Men With Guns is not so much a film about economic processes as it is a film about the effects of a certain economic system - feudalism. It is more a film about cultural and political processes than anything else, a film that deals in depth with the grave consequences of a country in Central or South America whose Indians are subjects to the knights - the “men with guns” - who control and terrorize their existence.
Cultural processes can be defined as the creation, or transfer, of knowledge. It is the way in which the rules of an economic system are communicated. In Men with Guns, the rules of the feudal economic system are translated through the men themselves. The “sugar people” or the “corn people” know their place in society because the army or the guerrillas tell them what it is through force. Every Indian that the doctor meets tells him that they are subject to the men with guns, and that they are in control. As long as one has access to a gun, then that individual becomes a knight, no longer a feudal serf, and it does not matter if that person has began life as a white person or an Indian.
Because the “men with guns” happen to be the army, the army acts as feudal knights, forcing the serfs to live in extreme poverty and fear of death, torturing who they like with no consequences, and moving entire villages. They are able to do this because of the political system in the rural part of the country. Political processes can be defined as the rules, or laws if they are established by a legitimate government, that are enforced within a political system. In the feudal system in “Men with Guns,” the rules are made by the army. In the feudal system, the rules are made legitimate purely through the ownership of firearms. It appears as though the people are helpless politically because the political system is the army.
There is a feeling in the movie that two different political systems exist within the country, and that most definitely two different economic systems are present. The country can be split into two different cultures - the city and the rural areas. The city operates much like that of any other Western city, and the doctor appears to live with relative freedom and economic prosperity. The Indians in the rural area have none of this freedom or prosperity - in fact, the society that the doctor lives in is almost completely opposite from the society that the Indians live in. The people in the city are very ignorant about the real conditions of the other parts of their country. When the doctor says that he will go to the mountains, the basic response from the city people is: “Why would you want to do that?” They view the mountains as a separate world, where the laws of the city do not exist, where guerrillas run wild. They do not know that it is their own government that is making the conditions in the mountains so awful.
An economic system that exists in the city that most definitely does not exist in the mountains is the doctor’s own self-employment. He controls the medical resources in his office as well as working directly with the patients. The doctor is powered by his own sense of motivation - evident by the time and consideration he puts into teaching his students - and this is what replaces the contracts that would exist in a feudal society. Unlike the serfs of the mountain, the doctor is not managed through threat and fear, but by his own self management. There are other evidences of capitalism and self employment in the city, from the stalls where the doctor is trying on glasses to the restaurant where he talks to his daughter and son-in-law.
The feudal system in “Men with Guns” is similar to that in “Matewan,” except more extreme. The coal mine workers would live if they abided by the Stone Mountain rules, not including the hazards of the job. But the serfs in “Men with Guns” do not have this freedom - their knights are unpredictable and ever present. The army would rape and murder for no reason. Although the actions of the knights in “Matewan” were certainly not acceptable, they were not always around - it was only when the workers attempted to unionize that there started to be trouble. The serfs in “Men with Guns” are in danger constantly, simply by existing and being part of the feudal system.
John Sayles gave a terrifying, but accurate, portrayal of the economic and political system in South and Central America. While “Matewan” dealt with something that happened more than seventy years ago, “Men with Guns” is a modern story. Feudalism is not as evident to the average American of today, but that does not mean that it is not present. “Men with Guns” makes that presence a reality, bringing the plight of the feudal serfs in our neighboring countries to the big screen, and into the heart of suburbia.
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