Long before we ever had Robert Downey Jr fashioning himself a suit of armour in a cave in the Afghan desert, a poet from Yorkshire wrote a children’s book called The Iron Man: A Children’s Story In Five Nights.
That writer was future Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, who wrote the book ‘as he told it’ to his children over just a few nights in 1968.
It told the tale of a giant ‘metal man’, who unexpectedly arrives in the British countryside, feeds on industrial farming machines, befriends a young boy and ultimately saves the world. So, not quite the story of a weapons manufacturer and former playboy turned Avenger.
The book proved popular, particularly among school children. However, it wasn’t until 30 years later the story found further widespread attention in the form of an animated film directed by Brad Bird, better known now for his work on films like The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Back then, however, it was Bird’s directorial debut.
In 1999, with a new title so as not to be confused with the Marvel superhero, The Iron Giant was Bird’s first outing as director of a feature-length film, having made a name for himself working on The Simpsons. Made in the wake of a personal tragedy – his sister had just been shot and killed by her estranged husband – the premise of Bird’s pitch to Warner Bros. was simple: what if a gun had a soul?
Bird relocated the story from Hughes’ native Yorkshire across the Atlantic, to Rockwell, Maine, and set it in 1957 – right in the middle of the Cold War. The few changes the director made to the original story were significant – not only did the story become both hugely allegorical and a warning call to the US and other world superpowers, but by making the villain of the story native, and the hero alien, it immediately subverted the usual expectations of regular superhero films.
The film tells the story of Hogarth Hughes, a nine-year-old boy who discovers the 50ft Iron Giant in his backyard. Hogarth tries to hide the giant from the people in his town as he teaches it about humans, life on Earth, and reads comic books to it.
Picking up on the comic books’ themes, the Iron Giant – an ‘alien’ creature, essentially – fears he will be seen as a danger to the world. Though Hogarth assures the giant that it is ‘more Superman’ than ‘Atomo the Metal Menace’, explaining Superman is ‘famous now, but he started off just like you – crash landed on Earth, didn’t know what he was doing. But he only uses his powers for good not evil.’
After Hogarth tries his best to keep him secret, the giant innocuously reveals himself to other people in the town by saving two boys falling off a roof. The giant inevitably comes to the attention of the US army, who see him as a threat and launch an attack on the outsider. And though the giant’s initial reaction to the hostile army is defensive to the point of aggression, it is Hogarth’s words he comes to ultimately live by: ‘You are who you choose to be’.
1999 was a stand-out year for genre-defining films like The Matrix, The Sixth Sense, American Beauty, The Blair Witch Project, and Fight Club. While films like Tarzan, Toy Story 2, and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, were pushing the boundaries for animated movies.
We also had The Phantom Menace which, though it crumbled under the weight of its own hype, outshone pretty much everything when it came to marketing that year, making films like The Iron Giant easy for audiences to pass over.
But, for those who did see it, The Iron Giant was a standout film.
As Ramin Zahed, editor-in-chief of LA-based Animation Magazine and author of The Art of the Iron Giant, told UNILAD:
1999 was a good year for animated movies: We had Disney’s Tarzan, and Pixar’s Toy Story 2, and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, but The Iron Giant stood out because it looked like none of the other animated features of that year. It was considered a truly underdog movie from talented director Brad Bird and Warner Bros. Animation, which will forever be blamed for not really marketing the movie as well as it should have.
Many people have criticised Warner Bros. for their handling of Brad Bird’s debut. The studio was reportedly suffering at the time due to films going over schedule and over budget, which meant pictures like The Iron Giant and Eyes Wide Shut were overlooked when it came to marketing.
Bird, however, doesn’t hold any grudges towards the studio.
He told EW:
When the film first came out, there was a lot of criticism about the way Warners handled it. Certainly, some of that was warranted, but to me, the most important thing was that they made the film. They made a kind of movie that really no one else was making. And they allowed us to do it, and they supported it.
While many films at the time experimented with emerging digital technologies, the look of The Iron Giant was immediately recognisable and timeless, favouring more traditional techniques.
The mixture of beautiful 2D animation, likable characters and a poignant, timeless message about the arms race and the wrongheadedness of the people making major political decisions that affect humanity hit home.
One of the things that set Iron Giant apart from the other movies of that era was that it told a straight-forward story that was set in the 50s. The 2D animation was a beautiful homage to that era and its clean designs. The Iron Giant itself was cleverly designed (using both CG animation and 2D), and is voiced by a young Vin Diesel, is still one of the most popular robots of pop culture history.
While animation historian Jerry Beck told UNILAD:
I saw it in a movie theatre the first day it opened in Los Angeles. The theatre was empty. I felt while viewing it I was watching a classic – as good as a Disney classic – but this was science fiction, which was not usually the subject for animated features back then.
It not only stands the test of time – but I show it to my students, who have never seen it, and they love it.
All great art can be re-seen, re-heard, re-watched and each time we see something new, learn something different. The Iron Giant passes that test.
The film wasn’t the first time audiences had seen the story of a plucky young boy, raised by a single parent (played here by Jennifer Aniston), who befriends a creature from another planet, though. Unlike Spielberg’s E.T. however, The Iron Giant held humans accountable on a much larger scale – those involved weren’t let off so easily, and it didn’t quite have the happy but emotional ending E.T. did. Or rather, the emotions were certainly there, the film just challenged its audience much more as they went through it. And, instead of wanting to find out about the alien being, perhaps even learn from it as in E.T., authority figures in The Iron Giant are more concerned with simply destroying it.
As Bird told Salon:
E.T. doesn’t go kicking ass. He doesn’t make the Army pay.
Early on in the film, while talking about the mysterious thing that has crash landed near their town, one of Hogarth’s schoolmates says: ‘It’s probably been sent by foreign enemies to take over the country. We should bomb it to smithereens before it does.’
While, later, a US government agent tells Hogarth: ‘You think this metal man is fun, but who built it, the Russians? The Chinese? Martians? Canadians? I don’t care, you are going to tell me about this thing and we are going to destroy it before it destroys us.’
It’s not a difficult link to make – fear of outsiders, fear of the unknown, acting with violence before understanding – to the rise of intolerance around the world. As different countries react to recent global and domestic events – by shutting themselves off from their neighbours, for example, attacking things they don’t understand, or laying the blame in the wrong places – others react openly, seeing differences and learning from them, as better education will ultimately better society.
20 years since the film’s release, The Iron Giant’s message is as relevant now as ever. This is a double-edged sword, however. While it shows the film is undoubtedly a timeless classic, it’s a shame its message has clearly not reached everyone. Bird’s question of ‘What if a gun had a soul?’ is still as loaded now as it was 20 years ago. The fact that Bird put such a message – a sentient killing machine turned anti-gun pacifist – in an animated film aimed at kids is remarkable.
As Ramin says:
Sadly, with the rise of dangerous political parties and their corrupt, nationalistic leaders around the world today, the pacifist message of The Iron Giant is even more relevant now than 1999 when Brad Bird and his talented team made this insightful movie.
It is hard not to think about what is happening around the world today when you rewatch the movie. Corrupt politicians using paranoia and the fear of the other to manipulate the masses and keep them under control? That’s our daily news reports in a nutshell.
Or, as Jerry puts it:
Unfortunately, much as of the film’s messages aren’t outdated.
While classic films should always be relevant, some are fated to be more prescient than others – for better or worse. The Iron Giant, it seems, will always be timeless.
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Charlie Cocksedge is a journalist at UNILAD. He graduated from the University of Manchester with an MA in Creative Writing, where he learnt how to write in the third person, before getting his NCTJ. His work has also appeared in such places as The Guardian, PN Review and the bin.