michael Caine among them. I’d seen bits of Animal House, and ended up renting it a few weeks later. Oy. But I could totally see that happening, based on glimpses of some guy friends and associates over the years.

I know very well that not all men are like those two films, either wild and immature or disciplined and deadly. And that men change over time just like women do. I’m not a guy. I will never think like a guy, or really understand in my bones why guys do guy stuff. And yes, there is guy stuff, just like there is girl stuff. It varies from culture to culture, but it exists. And young men, unsupervised, looking at a rope, a lake, and a cliff and saying “hey, let’s see what happens if . . ” or “I bet you can’t . . .” are probably near universal. There’s a lot of truth behind the line about “Hold my drink and watch this.” And young men do foolish things if they think it will impress a girl. (Girls do our own foolish things if we think it will impress a guy. Last week I saw a 9th grader wearing 4″ spike heeled booties for a school ceremony. Ay yai yai.)

But as an outsider, I think Dr. McD was right. From everything I’ve seen and heard, and hidden my eyes from, you had to sum up young men on their own, without the leavening (or encouraging) presence of ladies, those two films might make a good start.

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17 thoughts on “From “Animal House” to “Zulu”?

  1. I’m going to keep my mouth shut and just lurk and enjoy the comments. I’m less likely to get into trouble that way.

    • I suspect there will be vehement disagreement. After all, the original discussion came after at least one beer per person (except for Your Humble Scribe, who can’t imbibe) and everyone knows just how valid well-lubricated analyses of critical topics are. 🙂

      • Given the way things are going at the day job this week, I need to stay away from vehement disagreement. I’m experiencing enough of my own and don’t want to unload on anyone. 🙂

  2. There is indeed a spectrum and sometimes it gets beyond the very simple things, but is still about the joke or the boom. I will not explain here how I came to know that a latex balloon will not hold gasoline, but will hold acetone, nor to what use such knowledge was once put.

    • It probably matches the joy found with the combination of wd40 and a lighter which I accidentally mentioned to my son who then proceeded with his friends to set the woods behind my house on fire. “but only a little bit” I was told later. Remember young male ears are listening.

  3. LOL, and those two don’t even take into account military men the world over… Especially when explosives are concerned… 🙂

    • I’ve heard . . . stories. One started with “Ya know, fire ants get pissed off when they fall out of the sky.” Brilliant idea + left-over explosive that had to be expended = epic story once everyone recovered from their injuries.

  4. There is actually a defined line in ‘guy’ behavior between the two. It is a often valuable function of ‘the inner caveman’.

    Both represent high-risk-of-life-and-limb actions that have low-apparent value. (WTF was the point of dying in place at Roarke’s Drift? Or the Alamo? Or Thermopylae?) While we may see few or no valid uses to the actions of the characters in Animal House vs Zulu (for those who see value in the actions in Zulu), in both cases males put themselves in life threatening conditions with little thought (if you really analyze it) for long-term consequences.

    This was a biological imperative of our evolutionary period in the paleolithic. Men were the defenders of the tribe and the aggressors against other tribes. Their evolved purpose was high-energy and low-survival. Lack of long-term critical decisionmaking, especially in the younger more disposable members of the tribe, was a useful trait overall in the grand scheme of things. An individual’s DNA might be lost but their tribe’s (and thus generally their familial DNA) had a higher likelihood of survival.

    Thus you only get ‘Zulu’ if you first have ‘Animal House.’ There is no real conflict between the two.

    (The full explanation would probably require a book. One I’ve considered writing as it also explains ‘mars vs venus’ much better than the book by the title. Women tend to have their own inverse ‘inner cavegirl’ reactions.)

    I went from being the ‘D-Day’ character in a frat which was described as ‘the UGA Animal House’ to being a combat decorated paratrooper.

    I know something of the connection.

    • Hey, John Ringo, please write such a book! I just “discovered” your works over the past few months. Having gotten through the first two books in the Troy series, I’m reading “The Hot Gate” right now and really enjoying it.

    • I’d like to read the book. The original Mars vs. Venus was useful in a way, but leaves a lot behind for those who might like a better understanding of why society’s trying to make guys into physically larger girls has lead to looming potential disaster.

  5. I have told both my teenage boys this sage piece of advice:
    “Be the guy holding the camera”

    • I decided several decades ago that I don’t really want to know how it started. I just want to keep the blood stains to a minimum.

  6. As noted in the piece by the phrase “without military discipline” there is an active factor that separates the two extremes. Animal House represents men left without refinement, without discipline, without internal or external supervision. Rork’s Drift represents the opposite. You can find examples through out society, this is why so many worry about fatherless boys – they grow to physical maturity without someone tempering their worst impulses and encouraging the humanity inside. That thing we once called chivalry, or honor, or gentlemanly behavior, or manners etc. That discipline doesn’t have to be military in style, although it was for me (Marine Corps Oorah!). I just saw some LDS missionaries ride by on their bikes. Consider, these guys give two years of their life around the time I was off to party in college. They follow strict rules, don’t get paid, and dedicated themselves to something bigger and better than themselves. That required a lot of work on some mother/father/pastor/community’s part. But speaking with them, they are or will be good men.

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