Blood Is Thicker Than Oil!

Paul Thomas Anderson’s sweeping, grimy, brutal epic There Will Be Blood was ‘inspired’ by Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!. But it strips out and burns off the novel’s humour, humanity and socialist shenanigans.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics Books

‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve travelled over half our state to get here this evening. I couldn’t get away sooner because my new well was coming in at Coyote Hills and I had to see about it. That well is now flowing at two thousand barrels and it’s paying me an income of $5,000 a week. I have two others drilling and I have 16 producing at Antelope. So – ladies and gentlemen – if I say I’m an oil man, you will agree.’

These are the first words spoken by Daniel Plainview, played by Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis, in the film There Will Be Blood, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. They come after a whole 20 minutes of action without any voices, in one of the most striking beginnings to a film.

The opening scenes show Plainview’s pain-staking efforts as a prospector, set against a bleak landscape of desert, immersed in puddles of oil and often from the perspective of deep, dark holes in the ground. We learn that removing oil from the land was a very primitive affair in the early years of the twentieth century, only slowly evolving to the point where technology like derricks was used. Plainview and his few fellow oil men exert themselves to their physical limits, with one man paying with his life – it’s as if the men have to will the oil out of the ground by sheer determination. Like Herman Melville’s descriptions of the features of whales in Moby Dick, Anderson makes you stop and focus on oil extraction, something you never thought interesting before.

Plainview’s first words on screen were written by Upton Sinclair in Oil!, the 1927 novel that was the ‘inspiration’ for Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Sinclair found the development of oil in California, where he was living at the time, fascinating. California brings to mind many images, but, for most people, oil is probably not one of them. Yet, not far from Hollywood and at the same time the movie industry was starting, oil drilling was taking off. With prospectors and landowners feverishly hoping to earn instant wealth, and President Warren Harding’s administration embroiled in the Teapot Dome oil scandal, Sinclair believed it was a promising setting for a novel about the period.

On the face of it, it is somewhat surprising that a 1920s novel by Sinclair would be the basis for a mainstream Hollywood film today. Sinclair was a self-proclaimed socialist, and his writings – including Oil! – were suffused with his views. In addition to being a fiction-writer, he was a muckraking journalist and politician. Sinclair is not considered one of the heavyweights of American literature; he usually gets an honorable mention as a minor figure. If remembered at all, he is most likely known for his 1906 novel The Jungle, an account of the unhealthy working conditions in the meat-packing industry. He ran for office many times – including for Congress on the Socialist Party ticket and for Governor of California as the Democratic Party candidate – without success. He was also an eccentric: a founder of a commune in New Jersey; a teetotaler devoted to homeopathy and colonic cleansing; and a believer in telepathy and other psychic phenomena (1).

All in all, hardly the most likely candidate for modern-day Hollywood treatment. But Anderson’s use of Sinclair becomes less peculiar when you discover that his script shares very little with Oil!. Beyond the California oilfields and certain scenes, like Plainview’s opening speech and a tremendous, fiery explosion, there is not much in common between the two. Anderson selected the ‘juicier stuff’ from Oil! and then blazed his own path, and in a number of respects the movie goes in the opposite direction to the book (2).

Of course, Anderson is free to tell his story any way he wishes; there is no requirement to be faithful to the novel. But the way in which his screenplay deviates from the original does yield insight into his work.

* * *

There Will Be Blood is the story of how Plainview becomes consumed by greed as he becomes an increasingly successful oil developer. Tough and single-minded from the start, he eventually becomes destructive and self-destructive. The movie involves a number of relationships – most notably, a tie between Plainview and his adopted son (HW), as well as a conflict between Plainview and the local evangelist (Eli Sunday). However, they ultimately serve as means by which to demonstrate Plainview’s central role and dominance. To go along with its Old Testament plot, the movie is filled with (literally) fire and brimstone, exploding oil derricks and, as the title warns, blood. Most of the intense action takes place amid the unforgiving dirt patches of Southern California.

The Plainview character is in Oil!, although he goes by a different name: J Arnold Ross, also known as ‘Jim’ or more often ‘Dad’. But the story is told from the perspective of Ross’s son, who goes by the nickname ‘Bunny’. The main storyline is about Bunny’s gradual awakening to social injustice, and his internal struggle about whether he should abandon his comfortable position and family and social ties, and side with the ‘Wobblies’, Socialists and Communists that were growing in strength at the time. Bunny is involved in a number of significant relationships, not the least of which is with his father, and there are many strong characters. Sinclair weaves in the key historical events of the time – including the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Harding and Coolidge administrations, the emergence of Hollywood – and, although also based in Los Angeles (‘Angel City’), we follow characters around the globe, taking in Montreal, London, Paris and Moscow.

But it is not just the central character, perspective and historical sweep that sets Oil! apart from There Will Be Blood. Importantly, the character they share in common – Plainview/Ross – is significantly different in the two works.

At the beginning of the film, Anderson’s Plainview is shown to be as tough as the harsh landscape, but we are given glimpses of a softer side, most notably in warm moments he shares with his adopted baby son. We sense that he loves the boy, even as he uses him as a prop to claim he is a ‘family man’ when making sales pitches to unsuspecting landowners. But his greater mastery in pulling oil from the earth leads him to seek wealth seemingly for its own sake, and he gradually becomes an outright misanthrope. At a key moment, Plainview says: ‘I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate people… I look at people and I see nothing worth liking… I want to make enough money that I can move far away from everyone.’ (Nothing in this film is subtle.) Soon after, he sends his son, who was made deaf by an oil fire, away, and later resorts to the murder of the man pretending to be his half brother.

Sinclair’s Ross has a very different personality. He is generous by nature and given to humor. Unlike Plainview, he has women in his life: his daughter, mother, sister-in-law and second wife. And ‘Dad’, unlike Anderson’s Plainview, is overtly fond of his son. He clearly wishes Bunny would follow in his footsteps, but, even though the boy time and again disappoints (and even supports a cause that could undermine his business), he does not reject him. Furthermore, Ross the oil operator likes his workers, in a paternalistic way.

Sinclair sets Ross up in this way to make a point about the impersonal forces of capitalism as a system. While Ross is generally (though not always) a reasonable man, Sinclair is saying that even well-meaning bosses can be compelled to crack down on striking workers, or to bribe politicians. Bunny notes that ‘Dad couldn’t give his oil-workers an eight-hour day, even if he wanted to – because the Petroleum Employers’ Federation had taken away his personal liberty and initiative in that respect’. Ross is a small capitalist who is forced to succumb to a big oil company buyout and go along with their rules in order to survive.

In contrast, Anderson has created a monster in Plainview. It is Plainview’s own demons, his own competitiveness, not the laws of the competitive marketplace, that drive him. And despite achieving wealth, Plainview’s pursuit does not result in him becoming a stable, successful capitalist, but rather a madman.

* * *

Another instructive difference between the movie and the book is in their respective treatments of religion and the role of the masses. In Anderson’s screenplay, the only form of religion is the Church of the Third Revelation, established by Eli Sunday, the young evangelical preacher who engages in hellfire and damnation rhetoric. The congregants are portrayed as passive sheep, easily duped by Eli’s nonsense. Eli is also shown to be a money-seeking hypocrite. Indeed, as the son of the landowner that Plainview deceived, Eli demands $5,000 from Plainview. But Plainview cannot stand him, refuses to pay and humiliates him publicly.

The Eli character is in Sinclair’s Oil!, too, although his family name is Watkins, not Sunday. Sinclair’s Eli is also a ‘holy roller’ preacher, and a fake who is more interested in money than souls. But notably, Eli is a much more marginal figure in the book, only popping up now and again; Anderson has deliberately promoted Eli to a more prominent role in his film. And Eli and Ross in Oil! are not enemies. Ross the non-believer does not respect Eli (he in fact is the one who invents the name ‘Third Revelation’), but he nevertheless donates money to Eli’s church because he believes he might one day be politically useful. So while Anderson sets up a battle between commerce and religion, Sinclair says that the two work together: indeed, the employers hire Eli during a strike to distract the workers with his bright lights and silver trumpets show.

In Oil!, Eli’s followers are equally enamored of him, with ‘tears running down their cheeks’. But, at the same time, Sinclair places them in a broader context. First, Eli’s faithful are not the only religious believers; he has characters that follow more traditional forms of Christianity (such as Bunny’s Aunt Emma, who is Catholic). He also relativises Eli’s flock, by noting that Angel City is ‘the home of more weird cults and doctrines’ – thus identifying them as more akin to followers of Zoroastrianism, Spiritualism or Psychic Science than mainstream Christianity. And when Ross speaks derisively of them, we are shown how self-serving and anti-democratic such views are: ‘Who were the voters here in San Elido county? Why the very boobs that Bunny had seen “jumping” and “rolling” and “talking in tongues” at Eli’s church; and could anybody pretend that these people could run a government? They were supposed to decide whether or not Dad should have a road and drill a well!’

The only images of the ‘masses’ in Anderson’s film are Eli’s parishioners and the oil workers – neither have any true characters among them; they are stage armies. In contrast, Sinclair’s trade unionists and Communists are forces to be reckoned with. Eli’s brother Paul, portrayed as almost saintly by Sinclair, is both the Communist leader and Bunny’s role model; but in the movie, Paul sells the knowledge of the oil on the family land to Plainview and then completely disappears. You might not agree with Sinclair’s socialistic solution, but he is holding out some possibility of hope (one that is crushed at the end – the ‘blood’ in Sinclair’s book is the blood of Communists). Anderson’s vision, however, is just unrelentingly bleak; he offers no society, never mind people acting to change that society. Ironically, by showing the masses only as dupes and zombies, Anderson himself presents a misanthropic outlook – something that he obviously denounces in his character of Plainview.

* * *

Many commentators have made the obvious point that There Will Be Blood picks up on two devils in the contemporary liberal imagination: oil and evangelical Christians. However, the movie is not ostensibly ‘political’ in that sense. These themes are more background assumptions, rather than being addressed head-on, or in a didactic way. And, as noted above, the movie does not criticise the operations of American business as such; it even shows the big Standard Oil executives as reasonable compared to the crazed Plainview.

To the extent that the film does (indirectly) attack capitalism, it is by way of saying that the American Dream was built on a nightmare; it took inhuman men like Plainview to get the system off the ground. If you look closely at the frontier days, you’ll see the original sin.

But it would be unwise to dwell too much on the supposed politics in There Will Be Blood. When asked about the political overtones in an interview with the UK Guardian, Anderson said: ‘Of course, I’m no dummy. But there’s a trap you can fall into. If you set out to make a movie about oil and religion I’m not sure you wouldn’t crash the car. Fuck! It’s a movie first. You have to put on a good show first, I think.’ (3) That is fair enough. Movies and other art forms should not be subjected to narrow political criteria. In contrasting Blood with Oil! in this review, I am not suggesting that Anderson should have been more political, nor that he should have tried to film the Sinclair novel.

But the issue is whether Anderson succeeds in his own terms, and that is questionable. His film is a psychological drama that focuses on one individual, but the Plainview character is not properly developed. His descent into misanthropy is not explained: why should his greater oil success and dominance over the town lead him to become angrier? The problem is a lack of character development, as especially highlighted by the film’s unsatisfactory conclusion. With no rhyme or reason, Plainview is transported to a Citizen Kane-style mansion; despite his ‘move away from everyone’ speech, he really seems more at home on the oil field than in a mansion. The film then descends into farce; Anderson just didn’t seem to know how to end it.

Oil! and There Will Be Blood seem to have weaknesses at either end of the spectrum – neither seems successfully to mediate the social and the individual. Oil! reads too much like Sinclair simply wanted a vehicle to put across his political views, rendering his characters as mere mouthpieces. For Anderson, however, the reverse is true: the individual is portrayed without society. It seems that, after having made a number of films with ensemble casts and multiple storylines, Anderson sought to concentrate on developing one character, boiling him down to his essence, and telling his story. However, in attempting to strip social interactions out almost altogether, Plainview’s personality and flaws become harder to comprehend. In interviews, Anderson said he watched John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre repeatedly while writing Blood (4). Although that, too, is a story of greed gone bad, he might have also noticed that the greedy Dobbs (played by Humphrey Bogart), and the plot itself, were made richer because of the interactions with the other characters; in particular Howard (Walter Huston) provides a contrast, being a substantial figure of vitality and kindness. There are no comparable counterweights to Plainview in Blood.

But as far as ‘putting on a good show’ goes, the film clearly does succeed. There Will Be Blood is highly entertaining; Day-Lewis puts in a tour-de-force performance; the cinematography is stunning; and Johnny Greenwood’s score is intriguing. I would also recommend Sinclair’s Oil! for similar reasons. Although the book doesn’t rise to high art status, as did other chronicles of the era, such as John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy, it does remind us how exciting a period of change and possibility can be.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

There will be blood is written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and released by Paramount Vantage and Miramax Films. (Now showing.)

Oil! by Upton Sinclair (first published in 1927) is published by Penguin. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Uppie Redux?, The New Yorker, 28 August 2006

(2) Prospectors Anderson and Day-Lewis Strike Black Gold, Los Angeles Times, 19 December 2007

(3) Tell the Story! Tell the Story!, Guardian, 4 January 2008

(4) One-time boy wonder now immersed in ‘Blood’, CNN, 8 January 2008

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Topics Books


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