The Heart of Darkness As Broken Metaphor
Today’s movie double is an accidental doubleheader thanks to the fine machine from Fetch TV. A little word on IP-TV in Australia – it’s still way slow in parts but it’s only going to get better. When the NBN is everywhere, IP-TV is going to rock. Anyway. Free plug for Fetch TV out of the way, it’s time to wrestle with two movies that go up the river in the heart of darkness.
‘The Eagle’ is a sword and sandal epic about a young Roman officer who goes deep under cover into the land of the Picts, north of Hadrian’s Wall to recover a lost symbol of the Eagle. It’s classic adventure movie fare but it does have the advantage of working off the question at the end of ‘Heart of Darkness’ by Conrad, who rhetorically asks whether the Romans traveling to Britain were the civilised, traveling up the river in the heart of darkness. ‘The Eagle’ in all its post-modernity brings to forth the symmetry of that question. For, in the Eagle, the Roman officer and his slave reverse roles as a Briton and his slave in the land of the Picts.
‘Tucker and Dave Vs Evil’ is about a bunch of college kids who go deep into the Appalachian mountains for a holiday, only to encounter two hillbillies they think are psychotic axe-murdering chainsaw-massacre-ing serial killers – except told from the point of view of the hillbillies who are innocent bumpkin yokels. Hilarity ensues when the college kids start killing themselves by accident in one bizarre twist after another. There’s no mistaking it – it’s the heart of darkness text again, but turned on its head for comedic effect.
The Denizens Of The Dark
Who are these people living in the dark? In the Post-Colonial era we’re trying to identify and identify with them all at once. The process of colonisation brings Romans to Britain, just as it brought Europeans to the Americas. The people who are invaded in these movies are lumped with the legacies of this process as much as the real cultures are lumped with the tremendous historic losses. Yet, it seems really pertinent to point out that the indigenous Picts in ‘The Eagle’ may look weird with their woad coating, but they’re white boys and gals; just as the Hillbillies who are the invaded ‘Other’ in ‘Tucker and and Dale Vs Evil’ are as white boy as they come.
‘The Eagle’ presents us with a text that tries to synthesise a position out of the antithetical Roman heirarchy and indigenous Briton that is at once uncomfortable in the light of history as it is uncomfortable as a plot device. The film persists with the presentation because the project is to turn Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, rather bleak views about European civilisation into a positive. One suspects that to tell that version of history – and it must be said it is amazing how people on the British Isles are painfully aware of the successive waves of migration – they preferred to do it all white white boys. You wonder if the ark really is all that dark in ‘The Eagle’
‘Tucker and Dale’ milk the best laughs from the plight of the invaded hillbilly. Suddenly it is the hillbillies who are beset by an aggressive outsider who seeks to frame them in the preconceptions they bring about hillbillies. The derogatory prejudice breeds paranoia to the point that the college kids panic and stumble and kill themselves in one freakish accident after another. True to the tradition of psychopath-in-the-cabin, a sheriff comes to the rescue and he too dies haplessly. The plot devices are all too familiar but they are all turned on their heads to make the point that hillbillies in the American imagination have garnered way too much negative prejudice, thanks to such wonderful films such as ‘Deliverance’ (Squeal like a pig!”) and ‘Southern Comfort’.
The Asymmetry Of Colonisation
At this point in history, we understand the process of colonisation which took place this side of Columbus had devastating consequences for indigenous populations around the world, but what gets overlooked is that great population migrations are a staple of human history. The Chinese pushed west who sent the Turks to the west, who pushed other peoples who eventually pushed against Ostrogoths and Visigoths. The Huns and Vandals come into history like marauding plagues but only because they flooded into the parts of the world that kept written records – and that world had regularly made expeditions to the edges of its known world.
In ‘Tucker and Dale Vs Evil’, the central joke lies in the fact that because both parties are culturally equivalent contemporary Americans, the difference in sub-cultural zones gets exaggerated into a kind of uncomprehending paranoia for both sides. At one, the fear of the other is projected outward onto fellow Americans which makes for great laughs. In ‘The Eagle’, we get to see the village of the Picts and it is strangely reminiscent of the village at the end of the river in ‘Apocalypse Now’. In both films, what is asymmetrical in history is brought into symmetry by making equivalents out of ‘the other’.
What’s interesting is that it can only do this by positing the other as equally ‘white’ as the protagonists. This is notable in that in trying to slip away from imperialism, it has to accept the other as like ‘us’ – and this is much easier when they’re white folk. In that sense these films are at the polar opposite of ‘The Last Samurai’ or ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ which are attempts to re-colonise the colonised. (It’s particularly bad in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ where they couldn’t even cast real Japanese people to play Japanese people)
Why Go There?
This is a curious thing. Why does Alexander the Great go to Afghanistan and India? Why does Columbus set sail for America really? Or Cook for Australia or Armstrong for the Moon? The unknown has a way of filling the imagination and beckons adventurers. So, just as the West Indies failed to turn out to be the golden Japan of Columbus’ dreams, equally, the Moon turned out to be a rocky, airless, hostile landscape. The places adventurers go are only interesting in as much as the imagination can project onto those places.
In that sense, the space in which Tucker and Dale exist is like a caricature of a certain kind of Americana, with forests, rivers, cabins and gas stands selling oddities. It looks more promising than the story can provide. There are echoes of ‘Deliverance’ but the space is a lot less textured. Equally, the college kids have no great ambition in going into that space. They just end up there for a holiday. The prosaic quality of this misadventure underscores the low mimetic comedy.
‘The Eagle’ spends a good deal of time on the Scottish Highlands, what with their wind-swept hills and craggy rock outcroppings. The landscape is made to look far more hostile that it might have been in its day. There were more trees in the British Isles at the time of the Romans, but that seems to not have crossed the minds of the film makers much. The space the characters travel in is a highly abstracted kind of Scotland. Again, the landscape helps to lend perspective to the small-ness of the human endeavor, which underscores a high mimetic tone, but only because it is not comedy. It could easily be the college kids or Tucker and Dale looking for the lost Roman Eagle.
Going Insane In The Darkness
There is a moment when the roles of the Roman Marcus and the Briton Esca reverse, and Marcus mus now play the role of the slave to survive. It is as if the paradigm is overturned upside down – a bit like the Prince and the Pauper. Then, there is a drunken party where the Picts all drink themselves stupid. The sequence of events is quite metaphorical, like an initiation rite. Equally, when Alison falls into the water and bumps her head, only to wake up with the hillbillies is a moment of transformation. Yet, the beautifiul twist in the film is that she seems to gain sanity through the transformation, for we find out it is the leader of the college kids who is genuinely psychotic.
People have to go insane in the darkness – like Kurtz – in order for the narrative to make sense.