Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Men of '76

With one, late-to-the-party exception, a blank page represented the American Revolution in my toy soldier life book. For years, particularly in the two months preceding my birthday and Christmas, I hyperventilated over the Sears and J.C. Penney’s catalog playset pages much as I would Playboy magazine a few years later. But, in panting over the three or four pages of 54 mm heaven marketed in the catalogs, I was never tempted by Marx’s “Sons of Liberty” – and stuck resolutely to The Big Three: World War Two, Civil War and American West, with a dash of The Alamo and Knights and Vikings thrown in for variety.

But as I neared the end of the kid trail, a magical little army of Swoppet-style British grenadiers and Colonial ‘rebels’ snared my imagination, and left me a wonderful clutch of memories. The sculpting was somewhat less than refined, and the soldiers rather wooden of limb, but I played with them for hours. The figures in question – marketed as “The Men of ‘76” - were released to commemorate/cash in on the country’s bicentennial, and could be purchased in blister packs that contained from two to five figures. Accessories included double-trail brass cannon and, more significantly, a large, ‘stone’ structure – “Fort Liberty” - that bore a passing resemblance to Fort Ticonderoga. I acquired them all.

Regrettably, ‘Fort Liberty’ vanished down the same rabbit hole as my original Fort Apache block house, but I still have the figures and cannon.  

"The Men of '76," in firing formation. Note the race of the cannoneer - a nice touch. And a rare one. A couple of actual Swoppet patriots can be seen yonder, behind the fence. These fellows were simply too expensive to purchase in bulk.
King George's elite infantry prepare to chasten the upstart rebels with a volley of their own.
"The Men of '76' also featured Hessian mercs, which were depicted in forest green breeches and coats. On the far right, Swoppet figures add a bit more class to the organic set. 
As found on Ebay: "Fort Liberty' and its original box. Both the fort and the towhead's bowl cut took me right back.
A close-up of the cannon. This is a well-detailed little piece, and can be used in pirate battles, The Alamo, War of 1812, Napoleonic combat, etc. I have five of them.
"Fort Liberty," from another Ebay listing. Note the jail at the opposite end of the structure.
To counter the Lobster Backs' Prussian-born hired guns, the Colonials fielded a smattering of French regulars - seen on the far right, in white coats and breeches (and royal purple collars).

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Marx's Curiously Passive United States Marines

Considering the Rising Sun butt they kicked all across the Pacific Theater - and the losses they absorbed in the process - the U.S. Marines, as sculpted by Marx, are a weirdly Quaker-like set of fighting men. In terms of pure combat poses, Marx's Marines are as tepid as Marx's Germans. We have scads of running men, squatters and beach combers, but little in the way of trigger pullers.

On the left, we've got 'Radio Guy with .45." Top center: "Kneeling Guy Waiting for Developments, Be They Hot Chow or An Enemy Attack.' Bottom: "Prone Guy Observing/Trying Not to Get Shot." It would have been so cool if the radio operator's gun arm had been sculpted into a "Firing Straight Ahead' position. Thus positioned, he would have been the go-to guy in the sandbox crater when a squad of banzai zanies spilled over its lip in search of Yankee blood.

"The Running Men: Part One:" A pair of Leathernecks - an enlisted man (L) and his Colt-clenching company commander - dash across the beach. These gallant lads are clearly game for any kind of brawl, but have been relegated to "Let's get the blue hay off this beach!" postures. They're engagingly animated, as are many in this particular Marx offering. But neither are capable of putting a new hole in Tojo's samurai. Optimally, the officer is about to slap a Spock suppression hold on Marx's "Japanese Guy Attacking With Knife Raised Over His Head" figure, before bringing up the Model '11 to perform the aforementioned ventilation process.
"The Running Men: Part Two:" As the son of a Korean War combat vet/machine gunner (45th Division, 180th Infantry, First Battalion), I am admittedly partial to this air-cooled Browning MG team. They've got flair, grit and the martial goods to dish out a heaping serving of piping hot, .30 caliber lead to anyone foolish enough to get in front of them. The problem, once again, is that they're not open for business. Like their mates from "The Running Men: Part One," this pair is simply sprinting. They are moving targets, which any lashed-to-a-palm-tree Jap sniper could easily take down. God, how I loathe those palm tree marksmen! A Pacific plague, by gar. Nonetheless, the four running men create a dramatic scene when posed together hurtling off the BMC Higgins landing craft. I should probably take a photograph of that very vignette. Stay tuned.
Another view of the MG team. The sculpting IS excellent, particularly on the guy running with the Browning. He's emotionally and physically harassed - but determined to get his burdensome weapon set up and chattering. The detail and scale of the ammo box is also nice.
All four "Running Men" figures dash from the maw of a BMC Higgins boat and onto a bullet-lashed, mortar-pulverised tropical beach. BMC tormented us with a legion of feeble figures, but its accessories are often first-rate. As a kid, I would have certainly packed this particular vessel and taken it on vacation. It would have looked magnificant pulled up on the shore of Lake Chetek (Wisconsin) or one of the Ozarks lakes my family frequented in my youth - to disgorge a platoon of brave G.I.s or Marines onto the battlefield while my brother and I tossed firecrackers and smoke bombs in their midst to simulate the sound, smells and sights of martial struggle.
An expanded vignette: In the foreground, a Higgins purges its all-Marx company of fighting men and equipment onto the builder's beige beach, whilst from a sister boat, a combined kommando of Classic Toy Soldiers and Toy Soldiers of San Diego fighters storms into the ominous jungle.
 "Afraid of Water Officer/Higgins Pilot Guy" and "Firing M1 Garand from the Hip Guy": On the left, clutching either an over-sized .45 or a flare gun in his tiny, green hand, we see one of Marx's odder creations. I remain undecided about his intended role in the sandbox wars of olde. Is he a sailor or a Marine combat commander who can't swim? The presence of the pistol would seem to indicate that the individual is a non-swimming officer of some type who has disembarked. I don't, however, recall ever seeing a photo of a Marine in full-bore, storming-the-beach mode clad in such a garment. Assuming, then, that the man serves in the navy and steers wooden landing boats into the fires of hell for a living, why would a combat savvy old salt choose to pad around a hostile beach with all of his vitals wrapped in a sniper-attracting life jacket? Perhaps his boat was shot to pieces on the beach approach, and he's pictured at the very moment he lands on terra firma after escaping the flaming vessel. To the right of the mystery man, behold one of the few, pure fighting poses in Marx's U.S. Marines set. This particular guy, in fact, represents the ONLY trigger-pulling Leatherneck of the entire group. Think about that: out of an entire set of fighting Marines, only one member of the plastic platoon is depicted in the act of firing a rifle. Extremely peculiar. Was Marx's sculpting bureau rife with pacifists? Irony. Pacifists Create Largely Inoffensive Pacific Warriors.
Rounding out the set's slender combat pose offerings: (L) Tiny Flamethrower Guy and the (to me, at least) iconic "Underhand Grenade Tosser/Tommy Gun Guy." Although noticeably undersized, the human Zippo is a welcome addition to any battle - able to scorch enemy infantry down to black nubs, whether they're storming his position in a banzai attack or holding out in a bunker or behind a sandbox rock. "Grenade Guy" is a Marx classic - a bunker busting, tommy gunning killer of all things nasty. Heave the canteen-sized iron pineapple through the bunker aperture and hose down what's left with .45 slugs. 
Our final entry can be seen on the right (above): "Just Been Hit Guy". His body buckling from the shock, this poor fellow is captured at the moment a chunk of Nippon lead pierces him. It's unclear if "Just Been Hit Guy" will recover from his wound, but he's a logical inclusion to any U.S. Marine fighting force. It's just regrettable that Marx didn't provide him with more mates posed to extract immediate revenge for his hurt. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Zombies at the Gates!!!!

Given pop culture's obsession with all things living dead, it was only a matter of time before the zombie scourge seeped its way to Supersized Fort Apache. At the right of this exclusive photo, Geronimo pumps .45 slugs into a pair of undead corpses stumbling toward him through the fort's pumpkin patch. (The zombie figures are produced by a company called 'Gentle Giant." I bought a 14-figure set through Ebay.)

Horrifically, the only thing a zombie craves more than live brain is YOUNG live brain. Having wandered off from her brother and sister, this tender-lobed little settler is in quite a fix after a quartet of ghouls box her in while on a food run. 

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Improvised ruined building

A battle-pounded, three-story German outpost somewhere in rural France. I Franksteined this by disassembling a 1/18th scale European barn (thank you, Basil, Jr.!) and placing the quite realistic-looking weathered planking sections atop sundry destroyed brick mounds that come with many Forces of  Valor vehicles. The sandbags, iron fencing, boxes, 55-gallon drums and other incidentals likewise came in FOV sets. From the look of things, the Huns occupying this building are under assault on both flanks AND their center.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Timpo's "Beachhead Invasion" playset

Aurora/Timpo's wonderful "Beachhood Invasion" playset was - along with my Marx "Blockhouse" Fort Apache - the last of my childhood toy soldier acquisitions. This is the original box, which I excavated out of the closet of my childhood bedroom my last trip home. Although a berserking tsunami of hormones was overwhelming my toy soldier fever at the time, I loved this set, and still have many of the figures and equipment. (Up to this point, my exposure to Timpo figures was extremely limited. I was fascinated by these inter-changeable little men.) Miraculously, this box still held/holds the set's original instructions - the only such playset document to have survived my childhood.

In hindsight, the presence of a thoroughly British Bren gun carrier in the set's all-American combat group was peculiar - but I was the only kid in my circle who had one.

The American bazooka team was practically a pre-made diorama vignette, complete with a small pile of debris, spare rockets and a terrain base. I've always been very partial to these two tank-busters. (Behind them, a 21st Century Sherman (commanded by a Forces of Valor officer) moves forward with a squad of Toy Soldiers of San Diego and Classic Toy Soldiers G.I.s.)
The Germans counter with a mortar crew, also plugged into its own base. (If one were so inclined, the German figures can be removed and Americans put in their place.)
Timpo issued each "army" with a howitzer with which to infuse their martial entanglements with a bit of dignity. (Paraphrasing here; can't recall the exact line, and it's Monday morning.) Save for their colors, the long guns were identical.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Reflections on Marx's Germans

With the molds that spawned them supposedly MIA, Marx's Germans could well be the plastic community's version of The Shakers (an impossibly chaste and abstemious people whose beliefs about physical love have winnowed their ranks down to a pair of ancient southern Indiana spinsters awaiting their eternal reward). In short: what we have is all we're ever going to have. I am of mixed emotions about this. As a child, the company's Huns - deployed via "The Guns of Navarone" and "Battlefield" playsets - comprised the spine of my German army, around which a sprinkling of Britain's, Timpo and other lesser manufacturers coalesced to give my American and British troops an admittedly meager enemy force to push around. Even as a sentimental, toy soldier-obsessed boy, though, I perceived the shortcomings of Marx's Nazis - the lack of kit and lack of fighting poses, in particular. Forty years later, when sized up against Conte, Toy Soldiers of San Diego and Classic Toy Soldiers, these shortcomings are magnified and exposed almost beyond redemption.

My review of Marx's Hiterlites will strike some as harsh, but in truth, it's undertaken without animous. Just as I now realize how truly awful the '60s film "Battle of the Bulge" was, that doesn't mean the movie didn't enthrall me at a dozen different boyhood screenings. These challenged figures died a thousand deaths at the flick of my thumb and index finger in the 1970s. And I smiled each and every time they went tumbling across the carpet.

By my count, Marx issued 13 German infantry figures: the von Rundstedt-type officer pointing at the ground, binocular guy, SS-type with MG34 resting casually on his shoulder and an ammo belt draped around his neck, running with machine pistol, running with MP-40, running with bazooka, hunched over guy stabbing at the ground with rifle, throwing potato masher, standing firing, kneeling firing, firing sub-machinegun from the hip, dead on the ground guy and goose-stepping dandy .
We’ll start with the goose-stepper – the worst of the bunch. Never did a more abjectly worthless figure inveigle its way underneath my Christmas tree. What possible combat role did Marx envision for this beta dud? Per his prototypical Nuremberg high step, he’s obviously marching in some sort of parade, rally or state funeral. I could never, in good conscience, work this 54 mm metro-sexual into my battle set-ups. Not even as dead-at-first-salvo cannon fodder.  

I’ll admit that our machine gunner (far left) has style. He’s clearly no stranger to combat (undoubtedly a veteran of the Eastern Front), and is more than able to put that MG34 to good use against the mad dog G.I.s storming the beaches at Navarone. The belt of ammunition is a nice “extra;” you can faintly hear the rounds clinking as he slogs down some dusty French lane toward his destiny. But as an active combatant, he’s useless. Strictly passive cannon fodder – KIA extremely early in every action.
Because he’s the only obvious officer figure in Marx’s set, Oberstgruppenfuhrer Jodhpurs – a.k.a. Der Pointing Man – gets a pass for his total dearth of combat usefulness. But what in the hay is he pointing at? Is he telling the machine gunner to once and for all stop idling around the front line and actually deploy his MG34 HERE!!?  Mach schnell!!! (On a dark note, when I was nine or ten, I read an article in Readers Digest about a European Jew who survived a series of Nazi death camps.  Maddened and depressed by the man’s description of the horrible ovens in which his entire family was incinerated after their murders, I promptly built a miniature oven of my own, out of Legos, and sealed this very officer figure inside. He was “Hitler” for this purpose. I left him in it for three or four days.)
“Binocular guy” is a necessary evil. He’s not packing heat, but every army needs “eyes.” From his perch atop Marx’s Navarone mountain fortress, this particular Boche was invariably the first to spy the huge combined American-British invasion fleet as it hove into view.

The Running Men: A quartet of feebly equipped landsers hustling away from or into something unpleasant. With the possible exception of our lead figure (whom I typically pitted against Marx’s “crawling on all fours with a tommy gun” G.I.), Marx once again fails to offer that most critical of elements to a plastic combat scenario: combat figures. Machine pistol guy, MP-40 guy and bazooka guy are nothing but targets and trench filler. So much unfulfilled potential in this group. Slap a combat pack on them, elevate the arms of MP-40 and machine pistol guys so they’re firing and you would have had two great action figures. And wouldn’t it have been awesome to have a “firing panzershrek guy” instead of ‘hunchback stovepipe guy”?

A closer view of MP-40 guy: In reality, he is a very elegantly sculpted figure - probably the best of the Marx Germans.

Of Marx’s 13 German figures, these four represent the core (if not the entirety) of the group’s fighting strength: two infantrymen firing what appear to be Gewehr 43s* (a late-war semi-automatic rifle), a soldier heaving a potato masher grenade, and a guy firing an MP-40 more or less from the hip. It’s strange that in the entire set, not a single Fritz carries the German army’s standard issue, bolt action rifle (the Gewehr 98). “Gear” in general is largely absent, as well. Plunged into action without packs and other essential kit, these troops certainly aren’t involved in a fluid field campaign. Their only hope is to keep close to their line of supply.
*Tip of the hat to Basil Junior for that weapons i.d.

“Bring out yer dead!” Marx’s final German: KIA with MG34. I remain undecided, after literally four full decades of reflection, about whether this particular figure should be positioned on his stomach or his back. Neither looks quite right, but it seems when placed on his back, he has fewer issues. (The helmet and heels rest flush on the ground, whereas both “float” when the soldier is laid face down). 

In contrast to their Marx forefathers, today’s 54/56 mm German infantry are abundantly equipped, and can fight anywhere, for practically any length of time. Consider this Toy Soldiers of San Diego panzerfaust (“tank fist”) guy.  You could pluck him off my apartment floor and put him in the middle of a prehistoric forest and he’d be able to stay alive for weeks, if not months. He’s got a blanket, an entrenching tool, water, mess kit, and Lord knows what else is tucked into his sundry knapsacks, pouches and pockets. Iron rations, no doubt. And a pistol. He could take out a dinosaur with the panzerfaust, smoke cure the meat and live indefinitely off it. All he’d need after that was a good woman.

For better or worse, ‘modern’ WWII Germans have massive firepower at their disposal – including crew-served weapons that would have drenched the beaches of Navarone in the blood of American heroes. And they’re posed for immediate action. This MG42 set from Toy Soldiers of San Diego has the heft of a small paper weight and sculpting detail generally seen only in figures of much larger scale. Can you imagine the havoc this tandem would have wreaked across a Nixon-era sandbox?
A Conte grenadier prepares to heave his potato masher.Vibrant and athletic, this infantryman - MP-40 slung across his back and artfully sculpted mess kit on his belt - seems museum worthy in contrast to his stiff-armed, stiff-legged and gun-less Marx counterpart.

The dead cart awaits a deceased Conte German (left) and one deceased Classic Toy Soldier (CTS) German, while another CTS Hun bleeds out. Note the magazine-less MP-40 resting on the dead CTS guy – a subtle sculpting touch. The not-ready-to-go-on-the-cart guy could be used in non-combat vignettes, such as cradling a bottle of schnapps or “Sour Mash,” the Forces of Valor cat seen previously in Supersize Fort Apache©.

The lighter gray Marx figures were made out of soft, rubbery plastic, and garrisoned my 'Guns of Navarone" playset. It arrived on my 11th or 12th Christmas ('76-'77). Marx's star was dying at the time, as were most toy soldier makers' - and the company must have sensed it. In a wretched re-branding effort, Marx included in my set a sort of comic book that framed "The Guns of Navarone" narrative not as American G.I.s storming a Nazi-held mountain redoubt, but as a militarized law enforcement group dispatched to capture or kill a mad scientist and his band of henchmen who had developed a death ray capable of boiling an entire ocean. It was a sad day when a first-rate toy soldier playset couldn't stand on its own merits - namely, the American army kicking German butt.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

New Civil War figures (Expeditionary Force)

Singapore-based "Expeditionary Force" has deployed its new line of Civil War figures. Above, I've mixed in the new guys with a few Butternut and Blue, Marx Civil War Centennial and CTS figures - along with a pair of Imex Parrots. The E.F. figures are crisply sculpted but quite small - more 1/35 than 1/32. Conte and TSSD would certainly dwarf them. Size wise, the new troops are a perfect match with Butternut and Blue (O, B&B! Why did you flee the marketplace so quickly?!) and the Centennial lads. The cannoneers have a nice range of poses, but all have the exact same face. (Stepford artillerists?). Similarly, other than the officer pose, the cavalry comes in just two flavors - sabre extended above head and sabre held at side. All in all, though, a nice addition to the hobby/lifestyle that we've chosen to deaden the pain and tedium of this suffering life.

At the left, a husky, mutton-chopped cannoneer from Toy Soldiers of San Diego; at the right, his stunted, whiskerless Expeditionary Force counterpart.

The three standing poses are from Expeditionary Force, whilst the kneeling officer and wounded gunner are of course Marx products. (The binocular guy has been with me for 37 years; he arrived in the Marx Civil War playset I got on my 10th birthday. What a great set! I still have many of the figures, as well as the tin litho plantation home. Sadly, the siege cannon was destroyed - read "melted" - in a tragically misguided smoke bomb experiment the same summer I got the set.)

Left front, firing: Butternut and Blue; rear, firing: one of Ideal's giants; right, carrying bucket: Expeditionary Force.