1986

The Mosquito Coast: The Origins of Totalitarianism

November 26, 1986
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Review

Review by James Banks

  • Quite a few more people have seen Peter Weir’s Witness than his The Mosquito Coast. Perhaps this is because watching a movie about the charms of tradition is easier than watching one about the terrors of modernity. But both are messages that we need to hear. After all, being wise as a serpent is as much an injunction as being innocent as a dove.

    Of the making of many dystopian books—and movies—there is no end. And the popularity of The Hunger Games tetralogy testifies as to why. There is plenty of cheese to squeak out of the genre. Nonetheless, one of the lies of the genre’s more popular works is that the line separating good from evil cuts between societies and classes—e.g. the Morlocks and Eloi in The Time Machine or the Capitol and the 12 districts in the Hunger Games. But it is in this regard more than any other that The Mosquito Coast offers a more believable portrait of the origins of despotism than any other film of the 20th century’s final quarter.

    Allie Fox (Harrison Ford), The Mosquito Coast’s ironically-named despot, is not Stalin or Hitler; he is no bodiless concept like Orwell’s Big Brother. Rather, he is a man whose dominion extends no further than his immediate family—and during brief periods, followers who are fleetingly impressed. But, despite his relative failure to impress, unlike other idiosyncratic, unstable and self-indulgent dictators (yes, that means you, Kim Jung Un), Allie Fox is unquestionably an impressive figure: He is capable of building a machine that can generate ice from fire and, though an atheist, can call out a tropical shirt-wearing missionary who misquotes the gospels.

    Nonetheless, as accomplished as Allie is, it is not surprising that few should deign to follow him on his utopian mission of pursuing the American dream in the jungles of Central America. He represents the essence American individualism and self-reliance, but is nonetheless prone to hate everything about his home country because of what he perceives as its failures to live up to his standards. As he explains to his son, Charlie (River Phoenix), in the rant that opens the movie, America has become a country where people “buy junk, sell junk and eat junk” and all of that junk is probably made in Japan anyway (a testament to the film’s 1986 release date).

    His natural solution is to shuttle his wife (played by Helen Mirren) and children off to Belize to establish a new society; one which he claims will survive the oncoming troubles, though he does not define what those troubles are. Life in the wilderness of Belize (where Allie buys “a town” consisting of a few derelict shacks) might be difficult, but Allie seems capable of making it livable for his wife and children as well as the locals who follow him. His ice market in the middle of the tropics and his achievement in building a settlement with not only self-sustaining farming but also air conditioning is enough for the locals who, in many cases, have never seen a bicycle.

    It is only after Allie’s ambitions stretch passed self-sufficiency that his despotic edge begins to emerge. Like Joseph Banks among the Tahitians, Allie desires to find the “natural people” in the wilderness and, by introducing them to the wonders of scientific man, demonstrate to them that, as a god he might be too small, but he also might be all that there is. The trek through the wilderness to show “the savages” (as Allie calls them) ice for the first time turns into the moment when the less committed followers begin to fall behind.

    But as the world becomes more stubborn in resisting Allie’s ambitions, he becomes more determined to see them realized. This becomes apparent after the destruction of his settlement (after a botched attempt to rid it of squatting guerillas) and the family’s journey down river to the eponymous coast of the title. It is there—after being petitioned by his wife and children to let them return to America—that his determination becomes grounded less in idiosyncratic political views than outright propaganda that would probably make everyone except Josef Stalin blush. In a lie that no one believes, he claims that America has been destroyed by nuclear war and, from here on out, the family has to make their life in the wilderness or else abandon any hope of living at all. Though no one believes this, his family does not wish to abandon him (and because survival in the jungle sometimes requires making peace with the Leviathan), they play along, at least until nature comes to reclaim the freegan civilization that Allie attempts to build on the edge of the water.

    It is worth noting that part of what makes the film so powerful is Peter Weir’s casting of Harrison Ford in the lead role. Ford is perhaps the last embodiment of that American gravitas that made movie stars of John Wayne, Charleton Heston, Clint Eastwood and Tom Selleck: All have varying levels of acting chops, but their stardom was driven more by the fact that the characters they played represent American aspirations such as individualism and self-confidence. And, despite his insanity in The Mosquito Coast, the fact that Allie is played by Ford makes his idealism much easier to digest than if he were played by anyone else. Many of his frustrations, though much more intense than our own, are frustrations with which we can empathize. His hubris is American hubris. And, as unappealing as that hubris is from a distance, one cannot help but think that, if America were to elect a dictator, he might look something like Allie Fox.

    But idealism, when taken to its broadest wavelength, eventually causes everyone to lose his sense of humanity. And by the film’s dénouement, as Allie and his family ride further into the rainforest on an improvised boat with donated sparkplugs and hardly enough clothes to cover their backs, it is clear that, for all his ingenuity and imagination, Allie cannot repair the world’s rough edges. As he says in some of his final words in the film—while lying paralyzed on a raft bound for the ocean—“Nature’s crooked, I wanted right angles, straight lines,” something everyone desires though few devote their lives (or sacrifice the lives of others) to fashion them.

    But even as Allie realizes his limitations, he still seems unable to surrender to them. His last question to his family is whether they are still traveling upriver, and, though they are within a mile of the coast, his wife still resignedly tells him “Yes”.  The notion that he is traveling upriver, even after he is unable to walk or move anything more than his head, is a fantasy that he has to believe in—a small but poignant depiction of life outside of the divine comedy. Like so many tragic figures before him, Allie is afflicted by the desire to live anywhere else, but unable to survive anywhere but here—a world which, in his son’s words would “seem limitless”, if only he had spent less time trying to subject it. As the film makes clear, Allie may be a genius, but he is less of an innovator than he thought.

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  • Release Date
    November 26, 1986
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