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Universal Soldier was a 1992 action film, directed by Roland Emmerich and starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren as two men who died as Vietnam, only to be resurrected as brainwashed super-soldiers, controlled by drugs and cybernetic implants. Like RoboCop from a few years earlier, the film could be taken as either a straight-out action gore-fest, or as something more ironic.

(The 1992 film was followed by several bad sequels, but their existence is basically irrelevant to this question.)

Apart from the film series, there is an older anti-war folk rock song with the same title. It was first recorded by the songwriter, Buffy Sainte-Marie, in 1964 and became a hit for Donovan the next year.

Google Ngrams confirms that there were essentially no published appearances of the phrase "Universal Soldier" prior to the song's release. In the (unsmoothed) year-by-year Ngram search results, it is easy to how the phrase first appears in the mid-1960s, with usage peaking in 1972; then the rate of appearances settle down to a modest level, before they begin rising agin with the release of the first Universal Soldier film in 1992.

There does not seem to be much in common (in terms of tone, or anything else beyond the fact that both are about ill-fortuned warfighters) between the song and the movie. So why did the filmmakers take the name "Universal Soldier" for their film?

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    i would suggest that the characters being solely soldiers or complete, "all-round" soldiers is the reason this title was chosen. it also sounds "science fictiony": the word "universe" connotes space travel, etc. although there is no space travel at all in the film (is there?). Calling it simply "Soldier" would make some think it could be a movie about, say, a WW2 soldier. If they were biomechanical, "Cyborg Soldier" could have worked, but they weren't. Or clones, "Clone Soldier" which is not that good anyway and they were not clones either. – releseabe Feb 10 at 2:57
  • ‘cause it sounds cool! – Seamusthedog Feb 10 at 9:19
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The name is meant to evoke imagery of a tool. A universal screwdriver allows you to swap out the heads and use the same screwdriver, regardless of the shape of the screw head. The point here was that they had taken away the humanity of the soldiers to become pure tools who could be deployed under whatever circumstances were needed.

Now, how does that differ from regular soldiers? Do we not send regular soldiers in, regardless of circumstances? Not necessarily. A commander presumably always needs to bear in mind the limits and limitations of their command. By stripping away the humanity from these soldiers, the idea is that many of these limits and limitations have now been effectively removed- turning a human into a tool.

As a side note, I will say it has always been interesting to me how the super-powered enlisted soldier is somehow this classic archetype but I have also heard plenty of actual soldiers sneer at the idea as something else designed by idiots who have never been in the field. What you don’t generally need is the guy who can take three bullets before going down, what you need is someone who can outthink the other guy, or a commander who understands to shape orders to allow flexibility in interpretation (we need our flank secured versus take that hill) especially when communication inevitably breaks down. But somehow the old idea of the super-soldier comes up again and again. As a very non-military person, I generally stand back from this discussion.

I mention this though because part of the point of the movie was the ultimate failure with the universal soldier program was the idea of turning people into tools in the first place, like that would make them better soldiers.

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