The Southern California oil boom of 1900-1930, particularly near Los Angeles, was an age of phenomenal allure and cataclysmic consequences. Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, represents the epoch of oil, emphasizing the religious context of the oil boom. Anderson dramatizes historical events to expose an oil religion, a juxtaposition of religion and oil that creates incredible potency. Visceral images and a particularly striking soundtrack help present the repercussions of this oil religion, and warn viewers about the consequences of worshipping oil.
The Southern California oil boom of 1900-1930 was characterized by religion. Darren Dochuk’s “Blessed by Oil, Cursed with Crude: God and Black Gold in the American Southwest,” analyzes the symbiotic relationship between oil capitalism and God. Long before the oil boom, people were drawn to California by a sense of manifest destiny that “always demanded a frontier” (Dochuk 55). They moved towards the Southwest with divine inspiration from the God who beckoned them to accomplish his work. Once in California, these settlers began drilling, taking advantage of the vast stores of oil wealth that lay beneath the surface. In working under the will of God, oil drilling became justified, and even righteous. The oilmen never failed to properly worship their god, with oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller considering his wealth the “bountiful gifts of the great Creator” (qtd. in Dochuk 54). As time went on this religion of oil became cemented into the institutions that began constructing California. Governments provided support to “oil-friendly evangelicals,” prominent businessmen used “profits from their petroleum businesses to fund their ministries,” and faith-based schools taught geology to inspire future oilmen (Dochuk 58, 59). And whenever opposition to these oilmen arose, they simply hid their
plans of expansion under the guise of advancing Christianity’s reach. Religion and oil were now indivisible, and would soon become so inseparable that oil becomes the religion.
Paul Thomas Anderson wonderfully integrates historical events of the California oil boom and his own representation of that time. Though many scholars dismiss the merits of fictional stories in representing historical events, examining the history and literature of the American West reveals the necessity for a partnership of the two. Forrest G. Robinson’s “We Should Talk: Western History and Western Literature in Dialogue,” published in the American Literary History, argues for the interconnectedness of narrative and history. In synthesizing the works of various scholars and authors, Robinson asserts that literary and historical representations of the West should not be thought about separately. Historians often dismiss Western literature as “mythmaking,” while literary critics challenge historians to defend their claims of “unmediated access” to the truth about the past (Robinson 132, 133). The impossibility of asserting absolute truth easily invalidates historians who declare boldly that all history is fact. Even within the field of history, the choices of what to include and what not to include, affect the portrayal of events. Further disproving the notion that Western narrative is mythmaking, is the fact that Western literature is often based upon historical fact. Robinson cites the works of authors such as Annette Kolodny, Jane Tompkins, Slotking, Gerald Vizenor and others, as examples of Western literature that were heavily researched and informed by history (137). It is important to note that Western literature does not intend to replace history, which would be an inevitable failure, but instead to supplement it. The legitimacy of Western narrative stems from its aim to highlight the effects of historical trends, patterns and dynamics on the individual, providing the intimate human and emotional perspective of historical events. This aim is excellently demonstrated by the novel Angels of Repose, a Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction.
Angels of Repose was declared by one historian to haven an “extraordinary historical resonance” that “rings true—very true” (qtd. in Robinson 135). The fact that this review was written by a historian about a work of fiction proves that literature can effectively communicate the details of an historical era. Angels of Repose does not detract from history in any way, but rather strengthens and affirms it. Narrative and history thus are inseparable and comparable forces necessary to a full understanding of the past. This means that the claims narrative makes on the world should hold equal weight with those of history. Informed heavily by the past, There Will Be Blood is legitimized in definitively declaring oil a religion. In building his assertion that oil is itself a religion, Anderson first draws connections between oil and Christianity.
Anderson uses discordant music and symbolic visuals to make references to Christianity and foreshadow the presence of death and blood. Near the beginning of Anderson’s film, Plainview and a group of men have constructed a rudimentary oilrig. They drop a stake into the ground many feet below and oil comes gurgling to the surface. In an iconic moment of triumph and glory, Plainview grabs the oil-covered stake and raises his palm to the heavens. His upraised arm is emulative of hands raised to heaven in prayer: the worship of oil. Soon after this a baby begins crying, signifying the corruption of purity and innocence, and the need for cleansing through baptism. Plainview’s celebration of his discovery causes oil to hit the camera screen, breaking the fourth wall and attempting to convert the viewer, reaching out to remind the viewer of oil’s relevance. It is Plainview’s whipping of a rope that flings this oil onto the camera; the rope reminiscent of Biblical lashings, and the oil of blood. This analogy is supported by the stake that the rope was wrapped around, as it is similar in size and shape to the nails that drove through Jesus’ wrists at the crucifixion. Later in the scene we see an aerial shot of a gaping and ominous pit appearing as an open wound in the surface of the earth. One of the workers dips his finger
into this pit of oil and marks the forehead of his baby boy. During infant baptisms, the forehead of a baby is traced with a cross; a sign that they now belong to Christ. In a similar fashion, this baby boy has been given over to oil; baptized into a new religion. The camera then angles downwards, peering into the depths of the earth, its heart. Deep below the surface, oil bubbles and oozes as if it were blood. It submerges and consumes the men who work to excavate it. Soon this metaphorical blood gives way to real blood, as part of the rig collapses and blood spatters across the screen. The piece of the rig that collapses is composed of multiple beams of wood.
The entire rig itself is constructed of crossbeams that look like the cross on which Jesus was crucified. As this cross kills a crewmember, he becomes the atoning sacrifice that allows the men to continue drilling. This defining scene is the film’s namesake, and fulfills the bold statement: there will be blood. The connections to Christianity affirm the interdependency of oil and religion, hinting at the darker and more sinister nature of this oil religion.
Anderson’s careful selection of meaningful names and titles within the church, the erratic behavior of Eli, and old-fashioned music, work together to create a hypocritical church connected to oil. The title of the Eli’s church, The Church of The Third Revelation, refers to the interpretation of the word of Jesus by men. From the title alone it is clear that this church, and its doctrine, Eli’s fabrication. The church is his own personal tool to establish power and reverence, while advancing his own agenda. Oil too is deemed to be a fabrication, as it is strongly connected this church. Physically, the church shares its wooden structure with the oilrig. The church and the oilrig were built concurrently, with the very creakiness of the floorboards inside the holy place yielding a sound similar to the oilrig at work. In a scene towards the end of the film, Daniel Plainview visits Eli’s church to gain permission for the establishment of an additional pipeline. The necessity of religious approval and divine will, further ties oil and
religion together. Eli then begins to slap, scream, yell and exhibit generally erratic behavior as he casts the devil out of Plainview. This sense of spectacle and ridiculousness, coupled with the dramatic responses of the church members, further strips Eli’s church of its legitimacy. In his craze Eli declares that you will never be saved if “you reject the blood,” a statement that could be referring as much to oil as it is to Jesus’ death (Anderson). Anderson is drawing clear parallels between the manipulative and brainwashing church and oil. After Daniel finally performs the way Eli wishes him to, he is anointed, and music begins to play in the background. Over this music lyrics can be heard: “There’s power in the blood…there’s wonderful power in the blood” (Anderson). Once again, Anderson plays upon the duality of “blood,” uniting oil and religion, and condemning both (Anderson). In a final confirmation of their duality, the sound of metal striking metal can be heard before the scene even ends; the construction of a pipeline. Hearing the sounds of oil within the church ushers in oil as the replacement for both God and Christianity.
Daniel Plainview is a devout worshiper of oil. The very first scene of the film, in which we observe Plainview’s solitary mining in an empty wasteland with no guarantee of fortune, tells the succinct story of a man with an unshakeable faith in oil. Later, when Plainview finally does discover oil, he raises his oil-covered arm to the sky in exaltation and worship, and descends himself to fill bucket after bucket with oil. Midway through There Will Be Blood, Plainview’s oil rig has burst into flames. As day gives way to night, the camera zooms many miles out and a thick black smoke fills the sky. The fire is the only thing that stands out among the dark and vast landscape; a beacon of light that to Plainview is the light of salvation. Plainview abandons his own child, sacrificing his son like Abraham sacrificed Isaac, to watch the oil fire with wide and enthusiastic eyes. During this scene drums play with a steady and even cadence that almost
sounds like a heartbeat. These drums clash with the violins that play erratically and high-pitched. Drum sticks are then added that directly oppose the cadence of the drums, and as more instruments are added, the music becomes more and more cacophonous. Anderson’s choice of music sustains a heightened frenzy and passion of oil that possesses viewers like the Holy Spirit. With smoke filling the air behind him, Daniel watches the fire with admiration, captivated and consumed with awe and reverence. His face has been anointed with oil as his entire body is smeared with the substance. He is ecstatic, declaring, “There’s a whole ocean of oil under our feet” (Anderson). It seems that if he could, Plainview would baptize himself in these waters of oil. Anderson then chooses to zoom in on his oil-smeared face, use an extended close up and continue playing dramatic music to yield a sense of Plainview’s zealous dedication and passion to oil, which nothing can quell. Plainview is a true and devout disciple of the oil religion.
The oil religion still exists today. There Will Be Blood’s purpose is to make a modern condemnation on the worship of oil. Oil is still everywhere, as inescapable as an omnipresent God. Stephanie LeMenager’s “The Aesthetics of Petroleum, after Oil!,” an article in the American Literary History, analyzes how oil became a culture in the early 1900s. Los Angeles around 1910 was a space characterized by the presence of petroleum based consumer goods and a skyline filled with the shadows of oilrigs. During and after the oil boom, petroleum found prevalence in cars, cosmetics, plastics, clothes and more. This overwhelming existence of oil created a society heavily dependent on it. Oil penetrated society to the extent that the oil derricks lining the horizon presented an “aesthetic problem to Californians almost as inescapable as smog” (LeMenager 10). The rise of “pro-oil propaganda in the 1920s,” is a prime example of the impossibility of not worshipping oil (LeMenager 17). The worship of oil was literally conditioned into the inhabitants of Los Angeles. Just as everyday encounters with oil have
persisted for over a century, so has the worship of oil. The very film stock with which There Will Be Blood was made “is essentially petroleum” (LeMenager 23). In drawing connections between this text and Anderson’s film, it is evident that the culture of oil still runs rampant. And this culture of oil has led to heavy dependence that has translated to a myriad of issues over time.
One of the most prominent of these issues was the world oil crisis of the 1970s that nearly crippled the nation economically. Viewing oil as a religion comes with detrimental consequences, as its dangers are frequently glossed over in view of its perceived benefits. These sentiments are especially harmful within the environmental and biological realms.
The environmental and biological effects of oil are devastating, and justify Paul Thomas Anderson’s denouncement of the oil religion. The oil fire in particular, which There Will Be Blood beautifully and devastatingly displays, is a key example of how oil can take over and ravage surrounding landscapes. Erkekoglu and Giray’s “The Toxicological Outcomes of Oil Spills and Oil Fires,” a research article appearing in the FABAD Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences, details the science behind oil fires and spills. According to Erkekoglu and Giray, oil well fires release gases such as nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide, acidic gases like sulfuric, nitric and hydrochloric acid, metals and volatile organic compounds (50). These can lead to alterations in weather patterns and increases in acid rain. More than just the toxins released by fires, crude oil itself contains benzene, a toxin which the US Public Health Service has “determined is a cancer-causing compound” (Erkekoglu & Giray 50). The effects of oil fires on the body range from “bronchitis,” “heart disease,” and “depression,” to “psychiatric disorders” and “metabolic disease” (Erkekoglu & Giray 51). The wide-ranging side effects of oil fires clearly reveal the risks associated with the extraction of oil. Even more prevalent since the 2000s, were maritime oil accidents, which destroy the habitats of marine animals, and affect
birds, fish, sea otters, seals, plankton, larvae, and so forth (Erkekoglu & Giray 49). In addition to this, oil spills can spread hundreds of miles, are extremely difficult to clean, impossible to fully reverse, and can take anywhere from a few months to several years to mitigate. The side effects of oil accidents will continue be felt for unpredictable lengths of time. Paul Thomas Anderson’s choice to adapt Oil! was for the purpose of bringing the repercussions of the oil boom back to light in order to discourage oil’s worship in modern day.
Anderson’s narrative is clearly a profound revelation of an era, exposing viewers to perhaps the most influential and wide spread religion that exists: the religion of oil. Fully capitalizing on the medium of film, through stunning visual effects, symbolic imagery, and a dissonant soundtrack, Anderson guides viewers through the religious experience of conversion to oil. Oil is the religion of the modern age, inviting and drawing worship, finding prevalence in modern culture, and leaving a lasing, and sometimes irreversible, impact. There Will Be Blood warns the modern viewer against the guises of this oil religion. Oil’s relationship with religion makes it appear like a source of redemption, holiness and divine providence, when in fact it yields corruption, violence and hypocrisy. Anderson aims his message at all modern viewers, and portraying the historical Southern California oil boom from 1900-1930 through film, allows him to create entertainment value that transmits his message to a wider audience. As the blood of the lamb represents the purifying blood of Jesus Christ, so oil has become the modern day method of sanctification. Daniel Plainview attempts to sanctify himself with oil, but a dependence and faith on the substance destroys and possesses him in a chaotic manner that can be likened to demon possession. Plainview at the end of the film declares, “everyday I drink the blood of the lamb.” If modern day viewers drink of this lamb of oil, there will be blood.