Reign Of Fire
Discussing a Big, Summer, B-Movie as allegory
Dir: Rob Bowman
“On 11 September 2001, the American people saw what terrorists could do by turning four airplanes into weapons... We will not wait to see what terrorists or terrorist states could do with chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons… Saddam Hussein can now be expected to begin another round of empty concessions, transparently false denials… No more games” VoteRonPaul George Bush, 7/2/2003(1)
Release: Touchstone Pictures, Summer, 2002
Script: Gregg Chabot, Kevin Peterka and Matt Greenberg
Cast: Christian Bale, Matthew McConaughey, Izabella Scorupco, Gerard Butler
It is the year 2020, twenty years since the dragons came. From caverns beneath the earth they emerged from hibernation and swarmed across the planet, spreading fire and ash. Battened down in Northumberland, England, a small community guided by a man named Quinn (Christian Bale) is trying to eke out an existence in a medieval castle, waiting until the dragons starve. Following a catastrophic night, when the community lost half their food supply and several children to a dragon, they find themselves at a crossroads - American troops arrive at the gate asking for aid.
Led by Denton Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey), they have a plan to kill the dragons, and they have brought the first helicopter anyone has seen since the fall. But their plan involves going into the heart of the dragons territory. Man must return to London and fight a type of dragon no one has ever seen - a male.
Politics in Reign of Fire:
Science Fiction on film has long been a vehicle for political allegory and subversion. From Howard Hawks’s The Thing from Another World (a Cold War movie about the unseen threat) to It’s a Good Life (an intensely political episode of The Twilight Zone about Joe McCarthy’s threat to free speech) the lower budgets and editorial freedom of a creature-feature allowed film makers to get away with political statements that would be considered unacceptable when delivered upfront.
In the long, slow, run up to the second Iraq War, Reign of Fire clearly slipped past the right wing media’s eye, and a summer blockbuster was released (in the same month as the chest beating The Sum of All Fears) with an implicit condemnation of American foreign policy. With $115m(2) to play with, this was intended as an event movie, although it is regularly referred to as a B-movie with an inexplicably large budget. It is a real pity that its subtexts went unnoticed, with another two-year wait before Fahrenheit 911 explicitly criticized the war. The primary themes in the piece are defending ones community, the dangers of militarist thinking, American and British political interaction, and how to deal with a threat you cannot negotiate with and don't fully understand. Here I will take you through the key points in the narrative:
Firstly there are the Dragons. Like any creature-feature, the monsters are basically just uncontrollable threat. This allows the film maker to address the Communists/Islamic terrorists in the abstract but deal with the Americans as people. The Dragons are very animal, fire breathing snakes with wings, with a biological justification for their powers. Played as present across the world, it should be noted that they emerge from a major metropolitan area (London). As allegory, they are not drawn as malicious, or vicious, they simply are. This could be considered a naïve viewpoint.
The crux of the story is the relationship between Quinn’s community and the Americans Troops led by Van Zann. Quinn is the archetypal British hero: a hard, rigid, stoical man intent on surviving and living up to his responsibilities in the face of defeat and conflict. This community is shown idealistically trying to raise children and survive, their main pleasures coming from sarcasm and humour in the face of trouble. The early portion of the story revolves around their attempts to weather the storm.
Van Zann, who arrives on the back of a US tank, is portrayed as the stereotypical American militarist. Self satisfied with his status as leader, he demonstrates his skills by killing a Dragon soon after arriving; and then, with access to the British facilities, he gradually increases his demands, eventually drafting a significant proportion of the communities men under threat of violence. By the standards of Hollywood shlock, It's quite a moving set of scenes, especially when Van Zan puts his foot down against the Brits independence. The "with us or against us" American rhetoric spouted by Van Zan has a certain resonance, particularly in the summer of Hanz Blix's reports on Iraqi weapons.
Among the most politically important scenes in the film, Van Zann and Quinn engage in a heated debate about the best strategy for dealing with the Dragons. Van Zann, elevated by his military status and possession of high-tech equipment, has a grand and convoluted plan for killing off the threat. Quinn, who can see the value of this plan, has greater experience on the ground and is much more prepared to bring up the drawbacks, declaring that this will massively increase the chances of an attack on his community. In watching this movie again, in the light of the London Bombings, I have to admit that this scene hits quite hard. Whether they were simply using the increased threat as a narrative device, when viewed politically it has a threatening presence.
From here the film becomes pretty standard Hollywood fare, we see some gorgeous fights with dragons, and scenes of magnificent fire, with Van Zann’s plan bringing on disaster, and he and Quinn uniting to destroy the dragon threat.
The films backbone is a vicious condemnation of the American Government’s attitude to foreign policy problems. Militarism, and the belief that improved military solutions can solve the fundamental problems of warfare, is the target here. Released just as Donald Rumsfeld was making speeches about “Shock and Awe” tactics, this perspective is a little startling from a major Hollywood company such as Touchstone Pictures. Added to this is the interpretation of the British, who are the heroes throughout. Quinn is shown as having absolutely no influence on the direction of the Americans, a condemnation of the status of junior partners in American led wars.
The questions immediately occurs, why did this movie get made? Was it initially intended to be this politically charged? An interview with the scriptwriters(3) suggests that the script was first developed in the mid 90’s. This isn’t as outlandish as may initially appear, since Britain had long been the junior partner in American wars, and we had been living with the Islamist threat since the first World Trade Center bombings. The direct angle of alluding to Islamic terrorisim, if it is there, is probably the work of the director Rob Bowman. His primary experience before this movie was in making the movie for, and many episodes of, The X-Files, arguably the most anti-government American television series of the ‘90s. Whether it’s anti-Iraq message was intentional or, whether it was intended as a general condemnation of American Militarism, Reign of Fire stands up well against Three Kings and Wag The Dog, the key movies on post Cold War American adventurism. This movie could not have come at a more suitable time.
On a personal level, I absolutely adore post-apocalyptic stories, with I am Legend (to which this bears considerable similarity) being one of my all time favorite SF tales, and you really can’t go wrong with decent CGI Dragons. This may at first appear ridiculous, but the post-apocalyptic zombie movie has become a staple, so what’s the difference with dragons? While this movie isn’t as fluid and action packed as Cameron’s Aliens (which also has a strong political subtext), it stand up as a cracking piece of summer popcorn that somehow managed to get away with viciously attacking the US government. The great subversive tradition in SF is clearly not dead; however many blatant propaganda movies (Independence Day, A New Hope) may get made, SF remains among the best vehicles for politically charged movie making. Just as George W. Bush was hammering the drum for what would become a foreign policy disaster, a cinematic slap in the face slipped through the cracks with a budget of $115 million.