THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007, Director Paul Thomas Anderson)

© 2019, by M. Keith Booker

Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood drew considerable critical praise when it was first published and has only gained in stature since that time. It is widely regarded as one of the greatest films of the first two decades of the twenty-first century. In 2017, critics for the New York Times named it the greatest film of the century to that time. The film has typically been described as an adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, and that novel indeed sheds extremely important light on the film. However, the adaptation is so loose and partial that it is probably better to say that the film was inspired by the novel. One of the major differences between the film and the novel is that the former (unlike the less narrowly focused novel) focuses very strongly on one character, the oilman Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), who substitutes for a secondary character in the novel. Day-Lewis’s impressive performance (which won him a Best Actor Oscar) significantly reinforces this focus on Plainview, making him the center not only of all the film’s action but the key to virtually all interpretive approaches to the film. In particular, Day-Lewis’s Plainview, while a vividly realized individual character, is also an allegorical figure (somewhat in the mode of Charles Foster Kane) whose story stands in for the early story of the oil industry in America, which in turn serves as a powerful commentary on the nature and history of American capitalism.

The Historical and Political Background of There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood is an extremely artful film that gains a great deal of power from stylistic flourishes and brilliant cinematography—cinematographer Robert Elswit rightly won an Oscar for the film. It is also an extremely self-conscious film that draws on a number of important predecessors. Robert Altman (to whom the film is dedicated) has often been identified as an important influence, for example, though perhaps the most important stylistic influence is Stanley Kubrick. Ryan Gilbey, for example, has called There Will Be Blood “the best Kubrick film that Kubrick never made” (45).

A film with stark and striking visuals.

Despite such conscious artistry, however, There Will Be Blood is strongly rooted in early-twentieth-century American history—though it might be a bit more accurate to say that it is rooted in Sinclair’s novel, which is itself rooted in American history, and specifically in the history of the American oil industry. In particular, the character of James Arnold Ross in the novel (the character who roughly corresponds to the film’s Daniel Plainview) is loosely based on real-life oilman Edward L. Doheny, the founder of the Pan American Petroleum & Transport Company. In particular, much of the novel was inspired by the notorious Teapot Dome scandal that plagued the administration of U.S. President Warren G. Harding. This scandal involved the improper leasing of government lands for oil production by Doheny and his company and by Harry Sinclair (no relation to Upton), of Mammoth Oil. Interior Secretary Albert Bacon Fall was convicted of accepting bribes in relation to this scandal. Sinclair was acquitted of bribery charges but was convicted of witness tampering in his bribery trial. Doheny came out of the scandal looking particularly ruthless: not only was he acquitted of offering a bribe (which involved a large interest-free loan to Fall), but he foreclosed on Fall’s home when that loan was not repaid.

In Oil! Sinclair makes clear his view that the oil industry is particularly rapacious, even though he was not in a position to realize the environmental destruction that would be wrought upon the world by that industry and its products. The industry is depicted as being particularly exploitative at every stage during the book. Then, as the industry begins to go global in the final segments of the book, Sinclair depicts it as a plague upon the earth. In the book’s final sentence, Sinclair’s narrator declares oil to be a “black and cruel demon” that stalks the earth, bringing whole nations to ruin with “visions of unearned wealth, and the opportunity to enslave and exploit labor” (548).

Sinclair had good reason to choose the oil industry as his critical focus. Doheny, for example, was representative of a certain ruthless attitude that obtained in the American oil industry at the time, from John D. Rockefeller on down. It was, in fact, a particular rough-and-tumble period for American capitalism as a whole. Many fortunes were made and lost as American capitalism underwent dramatic transformations, some of which involved excesses that helped to cause the Depression of the 1930s. The action of There Will Be Blood essentially traverses the first three decades of the twentieth century, which means that it takes place during this crucial time of transformation in American capitalism, leading to sweeping changes in American society as a whole.

As William Leach documents in great detail in his book Land of Desire, the most important underlying structural transformation in American capitalism during this period saw a shift from classic, nineteenth-century, production-oriented capitalism to a new, more modern consumerist phase that would not become fully mature until the long 1950s. According to Leach, the cardinal features of the new culture that arose in conjunction with this new phase of capitalism were “acquisition and consumption as the means of achieving happiness; the cult of the new; the democratization of desire; and money value as the predominant measure of all value in society” (3).

Among other things, the early-twentieth-century transformation in American capitalism made it a far more formidable force, allowing it to route all competition for the hearts and minds of Americans. I will discuss below the way in which the turn to consumerism represented a turn away from the asceticist traditions of Puritanism, which had hitherto been powerful influences on the making of the American mind. For now, however, I would like to note that the rise of consumerism was also accompanied by a defeat of socialism as a genuine alternative to capitalism so thorough that it is today difficult to envision the extent to which, in the early part of the twentieth century, socialism was gaining considerable traction in America.

Much of the most important American literature dealing with the first decades of the twentieth century specifically addresses the defeat of American socialism during this period, with John Dos Passos’s magisterial U.S.A. Trilogy (1930–1936) being perhaps the most important single example. But the defeat of socialism was also an important part of the historical background to the novels of Upton Sinclair, himself a democratic socialist who ran for governor of California in 1934 and won the nomination of the Democratic Party, but was soundly defeated by the Republican incumbent, who conducted (with the support of the Hollywood studios and other big California businesses) one of the dirtiest campaigns in American political history.

Before entering politics, Sinclair had made himself one of the most important American novelists in the first thirty years of the twentieth century, while his worker-friendly exposés of conditions in twentieth-century American industries had a political impact that went beyond literature. His best known and most successful novel in this regard is The Jungle (1906), which reveals the horrible conditions that obtained in early-twentieth-century meatpacking plants and which led to significant new government regulation of the meatpacking industry. Sinclair would also take on “resource” industries, such as coal mining in King Coal (1917) and the oil industry in Oil!.

Socialism plays an important role in Sinclair’s fiction, particularly in Oil!, in which the central protagonist is not James Arnold Ross, but Ross’s son Bunny, who becomes extensively involved in a vital socialist movement that stands, in the early years of the twentieth century, as a genuine alternative to capitalism. Among other things, Bunny strongly sympathizes with the Bolsheviks in Russia and with radical American labor unions. By the end of the book, he has married a fellow socialist and they have decided to devote themselves to founding a socialist educational institution in America.

Oil! details the growing globalization of the oil industry, especially in its delineation of the scramble among American, British, French, and Dutch oil companies to gain control of the oil-rich spoils left open for exploitation in the wake of World War I. It also details the unfair treatment of workers in the oil industry, which leads the workers to attempt (unsuccessfully) to organize collective resistance to their exploitation. This exploitation leads Sinclair to devote much of his book to an extended (and very pro-Soviet) account of conditions in the postrevolutionary Soviet Union—and of the near-hysterical attempts of the media and others in the United States to discredit the Soviet Union during the “Red Scare” of 1919­–1921.

All of this material is missing from There Will Be Blood, which opts to focus more on the personal story of Plainview, making Plainview a stand-in for American capitalism as a whole and (by eliminating socialism and labor activism) making the historical victory of that capitalism seem more inevitable than perhaps it really was. That Plainview himself comes to a bad end can then be taken as an indication of the way in which individuals are disposable under capitalism, which proceeds unabated in his historical evolution, independent of the fates of specific individuals.

There Will Be Blood begins in 1898, when Plainview is a lone silver prospector struggling to wrest riches out of the bowels of the earth through the sweat of his own brow. This story of a hard-working individual battling against nature is a quintessentially American one, of course. Initially Plainview seems to have little success, but he continues to try, and (after a quick jump to 1902) he begins to have a bit more luck, this time in prospecting for oil. He then begins to build his oil business, to the point where he is sometimes able to compete with the giants of the industry, such as Standard Oil, the corporation that made its head, Rockefeller, synonymous with wealth in America. Standard Oil also became famous for unfairly suppressing competition to further its monopoly on oil, and it should be pointed out that most of Plainview’s work in the oil business in the film occurs after 1911, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Standard Oil to be an illegal monopoly and ordered it to be broken up into separate, smaller entities. As There Will Be Blood is set in California, Plainview would be dealing with Standard Oil of California, which eventually went on to become Chevron.[1]

It is partly because of Standard Oil that the oil industry has come to be synonymous for many with the most ruthless and exploitative forms of capitalism. And, while Plainview maintains an individualist streak that makes him unsuited to build a major corporate enterprise (and also informs his clear hatred for Standard Oil), he is certainly driven by strong competitive instincts. As he himself confesses at one point, “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.” This hostility toward most other people eventually leads him into murder; it also leads him into living in isolation in a large mansion he has built as a retreat from the outside world, again very much in the mode of Kane. It also makes it difficult for audiences to warm to the character, who is often shown engaged in unfair, or even sadistic, dealings with others. At the same time (thanks partly to Day-Lewis’s nuanced performance), Plainview is not simply a monster. He is ultimately monstrous, but he also displays what seem to be genuine moments of warmth, and most audiences will probably sympathize with those early parts in the film when he is struggling alone against the elements—or even in his later work, when he remains very much a hands-on oilman, working in the fields beside his employees.

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Oil Capitalism: Religion in There Will Be Blood

Plainview is sometimes given a more positive intonation because his enemies in There Will Be Blood are even more reprehensible than he. One of these, as I noted above, is Standard Oil, and Plainview’s entrepreneurial form of oil capitalism clearly seems more attractive in the film than the coldly inhuman nature of Standard Oil, especially if one is aware of Standard Oil’s real-world history. Plainview’s most important antagonist in the film, however, is not a rival capitalist but someone who is, in some ways, figured as a competitor to capitalism itself. That antagonist would be the evangelical preacher Eli Sunday, who—as played by Paul Dano—seems a very shady character (again, especially if one knows the real-world history of such evangelicals, who, if anything, have worse reputations for chicanery and exploitation than do capitalist corporations).

In some ways, Sunday and Plainview are virtual polar opposites who clash from the very beginning. Plainview is a big believer in the virtues of hard work; Sunday seems to have become a preacher partly to escape the hard labor of working on his family’s farm. To Plainview, Sunday is a charismatic figure who charms the ignorant locals with showmanship and spiritual sleight-of-hand, a style that Plainview cannot respect (even though he is willing to employ a reduced version of it himself). Meanwhile, when Plainview comes to the area of Little Boston, California, to drill for oil on the former Sunday farm, he comes into direct conflict with Sunday, who begins trying to lure Plainview’s workers to his church. Plainview refuses Sunday’s offer of blessing the first Little Boston oil well; then, when Sunday blames an accident at the well on the absence of this blessing, Plainview beats and publically humiliates the preacher. (Soon afterward, Sunday passes this beating and humiliation on to his own aging father, negating any sympathy for him we might have gained in this encounter with Plainview.)

Evangelist Eli Sunday.

Soon afterward, Plainview needs to run an oil pipeline through land owned by William Bandy (Hans Howes), a fanatical member of Sunday’s congregation. Bandy agrees, but only if Plainview will make peace with Sunday and agree to be baptized in Sunday’s church. Plainview goes through with the baptism, which Sunday makes as painful and humiliating as possible, turning the baptism essentially into a case of water-boarding. Sunday clearly believes he has now triumphed, but of course Plainview is just doing what he has to do for his business, and there is never any question that his “conversion” is a ruse.

Near the end of the film, Sunday comes to the now-reclusive Plainview in the bowling alley that is part of the vast mansion Plainview had dreamed of owning when he was an impoverished boy. Sunday offers to work with Plainview to drill for oil on the Bandy plot, Bandy having recently died. Plainview agrees, but only on the condition that Sunday will humiliate himself by declaring himself to be a false prophet and God to be a superstition. Sunday hesitates, then complies, thinking he will gain great wealth from the Bandy oil—money, it turns out, that he badly needs. Sunday thus humiliates himself in the interest of material gain, essentially duplicating the earlier scene in which Plainview had endured an abusive baptism in order to acquire the rights to lay his pipeline across that same Bandy property. Then Plainview, having forced Sunday to reveal that his faith is a ruse, taunts him by revealing that all of the oil under the Bandy property has doubtless already been extracted by the wells that surround it, leaving the property worthless.

The personal animosity between Plainview and Sunday also has broader, more allegorical implications, as a contest between capitalism and Protestantism, while at the same time suggesting that these two forces are merely two sides of the same coin, both designed to manipulate and confuse in the interest of exploitation and profit. Sunday and Plainview are similarly driven by the goal of routing their competition (even though their strategies in pursuit of this goal are very different), and the film makes clear its view that this ultimately negative goal leads only to destruction of rivals and (ultimately) of oneself. Little wonder, then, that, as the film ends, both Sunday and Plainview have essentially been destroyed, lying in a heap in the gutter (of a bowling lane).

Daniel Plainview slumps beside the bloodied body of Eli Sunday.

The intertwinement of capitalism and Protestantism in There Will Be Blood comes with substantial historical backing. As the pioneering German sociologist Max Weber pointed out long ago in his landmark book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (first published in German in 1904 and 1905 and first translated into English in 1930), while medieval Catholicism encouraged a rejection of the lures of the secular world, certain characteristics of early Protestantism (especially Puritanism and even more especially the Calvinist form of Puritanism) encouraged its adherents to go forth into that secular world seeking wealth and success. The emergence of Protestantism thus formed an important part of an ideological climate that enabled the early growth of capitalism, and Protestantism and capitalism then moved forward hand-in-hand, each reinforcing the other, despite their seeming (but superficial) incompatibilities.

The individualist emphasis of Protestantism as a whole (which emphasizes a direct, personal relationship with God, unmediated by the apparatus of the Church) provides one of the most important ideological underpinnings for the capitalist system, which so strongly relies on a spirit of competition among individuals. Meanwhile, for Weber, the crucial aspect of Calvinism that lends itself especially well to the kind of action in the world that facilitates capitalism is the doctrine of “predestination,” which holds that, from birth, certain individuals are destined to be among the elite, who will be saved, while others are destined to be among the preterite, who will be damned. There is absolutely nothing one can do—through faith, good deeds, or appeals to the Church or to God—to change one’s categorical destiny. The faithful, however, are obligated to act as if they are members of the elite and to go forth seeking material success in the world, which can then serve as evidence that they are among God’s favored elite. There are two key characteristics of Calvinist doctrine that directly support capitalism. First is the so-called “Protestant work ethic,” the notion that work is a noble end in itself, not merely an unpleasant means to secure survival. Second is the notion that the acquisition of wealth is also a noble undertaking, accompanied by the asceticist insistence that this wealth should not be used simply to secure material pleasures. Rather, it should be reinvested with the end of accumulating still more wealth, and stimulating still more action in the world, and so on.

A key result of all of this emphasis on secular action is the gradual enlistment of all of the resources of the world in the interest of the generation of wealth, thus converting all aspects of life in the world into economic assets. This development, for Weber, is the culmination of a long historical process of “elimination of magic from the world which had begun with the Hebrew prophets, and in conjunction with Hellenistic scientific thought, had repudiated all magical means to salvation as superstition and sin” (Weber 105). But this Calvinist removal of magic from everyday life, while originally driven by individualist entrepreneurial zeal, and while breaking the stranglehold of the medieval Catholic Church on the minds of Europe, did not simply lead to a breakdown in all forms of institutional control:

“The Reformation meant not the elimination of the Church’s control over everyday life, but rather the substitution of a new form of control for the previous one. It meant the repudiation of a control which was very lax, at that time scarcely perceptible in practice, and hardly more than formal, in favour of a regulation of the whole of conduct which, penetrating to all departments of private and public life, was infinitely burdensome and earnestly enforced” (36). And, ultimately, this new, more pervasive form of regulation would extend far beyond religion to include the growth of complex corporate structures that dominate the economy and complex modes of social control that extend into virtually every aspect of modern life[2].

All of this is particularly relevant to American history, in which the New England Pilgrims (who were, in fact, Calvinist Puritans) have played such an important role. It is no accident, for example, that Weber (who visited the United States in 1904 when he was still writing The Protestant Ethic) was fascinated with America—or that he used Benjamin Franklin as his central example of a thinker whose ideas embodied what Weber calls the “spirit of capitalism.” On the other hand, There Will Be Blood is set at a time (running roughly from 1898 to the mid-to-late 1920s) whenthe sort of classical, production-oriented, nineteenth-century capitalism described by Weber as aligned with Calvinism was in the process of morphing into a very different consumerist form that, among other things, disavowed the earlier emphasis on asceticism in a favor of a celebration of the pleasures to be gained via material consumption. In addition, the California setting of There Will Be Blood is a far cry from Puritan New England. Nevertheless, Weber’s analysis provides some important insight into the film. For one thing, it points to the way in which the conquest of the West (and the closing of the frontier) formed an important part of the background to the rise of American consumer capitalism. For another, it helps to illuminate the contest between Plainview and Sunday in important ways.

Viewed through Weber, we can see that, as his career begins, Plainview epitomizes the individualism, the work ethic, and the asceticism that lay at the heart of Calvinism. He is driven to succeed mostly just in order to succeed. Later, however, he turns bitterly away from the world and retreats into the sensual cocoon of his elaborately-appointed mansion, losing all purpose in his life and spending his days in an alcoholic haze. By the 1920s, it is not Plainview but the highly corporate Standard Oil that epitomizes the spirit of American capitalism, leaving Plainview to withdraw from a business world that has left him and his pioneer spirit behind. At the same time, while Sunday’s denomination is never identified, it is clear that he is not a Calvinist. He is, in fact, little more than a stage magician, a huckster, practicing the same kind of showmanship that is associated on a larger scale with figures such as P. T. Barnum—a figure who epitomizes the kind of embrace of spectacle that also provided important background to the rise of consumer capitalism.

Indeed, when Sunday approaches Plainview for that final, climactic confrontation, he reveals that he has now become a radio evangelist, suggesting that his ministry is now more about show business than ever[3]. When he announces the death of old Bandy, he notes that Bandy’s farm has been inherited by Bandy’s handsome grandson, who is eager to come to Hollywood to try his hand in the film industry—an industry that was also crucial to the rise of consumer capitalism in the U.S. Then Sunday specifically asks if Plainview would like to “have business with the Church of the Third Revelation in developing this lease on young Bandy’s thousand-acre tract.” Sunday does not say so, but one can surmise that Sunday has obtained the oil rights to Bandy’s land in return for a payment that will allow young Bandy to move to Hollywood. From what we know about Sunday, we can also surmise that he has obtained these rights for an unreasonably low sum, suggesting the way in which the lure of Hollywood, combined with the manipulation of religion, has led Bandy to make a seemingly bad deal[4]. The joke, however, is on Sunday, because Plainview then reveals that the oil rights to the Bandy property are worthless. Shocked, Sunday replies that he is desperate for cash due to his own “sins” and to “the recent panic in our economy.”[5] Plainview then attacks Sunday and eventually bludgeons him to death with a bowling pin. The long-term enemies, who have also served as uneasy, mutually reinforcing bedfellows, have finally ended their partnership. As Jason Sperb puts it, “In There Will Be Blood, evangelical Christianity is depicted as being just as corrupt, obsessive, and greedy as the oil industry. Yet the film’s shockingly brutal finale posits that organized religion exists only as long as it serves big business’s interests by producing a contented, distracted workforce” (192).

As Sperb notes, this message must have seemed especially apt in 2007, in the closing years of the presidency of George W. Bush, a former oilman who had never shown any compunction about using declarations of religious faith for political advantage. I would argue, however, that the treatment of religion in There Will Be Blood is a bit more complex than a simple demonstration that, under capitalism, religion serves as the opiate of the masses (as Marx would put it) or Protestantism serves as an ideological prop for capitalism (as Weber would put it). Plainview by this final scene clearly does not serve as an allegorical stand-in for state-of-the-art American capitalism. He is very much out of step with the times, a rough-hewn individualist who is unable to function in the highly regimented corporate environment of modern capitalism. The radio evangelist Sunday is actually more strategically in step than is Plainview with the emergent consumer capitalism of the 1920s, even if his tactical errors have led him to near ruin—just as excessive pursuit of wealth under this new form of capitalism would drive the entire system into a state of collapse by the end of the decade. Indeed, one might even argue that the seemingly excessive animosity that Plainview bears toward Sunday emanates at least partly from a sense (perhaps unconscious) that Sunday is a sort of stand-in for the modern behemoths such as Standard Oil, with which Plainview, however much he has accomplished, cannot hope to compete—but which he also refuses to join.

Daniel Plainview and American Capitalism

In one key scene of There Will Be Blood, we see Plainview in a direct negotiation with representations of Standard Oil, who offer him a million dollars for his Little Boston drilling rights, accompanied by a subtle threat that they will see to it that he is unable to ship his oil from Little Boston via the railways, which they dominate. Plainview’s response is telling. First, he suggests that they should do the hard work required to find their own oil, rather than simply trying to cash in on his work, which of course runs directly against the grain of corporations such as Standard Oil, which exist precisely in order to profit from the labor of others. Thus, Plainview’s comment suggests a fundamental hostility toward the exploitative nature of capitalism itself, ignoring the way in which he himself has exploited others in order to gain control of those Little Boston oilfields in the first place. Then, however, Plainview shows the true (pathological depth) of his hatred for the corporate capitalism that Standard Oil embodies. When the Standard Oil man points out that, by turning his oilfields over to Standard, he will have more time to spend with his family, Plainview erupts at what he interprets as an attempt to tell him how to run his family. Then he promises to come to the man’s house while he sleeps and cut his throat.

The smug Standard Oil men negotiate with Plainview.

The Standard man is, understandably, shocked at this reaction, as, no doubt, are many first-time viewers of the film. Perhaps some of the vehemence of this reaction comes from Plainview’s sense of guilt that he has sent his adopted son, deafened in an oilfield accident, away to a boarding school. But it is surely the case that Standard Oil represents something that Plainview fundamentally detests. Of course, it is not clear until later in the film that Plainview is, in fact, quite capable of actually carrying out this threat, which is even more shocking. Discovering that the man who has claimed to be his long-lost brother is an impostor, Plainview murders him in cold blood. Then, at the end of the film, he murders Eli Sunday.

Meanwhile, this angry encounter with the men from Standard Oil leads directly to Plainview’s killing of Sunday, because it forces him to build a pipeline to ship his oil out of Little Boston, thus avoiding the Standard-controlled railway. And this decision leads to his humiliation at the hands of Sunday, which is also clearly part of the background to his killing of Sunday at the end of the film. At the same time, Plainview’s animosity toward Standard Oil is certainly not to be interpreted as animosity toward capitalism in general, even if he is never quite able to catch up to the changes undergone by the capitalist system in the early years of the twentieth century.

This is not to say, however, that Plainview is entirely an embodiment of nineteenth-century individualist pioneering. He is, in fact, a sort of transitional figure whose personal style has a number of modern characteristics, even though he is never able to become fully modern. In particular, while he is willing to perform hard physical labor, he is also, like Sunday, something of a huckster and a showman who is willing even to use his own adopted son as a prop in order to try to win the confidence of the gullible townspeople of Little Boston so that he can gain the rights to the oil on their land at unfairly low prices[6].

There Will Be Blood and the Western

One of the reasons why There Will Be Blood is such a powerful and effective film is that it casts its critique of modern American capitalism within a framework that clearly evokes the genre of the Western. Perhaps the most American of all genres, the Western is specifically about the taming of the American West, which is synonymous with the building of the United States as a modern nation[7]. And There Will Be Blood clearly resides within the Western genre in a number of ways, beyond the simply fact of its California setting. But There Will Be Blood is a very special kind of Western—often referred to as the “waning of the West” film—that takes place after the Western frontier has essentially already been conquered. Alternatively, Christopher Sharrett considers There Will Be Blood to be a “twilight Western”; for him, films in this category, which is sometimes also called a “neo-Western,” “relocate concepts of the western in a contemporary setting to meditate on the disintegration of American life” (261). Actually, Sharrett discusses There Will Be Blood in conjunction with the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men (2007), which actually meets his definition of the twilight Western much better, given that it is set for than half a century later than Anderson’s film. In any case, Sharrett notes that both of these fine films employ the Western genre to focus their shared political message, which “takes on questions about foundational assumptions of the United States; despite the differing time-frames of their narratives, both Anderson and the Coens share the idea that America was ‘always already’ condemned by the nature of its assumptions” (262).

For Sharrett, There Will Be Blood seems too concerned with its own aesthetics to deliver this message entirely effectively. He is especially concerned with the elimination of the socialist elements in Oil!, which is certainly a valid concern. Indeed, the weakest aspect of There Will Be Blood as a political film that critiques capitalism is its failure to suggest any sort of alternative to the capitalist system. I would argue, however, that Sharrett (despite calling attention to the film’s relation to the Western genre) underestimates the extent to which the film’s subversive use of this generic connection reinforces its political message, something it has in common with a number of “revisionist” Westerns, such as Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971). The classic Western, after all, consistently romanticizes the conquest of the West, reinforces the romance of this conquest with stirring narratives of heroism that take place within gorgeous natural landscapes. Moreover, as Slotkin particularly emphasizes, this conquest is typically romanticized as a victory over “savage” foes (especially Native Americans).

The Western landscapes of “There Will Be Blood” are often barren–and might include automobiles.
Even when the landscapes are relatively attractive, they are often obscured by oil derricks.

There Will Be Blood is notably free of all of these romantic elements. Native Americans are absent, already virtually exterminated by the westward expansion of American capitalism. Landscapes are present in good measure, but they are generally bleak and colorless, or even blighted by oilfields, one of the most environmentally destructive installations in human history. And, with figures such as Plainview and Sunday dominating the film, there are certainly no heroes or heroic quests. There are only greedy, selfish men ruthlessly pursuing their own interests, regardless of whom they have to destroy along the way. By reversing the terms of the classic Western, There Will Be Blood suggests that there is a systemic flaw in capitalism itself (especially when supported by narratives of American exceptionalism) that renders the kind of romance central to the Western quixotic and irrelevant. Moreover, this last point is one that cannot be fully appreciated unless There Will Be Blood is contrasted with the celebratory messages contained in the classic Western and viewed in parallel with the revisionist Western. And Sharrett might be correct that one of the reasons why this support is needed is that Anderson’s film might well be so aesthetically impressive as to partly obscure its political message. On the other hand, one could also argue that the aesthetics of There Will Be Blood are ultimately crucial to its impact, because they ensure that the film will continue to be viewed for decades to come.


Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. Vintage-Random House, 1979.

Gilbey, Ryan. “Power, Corruption and Lies,” New Statesman (11 Feb. 2008), p. 45. Available on-line at Accessed December 16, 2019.

Gjelsvik, Ann. “Black Blood.” The Epic Film in World Culture. Ed. Robert Burgoyne. Routledge, 2010, pp. 296–312.

Leach, William. Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture. Vintage-Random House, 1993.

Phipps, Gregory Alan. “Making the Milk into a Milkshake: Adapting Upton Sinclair’s Oil! into P. T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.” Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol.43, No. 1, 2015, pp. 34–45.

Sharrett, Christopher. “American Sundown: No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood and the Question of the Twilight Western.” Popping Culture, 6th expanded edition, ed. Murray Pomeranceand John Sakeris. Pearson Learning Solutions, 2010, pp. 261–68.

Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. 1992. University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

Sperb, Jason. Blossoms & Blood: Postmodern Media Culture and the Films of Paul Thomas Anderson. University of Texas Press, 2013.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. 1904–1905. Trans. Talcott Parsons. 1930. London: Routledge, 1995.


[1] Standard Oil of California is historically important partly because its representatives were the first to discover oil in Saudi Arabia in 1938, going on to lead the development of the Saudi oilfields into the most productive in the world.

[2] Relevant here is the widely-cited work of Michel Foucault, who argues that the seemingly more humane ways in which modern power is exercised in the modern world, as opposed to the spectacular violence of power in the Middle Ages, is in fact much more efficient at controlling the behavior of individual citizens.

[3] Oil! includes much more detail about Eli Watkins’ attempt to cash in on the phenomenon of radio—as well as much more detail about the explosion of radio into prominence in American culture in the 1920s.

[4] The Hollywood film industry plays a much bigger role in Sinclair’s novel, which is especially interested in the rise of media culture in the 1920s as an aspect of the evolution of American capitalism. Phipps notes how Oil! “contains numerous criticisms of cinema, representing Hollywood as the embodiment of the gauche luxury and vacuity of oil capitalism” (38–39).

[5] One is tempted to see this panic as the stock market crash of 1929, but the panic in fact occurs in the 1927 novel, where Eli Watkins (who corresponds to the film’s Eli Sunday) has overextended his investments in real estate and is then unable to pay a note because of one of the periodic panics that plagued capitalism at the time. The novel has considerable fun with Eli’s downfall, wondering, for example, why the Lord hadn’t tipped him off about the panic (313).

[6] Oil! connects Ross quite directly with its version of Sunday (who is named Eli Watkins) by noting that Ross feels justified in cheating the locals, because, if he doesn’t, they will just get fleeced of their money by Watkins.

[7] Numerous observers have made this point. Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation is among the most cogent and effective of these accounts.