Monday, May 5, 2014

When Worlds Collide: Examining First Encounters between Europeans and Native Americans in Hollywood Cinema


Depictions of both Europeans and Native Americans in cinema have been historically naive. The naivety of these depictions is most evident in a number of films detailing the first encounters between the two cultures. These “first encounter” films are visual representations that include a number of stereotypes, which have origins in various places.

The goal of this paper is to examine a select group of films, specifically to see how each individual film approaches this complex issue. By specifically focusing on films with temporal relevance to impactful historical events, it was possible to narrow the selections to a manageable number of films. Initial critical reception of these films, accompanied with corollary historical background, provides an insight into the way the American public felt about these representations. This paper aims to answer a number of questions relevant to any discussion of films of this nature.

These questions include:

*How did each film present the first encounters between Europeans and Native Americans?

*What did we start with? Did these depictions change over time? If so, how did they change? If not, why did they not change?

*How was the issue of communication presented in each film? Did the film address it?

*How did these films address the “strangeness” of these two very different worlds colliding? Did the films go into detail, or gloss over the issue?

*What was the European mindset in each film? How did each film present it? Has it changed since previous films? Is it different now?

*What types of preconceptions did the Europeans have about the native population?

*Did they consider them “noble savages”? Were they innocent and beautiful? Untouched, uncorrupted? Were they barbaric and inferior?

*What significance did these preconceptions have? How did it influence the overall message of the film?


Centuries of Eurocentrism in literature, religion, art, and history shaped how westerners viewed early interactions between European explorers and native populations. As film became a popular medium, Hollywood used these interpretations as a blueprint for depicting these first encounters in cinema. It is the goal of this paper to examine how these depictions changed over time and what historical events shaped these changes. Using a combination of scholarly literature, historical works, film analysis, personal interpretation, and critical reception, this paper hopes to provide an insightful look into a previously overlooked topic.

Historical Background


When approaching a topic such as this, it is important to consider the historical background and provide theories as to the origins of these viewpoints along with explanations as to which are the most likely. In order to do this, we must consider where the information on these encounters originates. According to Oxford University’s John Huxtable Elliott, most of our early information on these initial interactions comes from the soldiers, clerics, officials, and merchants who visited the New World. The reliability of these sources is suspect, as “each of these classes provided their own set of limitations”.

We also have documentation from early chroniclers, explorers, and artists. Artistic works provide an explanation for the early stereotypical depictions of the Native American people. The reliability of early artistic depiction is questionable, because these early artists – like the chroniclers – had difficulty explaining what natives were like. Washington Irving’s 1819 sketchbook introduced the concept of the “noble savage,” heavily influencing subsequent literature and art, eventually making its way into some of the earliest motion pictures. After explorer Hernán Cortés brought conquered natives to Spain following a 1528 expedition, German medal-maker and painter Christoph Weiditz produced one of the earliest – if not the earliest – artistic renditions of Native Americans in Europe in the 1529 work, “Aztec Juggler”.

As Elliott theorized, there were a number of limitations regarding the early depictions of Native Americans. Firstly, he argues that in the New World, there was “too much diversity, too many new things to be described” and thus “the problem of description reduced writers and chroniclers to despair”. There is also the argument by sixteenth century historian Juan de Betanzos that early explorers were not nearly as interested in discovering and chronicling the ways of the natives as they were with conquering them and acquiring their land.

According to a number of contemporary historians, the concept of “Eurocentrism” provided a series of biased interpretations of the goings-on of the New World. Oxford defines Eurocentrism as the “focusing on European culture or history to the exclusion of a wider view of the world; implicitly regarding European culture as preeminent”. European background and education determined how these early chroniclers viewed the New World, thus the attempt by Europeans to impose their own beliefs and values onto those they encountered is understandable. In his landmark work The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present, historian Robert Berkhofer argued that the European’s view of Native Americans “always reflected what the white man thought of himself” and that explorers “tended to generalize about Indians”. Gretchen Bataille concurred, adding, “Indian images reflected the creators of those images more than the people themselves”.

Anthony Pagden’s work on the subject is particularly noteworthy. He argues that the Europeans exhibited a specifically Greek-oriented form of Eurocentrism, which categorized cultures that fell outside of this realm as ultimately inferior. His theory of “Principle Attachment” states that Native Americans “could only be understood if they were described in terms recognizable to Europeans… which at once assimilated them to alien categories and deprived them of any meaning for their actors”. He claims, “Europeans have always looked upon their own cultures as privileges, and upon other cultures as to some degree inferior”. What he calls the “objectifying habit” argues that a person’s ability to comprehend another culture is relative to how similar it is to his or her own. The “cultural incommensurability” between the European and Native American cultures was so vast that Europeans were logistically unable to understand each other, which also led to a number of misunderstandings.

Roberta Pearson asserts in her essay “Indianism?” that contradiction dominated representations of Native Americans “since the moment of first contact”. She breaks down the stereotypical notion of the “noble savage” into two groups. Firstly, the “noble” savage, whose presumptory intuition puts him on the level of whites. Secondly, the “savage” savage, whose primal demeanor places him outside the realm of salvageability.

Columbus’s writings provided the earliest insight on the depictions of natives. The issue with utilizing Columbus as a resource on the New World and its inhabitants is invaluable, but his descriptions vary and his opinions are sometimes contradictory. Initially he believed that the Native Americans were the “best people in the world and the most peaceable”. His immediate reaction was to note that “they were not… monstrous or physically abnormal”. He also noted that they “should make very good servants… [they are] very intelligent”. However, since he initially believed he was in the Indies, he unfairly compared the natives to the descendants of Genghis Khan, expressing notable disappointment in their primacy, savagery, and lack of clothing.

Despite his disenchantment, Columbus expressed his admiration of the overall beauty of the native women, specifically mentioning their physical attractiveness. That admiration did not translate to the native men, as he later likened them to the packs of wild dogs that populated the land. He also recorded his belief that the natives were cannibals, basing this off his misinterpretation of lore.

Contradictory reports about their spirituality and religion are prevalent. Some early explorers provided the New World with a religious significance. Christopher Columbus initially believed the discovery of the New World was akin to discovering the Garden of Eden, the “Earthly Paradise”. Columbus noted, “They appear to me to have no religion”. Jacques Cartier “childed the indigenous… for their paganism” but raved about their “knowledge of plants and herbs”. Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo wrote that the spirituality of the natives was their “one curious redeeming feature,” although he assumed the name for their god (“Cemi”) “...was merely a local term for Lucifer”. Travel books from the 1500s warned travelers about the “demonic Indians” who would “seduce them into savagery”.

Englishman John Smith, famous for his settlement at Jamestown, described the natives as “some bold, most cautious, all savage”. He also noted that they were “subhuman, animal-like creature[s]” that were dangerous to white settlers. Oviedo’s writings imply that he felt repulsed by the natives, saying that they were “bestial in their habits… and lacking in any recognizable social order”.

The exotic elements of the New World intrigued Europeans. A number of early explorers chronicled the supposed sexuality and promiscuity of native women, which later found its way into canonical lore. Oviedo believed that the natives were “overinterested in sex” and wrote disparaging remarks about their behavior. Amerigo Vespucci noted at length regarding the “nudity and promiscuity among native women” while Jacques Cartier also labeled the behavior “lewd [and] licentious”. Travel books recorded “accounts of unrestrained sexuality and immorality”. The film expressed the sexual attraction the European men felt toward the native women, but the explorers stated the women were “excessively lustful” and that their men “simply indulged native women’s desires”.

Much intermarriage between the Europeans and the natives occurred during the initial period of contact. This began to change when the population of whites continued to grow and it became clear to the natives that they had no intentions of leaving. The Dutch, English, French, and Spanish formed an alliance as they struggled with various tribes over control of the land. News of the resistance reached Europe, along with tales of sexual savagery and moral inferiority. These tales spread through the continent and later provided the basis for the American colonials to “form a general portrait of ‘Indian life’ as morally and culturally inferior to European and American societies”.

According to Barkan, Americans began seeing the native population as “socially and culturally different” in the eighteenth century. By the 1820s, “a notion had emerged that there was an essential biological difference between Indians and whites”. The term “redskins” arose from this change, as whites used skin color as the foundation for the distinctions between the two races. In what Ward Churchill calls “homogenous mythology,” works composed of “pure imagination and conjecture are presented as serious factual writing”. This concept provided the basis for the enormously popular “captivity narrative,” which began as whites increasingly believed they had to protect their women from the “savagery of native males”.

Aside from the writings of historians and explorers, the works of novelists, travel authors, and dramatists also helped shape the current historical representations of the natives. Thomas Morton provided an early in-depth analysis of the natives in 1637, which was rife with instances of Eurocentrism and an overwhelming sense of superiority. According to Churchill, James Fennimore Cooper’s works were the first that “firmly establish[ed] stereotypes within the popular consciousness”. Jacquelyn Kilpatrick argued that while Cooper did draw from previous sources – most notably Charles Brockden Brown – he was the most responsible for creating the stereotypes of the “noble savage” and the “bloodthirsty savage”. Edward Johnson wrote that the natives were “an incorrigible hindrance to European progress”. Robert Montgomery Bird’s enormously popular book, Nick of the Woods, reiterated the dogma that “the Indian race was made up of brutal beasts beyond redemption and beneath contempt”. In France, François-René de Chateaubriand “created fictional Indians”. Bataille argues that, because of this, “eventually both Europe and America were struggling with images created and perpetuated by writers, artists, missionaries, explorers”. Curiously, Bataille also argues for Karl May’s inclusion in this list – he created the word-famous tetralogy Winnetou – however, for a nineteenth century series of novels, it was remarkably ahead of its time in terms of its racial and social consciousness.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the image of the Native American became an amalgam of misunderstanding and bias dating back centuries. As films became popular, the depictions from these sources combined to form the basis for the cinematic representation of all Native Americans. John O’Connor reflected on this issue in his highly influential work, The Hollywood Indian. He argues, “The bloodthirsty savage stereotype of the movie Indian can be traced to the fact that much of the non-Indian public during the latter part of the nineteenth century viewed “the Indian” as the enemy; and the winners, even in those conflicts, wrote the history”.

Hollywood had no issues with their depictions of Native Americans and their biased representations of Europeans and colonialists. In 1940s Hollywood, there was “no perception of institutionalized racism or problem with depictions”. However, this was about to change with the onset of United States’ involvement in World War 2. Leonard Quart argues that the early 1940s was the “last time that Hollywood had sufficient self-confidence to create an insulated, coherent world”.

World War 2 marked a transformation for Hollywood. The Office of War Information exerted its political influence onto the studios – who were desperately trying to stave off antitrust legislation – and Hollywood began making films that were blatant propaganda for the military. During this time, films that depicted minority groups in a stereotypical fashion came under protest and scrutiny. The O.W.I. called for the assimilation of Native Americans into society, and wished for Hollywood to portray them as more American and less barbaric. Angela Aleiss argues that the reason for this is that the United States government did not want any comparisons to the Nazis.

The initial years following World War 2 were a high water mark for Hollywood. As much of Europe was in ruin and entering a rebuilding period, the United States was in a unique position to dominate the international film market. Since the fighting took place in Europe and the Pacific, the mainland United States emerged unscathed. Despite resources going to help the war effort, Hollywood continued making movies during the war. The countries that were under Nazi occupation produced little to no films during this period, and some countries even had their film studios destroyed. After the war, European markets received years’ worth of notable, backlogged Hollywood films, and they faced little to no competition at the box office.

The Films & Their Reception

1). Captain from Castile (1947)

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, a number of Hollywood films made a conscious effort to alter the perception of Native Americans. The “noble savage” emerged as a popular antithetical counterpart of the “bloodthirsty savage.” These films included natives that were both respectable and merciless, instead of just depraved. In addition, whites that fell into the same two categories joined them. The “good” Indians were those that teamed up with the Europeans and Americans, while the “bad” Indians resisted colonial presence – “progress” – or found themselves working in conjunction with the “bad” whites, whose mission was to wreak havoc on civilized society.

One of the employers of this tactic was the 1947 film, Captain from Castile. Produced by Twentieth Century Fox and directed by Henry King, this heroic adventure epic drew from the popular 1945 novel of the same name. The film detailed the Spanish invasion of what is now Mexico by explorer Hernán Cortés in the early sixteenth century. Despite not being a film generally remembered outside of a few historical circles and Tyrone Power enthusiasts, Castile was actually a notable film for a number of reasons. Firstly, the film was one of the earliest to utilize an authentic linguistic representation of the Aztec Indians. Secondly, it was also one of the first big-budget films to portray the natives as generous peoples, who engaged in warfare with the Spanish in clearly justifiable self-defense, and only after providing them with ample warnings.

When observing and critiquing films, either for historical analysis or entertainment, one of the most important things is to establish which characters are “good” and which are “bad.” Not only does it help the viewer piece the story together, but also this seemingly simple task provides a lot of insight into authorial intent and provides a foundation for dissecting the film and coming to conclusions about its message.

Castile features both good and bad characters, but also features some whom lie somewhere in the middle. Pedro de Vargas (Tyrone Power) is obviously a good character, and this is discernable from the very beginning of the film when he refuses to turn over an escaped Indian slave, Coatl (Jay Silverheels), to his master, Diego de Silva (John Sutton). De Silva is a villain from the onset and represents all that is wrong with the Inquisition. Hernán Cortéz (Cesar Romero) alternates between good and bad – reasonable and heartless – throughout the film.

When the film first introduces Coatl, he is perched at the top of a cliff with a dagger in his hand. He jumps down onto a sleeping Pedro de Vargas, and the two engage in a struggle until they recognize each other. In earlier films, the initial depiction of Coatl as a knife-wielding aggressor would have been a traditional cinematic rendition of an Indian. However, in Castile, the audience empathizes with Coatl because of Pedro’s reactions to his visible scars, which he received courtesy of de Silva’s whip. This sets the stage for a different type of film.

Instead of the normal dichotomy of honorable whites and savage natives, Castile creates a dichotomy within the Spanish themselves. There are the noble, salt-of-the-earth Spanish who see the New World as a land of endless possibility where they can start anew and live a prototypical version of the “American Dream” (although the story takes place more than 250 years before the formation of the United States, this metaphor is clearly visible in the film). In contrast, there are the members of the Spanish Inquisition, whose savagery and deceit are the cause of all of the film’s problems. It is not surprising that the story chose to replace the “savage” Indian with the “savage” Spaniard considering how many Americans felt about the Spanish. “Yellow journalism” became a popular tool of the press in the years leading up to the Spanish-American War in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Captain from Castile’s creation of a division between the decent and unscrupulous Spanish allows for a reallocation of blame without directly questioning the entirety of the imperialist process, which would indirectly implicate the United States as part of the problem.

The first instance in the film where the Spanish encounter the indigenous population occurs when the explorers land on the east coast of Mexico at Villa Rica, which is the original name Hernán Cortés gave to what is now Veracruz, Mexico in 1519. Tribal music plays in the background as Cortés speaks to these natives through an interpreter, whom informs the audience that these natives are ambassadors of the Aztec emperor, Montezuma. Cortés refers to the natives as generous, and comments on the physical beauty of the women, though he calls them “creatures.” The interpreter refers to the Spanish explorers as “white gods.” The native ambassadors offer a large amount of gold and jewels to Cortés and his men in exchange for not proceeding farther inside Aztec lands. Juan Escudero (Reed Hadley) reminds Cortés that they are here to trade and study the land, not to conquer; but Cortés brushes him off and speaks of his aims to settle and colonize the land.

The film addresses the communication issues through an interpreter, who speaks the Aztec language. One presumes that an earlier expedition kidnapped the woman and brought her back to Spain, where she learned Spanish and the ways of the Western world before accompanying Cortés and his fleet back to Mexico to serve as his translator. By approaching the communication issue in this fashion, the film severely downplays the shock value of these two groups meeting for the first time. The film does not even remotely address a desire to comprehend native customs. Unfortunately, this also means that the film glosses over the elements of strangeness that should encompass first encounters.

In the film, the Spanish explorers clearly viewed the natives as inferior. The European mindset in this film is mostly that of colonization, though there are exceptions Cortés believes that God – the Catholic God, not the native God – wants him to conquer these lands and subjugate these people, bringing them civilization in the process. He relegates the women to objects, while belittling the resolve of the men by insulting both their ability to defend their land, as well as their right to rule it. This is clearly a Eurocentric view, but not all of the whites in the film subscribe to it (notably Pedro, Father Bartolomé, and Garcia). This is evident in the scene between Pedro and Coatl when they meet again in Mexico, where Coatl criticizes Pedro for invading his country. Coatl tells Pedro that although he loves him, he will not hesitate to kill him if Pedro begins harming his people; Pedro wants no part in harming the natives.

The initial critical receptions to the film provide an intriguing look into the American mindset of the late 1940s. Unlike contemporary film critics, those that covered this film did not seem political in nature. A number of critics completely missed the changes the film made in the representations of these two cultures, instead focusing on the spectacle and the star power. However, a few notable critics did not. Richard Coe of the Washington Post wrote that Castile suggested parallels between Nazism and the Spanish Inquisition. Time Magazine notes the presentism in Father Bartolomé’s words regarding his desire for equality amongst all men. Unsurprisingly, Christian Science Monitor reviewed the film’s religious implications, arguing that it was “charged with the most unfounded idealism”.

Overall, Captain from Castile provided a linchpin for subsequent films to follow, though it receives little to no credit for this accomplishment. What future films Castile inspired is hard to discern, but it is not that large of a leap to believe it had an effect.

2.) Broken Arrow (1950)

This film barely qualifies as a “first encounter” film, but its influence on later films warrants its inclusion. Directed by Delmer Daves and released by 20th Century Fox, this landmark film is responsible for humanizing the American Indian. It shows that whites and natives can be friendly when trying to understand each other, blaming their initial mistrust of the other’s culture on the unwarranted biases of others. Perhaps it is worth noting that Albert Matz penned the screenplay, as the leftist views on tolerance may have influenced the tone of the writing; Matz was a blacklisted communist who did not receive credit until many years later.

Like Captain from Castile, the film features both good and bad whites, as well as good and bad Indians. However, the Indians come across as better than the whites, with Tom Jeffords (James Stewart) one of the very few exceptions. The film addresses issues of communication through narration, and the natives in the film speak English, though this is to ensure audiences liked the film and not because the producers were ignorant of the language barrier. Jeffords actually takes the time to learn the Apache language and customs, something no one did in Captain from Castile.

Fear, hesitation, and violence represent the elements of strangeness. The whites in the film are under the preconception that the natives were much different than they were, ascribing to them an alien-like status. The natives believed that it was the goal of all white men to take everything. Only when the two cultures take the time to get to know and trust one another does this change in any significant way.

A few scenes in the film are of significant importance. The initial encounter between Jeffords and Machogee (Robert Foster Dover) shows learning and restraint by both sides, despite their initial mistrust and violent urges toward each other. The scene with Jeffords, Cochise, and the Indian elders is an obvious presentist allusion to democracy.

Critical reaction to the film was generally positive, with almost all of them noticing the changes in the depictions of both sides. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times argued that the “Indians come off better… than do whites” but later said the film “portrayed the Indian in an equally false, romantic white ideal”. T.A.W. of the Wall Street Journal argued, “Exaggeration [was] needed to reverse the picture of the early savage”.

3.) Captain John Smith & Pocahontas (1953)

This film in particular presented a challenge. Not because the film was difficult to follow, but because it was a minor film that received little to no publicity at the time of its release. This effectively limits the amount of usable primary source assessments available for comparison and analysis. However, its relevant subject matter and unique depictions make it an indispensable resource for this topic. Rather than critical reception, historical analysis and personal interpretation will provide the context for comparison.

Released in 1953 by the independent studio United Artists, this Lew Lenders film is a low budget adventure film that tackles the legend of John Smith and, obviously, Pocahontas. The screenwriters (Aubrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen) liberate themselves from the arduous task of historical accuracy by telling the audience from the beginning that this is legend, which is unique among the group of films analyzed. The story of John Smith and Pocahontas is one of the most romanticized and frequently adapted tales in the realm of proto-American history, and thus each subsequent adaption is a distinct product of its era. With its pro-American and pro-democratic messages, Captain John Smith & Pocahontas clearly is a product of the Cold War era.

The film introduces John Smith (Anthony Dexter) as he faces a tribunal tasked with determining whether his actions were insolent and reckless, or if he was simply a trailblazing, heroic adventurer at odds with those not as enlightened as he. The film implies that Smith belongs in the latter category, portraying him as a man with commendable foresight and admirable diplomacy. While those around him wish to pillage the area for gold and anything else of value, Smith is steadfast in his belief that the settlers should strike a friendship with the natives (whom he calls “the naturals”). He also instructs the settlers on how to attain food by efficiently farming the land.

These beliefs are in stark contrast to those of Edward Maria Wingfield (James Seay), a real historical figure who was instrumental in planning and executing the Virginia Expedition that led to the Jamestown settlement. The film quickly establishes Wingfield as Smith’s chief rival, and his depiction is less than favorable. This makes sense, considering much of what we know of Wingfield comes from the writings of John Smith, a man infamous for his exaggerated tales where he was often the centerpiece. In the film, Wingfield’s deplorable treatment of the natives is the main reason relations between the two cultures sour.

Prima facie, Captain John Smith and Pocahontas seems to buck the trend of post-

World War 2 films, in that it seemingly does not invoke any of the changes to the portrayals of Europeans and Native Americans found in Captain from Castile or Broken Arrow. The initial skirmish with the natives is in classic Hollywood “Injun” style, where the natives – primal and animalistic – clearly attack the settlers first. Lenders films Smith’s initial interactions with native women – specifically Pocahontas – with blatant objectification, which is perhaps the epitome of what feminists like Laura Mulvey refer to as the “male gaze”. Smith refers to the women he encounters swimming as “fish” and “mermaids,” and upon meeting Pocahontas, her striking beauty and nonconformist demeanor inspires him to refer to her as “wild thing.”

However, the film’s message is deeper than it appears initially. The film sympathetically addresses the plight of the natives after they encounter Europeans, while also commending them for their excellent marksmanship. This is in stark contrast to the majority of past films featuring battle sequences between whites and natives. These sequences usually insinuated that the natives were inept archers, incapable of causing grave injury to the far superior whites, all of whom could easily kill a native under even the most dubious of circumstances.

Thus, Captain John Smith attempts to play both sides. Just as in Broken Arrow, there are honest whites and natives who clash with the dishonest whites and natives. The admirable natives are those that side with Smith, while the vile natives are those that side with Wingfield. In a scene where natives initially attack white settlers, the film places the blame on the “bad” whites, who provided the “bad” natives with guns and the motive, using them for their own gain.

As a whole, the film does not address a number of the issues this paper hopes to explain. The film generally ignores communication issues, as the natives speak “Tonto” English from the very beginning. A possible explanation for this comes from Chief Powhatan’s statement regarding Sir Walter Raleigh, where he infers that he encountered Raleigh numerous times, although it is debatable whether the two ever actually encountered one another. However, the film does address the issue of strangeness, using visible curiosity backed by historically presumptive naivety. The majority of Europeans initially perceive the natives as savages who attack for no reason and are only valuable because they possess gold. The native men view the Europeans differently than the women. Whereas the women see the English as refined and long to be like them, the men see them for the threat they actually are.

The film flirts heavily with presentism, specifically democracy. An election ousts Wingfield and names Smith the leader of the settlement. The film also addresses environmental concerns, with Chief Powhatan and John Smith both agreeing that whites need to understand that the Earth’s resources are valuable and belong to everyone. Issues dealing with the after-effects of colonialism and imperialism also find their way into dialogue, with Smith at one point questioning whether “settlement is worth all the torment and costs.”

4.) Dances with Wolves (1990)

The thirty-seven year period in between Captain John Smith and Dances with Wolves featured a number of significant historical events that drastically changed American perceptions toward minority groups. The Civil Rights Movement (1954-1968) culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and an overall increased awareness of nonwhite struggle. The Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 passed the same year the American Indian Movement formed in Minnesota, and the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 followed, officially ending “termination” policies that attempted to force Native Americans to abandon their tribes and assimilate into mainstream society.

John O’Connor argues that in the 1960s and 70s, “a growing activism and the willingness of more whites to listen influenced protests over the screen image of Indians”. He also theorizes that commercial interests provided Hollywood with an incentive to disassociate themselves from prejudicial depictions. Hollywood’s slow financial comeback in the 1960s taught producers that their target audience was now younger, and generally more educated than those who attended movies in the 1930s and 1940s. Thus, they wanted more than just entertainment from cinema, and were less willing to accept the old cultural stereotypes. This change led to the development of new stereotypes, including that of the “faultless victim,” which O’Connor believes “is [just] as absurd as the earlier one, the diabolical savage”.

By the late 1970s, cinematic reform was entirely possible. However, the Western lost much of its popularity during this time, and the number of films featuring Native Americans released in the latter part of the decade was at a low point. A number of film scholars argue that the colossal failure of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate in 1980 heralded the end of the Western. The extremely limited number of Western films released by Hollywood in the decade attests to this fact. It was not until Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves in 1990 that Native Americans once again became a formidable screen presence and commercial commodity.

Dances with Wolves – like Broken Arrow – is a different type of first encounter film in the sense that it conveys a first encounter between individuals who knew of each other’s existence. The film is extremely revisionist, with an obvious tone of “political correctness” and a story centered almost entirely on the concept of “white guilt.” Angela Aleiss contends, “Costner’s vision of the Sioux before white contact echoed Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Noble Savage living in a ‘pure state of nature,’ far removed from the vices and corruption of civilization”. Set during the tail end of the American Civil War (1861-1865), Wolves focuses on First Lieutenant John J. Dunbar (Kevin Costner), a man who insists on re-assignment that would allow him to live out his dream of living on the frontier before it disappeared. There was a John Dunbar who lived among the Plains Indians during the 1830s, but screenwriter Michael Blake contends that it was an “incredible coincidence” and the character in both the book and the film was fictional.

Dunbar’s initial interactions with the Sioux feature genuine curiosity, with hints of mistrust and hesitancy mostly coming from the side of the natives. This is evident when he carries an injured Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell) back to the Sioux camp. The film does an excellent job addressing communication issues, with scenes dedicated to both sides educating each other on language, custom, and mannerism. Stands with a Fist’s attempt at recalling her English-speaking past provides Costner the ability to lessen the difficulties that stemmed from trying to understand the “other.” Both sides equally stress the strangeness of the “other”, making this an interesting and realistic portrayal of how such encounters would likely unfold. Dunbar believes that the Sioux are good people, but are misunderstood. Other whites in the film assign the “bloodthirsty savage” stereotype to the natives, believing that white superiority and domination of the lands is inevitable. Naturally, the Sioux’s preconception of the whites centers on that very frightening threat to their livelihood. After all, the “white devils” are here to steal their land.

Critical reaction to the film was mostly positive. Nearly every critic mentioned the revisionism, praising the positive depiction of the Sioux. Richard C. Morais of the New York Times commented on the “largely sympathetic portrayal of Indian life”. While most enjoyed the film, a few complained about Costner’s motives. Peter Travers wrote, “Costner sometimes fosters the clichéd contrast between the white devil and the noble savage”. Lou Cedrone of the Baltimore Sun commented “Both [Indians and whites] are capable of… savagery”. Time Magazine commented on the image of Dunbar, stating that he is an “ideal… created out of recent feminist fantasies”. Pauline Kael of the New Yorker wrote, “In this movie, it is the white men are who the aliens”.

When Dunbar abandons his post at Fort Sedgwick and joins the Sioux in their fight against the Pawnees – the “bad” Indians – it is the film’s way of communicating to the audience that he has picked the “good” side. Dunbar essentially disavows himself of his whiteness, and in Costner’s mind, he has corrected the wrongs of history.

5.) 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)

In the waning years of the 1980s and the beginning of the 90s, the looming quincentennial sparked fierce intellectual debate about Christopher Columbus and the general issue of colonialism. Long had Columbus been an American hero – the first Columbus Day celebration took place in New York in 1792 – but the “political correctness” movement and the infiltration of identity politics into academia sparked a campaign to decimate Columbus’s legacy and expose the dark side of colonialism. When Hollywood announced that two films were in the works for release in 1992, some of these academics likely envisioned the possibility that Hollywood would take corrective action and paint Columbus and his men in the same way that Costner depicted white settlers in Dances with Wolves just two years earlier.

Earlier films about Columbus – like the 1949 film, Christopher Columbus – ignored the Inquisition, Spain’s massacre of the natives, and Columbus’s role in the slave trade (Stam 1993). Unfortunately, both Christopher Columbus: The Discovery and 1492: Conquest of Paradise largely missed the opportunity to correct history. Robert Stam of Cineaste wrote extensively on the subject in his piece, “Rewriting 1492: Cinema and the Columbus Debate.” Stam argues that while 1492 was partly revisionist, it was still “strangely protective of Columbus’s good name” and says, “Columbus's crucial role in [forced labor]... is obscured, while the film scapegoats an underling figure, a Spaniard who happens to look very much like an Indian”.

Instead of focusing on the true Columbus, director Ridley Scott uses the film as a vehicle to attack Catholicism. Columbus (Gérard Depardieu) and his family are noble creatures of virtue, strangely disassociated with the Inquisition and any subsequent blame for their actions. In Scott’s attempt to address the problem of colonialism, he shifts the blame away from Columbus and toward the Inquisition and the Catholic Church. The film simply shows Columbus simply as a sympathetic character, desperate to save his son Fernando (Billy L. Sullivan and Loren Dean) from the horrors of the Church. To do so, he must find a “new” world.

Upon his arrival, the natives genuinely intrigue Columbus, who is certainly not a man simply there for “gold and conversion”. He believes he has stumbled upon Eden, which gives the New World a religious significance. Stam notes, “with the upgrading of the native image goes a parallel upgrading of Columbus,” who becomes “an enlightened version of the traditional figure, [who] treats Indians [like] he treats Spanish noblemen”. Columbus’s early writings on the good qualities of the Indians find their way into the film, but those commenting on their savagery and primacy are noticeably absent.

The river scene where Columbus and his men meet the natives for the first time is perhaps one of the best cinematic depictions of a first encounter. Beautiful cinematography allows for a believable setting for the “Eden” Columbus believed he discovered. The natives are beautiful and mysterious, tender and distinguished. 1492 focuses on the strangeness more than any previous film on the subject, and Scott puts forth a valiant effort to show the differences between the two cultures. The film addresses issues of communication rather briefly, as the natives speak their own language and complain that Columbus does not attempt to learn it.

Critical reactions noticed the revisionist elements in 1492, but lambasted the new Columbus in the same ways they complained about Dunbar in Dances with Wolves. Rolling Stone simply pointed to its title, noting that the “film’s subtitle… indicates the revisionist course”. Entertainment Weekly called Scott’s rendition of Columbus “a multicultural teddy bear”. The Los Angeles Times argued that the film portrays Columbus as an egalitarian who adores nature, who “wants nothing but the best for locals”. Commonweal complains that the audience never gets an insight into Columbus’s emotional state. The New Yorker wrote, “[the film] was too busy painting Columbus as a champion of all things new”.

6.) The New World (2005)

Although both films about Christopher Columbus and the discovery of America were critical and financial failures, it did not seem to quell society’s taste for cinematic renditions of the New World. The 1995 animated film, Pocahontas, was an enormous financial success, though Columbia University graduate professor Steven Mintz chastised Disney for epitomizing “the way that popular culture sentimentalizes and caricatures American history, stripping it of its complexity, conflict, drama, and meaning”. Mintz argued that the Pocahontas legend “allows present-day Americans to evade the ugly realities of relations between English colonizers and the indigenous people”.

Hollywood took another stab at a live action rendition of the Pocahontas legend with 2005’s The New World. Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Terrence Malick, the film uses Malick’s signature directing style to create one of the most visually stunning instances of the New World. In his re-imagining of the John Smith and Pocahontas tale, the natives are a collective of environmental gurus contrasting the English’s inability to see Virginia’s inherent beauty. Though the film is as much of a love story as it is a tale of clashing peoples, it features many key elements that provide the first twenty-first century insight into an old tale.

The film likens the New World to a dreamscape, in which a young Pocahontas becomes an ethereal princess to the awestruck Smith. When Pocahontas saves John Smith, she “picks” him and they begin their journey toward beginning to understand each other. Communication is an issue of great importance, stressed by the multiple scenes in which Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher) and Smith (Colin Farrell) teach each other how to communicate by attaching translatable, metaphoric symbols to their own words. Malick expertly handles the elements of strangeness in a romantic and apolitical way, disorienting the viewer with his unique camera movements and insistence on unorthodox voice-over narration.

The film’s likeable Europeans perceive the natives as beautifully primitive and ecological, while Smith’s rivals insist that focusing on beauty will only stand in the way of progress. The New World plays into the concept of the sexualized Indian princess more than any other film, as Pocahontas is the object of desire for both Smith and John Rolfe (Christian Bale). Pocahontas is a young innocent – naive to her seductive powers over men – whom Malick dresses very provocatively and assigns borderline inappropriate sex appeal.

As Smith and Pocahontas fall deeper in love, they both become increasingly detached from their respective people. One of the more beautiful and telling scenes in the film involves Smith lustfully awestruck as he watches Pocahontas innocently frolicking, interspersed with flashes of the Powhatan tribe applying war paint, preparing to engage in battle.

Critical reaction to the film was mostly positive, with a majority of reviewers commenting on Malick’s depiction of the natives as innocents and the beauty of the world he created. The New York Times concurred, stating, the world “seems strangely ethereal, as if it were taking place in another dimension”. The Los Angeles Times wrote of Malick’s efforts to scope out a new world, stating, “[Malick] doesn't attempt to re-create a period so much as he tries to experience it for the first time”. The New Yorker commented on the beauty of Pocahontas, saying, “she is as sculpted as an idol, and every bit as amenable to worship”. Slate argued that the film “plays into idealized stereotypes of the unspoiled Indian”. Other critics focused on the beauty and strangeness of the New World. The Seattle Times called the Malick’s depiction “more beautiful than any dream… [A] forbidden paradise”. Roger Ebert wrote, “[The New World] imagines how new and strange… people must have seemed”.


Incorporating films from 1947-1953 and 1990-2005 and exploring the events that shaped the depictions of each film provided valuable insight into the American zeitgeist. Films belonging to two distinctly different eras were both attempting to accomplish the same goal, using variations of the same method. Each of these films took on the daunting task of slowly eroding years of prejudicial storytelling, with varying levels of success.

Changes in the cinematic depictions of both Europeans and Native Americans did occur, though each film represented its own unique attempt at revisionism. Different eras incorporated different historical events into their films, and thus these films are very much a product of their respective times. It is hard to unlearn several hundred years of stereotypes, and even though these films attempt to break barriers, they still inevitably hold onto a majority of them. We cannot judge the actions of the past with today’s mindset, even though it is always easier to judge with the knowledge that your predecessors did not have. Critics are not historians, although they pretend to be. It is not about the inaccuracies of these historical films, but it is about the intent. How one feels about the quality of the execution is a matter of personal preference, but the intention to make a unique statement was present in all of these films.

Works Cited

Aleiss, Angela. Making the white man's Indian : native Americans and Hollywood movies. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2005.

Armitage, David. "European-New World Encounters." The Cambridge Quarterly, 1993: 413-416.

Barkan, Elliot R. "Early Encounters: Indigenous/Native Americans and Anglo-Europeans." In Immigrants in American History: Arrival, Adaptation, and Integration, by Elliot R. Barkan, 1790-1794. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 2013.

Bataille, Gretchen M. Native American Representations: First Encounters, Distorted Images, and Literary Appropriations. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2001.

Berkhofer, Robert F. The white man's Indian : images of the American Indian from Columbus to the present. New York: Knopf, 1978.

Betanzos, Juan de. Narrative of the Incas. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.

Churchill, Ward. Fantasies of the Master Race. San Fransisco: City Lights, 1998.

Elliott, J. H. The Old World and the New: 1492-1650. London: Cambridge Press, 1970.

Goldenberg, Bonnie. "Imperial Culture and National Conscience: The Role of the Press in the United States and Spain during the Crisis of 1898." Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, 2000: 169-191.

Kilpatrick, Jacquelyn. "Celluloid Indians: Native Americans Film." In The Columbia companion to American history on film : how the movies have portrayed the American past, by Peter C. Rollins, 277-287. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Mintz, Steven. Hollywood's America : twentieth-century America through film. 4. Chichester ; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

Morton, Thomas. Description of the Indians in New England. 1637. (accessed 04 22, 2014).

Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Screen, 1975: 6-18.

O'Connor, John E. The Hollywood Indian : stereotypes of native Americans in films. Trenton, N.J.: New Jersey State Museum, 1980.

Oxford English Dictionary. 2014. (accessed 04 22, 2014).

Pagden, Anthony. European Encounters with the New World: From Renaissance to Romanticism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994.

Pearson, Roberta. "Indianism?" In Classic Hollywood, Classic Whiteness, by Daniel Bernardi, 245-262. University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

Quart, Leonard. American film and society since 1945. 2. New York: Praeger, 1991.

Reagan, Ronald. American Indian Policy. Washington, D.C.: EPA, 1983.

Stam, Robert. "Rewriting 1492: Cinema and the Columbus debate." Cineaste, March 1993.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other. New York: HarperCollins, 1984.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Ritual Pollution and Homicide Cases: Greek Law

Religion and superstition played a large part in the everyday life of aclassical Athenian, and there was a heavy emphasis on ritual and reverence to the gods. Athenians believed that certain crimes – e.g. homicide – disrupted the sanctity of their city, causing an imbalance they referred to as “pollution.” Restoring balance was of the utmost importance. Otherwise, they believed that the gods would punish them with losses in battle, bad crops, and an overall miserable existence.

Rituals played a very important role in ancient Greek society. Certain cities, sites, and temples were sacred. The tradition of naming certain spiritual places areas of asylum was Asylia. These asylums were “immune to violence and civil authority” and thus under the jurisdiction of the divine (Rigsby 1997). It was imperative that anyone who entered these areas of asylum be free of pollution. It was equally important that the experts – known as kathartai – performed the rituals in a proper and orderly manner, sometimes following a strict series of guidelines.How many details and provisions required depended on how urgent the necessity was to perform a specific ritual. The Greeks believed that failure to abide to these specific criteria would fail to purify the ritual, and that as a result, the gods would not bring about the desired result (Von Rösch 2012).  

Failure to adopt proper cleansing protocol had dire consequences according to classical Greek literature and mythology. One such consequence was the miasma. Themiasma was “a contagious power ... that has an independent life of its own. Until purged by the sacrificial death of the wrongdoer, society would be chronically infected by catastrophe” (Armstrong 2007). An example of the miasma in ancient Greek literature occurs in the Aeschylus's trilogy, The Oresteia. The myth concerned two brothers, Atreus and Thyestes, and their struggle for the throne of Mycenae. Atreus fed his brother a stew, which contained the bodies of his sons. The heinousness of this crime caused a miasma to contaminate the entire House of Atreus, which led to a large number of subsequent violent acts and other urgencies in order to quell the miasma and restore order to the family (Aeschylus 1984). The miasma was problematic for Greeks because of its supposed negative impact on people and places that were innocent of any wrongdoings. Thus, it was extremely important to remove the polluted elements through sacred rituals (Von Rösch 2012).  

Historical texts stressed the severe impact of certain crimes on Greek society. For example, murdering one’s parents or abusing one’s children was especially heinous to the Greeks. The Erinyes (also known as the furies in Roman mythology) were a set of beastly-looking mythical figures that haunted those who had committed homicidal acts against their own family. They continued to harass and bring ill favor to those who committed these crimes, until they felt the restoration of justice – which sometimes involved the offender’s death. The most famous case of the Erinyes in Greek literature concerns the tale of Orestes, whose story features prominently in the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. In Aeschylus’ Eumenides, the Erinyes act as the prosecutor against Orestes after charging him with killing his mother, Clytemnestra. Orestes claims the matricide was justified, as Clytemnestra killed Orestes’ father, Agamemnon. This is an important story concerning homicide and ritual pollution, because Orestes insists on seeking a fair and proper resolution by appealing first to Apollo, and later to Athene. Although the jury, and Athene, votes to acquit Orestes, the Erinyes threaten to disrupt and poison the polis. This persisted until Athene offered the Erinyes a new role in which they would become protectors of justice and the city, which they accept (Aeschylus 1984). 

Pollution was not much of a concern outside of the Greek city, or polis. According to Aristotle, "Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god" (Aristotle 1981). This means that life outside of the city is primeval and not subject to the laws of man.

In his study on sacrifice in classical Greece, Endsjø notes that the Greeks considered this land uncultivated, or improperly cultivated. Therefore, homicide outside of the polis did not have an impact on the citizens inside the city (Endsjø 2003). This only became problematic if the person who committed the act attempted to enter the city, or if parts of the deceased’s body somehow make their way into the city. The latter was a huge issue of contention in Antigone, the play by Sophocles. Creon, the newly crowned ruler of Thebes, leaves the body of his former adversary, Polyneices, unburied outside of city walls. Birds and wild dogs begin picking at the corpse and bringing pieces of the body into the city, which pollutes everything within the polis. The pollution stemming from this event disrupts the necessary rituals and prevents their performance, which leaves the city outside of the Gods’ favor. This eventually leads to the ruin of the entire royal family – aside from Creon himself – and leaves Thebes on the brink of obliteration (Sophocles 2012).

Inside of the city, all killing – whether it is human or animal – had to be within the context of a specific ritual. Sacrifice was an integral part of Greek society, and without it, many of the rituals considered necessary to receive gifts from the Gods were not possible. Ritual sacrifice was the only time that killing was allowed inside the polis. Ritual law forbade Greeks from consuming meat belonging to animals killed improperly (Endsjø 2003).  

Various rituals kept contamination at bay whenever a person died, regardless whether or not they were murdered. Ritual law forbade, or heavily regulated, contact with any member of the deceased’s household because of the impurities associated with the home after death occurs. The threat of pollution lasted for three days, until the family carried the body of the deceased outside of the city walls for burial in a funeral rites ceremony, calledekphora. By removing the body from the polis, the family restored the sanctity of the city and eradicated the threat of pollution (Endsjø 2003).

Chantois argued in his study on ritual purity that Greece in the 8th-6th centuries BCE featured a large number of homicides. Political conflicts, wars, feuds within families, and other instances were extremely common during this time. One such homicide in a familial dispute could possibly spark a chain reaction where revenge killings occurred in a retaliatory fashion. These incidents threatened to subvert Greek cities and communities, and thus necessitated the first sets of legal divisions for homicide (Chaniotis 2012). In the seventh century BCE, the introduction of Draco’s homicide laws separated homicides by appropriate levels of guilt, with distinctions for premeditated murder, revenge, accidental killings, and so on (MacDowell 1999). Later, Athenian law further attempted to differentiate between tolerable and improper types of homicide, especially when it came to whether pollution was a factor (Chaniotis 2012).  

Not all homicides committed within the walls of the polis contributed to ritual pollution; some exemptions did exist. According to Chaniotis, “homicide committed in defense of a community and its legal order did not cause ritual impurity” (Chaniotis 2012). Laws from the fourth century BCE provided similar distinctions for tyrannicide, or killing a person who unjustly establishes a tyrannical or oligarchical order (Harris 2013). In some of these cases, however, it was still necessary to determine whether there was adequate reason to believe justification existed, by using the court system.  

Unlike in most contemporary societies, life was relatively nonviolent in classical Greek city-states like Athens by the sixth century BCE. Outside of war – which, on the other hand, was a common occurrence – it was relatively unlikely that an Athenian would face the prospect of bodily harm at the hand of another. However, there were still homicides and assaults that occurred on occasion. Thus, they had an elaborate court and jury system to handle such incidences. There were three main courts for homicide in Athens. The Areopagus focused on acts of intentional or premeditated homicides; the Palladium focused on accidental homicides; and the Delphinium’s main purpose was justifiable homicide. Evidence suggests that instances of homicides were relatively few during this period of Athenian history, although a few speeches and manuscripts do survive (Gagarin 2003).  

The Areopagus consisted of former archons that had previous experience within the government. These archons had previously been a part of the court system, and thus had experience with the law. This court dealt with the most serious cases, and consequently the most serious punishments. Common judgments handed down by the archons following trials included exile, confiscation of property, death, or some facsimile thereof(Rhodes 2014). The Palladium (or Palladion) featured cases that were much less serious, but still dealt with a person’s death. If the defendant could prove that the death in question was accidental, they usually received no punishment. However, there was still the possibility of exile if the court wished to exercise that option(Rhodes 2014). The Delphinium (or Delphinion) was a court that did not require oaths, because the defendant already admitted to the murder. However, their intention is to sway the court into ruling that the homicide was justifiable under Athenian law. For example, it was lawful for a husband to murder a man whom he caught burglarizing his home. It also was lawful for a husband to murder an adulterer if he caught him in the act (Rhodes 2014). 

It was the responsibility of the family of the deceased to bring about indictments, as there was no formal state prosecutorial element. Greek customs dictated that the family needed to restore order in the community. This meant that someone had to be responsible for the crime, even if no one knew the identity of the killer. If a falling object or an animal killed the family member, the trial would condemn whatever the family – or community – thought was responsible. Another court, the Prytaneion, would hear cases such as these.(Rhodes 2014). 

The evidence we have from these court cases comes from speeches. Some Athenian writers and debaters made their living writing speeches for court cases. The more notable of the speechwriters (logographers) included Antiphon (480-411 BCE), Demosthenes (384-322 BCE), and Lysias (445-c. 380 BCE). Although they each had their different writing and arguing styles, these three logographers all used rhetoric and wordplay to either engross or confuse the jury pool. This is not unlike the approach used by modern attorneys, though the writing by the classical Greeks was arguably much more eloquent.  

Topics frequently discussed in these speeches considered aspects of pollution. Arguments for convictions or acquittals appealed to Athenian superstition and sentimentality. It is not clear whether these appeals to reverence were persuasive, considering that in the majority of cases, the speeches survive but not the outcomes of the trials. In some cases, only one side of the case survives and readers are not privy to the rebuttal or the accompanying witness testimony. However, what does survive is the notion that apparently these logographers felt pollution was an important enough fear in Athenian life. Otherwise, it would not be present in as many speeches as it was. 

The concept of ritual pollution, especially when it deals with homicide, carried over to the Roman Empire (Lennon 2013). Much of the Roman mythology finds its roots in tales borrowed from Greece – although it takes from other sources as well. Many of the practices also carried over, and the importance of adhering to rituals in order to appease the Gods, stands out the most. Most democratic societies base their legal systems around the classical Greek method, especially in the United States where Greece is a model for democracy and philosophy. In a way, the notion of restoring order and justice that enamored the Greeks has found a way to do the same throughout the Western world. Societies continue to feel uneasy and unable to cope with crimes and misdeeds until they reach a resolution, or a sense of justice.Religion may no longer be the root cause in the twenty-first century, but it is still a driving force behind our legal and penal systems.


Works Cited

Aeschylus. The Oresteia: Agamemnon; The Libation Bearers; The Eumenides. London: Penguin Classics, 1984.

Aristotle. Politics. London: Penguin Classics, 1981.

Armstrong, Karen. The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions. New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2007.

Chaniotis, Angelos. "Greek Ritual Purity: from Automatisms to Moral Distinctions." In How Purity is Made, by Petra Rösch and Udo Simon, 123-139. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2012.

Endsjø, D.Ø. "To control death: sacrifice and space in classical Greece." Religion, 2003: 323-340.

Gagarin, Michael. Athenian Homicide Law: Case Studies. March 27, 2003. (accessed April 19, 2014).

Harris, Edward M. Law and Drama in Ancient Greece. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

Lennon, Jack J. Pollution and Religion in Ancient Rome. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

MacDowell, Douglas Maurice. Athenian Homicide Law in the Age of the Orators . Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1999.

Rhodes, Henry A. "The Athenian Court and the American Court System." Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. 2014. (accessed April 20, 2014).

Rigsby, Kent. Asylia: Territorial Inviolability in the Hellenistic World. Oakland: University of California Press, 1997.

Sophocles. Antigone. New York: HarperCollins, 2012.

Von Rösch, Petra. How Purity is Made. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz-Verlag, 2012.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth Century America

In the United States of America, three campaigns for civil rights dominated the twentieth century. Firstly, women fought for the right to vote during the suffrage years, claiming victory with the ratification of the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution in 1920. Secondly, Native Americans – or “Indians” to some – finally attained citizenship rights in 1924, when President Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act. Thirdly, African Americans fought against segregation and miscegenation, winning both of those battles in landmark Supreme Court cases. However, these victories were not the be-all-end-all; each of the aforementioned groups continues to battle for equality and social justice. Nevertheless, with all of the advancements in civil liberties for minority groups, one was noticeably absent: the homosexual.

In her book, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth Century America, Margot Canaday attempts to explain why this was the case. As an Associate Professor of History at Princeton University, Canady has spent much of her academic career focusing on sexuality and gender issues. History has not exactly been kind to those who are different from the accepted norm, and Canaday believes that the federal government of the United States played a huge role in the oppression of gays, lesbians, and transgendered people.

Canaday’s main argument in The Straight State is that the United States government did not view the homosexual population like regular citizens. She believes that the federal government (labeled in this paper as “the state”) constructed the concept of the homosexual and used it as a basis to deny those engaging in same-sex acts their rightful citizenship. In order to prove this, she focuses on policies regarding three different, federal bureaucratic elements: the military, immigration, and welfare. She believes that these three areas set the stage for the homosexual garnering the label of “anti-citizen,” and argues that this continues to be the case, well into the twenty-first century.

Canaday divides the book into two parts. She calls the first “Nascent Policing,” and the second “Explicit Regulation.” Each part implicitly links to the other, as Canaday makes use of this two-part structure to show the interconnectedness of the bureaucratic elements she wishes to expose. She specifically argues that the development of the modern state ran parallel to the regulation of sexuality. She argues, “Homosexuality went from a total nonentity to a commonly understood category in the same years that the Federal government went from a fledgling to a full-service bureaucracy” (p. 258). During this time, the state has consistently attempted to control and punish homosexuals. She believes that by doing so, the state constructed an inherently homophobic society.

The United States, according to Canaday, constructed a social tie between citizenship and homosexuality evident through its policy history. These policies “established individuals who exhibited gender inversion or engaged in homoerotic behavior as either outside of or degraded within citizenship” (p. 13). Although there was surely homophobia in the years prior to World War 1, Canaday uses this time as a focal point for when systematic oppression of homosexuals began. The military was the first branch of Canaday’s “bureaucracy” that systematically began oppressing and weeding out homosexuals. Psychiatric examinations of potential soldiers during the war looked for “abnormalities” (p. 14). Most overt and intriguing was during World War 2, when the state denied soldiers suspected of homosexuality the advantages provided by the G.I. bill. So engrained were these policies into the daily operations of the military that during the early fifties, military policing of homosexuality started heavily influencing outside federal policies (like immigration).

Canaday is an obvious feminist, as her politics are clear from the introduction to the book. Because of this, she focuses much on the systematic distinctions made between male homosexuals and female homosexuals. With regard to the military, she notes the different policies and emphasis placed on lesbians, arguing that these distinctions were sexist in nature and had a huge impact on future homosexual regulation. Regulations for lesbians in the military during the Cold-War era were much more pronounced, and women involved with other women was seen as much more disruptive to order and structure than men desiring men. Lesbians in the military contributed to a change in the way that homosexuality was perceived. With men, homosexuality was just a perverse act, but with women, homosexuality was not just an act, but an inappropriate relationship.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence of Canaday’s thesis lies in her analysis of immigration policy. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) often denied both naturalization and citizenship privileges to homosexuals, labeling them as psychopaths and deviants with personality disorders. The INS believed that homosexuality and deviancy was a problem that lay outside its borders, and that its job as an agency was to protect the country by keeping out “undesirables.” This policy continued well into the 1960s, until the Supreme Court labeled the practice unconstitutional in Boutilier v. INS {387 U.S. 118 (1967)}. The American Psychiatric Association eventually de-categorized homosexuality as a mental illness in the 1970s, though this did little to change the INS’s stance on allowing homosexuals into the country. It was not until 1990 that the INS formally began allowing homosexuals to apply for residency.

Canaday’s study aims to bring together the social, cultural, political, and legal aspects of American life in order to change the way people think about the past issues of the homosexual population. In her book, she claims her research will do just that. She believes that the fears brought about by McCarthyism skewed the way Americans viewed the issue, and that the emphasis on the “nuclear family” led to the continued demonization of the homosexual as an affront to the American dream.

Although the 1990s brought about “political correctness” and shifted mainstream America’s focus more toward rights for homosexuals, Canaday argues that some of these new “enlightened” policies ended up producing more harm than good. The “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” policy that allowed gays into the military as long as they were not open about their sexuality actually increased the number of homosexuals removed from the armed forces (p. 253).

Canaday argues that the oversimplification and definition of homosexuality by the aforementioned bureaucracies had enormous consequences on sociology. A person did not actually have to be a homosexual to feel the homophobic wrath of the system – they just had to look like one, talk like one, or act like one.

Bureaucracy-inspired homophobia runs so deep into the system that, argues Canaday, those who wanted to revolutionize policy needed to infiltrate local, state governments rather than attempt reform at the federal level. The only instance of change at the federal level essentially lies with Lawrence v. Texas (2003), where the Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws in the remaining fourteen states that still had them on the books.

It is interesting to note that the United States is different from other “western” countries in that it does not have federal legislation providing civil rights for homosexuals. While some states now have laws that formally recognize gay marriage, Canaday takes issue with the lack of federal legislation. Much of South America and Europe have federal statutes protecting the rights of homosexuals and transgendered people, but the United States continues to skirt the issue. According to Canaday, the repression of homosexuality by the “bureaucracy” was a major goal during the twentieth century. She hopes that her book will facilitate real change. Not just in the way that homosexuals are treated, but also in the depiction of gay history. She wants not a revolution from the ground up, but a reform from within. The state may have constructed the bureaucracy to keep homosexuals outside the social norm, but political pressures continue to mount and localities continue to abolish these antiquated regulations.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Dances with Wolves: White Guilt and Revisionism

Upon its release, critics hailed Dances with Wolves as a masterpiece and its success at the box office carried over to awards season, where it earned Best Picture and Best Director at both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes. This made sense, considering the political climate of the late 1980s and early 1990s in the United States. Political correctness was at its peak as human rights issues garnered worldwide attention, and a generation of people finally began embracing the minority issues that had plagued this country since its founding. Whether or not director and star Kevin Costner made a conscious effort to exploit these new public sentiments has been a subject of debate, but what is not debated is the fact Dances with Wolves reflects his own personal beliefs surrounding “White America’s treatment of the American Indians. His film epitomized the state of mind in the last decade of the twentieth century, which sought to undo centuries of oppression and alleviate what social theorists call the issue of “white guilt.”

Cited by many as a landmark film due to its humanized portrayal of the American Indian, Dances with Wolves invokes the imaginative “retelling” of Union Officer John Dunbar’s first encounter with American Indians. In the film, Dunbar arrived at the frontier after requesting a transfer to the edges of the western frontier in order to experience it before it disappeared forever (an obvious adage to the negative environmental consequences surrounding American westward expansion). The reality of this is questionable, but Costner seemed to think the audience would ignore this -- like the many other historical inaccuracies in the film -- in order to accept the overall message that the American Indians were not as savage as previously portrayed. Costner’s message is clear: Americans did not possess the cultural understanding and environmental awareness the way the natives did, and if they had, interactions between the two opposing cultures would have been different.

Like other first-encounter films regarding American Indians, Dances with Wolves takes several historical liberties. However, the difference here is that the liberties taken actually favor the Indians, rather than do them the standard Hollywood disservice. Costner saves that disservice for every white man in the film, with the exception of John Dunbar (Kevin Costner). Depictions of white men in the film are either maniacal, heartless, savage, or a combination of all three. This essentially makes the film a complete role reversal from previous first-encounter Westerns, but the use of obvious stereotyping and scapegoating makes it susceptible to some of the same criticisms. There is an obvious bias here, but the only difference is that this time the white men responsible for the film are insulting their own history, rather than someone else’s.

A number of film critics and historians took issue with Costner’s approach. Roger Ebert called Dances with Wolves a “sentimental fantasy, a ‘what if’ movie that imagines a world in which whites were genuinely interested in learning about a Native American culture” (F&H/R28-1). He went on to write that the film’s purpose was to “make amends… for hundreds of racist and small-minded Westerns that went before it” (R28-2). Derek Malcolm of The Guardian agreed, calling the film “a certain kind of liberal wishful thinking” (R28-3). Neil Norman of The Evening Standard argued that Dances with Wolves was the quintessential example of Americans exploiting the marketability of “white guilt.” Although he praised the film for a number of cinematic techniques and its avoidance of stereotypes, he called it “an epic guilt or ego trip” and criticized the ending for the “self-consciously fashionable image that smacks of narcissism” (R28-4).

Not all of the critics took issue with Costner’s portrayal of whites, but a number of them felt that Costner inaccurately portrayed the American Indians. Richard Grenier of the Chicago Tribune criticized the film heavily for its historically inaccurate portrayal of the Sioux. Although Costner painted the Sioux as a pacifistic, environmentalist tribe, much evidence suggests that the opposite was true. The Sioux led one of the most violent uprisings in Minnesota in 1862, where they massacred an entire village -- killing the men, and kidnapping the women and children. He also argued that it was customary of Plains Indians to “torture captives for entertainment” (R28-5). Wayne Michael Sarf of Film Comment shares this sentiment, writing that Dances with Wolves was “dishonest, cowardly, poorly written, historically ludicrous, and worst of all, afflicted with a Southern California social conscience” (R28-6). Along with lambasting the film for its blatant, revisionist politics, he also criticized the changes Costner made to Michael Blake’s novel; particularly that he changed the tribe from Comanche to Sioux (R28-8). Additionally, Ward Churchill called the film “Lawrence of South Dakota” in reference to the similarities between the themes found in both Dances with Wolves and David Lean’s classic Lawrence of Arabia.

One of the more interesting scenes in the film finds Dunbar sitting in a field, eating. He comes across a wolf, which he has seen numerous times roaming around the fields surrounding Fort Sedgewick. Due to his isolation, he comes to think of the wolf as a potential friend whose trust he needs to earn. The wolf acts as a metaphor for the relationship between the white man and the native, with the wolf being a misunderstood creature unfairly labeled as vicious by a culture that does not understand its ways. Dunbar gives the wolf an Indian name, Two Socks, which further helps the audience make this connection. Two Socks appears as a kind of alert system for Dunbar, as his presence lets him know that others are in the area.

Dunbar notices a few Indians approaching on horseback and after initially feeling startled, he realizes they are the Sioux men he encountered earlier. The camera pans as Dunbar walks toward the approaching Sioux and frames Dunbar along with two of the Sioux leaders, Kicking Bird and Wind in His Hair. Dunbar flashes a quick greeting, which Kicking Bird reciprocates, but not his accomplice. Kicking Bird inquires as to whether or not Dunbar has come across any buffalo, which Dunbar regretfully must decline. The camera frames Kicking Bird as he approaches Dunbar and hands him a buffalo fur, with appropriate music to ensure the audience’s awareness that this is a tender moment between the two clashing cultures. Kicking Bird then backs away slowly, rejoining Wind in His Hair. The camera cuts to Dunbar, showing his grateful reception of the gift and his motions showing a hope of reciprocating the favor.

He asks the two Sioux men if they are hungry, motioning by bringing his hand to his mouth. Dunbar points to his house and explains to them that he has a lot of food. The camera cuts to a frame of just the Sioux men as they look at each other before returning to face Dunbar and respectfully decline his offer. Another quick cut shows a close-up of Dunbar’s confused face before cutting back to see the Sioux turn around and leave. As they ride away, Dunbar waves appreciatively. The camera zooms into the rest of the male riders who had waited on the hill during this exchange, focusing in on one who waves back, before cutting back to Dunbar as he begins a monologue.

Through this monologue, the film presents its distorted view of history and through that, invites the audience to feel a connection with the “misunderstood” Indian. Dunbar says that “nothing [he] has heard about the Indians was correct. They are not beggars and thieves. They are not the boogeymen they have been made out to be. On the contrary, they are polite guests and have a familiar humor I enjoy. The problem that historians and critics find with this assertion is that the Sioux are one of the last tribes one would associate with these characteristics. In the original novel, the tribe that Dunbar interacts with was the Comanche tribe. These qualifications would most likely hold under scrutiny if Costner had not changed the tribe in order to take advantage of the filming locations of South Dakota. If Costner had switched the roles of the Pawnee tribe and the Sioux tribe, the same would have applied. The Pawnee tribe was much more cooperative with white settlers than the Sioux, and fought alongside the settlers when faced with confrontations from other tribes -- like the Sioux.

Why Costner chose the Sioux to profile rather than the Pawnee is most likely a matter of logistics, as Costner had dealt with the Sioux/Lakota in order to secure filming rights to their land. The problem with this is that in order to film Dances with Wolves the way he did, he compromised crucial historical elements, which damage the overall respectability of the film. This loss of respectability did not translate into box office failures, however, and the majority of the cinema-going public assumes that the film’s subject matter is legitimate. The fact that the film uses the native Lakota language lends credence to the belief that much care had gone into ensuring its historical accuracy, but a number of scenes prove otherwise. The film had its intended impact, however, and opened the door for the release of a number of other “white guilt” films.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

1492: Hollywood’s Missed Opportunity

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hollywood – in most cases – seemed to transition alongside academia and liberal political discourse, embracing a more politically correct approach to historical issues involving different cultures and ethnicities. Along with more socially liberal topics, a number of films that attempted to embrace a less ethnocentric view of historical events marked this shift. Several films dealt with the interactions and struggles between whites and minorities, focusing on the errors of the whites and sometimes offering an apologetic view for the actions of the past.

The early 1990s marked the pinnacle of politically correct cinema. In 1991, the revisionist film Dances with Wolves was released to widespread acclaim and won six of its eleven Academy Award nominations. Thus, the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World in 1992 presented Hollywood with an ideal avenue to educate Americans. Without a doubt aided by the work of historians and academics, support for the heroics of Columbus began to clash with the late twentieth century American zeitgeist. The time was perfect for Hollywood to convey the truth behind the barbarism of those initial expeditions, and it seemed like that was just about to happen.

In 1992, Hollywood released two feature films about Christopher Columbus and his initial voyages. Christopher Columbus: The Discovery was the first, released in August. The second film, 1492: Conquest of Paradise – purported to be the better of the two – saw an October release. Despite being bland, slow, and historically inaccurate, Discovery at least made a small effort to use symbolism and sequences to communicate the economic and cultural impact Columbus had on the indigenous populations of the Americas. The rat that fled the ship and scurried onto the mainland signified the disease the Spanish brought with them that would eventually wipe out a large portion of the native population. Other than that, Discovery largely missed its opportunity to re-educate, as well as also failing to entertain or captivate audiences. Largely, the film seemed to replicate the 1930s costume dramas not just stylistically, but also in how it glossed over the fine points of history in favor of romantic grandeur. The indigenous people in the film are submissive and friendly, and director John Glen’s decision to show the chief’s well-endowed daughter topless – and still garner a PG-13 rating – illuminated the fact that parts of Hollywood were still not ready to let go of stereotypical tropes.

Unfortunately, 1492 fared no better. Despite being produced on a much larger budget and helmed by Ridley Scott – one of Hollywood’s more capable and durable directors – the film failed in many of the same ways. Although the storyline attempted to encompass the entire ordeal Columbus faced – his difficulty securing financing, his navigational ineptitude and the near mutiny of his crew, his struggles communicating with the natives once he arrived, and the downfall of his reputation once he failed to bring back the riches he promised – the finished product of 1492 left much to be desired. Instead of using the film to educate the viewers on the true Columbus and the atrocities committed on the indigenous population, Scott made yet another film that depicted him as not only a hero, but also a prototypical humanist revolutionary. Instead, Catholicism, the Spanish Inquisition, and those in his crew who were not as enlightened as he was shouldered the blame for the atrocities committed.

Reportedly, French screenwriter Rose Bosch heavily researched prior to filming, using the biographical works of Columbus’s son, Ferdinand (affectionately labeled Fernando in the film), and Columbus’s letters to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. Despite a number of inaccuracies present in the film, this still could have been true. In recent years, it has become common knowledge that Ridley Scott prefers the dramatic element to historical subtext, as evident in his treatment of Rome in Gladiator, Jerusalem in Kingdom of Heaven, and Nottingham in Robin Hood. In 1992, however, Scott’s filmography had yet to include any subjects based on historical events, so his changes to the script in 1492 were not as foreseeable – but they certainly are understandable from a cinematic point of view.

Scott’s preference for stunningly visceral imagery over historical precision is not without its purpose. Whereas Bosch could have intended 1492 to be more historically sagacious, it is clear from the finished product that Scott’s focus was on the dramatic elements inherent in such a historically unprecedented series of events. Scott’s intentions were to hone in on Columbus’s desire to attack superstition and fight against the ways of old Europe – specifically the Catholic Church and the Spanish Inquisition – rather than create a modern, political statement intent on questioning the historical narrative. A number of scenes convey Scott’s innate ability to deliver a message cinematically rather than verbally, but this analysis will focus on the importance of one sequence in particular: the “burning” scene.

Nowhere else in the film is Scott’s insistence on the dramatic more prevalent than in the burning scene. The passage is of questionable significance to the historical narrative of Christopher Columbus, but it is highly relevant to the “clean break” that Scott intends for the New World to represent. Columbus’s disgust with the Catholic Church and the Inquisition is fully evident here. In standard mythological practice, Scott portrays Columbus as the archetypal revolutionary man bound by his convictions, poised to seek out a way to change the world, and uses this scene to provide the context.

The scene begins chaotically, with bells ringing and fires roaring. As Columbus (Gérard Depardieu) rides on horseback with his son, Fernando (Billy L. Sullivan) – interestingly framed in a position elevated above the crowd – a mob of peasants run in the opposite direction, chanting and hollering in a manner that befuddles Columbus and intrigues his son. The sounds of the peasants running mimics the ferocity of a bull run, and given the religious affiliations of the people conveyed here, one could argue that Scott’s intention was to depict them as animalistic. Fernando – representing the impressionable child, curious to learn about the ways of the world – hops down from the horse and runs in the direction of the crowd, causing a panicking Columbus to leap down as well in an attempt to save his son. Scott positions the camera in such a way that fire is always in view, no matter how many different cuts and angles are applied. Each quick cut resounds with a bell, enveloping the viewer in the same fear, confusion, and disgust that Columbus experiences. Scott zooms out as Columbus joins the crowd, running toward his son, just in time for the mob to arrive at a disturbing display of human depravity. Men and women, labeled “heretics,” hanging high on large crosses, with the flags of the church framed in the center. A religious choir is perched on a ledge directly above the crosses, singing an ominous hymn perpetuated by the increasingly loud sounds of the bells.

The crowd quiets and comes to a stop, allowing Fernando to push his way to the front. Priests encircle the stakes, reciting prayers and flinging holy water, while Scott effectively frames the terror of the condemned as they repent and beg for forgiveness under extreme duress. The cameras zoom onto their distraught faces as robed men tie strings tightly around their necks, strangling them in a torturous manner as they await an even worse fate: burning alive. Scott cuts the camera to see Fernando’s terrified reaction to the woman choking and drooling on the cross in front of him. Columbus becomes frantic in his attempts to wade through the crowd and reach his son, whose eyes become glossy as he watches the flames engulf the men and women on the crosses. The rest of the crowd watches as if it was a gladiatorial spectacle, but Columbus finally reaches his son and leads him away in his arms. Scott utilizes a final overhead shot of the clergy raising their arms, ensuring that audiences know who is responsible for such atrocity.

Numerous critics regard this scene as the high water mark of the film, and it occurs very early on. The rest of the film fails to captivate for a number of reasons, but much of it has to do with Scott rushing through a good part of the story. By focusing on his message of Columbus as this admirable, revolutionary figure, he loses sight of what was more important. A majority of the dialogue is uninspired and trite, and in a number of longer scenes, nothing substantial occurs. The historical inaccuracy in the film is one of its problems, but in the grand scheme, it barely registers.

It is impractical to expect complete historical accuracy in film, and to date there has never been a film that has accomplished this. Cinema’s primary purpose is to entertain, and it is impossible to do so without taking a number of liberties. Whereas it is the job of the historian to analyze and interpret large amounts of information and deduce what is true by determining the most likely of scenarios, the filmmaker must go beyond the facts in order to create a compelling story. The facilitating factors of what makes a story compelling to an audience changes as society does, thus forcing filmmakers and writers to adapt. What makes 1492 so underwhelming is not that it fails at its goal of creating an enthralling narrative, it is that its methods are stuck in old Hollywood tradition. Scott had an opportunity to refine a 500-year-old story and present it in a way that meaningfully represented the newfound attitudes of a society eager to acknowledge the mistakes of their past. Instead, 1492 – like Christopher Columbus: The Discovery – plays like an old Hollywood costume relic that seems sorely out of touch, and feels like nothing more than wasted opportunity.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Fog of War: Reactions to Oliver Stone’s Platoon

The most critically acclaimed and commercially successful film surrounding the events of Vietnam is Platoon, a 1986 film by director Oliver Stone. Stone himself was a veteran of the war and hoped to create films showcasing the “realities” of war. The result was Platoon, a work as controversial as it was successful. Numerous liberal war critics hailed the film as a realistic depiction of an unpopular war effort, while conservatives and a number of veterans slammed the film for its absurd, slanderous inaccuracies. This paper analyzes the arguments from both sides, but takes the position that the truth lies somewhere in between and uses one of the film’s more memorable sequences to establish its thesis.


After the Allied victory over the Axis powers in World War 2, the United States emerged as a legitimate superpower in a position to flex their economic and military might. Americans began to think of themselves as the world’s moral police, where it was their job to protect freedom from the grips of tyranny and preach the gospel of democracy to the savages of the Third World. The Cold War and American involvement in the Korean civil war showcased the world that we were serious in our doctrine and would battle against the spread of communism. Support for interventionism continued into the 1960s as the United States became increasingly involved in Vietnam. Many Americans volunteered for the operation, unknowingly entering into a war that would mark the crashing end to unchallenged military optimism in the United States.
It is common knowledge that the war was a disaster in every sense of the word. It became a politician’s worst nightmare and reports of our military’s failures -- and reported atrocities -- led to massive protests. The war lasted a decade and culminated with the withdrawal of troops as the nation tucked its collective tail between its legs and tried to forget the war in Vietnam ever happened. Following a few years of silence, films were released depicting the adversity that veterans faced adapting to their new realities back home. These films were harsh over-dramatizations and conveyed the veterans as violent, sociopathic, alcoholic wife beaters unable to cope with the atrocities they committed during the war. A number of these films were widely successful and led to the stereotypes of the Vietnam veteran that are still prevalent today, despite a sense of retraction during the 1980s -- a decade dominated by the conservative politics of Ronald Reagan and the so-called “Culture Wars.” The most popular film involving the Vietnam War produced during the Reagan years is without a doubt Platoon, the 1986 film by Oliver Stone. Stone’s goal was to show what he considered the real Vietnam -- the “fog of war” and how it clouded the judgment of American soldiers fighting in Vietnam. The film was met with critical and commercial acclaim, but also found itself amidst a controversial battle that itself mirrored the Culture Wars of the 1980s. A number of critics lauded Stone for his depiction of the life of a soldier stationed in Vietnam. According to Eleanor Ringel, there was a “numbing sameness to the senselessness and that acts of courage had no more weight than acts of brutality” (R35-1). She goes on to argue that Stone’s depiction of the platoon -- especially during their rest and recreation times -- is a mirror of society. The differences between the men and how they conduct themselves creates a serious divisiveness, one that drastically reduces the capability for the platoon to be successful in its missions. Ringel believes that this reflects America’s view of the war in the 1960s -- incapable of fully committing available resources to the war effort in hopes of winning, but at the same time incapable of admitting to losing. Other critics believed that the film was successful in providing a public platform for understanding the mind of a Vietnam veteran by conveying to audiences how the confusion of the war negatively impacted their decision-making. Keith Graham -- writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution -- wrote in 1987 that Platoon was “a national catharsis, history lesson, and therapy session rolled into one” (R35-2). He argued that although the film benefited veterans, it benefited the general public more because it allowed for the culmination of a sympathetic viewpoint toward Vietnam veterans for the first time since the war’s conclusion. Platoon is unique because it conveyed war as an irrational entity filled with confusion and chaos, rather than an entity that is straightforward and rational. Stone utilized the “fog of war” concept -- the uncertainty felt by those participating -- to depict the Vietnam combat scenes in a more realistic and defensible light. Stone’s intention in presenting the film in this way is to allow the viewer to come to see the war for the absurdity that it was. Perhaps in doing so, the public will have more of a sense of understanding surrounding the atrocities committed by soldiers during the conflict. Stone gives no context for the events going on in Platoon. Giving context would lessen the effectiveness of the “fog of war” concept he utilized so effectively in the film. Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) had no idea what is happening around him at any given moment and he says so in his narration. Although he volunteered for Vietnam -- something that some of his fellow soldiers cannot fathom -- he did so with a naive interpretation of what war really was. The film shows him slowly losing his once strong sense of morality and descending into combat-induced madness. Drugs and alcohol provide a temporary escape from the harsh realities of combat, but probably do more harm than good. Stone depicts the soldiers as pawns utilized to do the incomprehensible, while depicting the leaders as detached and heartless who order the destruction of villages without seeing the faces of the affected. Not everyone agrees with Stone’s interpretation of the war in Vietnam. R. Emmett Tyrell of the Detroit News argued that many of the events in the film were preposterous, blatant mistruths. He states that no officer would put his troops in such harm by ordering them to what was essentially suicide missions, nor would they openly quarrel amongst each other in front of their constituents. His views are obviously more conservative, as he disagrees with Stone’s depiction of the troops as barbaric and heartless. He believes that Platoon does Vietnam veterans a disservice, and that it is a shame that when Americans look back at Vietnam, they will associate the war with the events of the film. As to be expected, a number of soldiers agree with Tyrell’s opinion regarding the less-than stellar depiction of Vietnam veterans. In a letter to Time magazine in 1987, one soldier expressed that Platoon only exists to appease and vindicate those that opposed Vietnam -- “they can partake in the horror of war from the safety of a theater and then feel they have shared our experience and learned to understand us” (R35-4). Another soldier takes offense to yet another stereotypical depiction of an American soldier holding a gun to a Vietnamese child’s head -- something he believes has become the erroneous and inaccurate symbol of the Vietnam veteran. It would be irresponsible to side with one side of the argument over the other, as both sides have valid points. In all likelihood, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. As Max Hastings wrote for The Daily Telegraph, many of the incidents depicted in the film did happen during the war. He argues that it is extremely unlikely that these events all occurred at once at the hand of one platoon, but rather that they were spread out among different groups of soldiers -- “Platoon has sought to take examples of all the worst things done by Americans over a decade and a half and enfold them within the life of a single group of men in a few weeks” (R35-5). Hastings also contends that Platoon’s depiction of constant battle and brutality distorts the reality of life in Indochina during wartime, but the film succeeds in conveying the feelings of inadequacy and confusion among the soldiers.

One of the most famous scenes in the film involves the platoon -- following orders from the captain, who is not there and is delivering the orders via telephone -- torching a village filled with women and children, but supposedly one that is a front for the enemy. Bunny (Kevin Dillon) casually lights a family’s straw hut and in the same motion lights his cigarette before walking away as if he just ate breakfast. Stone pans the camera to dead villagers lying inside the hut, which the viewer assumes Bunny is aware of. A number of cuts are made showing a majority of the platoon joining in the burning of the village, as well as a soldier kicking over pots of rice grown by the villagers. They throw grenades, rig explosives, and hustle villagers from their homes like animals. Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) hears noises from the bushes and stumbles upon his fellow soldiers gang-raping a Vietnamese woman as her daughter screams helplessly beside her. Taylor rescues the woman, chastising his fellow soldiers for their behavior -- instead of apologies for their actions, the guilty soldiers tell Taylor “he doesn’t belong in the ‘Nam” before spitting in his face. The scene ends with a drawn-out sequence where the villagers are forced to leave their homes. Some of the soldiers carry children on their shoulders -- the ones that care -- while others march as if what just occurred was par for the course. Explosions reduce what was left of the burning village to nothing more than rubble, and the scene fades to black.

In Platoon, there exists a confusing distinction between good soldiers and bad soldiers. The “bad” soldiers were probably once good, but were turned by a lengthy stay in a place where it is easy to lose one’s sanity. The “good” soldiers are either too new and have yet to figure out what really happens in the jungle, or they are only partially good -- soldiers who walk a thin line between ethical and criminal. There are some soldiers that have more good traits than bad, but it seems that everyone in the platoon has their demons. Stone uses this this complex depiction of morality levels to show the different effects the war had on its combatants.

Oliver Stone since has gained a reputation for significantly altering and distorting fact for the sake of spreading an agenda. His subsequent films Nixon and JFK take numerous historical liberties and attempt to pass conspiracy for fact. Judging from his substantial altering of history in his subsequent films, it is reasonable to assume he took numerous liberties in Platoon as well. Stone’s dramatic depiction of the soldiers -- sometimes as brutes, sometimes as heroes, sometimes confused heroes that become brutes -- obviously conveys a political agenda. His message is that war is pointless and that ridiculous consequences exist for anyone who is unfortunate enough to fight one. However, he could have made a film about any war to convey this message -- but he chose Vietnam because the negative stigma surrounding the war made its message more applicable.

The reason Vietnam holds such a negative distinction exists solely because Americans lost the war. The atrocities committed by soldiers were likely no different than those committed by soldiers during World War 2, but those events were ignored or silenced because the public was blinded by the success we had attained as a nation. Had the United States prevailed in Vietnam in reasonable time, films regarding the subject would likely have a much different tone. The veteran would not be stigmatized for the atrocities of others and hung out to try by their own countrymen, but instead be heralded as heroes. Platoon is an example of a film that could not exist in this parallel universe where Americans were victorious, and exists solely because the war shocked the nation into the solemn realization that we were no longer infallible.