[13 September 2006]
“So oft in theologic wars, the disputants, I ween,
rail on in utter ignorance, of what each other mean,
and prate about an the elephant, not one of them has seen!”
— John Godfrey Saxe, 19th century poet, from The Blind Men and the Elephant
“Under the old government man exploited man but since the revolution, it’s the other way around.”
— Joe (Ralph Fiennes), Land of the Blind
Land of the Blind marks the feature film debut of Robert Edwards, an ex-infantry and intelligence officer in the US army and veteran of the first Gulf War. Prior to his cinematic debut, he memorably crafted a segment entitled “The Voice of a Prophet” in Underground Zero, a 9/11 inspired anthology of 13 short-films. “The Voice of a Prophet” consisted of the speculations of Rick Rescorla, Head of Security for Morgan Stanley, recorded in his office on the 44th floor of the World Trade Centre in July 1998. In it he predicts that the pursuit and capture of terrorists would become the focus of US warfare and that American meddling overseas would one day “come home to roost”. Rescorla died at his post on September 11th 2001.
There are three prerequisites upon viewing Land of the Blind: first one needs an at least modest understanding of the contemporary political climate, particularly in relation to American foreign policy and the “War on Terror”; second, an ability to appreciate the film’s historical and literary references; and third, a lot of patience. To be frank; it is wildly inconsistent. The referencing is sprinkled liberally and only occasionally effectively, and although it is sparsely profound (in statements usually appropriated from other sources) the audience has to endure profane, unimaginative dialogue in the guise of parody: “I’ll beat you like a red-headed step-child and skull-fuck your corpse”” is one, badly delivered, example. It is a film where pomposity sits uneasily with overstylization and (literally in one instance) toilet-humour.
Land of the Blind is set in a violent, powerful dystopia in an unspecified time or place yet appears, in costume, allusion and concerns, as if it were an amalgamation of the last 100 years. It casts a mixture of British and American actors, possibly hinting at a future joint superpower. It takes inspiration from various fictional sources (most obviously George Orwell’s 1984) and politically volatile periods (Nazi Germany, Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini) and takes swipes at targets as varied as: ineffective intellectualism; consumerism; and Hollywood itself.
The title refers to the film’s recurring use of “The Blind Men and the Elephant” fable. The allegory originates from a disputable source, although an early telling can be found in the teachings of Buddha, and John Godfrey Saxe famously turned it into a poem. In it, a number of blind men encounter an elephant for the first time, and dependent of which part of the beast they lay their hands on, each offers a different interpretation of what an elephant is. The men then proceed to argue about which of them has uncovered the truth. It is used to illustrate the differing, blinkered perspectives of individuals and show how each is ignorant and resistant to the other’s view. In Land of the Blind, Edwards depicts a world where intolerance and a lack of interest in one’s fellows has led to a society on the brink of destruction.
The film begins with newsreel footage of Maximilian the First, formerly known as the “glorious leader”, on the 10th anniversary of his death. His progeny and heir, the asinine, irascible man-child Maximilian II (Tom Hollander) revels in his position as “master of all that crawls upon the earth, or swims in the sea”. He bears comparison with George W. Bush, not least in his clumsy, immature use of language. For example when he refers to the perceived terrorists as “really bad guys” it recalls Bush describing the September 11th perpetrators as “folks”. He forms one half of a demented double-act with his vainglorious, pseudo-mystic, ex-actress wife (Lara Flynn Boyle). Theirs is a symbiotic union; each fulfilling the other’s twisted fantasy. She provides for him the devoted mother-replacement (his pregnant mother fought off his father’s attempt at brutal home-abortion-by-coathanger), and she in turn gets the child she craves.
Maximilian’s rival is the appositely named John Thorne (Donald Sutherland), a leftist playwright-agitator, imprisoned for terrorism. The character appears to, at least in part, be based on Vaclav Havel, the last President of Czechoslovakia and first of the Czech Republic, who started out as a radical writer and dramatist and was repeatedly incarcerated for his early political action (though crucially, unlike Thorne, Havel was an advocate of non-violent resistance). Thorne is to Maximilian II; comparably hubristic yet contrastingly erudite, and seemingly dedicated to his righteous cause: to liberate the population from dictatorial oppression. He succeeds in proselytising his, again suitably monikered, prison guard Joe (Ralph Fiennes) to the point where, on Thorne’s release (an attempt by the ruling party to rid him of his oppressed-man-of the-people cachet), Joe facilitates his entrance to the imperial residence where he proceeds to murder the ruling couple, installing himself as successor.
Joe is our narrator, yet remains largely unknowable. Our lack of background knowledge deprives us of any definite understanding of his motivation for switching sides. In fact the most likely explanation is that his government army training has instilled in him an obedience and, on appropriate occasion, a will to, as Joe says himself, “do something, even if it’s wrong” (a real army training technique), Thorne is able to re-programme Joe to exploit this mindset and so Joe proves a malleable soldier to both sides.
Despite Joe’s initial optimism after the coup d’etat (“When Junior fell, it was like the first spring after 1,000 winters”), Thorne turns out to be a dangerously incompetent leader. Once in power, for all his rhetoric, he is alternately indolent and spiteful; disinclined to redress his predecessor’s wrongs (for no other apparent reason than the assumption that absolute power corrupts) and merely apes his despotism. When Joe refuses to sign a loyalty act, he is thrown into a re-education camp as an “enemy of the people”. Considering his initial adherence to the orders of, first one side, then the other, Joe proves a surprisingly recalcitrant prisoner. He is beaten and with his fellow prisoners is forced to repeatedly chant the non-sequitur “A stale piece of bread is better than nothing and nothing is better than a big juicy steak; therefore a stale piece of bread is better than a big juicy steak”. Although the film improves in quality and focus during these latter prison sequences, the over-riding impression relates to this mantra. That is; perhaps only upon repeat viewings will audiences become convinced that this film, rife with trite arguments and muddled message, is not merely a stale piece of bread, if you will, but in fact something more meaty.
The extras consist of a short documentary on the film’s production, “Anatomy of a Thriller” (which mainly comprises of the stars and director singing each other’s praises), the original theatrical trailer, and a Coming Soon ‘reel’ which features a single trailer for The Groomsmen.