There Will Be Blood

Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



15 May


Standard Oil declared a monopoly, 1911

On this day in 1911, the American oil company Standard Oil was ruled to be a monopoly by the US Supreme Court.

Set up only in 1870 by the industrialist John D Rockefeller and his associates, the company was efficient and focused and had grown rapidly, first becoming dominant in refining, where it used its early lead to price competitors out of the market or buy them up, before moving on to production and distribution, where it used similar tactics to squeeze out or buy out competitors.

By 1882 the company was already fighting state legislation designed to rein it in. To counter this, it established a skein of ghost companies, all of which owed allegiance to Standard Oil, creating the “trust” model of the multinational megacorporation.

By 1890, the legislation against the company’s practices had become national, with Congress passing the Sherman Antitrust Act, a landmark piece of legislation that gave the federal government the power to intervene when it considered that a market had become sclerotic.

The Sherman Act’s guiding principle was that it was against the “restraint of trade” by whatever means, though it was targeted at companies that sought to monopolise.

Standard Oil was soon in its sights, and it also became a target for “muckraking” journalists who used Standard as a focus for a general ill-feeling against monopolies.

Ironically, as Standard came under Federal scrutiny as a result of the passing of the act, its share of the market was slipping – it had controlled 91 per cent of production and 85 per cent of sales in 1904. Market share of finished products was down to 70 per cent in 1906 and to 64 per cent in 1911, when the company was ordered to be broken up.

Of the 34 companies that Standard Oil was broken up into, Standard Oil of New Jersey later became Exxon, Standard Oil of New York eventually became Mobil, Standard Oil of Indiana became Amoco and Standard Oil of California became Chevron.




There Will Be Blood (2007, dir: Paul Thomas Anderson)

There Will Be Blood is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Citizen Kane. The story of how a character gained it all and lost something on the way, it stars Daniel Day Lewis as the elemental sounding Daniel Plainview, a man whose credo is “I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people”.

The film starts with Plainview digging for silver, a man swinging a pick with the ferocity of someone who simply has to succeed. It then follows him from these early struggles through a long tangle with the equally elementally named preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) who had first given him the tip that Standard Oil were sniffing about a local farm with a view to drilling for oil – the tip was a good one and allowed Plainview to get in first and get rich.

That’s it, for most of the film, a dance between a phonily sanctimonious creep of a preacher and a booming, self-invented huckster. If you’re looking for some metaphor for America, you don’t need to go far.

Day Lewis nicks Daniel Plainview’s character wholesale from John Huston as Noah Cross in Chinatown, that booming voice, those pregnant pauses. And in truth Cross and Plainview are both very similar characters – boosters (that one water, this one oil) whose actual main purpose is the boosting of the self.

Dano is more original and, controversial view, better – he was the best thing in 12 Year a Slave too, though only in it for scant minutes – here as a man whose soul can almost be seen through the windows of his eyes, and it doesn’t look pretty.

They’re an epic pair, this behemoth and the worm, and Anderson works the epic levers to great effect – the big majestic western landscapes, the daguerreotype look of Robert Elswit’s cinematography, Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood’s Gorecki-esque score, percussively straining yet always withholding.

If you were being picky, you might accuse Anderson of perhaps reaching too readily for the epic lever, of producing something closer to the masks and codification of Noh theatre or of the didactic instructional of Pilgrim’s Progress than to living, breathing cinema.

But then PT Anderson is a deeply moral film-maker, even the porn-dressed Boogie Nights waved a big message. But you can’t say that this stripped back, epically dressed morality play doesn’t have its payoff. As the film winds to a tragic close and Plainview is wandering around his gigantic mansion alone, like Charles Foster Kane in Xanadu, he knows that now he’s got this far there is only one logical next step.



Why Watch?


  • An epic
  • Daniel Day Lewis and Paul Dano’s perfectly matched performances
  • Production designer Jack Fisk’s oil frontier-town
  • Johnny Greenwood’s score


© Steve Morrissey 2014



There Will Be Blood – at Amazon






Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



29 November



The Zong Massacre, 1781

On this day in 1781 the Zong massacre took place. A Liverpool slave ship called the Zong got lost on the high seas en route for Jamaica and, running low on water, decided to throw some slaves overboard. On 29 November 54 women were thrown overboard. 42 men were jettisoned on 1 December and over the next few days a further 36 slaves were thrown into the sea. A further ten slaves threw themselves overboard as a protest against the inhumane treatment of their fellows. When it arrived at Black River, Jamaica, the ship had only 208 slaves on board, of the 442 it had left Accra, Ghana, with on 18 August. The ship’s owners then claimed insurance against their loss, which the insurers refused to pay. The ship’s owners then took the case to court, where they argued that the slaves were an insurable asset and that they had been thrown overboard to safeguard the rest of the cargo. The argument about the crew’s actions being murder was not entertained. Though the massacre on the Zong barely disturbed the millpond of public opinion, it did stir the conscience of Granville Sharp, a British Quaker who set about a campaign of writing to members of Parliament, clergymen and fellow Quakers. The Zong massacre and the reaction to it, in some quarters at least, became one of the early spurs to the development of the Anti Slavery Movement.




Lincoln (2012, dir: Steven Spielberg)

So gigantic has the presence of Daniel Day-Lewis become in a film that he often overshadows every other aspect of the production. That’s certainly the case with Lincoln which quietly manages to be Steven Spielberg’s most nuanced, and therefore interesting, film in years. Telling the story of the dying days of the Civil War and the growing pressure to emancipate the slaves, Spielberg, writer Tony Kushner and Day-Lewis paint a portrait of a man, make a sketch of the times and tell the story of the progress of the Thirteenth Amendment (to make slavery illegal) through Congress. Rarely has a film about the horse-trading and the pork-barrel politics required to get a law changed been so fascinating. And rarely has Lincoln been depicted in so revisionist a manner. OK, Spielberg isn’t above hokiness – the opener where a black soldier and a white soldier read the Gettysburg Address to Lincoln, who looks like he’s just stepped down from the Monument that bears his name – is pure Spielberg corn. But this scene also does a lot of expositional work in a very few minutes – we now know who this man is and what this film is about. That scene apart, as said, this is not the boilerplate Lincoln movie. No Saint Abe, instead Spielberg points out that underneath that almost painfully folksy exterior there was a party political tactician who could tack against his own prevailing beliefs in order to secure a greater goal. “If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp… what’s the use of knowing True North?” is how Lincoln defends it. And there are plenty of allusions to modern-day politics, a touch of the Clinton era in the way the White House accounts are being investigated by Tommy Lee Jones’s Thaddeus Stevens, a man of principle who, like Lincoln, has to weigh whether it’s better to compromise a belief to secure something for the greater good of the greater number. And it’s surely fascinating, in light of the Tea Party and Neo-Con colour of the Republican Party these days that it’s the Republican Lincoln who’s straining to amend the Constitution, while Democrats are blocking him at every turn. As for Day-Lewis, is it the great performance that everyone says? Well, it’s starry and it’s theatrical and if you go in for that sort of thing then yes it is great. But look out for Sally Field as Mrs Lincoln. She is required in one short scene to re-orientate the film away from politics and chicanery back towards emotion. And she does it. It’s an amazing piece of work.



Why Watch?


  • Top level coffee table film-making
  • Janusz Kaminski’s sombre, shadowy cinematography
  • Spielberg atones for Amistad
  • The historical detail is exquisite and often quite brutal


© Steve Morrissey 2013



Lincoln – at Amazon