The most striking image offered by Ballad of the Little Soldier is the one it opens with: a young Nicaraguan boy singing a happy children's song while holding an assault rifle. It's a blunt but effective juxtaposition – a carefree melody and an instrument of death. The boy is preparing to go to war, and it is likely that he will die. He isn't old enough to grasp the full weight of that notion.
Werner Herzog's brief documentary focuses on a war-torn village populated by Miskato Indians. The village is still grieving over the loss of many of its people, as dozens of innocent men, women and children were brutally killed by Sandinista forces. There's a fleeting overview of the conflict between the Sandinistas and the Somoza regime, but Herzog isn't interested in global politics, objectivity or a detailed analysis of a complicated war. The documentary isn't fair (there was plenty of brutality on both sides of the conflict), but it is honest: these people have experienced unspeakable horrors, and the film refuses to diminish those horrors by attempting to frame them in a larger context. This film could have been made in any country desperate enough to send children to war.
We hear a number of testimonials about the terrible things the Miskatos have seen. Mothers talk of seeing their young children gunned down in front of them, and soldiers share tales of watching their comrades tortured to death. As depicted by the villagers, the Sandinistas are not merely a violent enemy force, but monsters who revel in cruelty. The film might have been used as anti-Sandinista propaganda, but the story being told is a double-edged sword: after looking into the heart of the village's grief, Herzog examines the appalling nature of their vengeance.
Most of the young boys in the village are being trained as soldiers, though I use the word “trained” very loosely. There aren't many people left who are qualified to train soldiers, so the village makes do with instructors who are merely competent at best. The children train with live rounds, and they're still innocent enough to giggle with excitement when they see a grenade explode in the distance. They are hardly prepared to go into battle by the end of their five-week course, but that's of little concern to the villagers. The boys aren't just chosen because no one else is left, but because their inability to truly think for themselves gives them a blind enthusiasm that the military values. They're the most dangerous weapons on the battlefield, and the most likely to die quickly.
The film was made at the request of a French journalist named Denis Reichle, who lingers in the background of many scenes. Near the end, it's revealed that he was also a child soldier once upon a time. Reichle walks among a group of armed children and talks about how the look in their eyes bears an uncanny resemblance to the look he saw on the faces of many of his friends. “I can already see these children dead,” he says.
Herzog spends some time talking to the “little soldiers,” trying to gain some insight into why they all seem so willing to sacrifice their lives. One 12-year-old boy has a blunt, simple answer: the bad men killed his two younger brothers, so now he must go kill the bad men. Why doesn't he fear death? Perhaps because he's been given no reason to value life. This particular conflict faded long ago, but there are plenty of others just like it. The cycle of bloodshed continues with no end in sight.
Ballad of the Little Soldier
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 46 minutes
Release Year: 1984