Hollywood Comes to Blows with Upton Sinclair

I was disappointed that Daniel Day- Lewis won an Oscar for There Will Be Blood, not because he’s not a great actor (he is), but because the movie was such a betrayal of the book on which it was based. Movies dont have to follow books. Many dont. But in this case, what we missed were the things that made Upton Sinclair’s Oil! a politically courageous book for its time. For our time, it unearths a crucial part of the hidden history of our own working class movement. 

Oil! could have been made like Gangs of New York that explored the racial and ethnic conflicts at New York City’s birth, which so frightened its moneyed class that the rich shelled their own city to prevent the upending of their social order. Actually, a good movie made from Oil! would have been more like Reds, exploring not just social conflicts, but the way they gave birth to unions and left movements in much the same period. Reds was painted on a large canvas, moving from Oregon to the East Coast, and finally the Smolny Institute and the storming of the Winter Palace. Oil! covers the same period and many of the same political arguments, but they play out in a concentrated look at just one city, Los Angeles. 

Upton Sinclair was not just an author who lived in Southern California and wrote about it, he was a political activist who tried to change it. He founded the Los Angeles chapter of the ACLU. He went to jail with longshore workers in Long Beach for speaking in defense of their strike. He ran for governor seven years after the novel was published. Incredibly, as a socialist he not only won the Democratic Party nomination in the depth of the Depression, but hundreds of thousands voted for his platform to "end poverty in California." He gave the state’s corporate elite the biggest political scare they’ve had in any election before or since. 

Oil! gives us a history of the city’s economic rise, even as LA was becoming the economic epicenter. But it does more than tell the story of the birth of the industry that has come to dominate this countrys politics, as Sinclair’s The Jungle did for meatpacking. Oil! is more politically sophisticated and recounts the growth of the social movements that challenged the harsh domination of the oil titans. That’s what is missing from There Will Be Blood. The movie history is false where Sinclair’s was true. 

Oil! unfolds as the story of the political education of Bunny Ross and of his love for his father J. Arnold Ross, an oil wildcatter turned tycoon. Bunny’s nickname signals his character as a Southern California innocent motivated by the best of intentions. His father, Sinclair tells us, is kind and good. He loves Bunny and spends his life trying to make him happy and keep him from harm. 

The two characters are the keys to Sinclair’s political analysis. Personal kindness, he says, cannot change poverty, exploitation, war, or corruption. J. Arnold Ross helps poor families as he takes their land for wells. He admires and respects his workers, but must stick with the other oil operators when they bring in strikebreakers to bust their union and evict the strikers from their homes. In a not-very-fictionalized account of the "Teapot Dome Scandal," Ross tells Bunny that bribing politicians, even a president of the United States, is what is required in order to do business. 

It doesn’t matter whether a capitalist is a good person or a bad one, Sinclair says. It’s the system that grinds one class into poverty and allows another to reap the benefit. J. Arnold Ross, a loving father and paternalistic employer, commits criminal acts because his social class not only makes it possible, but necessary. His pained justification to Bunny for hiring thugs is that if he doesn’t, the other oil operators will combine against him and drive him out of business.  

There Will Be Blood turns Oil! on its head. Bunny basically disappears as a character, making only a few appearances to dramatize his father’s cruelty and corruption. J. Arnold, now a villain and renamed Daniel Plainview, expropriates Bunny as a child from his dead father and then banishes him when he goes deaf after a well explosion. Plainviews personal degeneration culminates in beating an evangelist preacher to death in the bowling lane of his palatial home. His violence is treated as a defect in his character, a symbol of his evil nature. His crime is personal, not social. 

As a result, the movie is devoid of the social conflict that is the book’s main narrative. There are no unions and no strikes. Class conflict is out. The corruption of politicians becomes the product of a corrupt personality, not a corrupt system. Since there is no class conflict, there is no room for the novel’s main achievement. Oil! takes Bunny through a process in which he learns not only about how the world works, but about how people organize to change it. Both the movie and book show the Ross expropriation of the farm of the poor Watkins family. But Oil! follows the political radicalization of Paul Watkins—drafted as a doughboy in World War I and then sent with the interventionist armies to put down the Russian revolution. He returns and becomes an oil union leader and then a member of the left wing of the Socialist Party. When that party splits in 1919, Watkins becomes an organizer in the new Communist Party.

Sinclair, whose sympathies were much more with the right wing of the Socialist Party than the left, still draws an admiring portrait of the worldly Paul, showing his courage in facing imprisonment and his eventual fatal beating by right-wing assassins. Sinclair draws out the political differences of the day in his debates with Bunny, whose eyes he opens. Bunny eventually has to choose whose side he’s on. The more he learns about the world, the more he rejects his father’s class, while still loving him as a person. And that class turns against him in the end. 

In There Will Be Blood Paul disappears. In his place his evangelist brother Eli becomes the main antagonist to Plainview, a religious hypocrite pitted against a violent and powerful oilman. It is a conflict without social relevance, one the movie hardly bothers to explain. At its lowest point, a grown Bunny gratuitously returns to announce to his father that he’s going to become an investor in Mexican oil wells. Sinclair would have torn his hair out over that one. 

Oil! recounts just a small piece of what is now a hidden history of the labor movement before and after World War I. In 1903 the city’s socialist labor council helped Mexican and Japanese farm workers win one of the state’s first agricultural strikes in Oxnard. The LA unions were then shocked when Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, refused to give the workers a union charter unless they rid themselves of their Asian members. Oil! shows the fear the oil operators had for the Wobblies (the Industrial Workers of the World) and their (mostly rhetorical) commitment to sabotage in the workplace. In the citys real history, two prewar labor leaders, the McNamara brothers, spent their lives in prison after a bomb they planted blew up at the LA Times building. 

This was the most turbulent era for the labor and radical movements of Los Angeles. Sinclair describes how the oilmen defeated the workers and socialists and created the "citadel of the open shop." Bunny resists and makes his father put up money to bail out strikers. But he can’t stop the class war. 

Sinclair recreates the era’s radical spirit, weaving political debate, action, and romance into a complex tapestry. He describes Bunny’s sexual awakening as frankly as he could get away with, in an era when books were banned for open descriptions of sex. His women are mostly foils for men and they seem a little wooden in comparison with the intimacy and realism achieved by writers since. Yet Sinclair gets real drama from Bunny’s conflict between his youthful lust for his studio star lover and his growing desire to make a full commitment to political organizing. In the end, he falls for a Jewish socialist who clearly is his equal in debate and greater in her commitment. 

Hollywood today has less of the radical spirit that made Reds. It’s not hard for a studio now to reinvent the war in Afghanistan as a crusade (Charlie Wilsons War), confident that no one will ask why Ronald Reagan bankrolled Osama bin Laden and other extremists, calling them freedom fighters so long as they were willing to fight the Soviets. I cant wait to see what they do with Central America. 

But Los Angeles? Hollywoods own city? Working class social and political movements get written out of the textbooks all the time. Writing us out of a movie made from Oil! expropriated one of the most important works of our history. I hope the producers don’t have exclusive rights to the book. Perhaps a more courageous group will make the movie as Upton Sinclair wrote it. 


David Bacon is a California writer and photographer. His new book Illegal People: How Globalization Causes Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants will be published by Beacon Press this fall.