A friend was taking art classes and had been advised by the instructor to buy one of those little wooden mannequins that are supposed to allow you to practice drawing the postures and proportions of the human body. She was complaining that the prices are exorbitant; "They're only wood, they've got no features and they range up to fifty dollars!" It was obvious to me that there was a simple and even superior alternative. I laughed and said, "Why buy a special artist's doll? All you need are some cheap plastic toys with articulated joints. As long as the proportions are fairly realistic and the joints bend, you'll be able to do the same poses with them. They'll probably be smaller than the wooden ones, but I don't think that matters." Sure enough, she was able to obtain some suitable figures from the toy-graveyards of her girlfriends' kids. Since then I found this page on the web that shows I'm not the only one to think of it.
I've got some el cheapo plastic soldiers which I bought for the same purpose and others that I've been using to make dioramas. These plastic figures fascinate me for a lot of reasons. The consistency of the themes and designs over decades is intriguing. Apart from the larger, poseable ones there are the moulded figures cranked out by the million. The peculiar thing is that the actual poses of many of the fixed figures have come in perennially-repeated stereotypical forms. There's the "grenade-thrower", one arm behind, clutching the bomb, the other extended up into the air; the "observer", standing erect with binoculars to his face; the "bayoneter", charging with outstretched rifle; the "machine-gunner" kneeling on one knee behind his tripod-mounted weapon; the "officer", waving a pistol in the air with one arm and waving 'come-on' with the other; the "tommy-gunner" standing with legs braced, pointing his gun from the hip. If you've ever played with or just seen toy soldiers you'll recognise the types. They're frozen in time, wearing and bearing equipment of the Second World War. They look American, going by the helmets - the old style of the 1940's, of course. There are sets that show newer, Kevlar helmets in coal-scuttle form, but among the newer-equipped figures are still some of the old style. The ones I see are all made in China, probably cranked out in the fevered industrial frenzy of Guangdong Province. The older ones from the 50's, 60's and so on were probably from Hong Kong. Perhaps many of them still are.
So did some Chinese entrepreneur decide in the 1950's on a set of figures for plastic soldier sets and have moulds made which are still in service today? Are new moulds made on the old pattern? I wonder if it's possible to find out. Maybe, just for the hell of it, I'll try.
And today, Wednesday, 21 May 2008, here they are. As is becoming usual, the answer came from Wikipedia. The article Army men contains a few answers, although it says these guys were made in the USA by Louis Marx and Co. and in Britain by Airfix and Matchbox before a decline in sales of military toys sent the business to China. I'm sure they were coming from Hong Kong and Taiwan back in the 1950's and 60's, so I can only assume that the Chinese disregard for intellectual property rights didn't begin in the People's Republic or very recently!