Sunday, March 12, 2017

An Analysis of the film “The Mosquito Coast” Part One: The New World

Harrison Ford was quite the megastar in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  Han Solo, Indiana Jones, Jack Ryan, Dr. Richard Kimble (The Fugitive), and Rick Deckard (Blade Runner) are among his most well-known roles.  But did you know which film among his own is the one that Mr. Ford considers his favorite?  The answer would probably surprise many as it is not considered among his best.  That film is The Mosquito Coast from 1986.

I can think of a number of reasons why moviegoers ignored, or outright didn’t like this one.  There’s not a lot of action, it has a dark tone – especially at the ending, and perhaps most of all, Harrison Ford does not play a hero.  He, in fact, plays a not terribly likable, if not downright annoying character.

Personally, I believe that this Peter Weir film is a masterpiece that even surpasses his earlier film with Harrison Ford – that being Witness.  The Mosquito Coast is a complex story.  It’s really one of those films that should be seen more than once.

As you might guess from the title of this analysis, I’m going to explore the parallels between The Mosquito Coast and the exploration and colonization of North America by the “old-world” Europeans.
The "Old World"
So, let’s look back to the “old world”.  There were well-defined classes of people in those days.  There was basically nobility, merchants, and peasants and whatever you were born into was your lot for the rest of your life.  For the peasants, especially, life was hard and such a life inspired some to dream of a better one.  Some thought beyond their boundaries and dreamt of a “Utopia”.  When a whole new continent was discovered in the late 15th century, these dreams became real possibilities to those who would dare think of a better life in a “New World” that wasn’t limited by the thinking of the old one.

Now, in modern 1980’s America, we have Allie Fox.  Allie Fox is a very dissatisfied American.  He looks around and sees an America that no longer lives up to its utopian ideals.  America, to Allie Fox, has become an overcrowded wasteland overrun by greedy commercialization. 
"This place is a toilet."

"Buy junk, sell junk, eat junk!"

"Who are you working for? - the Japanese?"

Allie disdainfully looks at a t-shirt with a Coke can next to the Statue of Liberty.  America equals consumerism.
We see Mr. Polski wearing a John Deere baseball cap.  Allie’s wearing a baseball cap, but it is not only blank, but you can actually see by the marks where he purposefully removed the logo.

Often, Allie’s rants are targeted at his eldest son, Charlie.  Charlie idolizes his father as a “genius”.  He soaks in everything Allie says and seems to take it all as truth.
Allie has utter disdain for his fellow Americans whom he sees as small-minded and part of the problem as they all seem to accept the world as it was presented to them.  Examples are where the hardware store clerk sees no issues that his products are foreign-made and Mr. Polski can’t accept Allie’s idea of a large scale version of his invention to solve his refrigeration needs.
 “There’s going to be a war in America.”
Allie observes the growing stratification in America.   America has become the “old world”.  All the ideals of what America was supposed to be are lost.  Mr. Polski’s employees are black and live in very poor conditions.  To Allie, they are modern-day slaves.

“It makes me mad, because they’re going to end up being part of the problem.”

There were brave people who risked persecution, the dangers of the sea, and the subsequent struggle to survive in an untamed land to realize their dreams.  And so the first European settlements were founded basically on ideals of freedom and a chance to begin anew – without the constraints European society had put upon them.  They braved the elements of nature.  They had to deal with the native people of the land.  They had to work hard to build their new communities of Utopia.

This is how Allie sees himself.  He believes he is a modern day “Leif Erikson” or “Columbus” to create his own “new world” in an untamed land.  He’s ready to leave America for “The Jungle”.

“It would take courage to go there – the jungle.  Not ordinary gumption, but 4 o’clock in the morning courage.”
This risky endeavor will be experienced by his family as well as he will take them all with him.  While Charlie is completely willing because he trusts his father, Jerry, Allie’s second son isn’t so thrilled about abandoning everything.  Note how Allie’s wife – “Mother”, along with their two twin daughters, seem to have no say in any of this.  This is a patriarchy where the women in the family don’t participate in important decisions.
Allie writes Mr. Polski a “Declaration of Independence” that reads:

Hey Doc!
Ever heard of the Mosquito Coast?
I hope not because that’s
the reason we’re going there!
See, I’m not only quitting
the job but also this sad
ruin of a country.
Good luck, Doc!! (You’ll need it).
Allie Fox

The Foxes leave their home in a “U-Drive” truck – maintaining the theme of independence.  The Foxes take an ocean voyage to their destination.  Note the “Viking” logo.

“Good bye America and have a nice day!”
The Foxes meet the Spellgoods – missionaries who also go to remote lands looking for people to covert to their religion.  While Allie believes in a non-interfering God where people need to be self-reliant, the Spellgoods accept the world as it is.  They also practice commercialism as shown in the reverend’s gift to Allie of the “Blue Jeans Bible”.

It’s easy to see why Allie takes an immediate disliking of the Spellgoods, as his beliefs are basically opposite of their’s.  Allie has his own religion and is essentially, also a missionary of sorts.  He is a preacher too and is always trying to take the opportunity to preach his religion of self-reliance.

The ship they take to “The Mosquito Coast” is named “Unicorn”.  Does this mean Allie’s dream is a fantasy? 

Another omen is the captain questioning why the Foxes would want to stay there.

Allie’s utopian dream requires going to the most remote spot and finding true natives who have never been exposed to western culture.  When they reach the port, there is commercialism everywhere.  This isn’t going to work for Allie so they don’t stay long – just long enough to purchase the town of Jeronimo.

The “Hotel Mona Lisa” seems to indicate the Foxes are still in the “old world”.

Upon first seeing the run-down shanty town that is Jeronimo, Allie first shows concern but hides his first impression from his family.  He goes off on another rant as to how great “starting from scratch” is going to be. 

When the Foxes left America, Mrs. Fox seems sad at first to suddenly leave her home.  But looking at the stack of unwashed dishes she’s leaving behind makes her smile and ready for adventure.  This sequence however, is reversed upon seeing Jeronimo for the first time.

Just like the early settlers of America, the Foxes will have a lot of work to do.  Not only do they have to build their “utopia”, they have to persuade the town folk to buy into their dream for a better life.  So, while Allie, his family, and the town folk are clearing the forest to build homes, fish ponds, and vegetable gardens, Allie is preaching his religion.

“We eat when we’re not hungry.  Drink when we’re not thirsty.  We buy what we don’t need and throw away everything that’s useful.”

With an incredible amount of effort and with everybody in Jeronimo working together, they build their community.  The pioneering spirit obviously lives within these people.  Their efforts are rewarded with a seemingly self-sufficient town with everybody contributing.  Harmony is apparent.  Allie’s vision appears to be realized.

A shadow creeping over the jungle is an omen that all may not be quite as great as it seems.  There are other clues as well.

The Foxes have gone back to traditional family roles with the men working all day while the women working the household day and night.

“Duppies Beware” (a Duppy is a ghost or spirit).  Superstitions still exist in the minds of the people.

Self-sufficient?  Why is Mr. Haddy bringing in supplies from the outside?

Speaking of supplies from the outside, where did Allie get the chainsaw?  It’s a commercial product and he had ridiculed the store clerk early in the movie while referencing a chainsaw.  This seems a bit hypocritical.  Notice how Allie’s words about what is wrong with the twentieth century get drowned out by the noise of the chainsaw.  Allie’s message isn’t so clear anymore.

The children’s actions when Allie is not around tell us that not everyone is in sync with him.

They develop their own currency among themselves.  Charlie knows this is against his father’s wishes and tells the other children to not tell Allie about it.  Charlie discusses with the rest that his father uses science, not magic.  One girl says “science is worse”.  The children also play war, which certainly wouldn’t please Allie.

The children sing “Silent Night” – a Christian song.  Presumably, with Allie’s religion, there is no Christmas.
And finally, Reverend Spellgood pays a visit and chastises the people for no longer following him.  Holding a staff and demanding “Let my people go!”, Spellgood seems to think he is Moses.  He is not happy that the people of Jeronimo abandoned him and are now following Allie Fox, whom he sees as a false prophet.

The people of Jeronimo, who grew up on their own religion, have been put in between the Christian ideas of Spellgood versus the ideas of Fox.  This symbolizes a religious war.

However, the people seem to have sided with Allie.  The village is functional and working the way Allie envisioned.  The Fox family even celebrates Thanksgiving in the “New World”.

To keep control of his family, Allie uses the fear tactic of talking about a future nuclear war in America, just in case anybody is thinking they were better off back there.

Allie has bigger dreams though.  He leaves and then comes back with metal tanks which they collectively hoist up a slope towards Allie’s newest creation.  It’s a large version of “Fat Boy”, the ice maker Allie had shown in small form to Mr. Polski earlier.

There are two interesting things I want to point out regarding the ice machine.  One is that clearly the name “Fat Boy” references the two atom bombs – named “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” dropped on Japan to end the Second World War.  Secondly, take a look at the small version of “Fat Boy”.

With a little imagination, one can see two eyes, a nose, and a mouth.  The upside-down funnel at the top makes Fat Boy look something like the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz.  Notice how Allie describes it as made up of human parts.  He speaks of “entrails and vitals”, “digestive system”, “circulatory system”, “respiration”, “fatty tissue”, and “kidneys”, with “ammonia as his plasma.”  For the large version, he refers to “lungs”, “poop shaft”, “kidneys” again, and “liver”.  Never once does he refer to its heart.  Apparently, like The Tin Man, it has no heart.

Once built, the ice machine becomes the center of commerce for the town of Jeronimo.  The towering structure appears as a temple and has become the source of prosperity for the people.  Now, everyone is really sold on Allie’s vision.

They even bow to their new God and temple.

As Allie proclaims “Ice is civilization!” he realizes he is like a god to these people.  He has won over their hearts and minds.  Allie feels invincible.

It is also interesting to note how during the construction of the temple, the rules seemed to change.  Earlier, Allie challenged his fellow workers to call him out if he wasn’t working hard enough.  Now, Allie leaves most of the heavier work to the others.  He notably wears a gas mask in the final construction phase while the workers do not.

With Allie feeling so good about himself, he is ready for another challenge.  He wants to take his ice to the “pure people”.  Allie believes there are tribes deep in the jungle who have never seen a white man before.  So he packs a ball of ice and takes his two sons with him in search of such a tribe.

As Allie chastises his younger son Jerry, we see an ancient temple in the background – long forgotten, another omen.  Allie does find the “pure people”.  However his arrogance, his belief that he is like a god, gets him and everybody in trouble.  Allie mistakenly offers aid to the wrong people.  The idea of what happens in this part of the film is very topical.  We don’t always know who are enemies are.

Allie’s misjudgment of the 3 mercenaries leads to the utter destruction of Jeronimo.  Everything Allie had envisioned and worked so hard for literally exploded in a raging fireball.

Now, looking at the heartless “Tin Man”, one can see an angry god or demon.

Fat Boy, like its individual namesakes, proves to be a weapon of mass-destruction.  The destruction of the temple is like an atomic blast. 

The lesson of this film shows us that Utopia can’t be reached.  Ultimately, the sins of the old world became that of the new.  Despite the best of intentions, human beings just can’t get beyond basic, primitive fears and prejudices.