The Academy-award nominated film, “There Will Be Blood,” with a spectacular performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, who won Best Actor, is said to be based on Upton Sinclair’s 1926 novel, “Oil!” Unfortunately, it is not. The director, Paul Thomas Anderson, borrowed only three aspects of the novel – the setting (southern California), the industry (oil) and the time period (first quarter of the 20th century). He omitted the heart of Sinclair’s wonderful book: an exciting and insightful description of the struggle between labor and capital, and the way in which the owners control government, Hollywood and the press for their own ends. It’s an unintended and welcome consequence of the film’s success that many people are reading ‘Oil!”
A terrific novel, it follows two main characters – J. Arnold Ross, a self-made, hard-driving owner of several oil fields, a millionaire who only has two interests. One is getting oil out of the ground and making money, and the second is the well-being of his son, affectionately called “Bunny.” Father and son care deeply for each other. But as “Bunny” grows up and becomes more socially aware, he becomes close friends with Paul Watkins, a young carpenter who works for Ross Sr. Paul helps lead a strike in the oil fields and is radicalized by left-wing organizers. Bunny is sympathetic to the strikers and begins to listen carefully to Paul’s socialist ideas.
During WWI, the newspapers were filled with crude anti-Bolshevik propaganda, believed by most people. But not by Paul, who sees things clearly from the point of view of the workers:
“Bunny,” he said, “do you remember our oil-strike, and what we read about it in the papers? Suppose you have never been to Paradise [an oil field], and didn’t know the strikers, but had got all your impressions from the Angel City newspapers! Well, that’s the way it seems to me about Russia; this is the biggest strike in history, and the strikers have won, and seized the oil-wells.”
Paul, drafted into the U.S. army, is sent to Vladivostok in the Russian far east, part of an intervention by a dozen imperialist armies aimed at helping the Russian aristocracy, the White Army, overthrow the new workers government. His friend comes back in poor health and when Bunny asks what had been the purpose of his expedition, Paul replies:
“I’ve told you – to break the strike. The biggest strike in all history – the Russian workers against the landlords and the bankers; and we were to put the workers down, and the landlords and bankers up! . . . .[T]hey would get together and call themselves a government, and it was our job to rush them supplies, and they would print money, and hire some adventurers, and grab a bunch of peasants and ‘conscript’ them, and that would be an army, and we’d move them on the railroad, and they’d overthrow another Soviet government, and slaughter a few more hundreds or thousands of workingmen. That’s been my job for the past year and half; do you wonder I’m sick.”
Bunny begins to question the capitalist system that was the source of his father’s and his own wealth. He comes to realize that there is a war going on every day in the factories and the fields. Describing one oil field and the accidents that occurred there as the men raced to produce more oil and more profits, Sinclair writes:
… of all the thousands of men who had worked here, seventy-three out of every hundred had been killed or seriously injured during the few years of the field’s life! It was literally true that capitalist industry was a world war going on all the time, unheeded by the newspapers.
His friend Paul becomes an organizer for the Communist Party, which tells the workers that capitalism needs to be overthrown with revolution. One of Bunny’s college friends, Rachel, is a member of the Socialist Party, which tells the workers that capitalism can be peacefully voted out through elections. Although Sinclair gives Paul all the best arguments, Bunny’s temperament – which is to avoid conflict – leads him to side with the Socialists, as did Sinclair himself. Yet Sinclair is respectful of the politics and accomplishments of the international communist movement.
This review only touches the surface of this powerful and thoughtful novel, which ends with both personal tragedy and a hope for the future.