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Saturday 20 July 2019

The making of America

Pioneer dawn: Daniel Day-Lewis as
Daniel Plainview and Dillon Freasier as
H.W.
Pioneer dawn: Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview and Dillon Freasier as H.W.
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

For the opening 20 minutes or so of Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, which opens nationwide next Friday, hardly a single word is spoken. Instead we watch the grim travails of an as yet unidentified American prospector at the end of the 19th century, as he grapples silently with the daily grind of wildcatting for oil in the southern California scrub.

The prospector is Daniel Plainview, the jovial anti-hero of Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil!, on which the film is very loosely based.

And because of the initial absence of dialogue, the actor who plays him is given the challenge of establishing a character by purely physical means. Daniel Day-Lewis succeeds in this as no one else could, saying so much with Plainview's strutting, rangy walk, jutting head and ominously set jawline that we almost know what he's going to sound like and say before ever he opens his mouth.

Plainview is a prototypical early American capitalist, a man obsessed with making it big by whatever means possible.

Striking oil in 1898 is a pretty good place to start, but after he does one of his crew breaks his neck down a shaft, leaving behind an orphaned baby boy. Plainview, who has no time for wives or women, adopts him, and calls him H.W.

We then fast-forward to 1911, by which time Plainview is an up-and-coming California oilman who's still looking for the big strike that will make his fortune.

He thinks he's found it when he gets a tip off about an oil reserve beneath a small subsistance farm in a place called Little Boston. He goes there with H.W., posing as a hunter, and attempts to buy the farm for half-nothing from its clueless owner. But the farmer's grown-up son, Eli (Paul Dano), has heard about the oil and raises the price.

It's the beginning of a vicious battle between the oilman and Eli, a sanctimonious but crafty would-be preacher who becomes a thorn in Plainview's side.

The deal struck, drilling begins, and the strike turns out to be a very big one. It comes, though, at a cost. H.W. loses his hearing in an explosion that follows the first strike, and there are fatalities among the workers. But Plainview ploughs on.

H.W. is sent away to a special school when he starts to become an impediment, and the oilman is ruthless in his efforts to buy up all the farms for miles around.

Eli, meanwhile, has built his chapel, 'The Church of the Third Revelation', where he preaches histrionically to the oil workers and poses as a healer. And he uses his sway with the one farmer who will not sell to blackmail Plainview into a humiliating and hilarious public baptism. But Plainview will do anything to secure his well, and is not a man to ever forget a slight.

Upton Sinclair was a crusading socialist whose politics were more important to him than the niceties of his prose style. In his original novel Oil! he included as a heroic protagonist a high-minded communist who organises the workers to combat the machinations of Plainview and others.

But Paul Thomas Anderson, who also wrote the script for There Will Be Blood, must have decided that sentimentalised socialism would only be an impediment to the story's potential from our 21st century perspective. So he narrows the film down to a pitched battle between the rising forces of capitalism and evangelism, which have equally dubious designs on America's soul.

Daniel Day-Lewis's Plainview is a truly remarkable creation. Narrowed eyes glinting, and moustache monstrously bristling, he struts through the dust like an unstoppable force of nature, and seems at times almost to sweat the oil he is relelentlessly mining.

He is not a monster as such, though he becomes one. He has a snake-charmer's smile, and a mellifluous baritone voice that is at once entirely bewitching and ominously steely -- it's the sound of conscienceless capitalism.

Be careful what you wish for, goes the old saying, and Plainview's oil does not bring him happiness. Like Captain Ahab in pursuit of his whale, his obsession with the black stuff soon robs him of all perspective, and he sells his soul without even realising it.

Late on the tone of the film shifts from Moby Dick to Citizen Kane, with Plainview alone and demented in this huge mansion he's thrown up on the California coast, swigging brandy from crystal decanters and plotting against enemies real and imagined.

Paul Thomas Anderson has made memorable films in the past, but the likes of Boogie Nights and Magnolia seem pretty slight in comparison to this one. For There Will Be Blood is a hugely ambitious film, that takes a flawed and largely forgotten novel and turns it into a treatise on America's moral core.

And if Anderson comes down hard on the capitalists, his view of the man of God is not exactly sunny either.

Paul Dano's Eli is a truly repellent character, who raises his hands to heaven but has his eye firmly on the main chance, and is just as interested in status and power as Plainview, who at least has the decency to be honest about it. A forerunner of the TV evangelists who prey for profit on the simpleminded, Eli is a uniquely American holy man.

At the turn of the 20th century, America abruptly changed direction. It was men like Daniel Plainview that set it on its present course, a giddy blitz of laissez faire capitalism that even that depressing creed's inventors, the British, could not keep pace with.

And the mixed legacy of those pioneers is still being felt today.

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