Hegemony in There Will Be Blood

Daniel Day-Lewis as the complicated oil man Daniel Plainview

There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 cinematic adaptation of Oil by Upton Sinclair, finds its thematic focal point in deconstructing the relationship between capitalism and religion in America. Through its complex characters, the film illustrates ways in which the two ideologies have been either battling for or uncomfortably sharing power throughout the narrative of American history.

The film is set in California during the early 20th century: a time when control of oil dictated the prosperity of businessmen and survival of local communities. The core conflict revolves around a scheming oil prospector portrayed by the legendary Daniel day-Lewis and a local minister played by Paul Dano. The story builds towards a fiery conclusion as the true motives and lust for power in each character are slowly revealed over time.

As a story about ideology, There Will Be Blood serves to exemplify hegemony on screen. Marxist essayist Antonio Gramsci described hegemony as:

Simply put, hegemony is the various influences that culture is built on top of and therefore directed by, either intentionally or unintentionally.

The story illustrates this concept in developing American culture on two fronts: religion and capitalism. The most focused and direct would be the latter, due to the centerpiece of the narrative being Lewis’ character Daniel Plainview and his role as a “oil man” fronting as a “family man.” He draws all power unto himself in this innocent town by looking and acting like one of the fold. He uses his adopted son as a front to signify his devotion to family values. In speeches to the community, he talks of developing schools and a church. Hegemony’s effectiveness on a crowd is largely tied to the image of the powerful accepted by the majority. It’s about power being freely taken thanks to a certain perceived image. It is also about the faith and hope that people put into the powerful as they hear tales of a prosperous future, especially when their present tense finds itself in dire straits.

Essayist Raymond Williams articulates this by writing that hegemony “is a whole body of practices and expectations, over the whole of living: our senses and assignments of energy, our shaping perceptions of ourselves and our world” (110).

The above clip shows Plainview in the throws of his hegemony, as he promises to provide the town of Little Boston everything it desperately needs in order to flourish. He understands the long-term goals of the community and puts those goals on his own, at least until the town is satisfied. This projection of the helpful businessman creates a blind trust between him as an outsider and the people who have what he needs.

The other illustration of this power structure occurs in the role of a pastor named Eli Sunday, who shepherds a local church and seems to have an uncomfortable influence on everything the town does. In the prior speech, Eli asks that the new road lead to his church. Furthermore, when the drilling begins, he requests that he be recognized alongside Plainview and be able to bless the oil well himself. Near the end of the film, he is given money owed to him by Plainview and departs on a tour of fame and evangelism across the country, forsaking his home community for more power than they can offer.

Hegemony is commonly referred to in the context of political and economic power, but since Williams opens the traditional borders of hegemony to apply further than government, we can transpose this criticism onto the way Eli’s church is portrayed in the movie.

Williams writes, “On the contrary, they are among the basic processes of the formation itself and, further, related to a much wider area of reality than the abstractions of ‘social’ and ‘economic’ experience” (111). Church and religion falling under the category of “social” experiences, here we find it to be applicable in the religious sect of culture, creating a power structure which uses the divine and its ideological weapon.

It is plain to see that things are not too different today. In many ways the two are even blended. Some theorize that capitalism is itself the religion we practice as Americans. Conversely, others argue that religion, Christianity in particular, may be acting as its own currency used to separate the classes.

All of this is not to say that you have to believe precisely what There Will Be Blood is teaching. However, hegemony is noticeable everywhere, and in many other great movies. Slavoj Zizek points out similar principles at play in the film They Live. The Great Gatsby and other important works of modernist literature serve as even more great examples.

Williams writes further:

As film and literature consumers, it is can be our responsibility to use the awareness of hegemony’s presence everywhere in order to successfully deconstruct culture through the art we consume. Instances of hegemony put the blood in culture’s face and give it legs to stand on every morning. We only need to bring our tools and start dissecting. And There Will Be Blood serves as an easily understood yet masterfully crafted starting point to examine the various ways in which this criticism applies.

Sources and further readings:

Gramsci, Antonio (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, New York, International Publishers.

Williams, Raymond. (1985). Keywords : a vocabulary of culture and society. New York :Oxford University Press,

Lawrence, B. B., & Karim, A. (2007). On Violence: A Reader. Durham: Duke University Press.

Anderson, P. T. (Director), Anderson, P. T. (Writer), & Anderson, P. T., Sellar, J., & Lupi, D. (Producers). (2007). There Will Be Blood.

English teacher, film lover, home cook, writing about all three.

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