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There Will Be Blood

Posted by keith1942 on August 25, 2011

USA. Paramount Vantage and Miramax Film Corporations. Scripted and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, based in part on Upton Sinclair’s Oil [1927].

This 2008 release garnered very positive critical reviews as well as Oscar success. It is an epic tale and epic viewing, running two and half-hours, with impressive staging and cinematography, filmed in Panavision [which means a letterbox of 2.35:1]. Critics have tended to see the film as offering a distinctive vision of the early C20th USA. The S & S review references Gone with the Wind and Citizen Kane and then suggests that  “Anderson’s film defies the conventions of both breeds of American epics.” Despite this there are also sorts of familiar patters being worked out in the movie. 

Genre:

Time Out lists a range of earlier films under Oil Prospecting. This suggests the narrative thrust of such films. M.G.M.’s Boom Town [1940] mixes drama, romance and comedy as Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy strike it rich. Tulsa [Eagle-Lion 1949] has Susan Hayward building a female run oil empire. Closest to the recent film is Giant [Warner 1956] where James Dean’s rise to oil tycoon leads to a bitter and destructive climax.  There Will Be Blood eschews any romance [partly studio pressure] and has an unusual powerful focus on the exploitative aspects of the industry. Daniel Day-Lewis’s Plainview gets rich by ‘cheating’ ordinary landholders.

The ‘oil’ theme is married to what I would call the Aimée Macpherson plot, ‘old time religion’ and some sort of scandal [actual events of the 1920s]. The clearest expression of this is found in Elmer Gantry [United Artists, 1960, also taken from an Upton Sinclair novel]. Here, Jean Simmons is the sincere and successful revivalist preacher; Burt Lancaster is the exploitative but charming charlatan. In There Will Be Blood both characters seem combined in Eli Sunday, who is a committed revivalist, but by the end of the film appears to have succumbed to commercialism and money.

Auteur:

There Will Be Blood is both written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson who has made a name for himself with a rather disparate set of films. Nick James [in S & S] comments on his work: “The presentation of familial ties as more powerful that sexual-romantic ones is consistent with P. T. Anderson’s Filmography. Two dysfunctional families forms the daisy-chains of fuck-up in Magnolia [1999] while the drifters who gather under Burt Reynolds porn umbrella in Boogie Nights [1997] become a family that later falls apart. A surrogate father patches together a semblance of familial companionship around his young partner in Hard Eight [1996]; in Punch-Drunk Love [2002] Adam Sandler struggles to escape his clan of powerful sisters so as to make a connection with a girl.” Families are certainly dysfunctional in There Will Be Blood, as is the surrogate father. The film shares with Magnolia not only a caustic view of fundamentalist religion and psychotherapy, but also the tragic consequences of family alienation. 

Star:

The most frequent critical praise for the film has concerned to the central role of Daniel Day-Lewis, which won him the Academy Award for Best Actor. In a detailed study of Day-Lewis and his film work, Andrew Hedden [in Cineaste] comments on the Plainview character: “The real problem is he’s an individual in society, and he can’t stand it. The man treats people as obstacles to navigate … He sees himself outside society, not within it; or better yet, he sees himself on the way out of society, boot-strap style, moving on up to something grander … Daniel Plainview is a variation on a theme present over the whole of Daniel Day-Lewis’s career, that of estranged outsider.”  His list of these includes My Beautiful Launderette [1985], The Crucible [1996] and Gangs of New York [2002].

Literary adaptation:

It seems that one way that There will be Blood develops its variations on the ‘oil’ genre movie is through the recurring pre-occupations of director and star.  But there is another important source and influence on the film, that of the original writer Upton Sinclair. This turns out to be the weakest influence. Anderson apparently only used the first 150 pages of a book running to over 500. The original Plainview is J. Arnold Ross. One can highlight the changes by noting that in the book Bunny is Ross’s natural son, in the film the equivalent H.W. is adopted by Plainview. And the central member of the Watkins family [Sunday in the film] in the book is Paul, in the film it is Eli. The latter change moves the focus from politics to religion: apart from the oil strikes the powerful set pieces in the film are about fundamentalist religion. In the book the powerful set pieces follow Bunny’s friendship with Paul, who is drafted into the US forces invading the newly born Soviet Union; and, politicised, returns to fight for the workers’ union and for socialism. The film focuses on Plainview and his individual conflict with Eli. The book focuses on the exploitation in the oil industry, corruption in the government, and the demonising of organised Labour by the establishment and the media. In one chapter Bunny’s current girlfriend, a Hollywood star, has her new movie, a melodrama set within the revolution in Russia, denounced by his socialist friend Rachel, “that hideous picture that’s going out to poison the people’s minds – millions upon millions of them.”

A greater part of Sinclair’s book is set in the 1920s [a decade like the 1960s of radicalism, subversion and incipient rebellion]. This has been almost totally excluded from the film. So Sinclair’s important plot material includes:

  • the US/UK/French attempts to suppress the Russian revolution:
  • the corruption by Oil interests of the US Hoover administration:
  • The virulent anti-union and anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1920s.

Such a list indicates how many parallels with the first decade of the 21st century could be drawn from Sinclair’s epic record. It would make most anti-Bush regime dramas seem insipid by comparison. So, with these exclusions, There Will Be Blood becomes conventional in the manner in which it substitutes family and personal drama for social and political conflicts.

Review and articles in Sight & Sound February 2008, Cineaste Spring 2008. Sinclair’s Oil has been republished by Penguin Classics 2008.

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One Response to “There Will Be Blood

  1. […] representation of these events; [representations completely excised from the film adaptation There Will be Blood, USA […]

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