Econ. in Film
October 27, 1999
Men with Money
In his movie Men With Guns, John Sayles shows his viewer many participants in the feudal, agricultural system of an unnamed Latin American country. The peasants who work the land present, as are soldiers who terrorize the laborers, guerillas and others who try to escape it, and a priest who had been targeted by the military. Even people who are not directly involved in the feudal system are portrayed in Sayles' film; the protagonist is a city doctor who had no idea what life was like in the rural areas. American tourists wander Sayles' countryside, ignorant of the horror that is taking place literally all around them. One group of active participants in any feudal system are conspicuously absent from Sayles' screen; while the plantation owners are mentioned, they are never physically present on the rural landscape. That they are absent, at least in Sayle's film, but always seemingly in control is significant and is important in one's understanding of how feudal systems are reproduced.
The viewer does come face-to-face with a feudal lord, or one at least connected to plantation owners, but he is at a nice restaurant in the city not on the fields in the country. Over the course of the meal he tells Umberto, the doctor, that Umberto knows nothing about the Indians and that people from the city should not try to help the Indians in any way. "The more you do for them," the plantation owner warns, "the lazier they get." The only other image of the peasants comes from a military general who describes the Indians in need of protection from guerrillas. Because the only contact that city people have with the plantation system is through the point of view of plantation owners, they have little idea about the Indians' lives and how they are treated by feudal lords; without accurate information, people from the outside have little interest in changing the feudal system.
After Umberto leaves the city for the country, he loses contact with feudal lords. Instead, he has to deal with the violent reality of the feudal system in the rural areas. In the country, where people work and live on plantations, plantation owners are absent. What is ever present is a military bent on terrorizing laborers. As Umberto's travelling companion, a former soldier, tells Umberto, the army exists for the plantation owners, feudal lords, who depend on force and violence to coerce peasants to work. The army moves Indians off arable land, rapes women, destroys the Indians' means of livelihood and kills those who are not working for the plantation owners. All the while, plantation owners stay in the city.
The army helps create the conditions necessary to the feudal system. The dispossession of Indians from the best land was the army's doing. After Indians are kicked off their land, they must go elsewhere to work. Because the plantation owners are the only employers in the area and the only people with land, if peasants want to work, they must go to the plantations. The feudal lords are absent in the dispossession of land. The Indians can not directly blame the plantation owners for their situation. The "men with guns" have the power, but there is little doubt who provides the army with its guns.
Once people are off their land, the army continues to take the managerial role of coercing the peasants to work. Again, one might think that the act of managing labor would belong to the owner of the land or a hired overseer (if overseers exist in the economic system depicted by Sayles, he chose not to include them). Instead, the army forces peasants to work. Violence is necessary because the laborers have little incentive to work. They do not see the rewards of a good crop and the plantation owners' dependence on commodity cash crops has caused a shortage of food. Moreover, the only time peasants can feel any degree of safety is when they are working in the fields for the plantation owners. Thus, peasants are taught to see working as an act of personal survival, if not an economic choice.
The army at the control of the feudal lords further reproduces feudalism by discouraging all forms are social or religious organization. Any democratic organization, such as the communal system practiced by the Corn People, is destroyed. All outsiders viewed as wanting to help the Indians, such as priests and doctors, are killed. Any one who tries to educate the Indians in health, literacy or spiritual matters is as good as dead in Sayles' film. The organization or individual killed does not have to be encouraging the end of the existing economic or social structure. Their mere presence as people who are not directly answerable to the army or feudal lords is a perceived threat. The army controls the information that the peasants receive. Perhaps, if outside information leaked into the area, Indians would learn of the choice to leave the area or that the price of the commodity they are growing is not as low as the feudal lords had led them to believe. Again, because the feudal lords are not directly involved in the killings or expulsions, the deaths are not seen as issues of economics but of ruthless violence. Still the beneficiaries of the violence are the people who control the economic system.
The plantation owners do not even rely on outsiders to staff the army. The upper echelon of military power is controlled by people who have never worked on the plantations, but the majority of grunt soldiers are former serfs themselves. The plantation owners, through the army, have created so few economic choices for people that the only possibility for getting out of the feudal system alive (and in the army, even that is questionable) is to join the army. Soldiers are never sent to their home area, but the threat of returning to a life of starvation and fear is always present. Again, it is the army and its politics of death that emphasize that threat, not the plantation owners.
Eventually, a peasant uprising may overthrow the army in the region. While the plantation owners would certainly be against this, they are not physically in danger in the way that members of the army would be. The plantation owners are in the city not the country. They are funding the military and the government. Moreover, they control what the outside world knows about the plantation system through their control of the media. The army could be replaced and outside forces could be utilized. The plantation owners only use people they feel are disposable if necessary.
Because they never see face-to-face the people who work for them, plantation owners can continue to see the use of force as the only way to maximize profits. However, even with the constant threat of violence, the workers are not as productive as they could be. They have no incentive for maximizing output. The woman who grew coffee is a good example. She was starving because she was not getting paid for her work. All she had to eat or feed her children was coffee. By starving their workers and killing those who in any way are not active participants in the feudal system, plantation owners are sacrificing profits.
Plantation owners are crucial participants in the feudal system John Sayles depicts in Men With Guns. Yet, the very people who benefit the most from feudalism are absent from the fields and from the movie. Their physical absence, however, only further demonstrates how much control they have on the economic and political systems that perpetuate feudalism. Through it all, the men with money control the men with guns.