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.