Eighteen: The Book of Eli, Westerns, and the Politics of Faith

Book of Eli ranks as “rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes, but I like it. Yes, it has some silly, heavy-handed stuff going on, but I think it’s a decent movie with interesting ideas, and it annoys me a bit that it doesn’t get a fair shake. It would seem that the audiences who share my affection for the film tend to be religious, which makes sense, as Eli crafts a case for the strength of faith and the power of religious texts (specifically the Christian Bible). But this dystopian shoot-em-up is also an effective parable about the abuse of religion in politics (and a strong case for literacy), with a more complicated depiction of faith and morality than one might think. And it’s a Western!

Note: This post is part of an ongoing project, the goal of which is to watch and contemplate every movie in which actor Gary Oldman has appeared (there are many, the man likes to work). Posts tend to contain reviews but are not excluded to that sort of framework– much like Gary’s career, I’m wildly unpredictable!

As with all MYWG entries, the following will probably contain spoilers!

  • Book of Eli‘s ranking on the Oldometer: 6/10
  • Gary Oldman character quality: Carnegie is a really interesting guy. He’s educated. He’s enterprising. He has facial scarring, presumably from nuclear war (but as we know by now, Gary loves a good facial scar). He’s also power-hungry and mean, which is fine for a villain, but ultimately a little disappointing as Oldman could have easily carried the character beyond that, and Carnegie hints at being more multi-dimensional than the film allows him to be (which I’ll tackle in a second). Still, Carnegie is one of the most compelling bad guys in the Oldman oeuvre (and there are alot of those)
  • Does Gary Die in this one? Not onscreen, but the outlook is not great.

The Book of Eli is a about a lone (very alone) gunslinger/knife-fighter (Denzel as Eli) who has walked the earth since an apocalyptic event rocked the world, making water scarce. Also, sometime before “The Blast” all religious books were destroyed. Books in general are kind of hard to come by, and thus the literate are a rare breed. But Eli CAN read, and he has spent thirty years doing nothing but walking Westward and poring over his favorite book. On his journey he regularly encounters menacing, desperate folk who attack him for whatever resources he has, but woe to them, because Eli is a super efficient fighting machine! His lone (so alone) lifestyle gets shaken up when he walks into a desert town run by a crooked sheriff type (Gary as Carnegie), who also happens to be a big reader. In another life, these two might have formed a book club together, but here in Dystopia, they share an obsession with THE Book– AKA the Bible. Eli has it, Carnegie wants it.

There are no library fees in dystopiaaa and the streets are paved with corpses

Carnegie thinks of The Book as the key to securing his power over the unpredictable, dangerous new frontier. We know that his goal is rooted in control because his henchmen regularly rob and pillage on the road in order to bring him goods (which he keeps if he so fancies), and he maintains his little town by rationing precious water to its citizens while keeping the location of the springs to himself. He’s abusive to his blind wife-servant-prostitute Claudia (Jennifer Beals, of Flashdance fame– also I’m not real clear on their official relationship status) and uses her distress to exert further control over Claudia’s daughter Solara (the adorable Mila Kunis!). That’s not quite enough for him, though.

The unsubtle tagline for Eli is “religion is power,” and it’s not wrong. Carnegie, seen reading a book about Italian dictator Mussolini (I guess Hitler was too on-the-nose), is student of history enough to know that leaders who claim the favor of God/the gods have an easier time on their political ascendency. Appealing to the citizenry’s belief in a higher power makes one a more palatable ruler, and, if you’re tricksy enough, one can make oneself synonymous with God, so far as the people are concerned. Once this point is reached, it’s a cakewalk to manipulate the meaning of faith and dictate the rules.

Have YOU voted this year? Gary and EVERY GOTDANG FORM OF SOCIAL MEDIA DEMANDS TO KNOW

Not to be indelicate, here, but we’ve seen a bit of this lately. Only a few months ago, the POTUS and his team pepper-sprayed a group of anti-racism protesters, including the minister and staff of a church, in order to score a photo op in front of said church. Holding a Bible. So. This is still a problem, and it will continue to be regardless of the election outcome this month (I am writing this on election night because I thought it would be a nice distraction– I didn’t realize until I started typing that I chose an annoyingly relevant Gary to talk about this week).

But even the villain of Eli isn’t THAT obvious. Carnegie, proud of being an “educated” man among the plebs, is more into the old-fashioned hoarding-and-withholding-knowledge method, like the early churches that reserved holy texts for the chosen literate clergy to interpret (which is how you get indulgences and Martin Luther, I guess) or cult leaders who orchestrate systems that keep clarity beyond the grasp of their followers. Carnegie needs “the words” of the holy text to enhance his credibility and keep people in line, a desire he spells out in a fiery rant.

putting the “diss” in dystopia

I think this scene is unfortunate– I don’t like the film’s decision in that moment to make Carnegie’s book-hunt a self-aware, bluntly evil dealio, because aside from that speech, the villain’s motivations are far more ambiguous (in some old interview that I recall but haven’t been able to relocate just yet, Oldman states that indeed, in the initial script Carnegie had much more nuance). I’m also not crazy about the eventual establishment of Eli as a superhuman Chosen One type who is impervious to bullets and directly guided by a higher power. It’s just a little too easy.

When looking at Denzel is a bit like gazing into the blazing SON OF GOD

I think the Hughes Brothers are fun filmmakers, but in their efforts to make a pro-faith film they occasionally run aground, and I can’t really go with them on what I think is their preferred messaging about these characters. The conclusion I land on is a negotiated one: I think both Eli and Carnegie are true believers with control problems.

Even though this movie-world has “chosen” Eli for heroic purposes, he’s still an archetype who meets brutality with brutality, and most of the time he doesn’t act real Christian. He shows no mercy to the punks that dare to screw with him, and he ignores his chances to be a good Samaritan when he sees innocents being attacked, murdered, and raped, because he believes he must “stay on the path.” His end goal is sharing the The Book’s gospel with others, but he sure keeps his light under a bushel in the meantime. Aren’t the lost and victimized folks on his way West (over a span of THIRTY YEARS) the ones most in need of immediate help and hope?

Aw, just like they taught us in Sunday School.

Eli might be superhuman but he’s also super human, flawed in his belief that God’s plan is as restrictive as he imagines. He eventually concedes that he has made the error of knowing “the words” while neglecting to practice them. Even though I’m pretty sure the Bible has harsh regard for folks who live like this, Eli still gets to die all peaceful-like, having achieved his dream.

That dream leads to another interesting implication. After The Book is wrested from him, Eli presses on without it, and eventually makes it to an enlightened colony of preservationists. Here, Eli reveals that he is blind (and has been this whole time! no wonder he’s spent so long mucking about). This is a ridiculous switcheroo to many viewers, but Denzel is so darn earnest I’m willing to buy it. Anyway, not to worry, he claims to have read The Book so much that he knows it by heart, and he will now recount the entire thing word for word, for transcription.

He’s the only guy who’s not lying when he lists “Bible” as his favorite book on his dating profile

While the film gives us no reason to doubt Eli’s memory, this power move makes me think of the skepticism mounted against the Bible and other ancient religious texts– should we be dubious about claims of inerrancy? Perhaps the word was once true, but how could translation after translation uphold the meaning of the original? How could Eli possibly be this accurate? More importantly, is he taking any liberties himself by slightly altering or “forgetting” parts of the text? Hmmm? It’s notable that while his foe wants The Book to aid in controlling his flock, Eli now gets to control The Book for the rest of time because HE SAYS SO. Could there BE a loftier way to shoot your shot at self preservation?

Carnegie’s much more out there with the violence and the bad choices, but he’s simply motivated by self-preservation, as Eli is. How they have each spent the last thirty years, though, provides an interesting contrast: while Eli has been plugging along, ignoring people in need and slaying the meddlers, Carnegie has been building something. He confesses, like Eli, that he hates some of the things he’s done for his achievement, but he’s the one out here trying to make a society work. Maybe it’s hard to grow fruit of the spirit in the desert, but still, Carnegie’s the guy supplying water, providing housing for handicapped people, creating jobs.

Carnegie was disappointed when they didn’t make regionals that year, but it’s really his own fault for chanting GIMME A B-O-O-K! and WHAT’S THAT SPELL?! to his illiterate teammates

In an inspired scene, he washes Claudia’s hair with shampoo, a precious commodity in Wastelandville. As this lady works in the saloon as a prostitute, it’s a bit reminiscent of Christ’s respect for the “sinful woman” who “wastes” precious ointment in an act of fealty (if I recall, she washes Jesus’s feet, but Judas and the other homies are down on her superficiality because she’s using up valuable stuff and everyone is poor. Christ says lay off, guys, she’s showing her appreciation for My holiness and also this matters to her!). Carnegie’s not authentically altruistic in his practices, but it’s interesting that he doesn’t get a pass for his misdeeds while Eli’s crimes are written off as self-defense.

Carnegie is also a man of faith. Like his nemesis, he’s been fumbling about at a disadvantage– while Eli is blind as a bat, he has the metaphorical light of The Book. Conversely, Carnegie has physical sight, yet nothing but the faint memory of religion to help him along. He recalls The Book as something invaluable from his childhood, and he’s searched for it for years, presumably. The Book is of little interest to his underlings, and most of them seem to doubt its existence (and thus, sometimes their commander’s sanity). And yet, Carnegie never stops looking. Surely this compulsion goes beyond his own political ambitions; knowledge is paramount for him. Even if he’s not pro equal access, he knows that faith is important to society; at his heart, he might even feel that Biblical virtues are important truths, invaluable to his township.

No, I don’t accept ‘hugs’ in exchange for rare antiquities, but nice try, Gary.

If you think about it, it’s pretty unfair that Carnegie has spent the better part of the nuclear fallout desperately searching for The Word, only for it to be withheld. As we’ve established, he seeks “the words” for the wrong reasons, but if The Book is sooo holy, who knows what transformative magic it might have worked on the guy. If he’s lost in the weeds and starved for something sustaining, why is it that he is so undeserving of Eli’s message? It’s arguable that he is the MOST in need, the proverbial lost sheep that God-as-shepherd supposedly drops everything to rescue, but you don’t see Eli extending a helping hand.

“I SAAAAAAAID we’re not so different, YOU AND I–” “Ok, man, I’m blind, not deaf”

Carnegie’s defining moment comes just after he’s shot the hero and finally confiscated The Book. He crouches over the (not-quite) mortally wounded Eli and whispers to him: “Pray for me. I… mean it.” He says it with a twitchy smile, but I think it’s sincere– even if he wants to weaponize The Book, he believes in its power. Even though he’s power-hungry, he wants to solidify a society that will presumably survive in his absence. Rather than praying for himself, he asks for Eli’s intercession because he knows enough about his own sins to assume that the kingdom of heaven might not greet him with open arms. If Eli is the saint, then Carnegie is the rest of us. If Eli’s decades of lonerism and ignorance to the pain of others is forgivable — even when he’s in possession of The Book– why is Carnegie’s warped behavior so damning? HE didn’t have a sacred guide. He’s just been doing his best on the fly amidst chaos!

Okay, that last bit is a mite charitable, the guy probably knows better than to do most of his heinous deeds (did he REALLY need that bazooka??), but the same could be said of Eli as well. They both need Jesus (as the saying goes), but they suck at going about it– one moreso than the other, maybe, but they’re both in trouble.

TOM WAITS on no man, except for Gary. (it’s a Dracula reunion! Sans flies.)

But that’s a Western for you. Generally, classic entries in this genre champion masculine displays of violence by mythological cowboys, but, when it comes down to it, the best Old West stories are about the death of the wild frontier. This rough way of life, once key to survival, must cycle to its end in order for “civilization” to evolve and flourish. For this to happen, the Good Guy is required to defeat the Bad Guy, but this also means that the hero is tainted by this necessary bloodshed, and he must go away as well– the new world is not for him. In this way, the Western levels the traditional figures representative of good and evil— as it is with humanity from a Christian perspective, we have all “fallen short.”

Shane, the most iconic film to popularize this formula, concludes with the wounded Good Guy finishing off the baddies and riding away from the town he’s saved and into the sunrise, probably to die. In Eli, the hero miraculously makes it to the promised land, recites the The Book from memory, and passes away from his wounds.

When ya know you got trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with B and that stands for Book!

The villain, meanwhile, returns to his city with a nasty wound of his own (inflicted by Eli), gets the local engineer (my guy TOM WAITS in another legit supporting performance) to pry The Book open at last (it has some heavy-duty lock attached). This is when Carnegie discovers that– bum bum bum– The Book that Eli has protected all this time is in fact a braille copy! If we’re making connections to our contemporary political climate, this is the bit that rings the most true for me: Carnegie, for all his toil, receives the word after all, but cannot make sense of it. His kingdom almost immediately goes to pot, and death looms. Bad Guy and Good Guy are both done here.

A very hands-on approach.

(Silly jokes aside, check the devastating desperation here. Oldman KILLING it)

But there’s still that civilization that both Carnegie and Eli dueled to the death over. In Shane, the sensitive farmers get to claim the land once the baddies are gone. In Book of Eli, the result is similar but fittingly Biblical– the meek inherit the earth. Having helped Eli complete his journey, Solara, once belittled by both Eli AND Carnegie (and now presumably equipped with quite the education), starts her own journey into the world. Maybe she’s headed back to town, but she’s dressed all Eli-style so I’m guessing she’s taking a walk of ministry– I bet she’ll be better at Good Samaritan-ing than her mentor.

Imagine HER showing up on your doorstep with Jehovah’s Witness tracts.

More importantly, her mother, Claudia the victimized blind prostitute, summons the strength to leave Carnegie, but not before she learns that The Book is something that only SHE can interpret (in her neck of the woods, anyway), thanks to her “weakness.” WHO’S THE EDUCATED MAN NOW, DAWG?! Behold, Carnegie’s scheming and slaughtering has inadvertently paved the way for Claudia’s potential rise to power. It’s time for benevolence rather than force and cruelty, and the future is female!

What a feeling! Seeing ISN’T believin’

The mythology of the Western can be a problematic one (who gets to decide what’s civilized? Not the indigenous people, that’s for sure!), but in this dystopian context it sure is attractive, and the same is true of this election week for the US. At the time of writing this, I still haven’t checked for the results (and they’re probably not conclusive yet anyways), but the fact that we’re witnessing two old-school candidates duke it out at the pinnacle of a surreal dystopian year is not lost on me. Of course, you might consider one leader more appealing than the other (and I’d agree with you), but regardless of how it all shakes out, we’ve got trouble– we’ve had trouble for a long time now. It’s a miiiighty hopeful thought that, eventually, this cycle could end and, somewhere down the line, maybe we’ll know with certainty that all the bad, violent stuff has all been– perhaps inadvertently– in service of something more enlightened.

Even the worst of us can be true believers in something! If you’re up for it, pray for us (I… mean it).

2 thoughts on “Eighteen: The Book of Eli, Westerns, and the Politics of Faith

  1. I just watched this and was also feeling its relevance… your conclusion is encouraging. I really appreciate your points about Carnegie. I agree that he’s a fascinating character and I wish the movie hadn’t been so quick to claim him as bad!

    Liked by 1 person

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