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Socialism Today 116 - March 2008

Blood & oil

There Will Be Blood

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

US, 2007, 158 mins

On general release



By Upton Sinclair

Penguin, 2008 (first published 1927), £8.99

Reviewed by

Greg Maughan

THE OSCAR-nominated movie There Will Be Blood is a visually stunning and engaging piece of work. Loosely based on the Upton Sinclair novel Oil! it concentrates on one particular aspect of the book and is an intelligent and challenging work in its own right although it omits many of the themes which would have mattered most to Sinclair.

Spanning a period from the turn of the 20th century to the eve of the 1929 economic crash, There Will Be Blood tells the tale of Daniel Plainview (J Arnold Ross in the novel), a ‘self-made man’ and oil pioneer. This is a powerful performance from Daniel Day Lewis as we follow Plainview’s journey from grafter to oil millionaire – a traditional ‘rags to riches’ narrative trajectory. However, in order to achieve these riches Plainview abandons his beliefs, his son and, eventually, his humanity. The film very effectively depicts this descent, but what it lacks is a questioning of the system which facilitates it, which the novel does: "It appeared as if the whole world was one elaborate system, opposed to justice and kindness, and set to making cruelty and pain".

In both the film and the novel there are lengthy sections on the oil drilling process – on screen depicted by wonderfully shot, quite long scenes with no dialogue, and in the novel described in detail with a reporter’s eye. To me, this was partly reminiscent of Moby Dick where Captain Ahab’s obsession with the white whale is expressed through whole chapters on the whaling process, the genealogy of whales, the history of the tools used in whaling, etc. In both instances, the effect is to outline the all-consuming obsession with the pursuit of profit. However, unlike Ahab, Plainview is drawn as a sympathetic character, more so in the book, as there we see him through his son’s eyes. This heightens the effect of his monstrous transformation, as HW (his son, Bunny, in the novel) is really the central character and the one whom we are encouraged to identify with.

Although inspired by Sinclair’s novel, and indeed with some sections of dialogue directly lifted from the book, There Will Be Blood concentrates on one theme: that of greed and the dehumanising effect of capitalist competition. The two decisive scenes in the film both show us characters renouncing their personal beliefs for financial rewards. Firstly, we are shown Plainview, a sceptic who is critical of organised religion, undergoing a demeaning baptism in order to secure the rights to build an oil pipeline over the land of a follower of the Church of the Third Revelation. In the second crucial scene, we see this process reversed when Eli, the head of the church, is forced to denounce God in front of Plainview.

The film concentrates on individuals, chiefly Plainview and HW, and shows us the negative effect of business and competition upon them. However, the themes embraced by the novel are much wider than this and much more compelling.

In the film, we see individual corruption. In the novel it is made clearer that this is systemic. We see Ross repeatedly bribing people. In one instance, he bribes a local Republican leader and Bunny exclaims to his father: "I thought you were a Democrat!" Corruption in the organised church is also touched on. For instance, when Bunny asks if Eli helps support his impoverished family, he is told that "the money is sacred, it belongs to the Holy Spirit, and Eli is His treasurer".

However, the most important aspect of the novel, and the one which is wholly absent from the film, is the conflict between capital and organised labour. This is really the central theme of the book, with large sections of the novel taken up recounting strikes, public meetings and the bosses’ machinations to break the Oil Workers Union.

As the readers’ point of reference, Bunny looks up to his farther but also idolises Paul Watkins, a young man who works as a carpenter on the oilfield, becomes a union organiser, and is increasingly radicalised through his experiences. Bunny is torn between these two contrasting father figures who are pushed in opposite trajectories in the course of events. Ross becomes an increasingly brutal and vicious employer while Watkins is propelled in a socialist direction.

Initially, Bunny attempts to balance between these two poles, casting himself as a mini-social reformer, building a reading room next to the oil workers’ quarters and decorating the area with plants and flowers. But as the strike progresses and a security fence is erected between the workers’ quarters and the drilling equipment, Bunny’s sister bluntly states the futility of his endeavour: "Bertie remarked sarcastically [of the fence] that it would be another place where Bunny and ‘his Ruth’ could grow roses. This jibe hurt, because it summed up to Bunny the part he was playing in this struggle – growing roses on the barbed wire fence which separated capital from labor".

For Sinclair, this was the key to the novel. Born in 1878 and introduced to the ideas of socialism around 1902, he saw his role not simply as a creator of fiction but as a journalistic whistleblower and political agitator. One of his earlier novels, The Jungle, had initially been serialised in the socialist newspaper, Appeal to Reason, and he states in the introduction to Oil!: "The picture is the truth, and the great mass of detail actually exists. But the cards have been shuffled".

This approach informs his prose style, which is easy to read and clearly influenced by his desire to report social problems of poverty, labour exploitation and inequality to as wide an audience as possible, as well as his political aim to build support for the alternative to this: socialism. Although it may sound contradictory, his style also contains echoes of the epic tradition and ancient Greek literature in particular. The effect of this is that everyday events, the casual exploitation of workers, corrupt business dealings, are given an added resonance.

Throughout the novel we see Bunny trying to make sense of the world via the people who surround him. Initially, he thinks that his privileged position can allow him to make the world a better place: "When you happen to be the son of a successful oil operator, you can make your dreams come true". There are a number of references to what he has been taught in social ethics classes at high school and then an attempt to reconcile these ideals with the reality he is confronted with.

As the novel progresses and Bunny goes through the experience of a lengthy industrial dispute his initial desire to reform and reconcile is exposed as utopian. Paul clearly nails his colours to the mast of the Third (Communist) International, set up after the Russian revolution. However, reflecting his own class background, Bunny is unable to fully draw these conclusions and, instead, "Bunny was drawn to the Socialists [reformist social democracy] by his temperament".

Within this, we see some of Upton Sinclair’s own internal political dilemma. He stood for senate on the ticket of the American Socialist Party a number of times and was sympathetic to the revolution in Russia. However, later on he drew the conclusion that, "The American people will take Socialism, but they won’t take the label". Stemming from this, he stood as a Democratic candidate. Sinclair failed to understand the need for an independent political voice for the working people of America, thinking that the more ‘acceptable’ big-business party could be used as a tool for social change.

Despite this, the novel Oil! along with many of his other novels, offers an engaging and very readable tirade against the effects of capitalism. Oil! in particular is of interest for us today as it explores the roots of an industry which is still key to the world economy and still blights the lives of millions across the globe.

Although the novel takes in much broader issues than the film, fundamentally, they both explore the lure of, as Sinclair put it, "an evil Power which roams the earth, crippling the bodies of men and women, and luring the nations to destruction by visions of unearned wealth, and the opportunity to enslave and exploit labor".

There Will Be Blood is an excellent work in its own right. But Oil! is in another league altogether and, thankfully, has just been republished to tie in with the film.


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