“There Will Be Blood”,starring the Academy award winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis (as oil man Daniel Plainview) has recently been released on DVD in the United Kingdom. Given how the oil crisis has recently intensified, its re-emergence could not be more timely.
The film is loosely based on the book “Oil!” by Upton Sinclair. This book, along with his other novel, “The Jungle” are strong critiques of early twentieth century capitalism; while the story of “Oil!” has been transformed into something that Sinclair would not recognise in terms of plot, his deeper critiques of man’s inhumanity remain intact.
America has a habit of idolising its entrepreneurs. Bill Gates, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, are all seen as men who built the nation. Additionally, the men who scratched out a living on the frontier in the hopes of one day making it big, are also seen positively: they are often lionised as men who tamed the savage wilderness.
“There Will Be Blood” provides an insight into these individuals: frequently they were driven, unhappy men, who could find no solace in success. The film begins with a demonstration of Daniel Plainview’s overriding ambition: despite having broken his leg in a mining accident, he drags himself and a chunk of silver across a wasteland to cash in.
We move on to just beyond the turn of the century, and Plainview is now in the oil business; the drilling is primitive and the oil is collected in buckets, which are hoisted from the bottom of a deep shaft by hand crank. The dangers of this simple operation are exposed: one of Plainview’s associates is killed, leaving behind a small child. Plainview is shown to be measuring up the child, as if he was guaging the value of a chunk of ore or a drilling site; he later adopts him, adhering to the pretence that young “H.W.” is his natural son.
When Day-Lewis’ character finally speaks, his performance becomes even more mesmerising. Not only has Day Lewis managed to bury his Irish brogue completely in a midwestern accent, the tone and pitch of his voice was altered as well; apparently, he was influenced by the late actor John Huston, and this is evident in the warmly gruff, yet insincere tones he uses.
The film gains an additional dimension when the setting changes to his largest venture yet, the oil fields surrounding the hamlet of Little Boston, California. He first scouts out the site with his “son”, pretending to hunt for quail. He pays what he calls “quail prices” instead of “oil prices” for the site. However, there is a caveat: the owner of the site’s son, Eli Sunday, wants Plainview to benefit him and his church, the evangelical if somewhat apocalyptic “Church of the Third Revelation”.
The relationship between Plainview and Sunday, in my opinion, provides the central tension in the film. In a gentler age, we would expect the greedy oil man to be balanced out by the preacher’s voice of conscience. However, this film is too honest for such a relationship to be established. Eli is just as much on the take as Plainview: we see this in his overt demands for money, and in how his ramshackle church improves in dramatic ways through the course of the film. We, the viewers, are left with a choice as to what we prefer: do we sympathise more with the amoral oil man, who at least wears his greed on his sleeve, or with the hypocritical preacher, whose avarice is wrapped in nauseating piety? It is also difficult to avoid understanding Plainview’s point of view: he states to a conman posing as his long-lost half brother, “there are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking”. In his setting, the sentiment is logical.
“There Will Be Blood” reminds us that it is these type of men who built America; because of Plainview and in spite of Plainview, Little Boston is seen to prosper. A dusty, abandoned train station thrives. A fancy restaurant opens. People and work arrive. While this is a work of fiction, one has to wonder how many Little Bostons there were, and how many Daniel Planviews.
The film would be less believable if there were no bright spots of humanity within it; they shine all the brighter because of its overall darkness. They are mainly focused on Plainview’s son, H.W.: while he is made deaf at an early age by a derrick explosion, he learns sign language, and marries his childhood sweetheart. Plainview himself shows occasional sparks of affection for his son, although he says later that his relationship with H.W. was entirely based on using a “sweet face” to get oil leases.
Plainview ends the tale living in a mansion in Beverly Hills; the setting was (appropriately) the home of Edward Doheny, one of the oil men behind the infamous “Teapot Dome Scandal”. Plainview the tycoon is drunk, dissolute, and ill tempered: having gotten everything he wanted, he has no idea what to do with himself.
It would be wrong to think that “hollow men” are a uniquely American feature; similar demons bedevilled British adventurers in India and Belgian conquistadors in the Congo. However, because America is a nation that was built on the frontier, perhaps these frailties are far more exposed: they have not been shunted to a distant corner, beyond the full gaze of the nations which bred them.
Human wreckage may have led to progress in the short run. However, we’re rapidly discovering that the gains they achieved were transient and uiltimately self-defeating: the oil runs out, the damage to the environment remains (one of the more frightening aspects of the tale is how cavalier Plainview’s operation is in treating the land), and we have discovered that we can’t live this way. “There Will Be Blood” demonstrates above all, any nostalgia may be misplaced, and perhaps we should be grateful that this phase of humanity’s development may have reached an end.