An appropriate logo for BP after the BP Deepwater Horizon spill.

The BP Deepwater Horizon offshore oil explosion as environmental disaster. Black smoke darkens the sky.

Images from Louisiana Story

Opening images of a smiling boy rafting on clear waters establish the bayou as pristine nature, undisturbed by mechanization of modernism.

The boy’s pet raccoon serves to connect him to the natural pristine world kept separate from technology in the film.

The mother’s simple tools for cleaning establish her as more connected to the uncomplicated natural world of the Cajun community.

An oil executive’s modern outlook contrasts with the more natural and less technology-driven lifestyle of the Cajun family agreeing to lease property for oil drilling.

Oil company speed boat disrupts nature, demonstrating the bifurcation between natural Cajun and mechanized oil workers and the modern technology they represent.

When the father signs a drilling rights lease, he allows corporate “big guys” to reap the benefits of modernization and a fair use approach to ecology.

River views of a Cajun family’s home illustrate the interconnected relations Cajuns maintain with the natural world and contrast with the disruptive approach of oil workers.

The entrance of the oilrig into the bayou highlights how the film perpetuates the myth that hums are separate from nature.

The oil drilling work itself illustrates the conflict between the Cajun innocence on display in the film and the intervention of modern culture in the film.

Images of the oil rig at night emphasize the necessary separation between nature and culture constructed by the film’s narrative and aesthetic.

An heroic view of an oil worker validates the need for cultural disruption to serve the fair use economic approach to ecology reinforced by the film.

When boy and father display their alligator skin to the oil workers, their battle with nature parallels the battle between humans and elements of culture on the oilrig.

A news report of the blowout illustrates the battle with technology oil workers must win to ensure economic success in a modernist world.

The oil gusher validates technology when the oil men “bypass the pressure area” and save the well.

The boy waves good-bye to the oil rig and the culture it represents from the “Christmas tree,” signifying the tangible claim in the film that human exploitation of nature’s resources can leave its pure innocence untouched.

Oil drilling and the search for the “golden shrimp”: the myth of interdependence in oil drilling films

by Robin Murray and Joe Heumann

According to John Ezell’s Innovations in Energy: The Story of Kerr-McGee, after the first successful oil well was drilled out of sight of land in the Gulf of Mexico in 1947 by the Kerr-McGee Company, the January 1948 issue of Oil declared, “The Kerr-McGee well definitely extends the kingdom of oil into a new province that is of incalculable extent and may help assuage the all-devouring demand for gasoline and fuel oils” (quoted in Ezell 169). A reporter from the Kermac News illustrated this valorization of the success of the oil well:

 “Everybody shook hands with everybody twice…. Congratulations came pouring in… [as] other radios had picked up our surprising hit and the telephone began to squeal from Houston to New Orleans…. The newspapers gave it banner notices” (quoted in Ezell 164-5). 

Completion of British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oilrig in 2009 resulted in similar kudos. As the deepest oil and gas well ever drilled offshore, the Deepwater Horizon was lauded by Robert L. Long, Transocean Ltd.'s Chief Executive Officer. In his congratulatory message, Long declared,

“This impressive well depth record reflects the intensive planning and focus on effective operations by BP and the drilling crews of the Deepwater Horizon.”

Attempts to squelch the fires leaves oil gushing below sea level. Fire and smoke become spectacular drama.
Oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster covers beaches and challenges clean-up workers. Environmental consequences of BP Disaster: an oil-drenched water bird is caught in the protective barrier.

On Vermont Public Radio, Debbie Elliot asserted the same positive response to oil drilling in the Gulf. According to Elliot, fishermen and oil companies built an interdependent relationship:

 “The local fishermen feared their way of life was in jeopardy when the first oilmen arrived in Cajun south Louisiana. But over the last half century, the two industries learned to live together. Oil and gas brought jobs and opportunity for many families.”

It is this interdependent relation between the fishing and oil industries that has taken center stage in media discussions after the Gulf of Mexico Deepwater oil rig explosion and spill in April 2010, in spite of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster that seemed to demonstrate oil and wild nature don’t mix. From a contemporary perspective, the conflict between these two industries seems new, a product of the rig explosion and its aftermath. In fact, the conflict began with the first oil well in and around the Gulf in the 1910s, culminating with the Kerr-McGee’s successful well in 1947. Any conflict between the two industries, however, has been whitewashed by media representations of their relationship, building toward Elliot’s conclusion that they learned to live together because oil brought money and jobs to the region.

Filmic representations following Kerr-McGee’s success draw on this drive to minimize the conflict between the fishing and oil industries and valorize oil drilling and the opportunities it brings. Both Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story (1948) and Anthony Mann’s Thunder Bay (1953), for example, commend the oil industry for bringing wealth to an otherwise impoverished region, with differing levels of interdependence between local residents and oil company outsiders on display. Whereas Louisiana Story makes the case that an oil company can build its rig, drill for oil, build a pipeline and disappear, leaving the bayou untouched and the Cajuns around the well a little richer, Thunder Bay asserts that oil drillers and shrimpers can work together. In fact, in Thunder Bay, oil drilling provides more than jobs and money, according to the film. It provides access to “the golden shrimp” fishermen have been seeking for generations, stimulating a more productive shrimp season. As a testament to a continuation of this vision of interdependence, Dead Ahead: The Exxon Valdez Disaster (1992), Black Wave: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez (2009), and Crude (2009) draw on this same mythology, asserting that the oil and fishing industries can work interdependently once appropriate safety precautions are in place.

Approaches to progress and ecology in
Louisiana Story
and Thunder Bay

Louisiana Story and Thunder Bay therefore illustrate differing visions of oil drilling, visions that draw on conflicting views of both progress and ecology. Whereas Louisiana Story advocates for a progressivist vision of progress in which corporate “big guys” rather than local “innocent” Cajuns successfully reap the benefits of modernization and an economic or “fair use” approach to ecology, Thunder Bay demonstrates a populist view of progress and an organismic or “wise use” approach to ecology. Yet both films’ representations rest on fabricated American myths, which fall flat under scrutiny.

Louisiana Story’s progressivist perspective connects Cajuns to the natural world around them in the film. In reality, it exploits them and their land, an exploitation that demonstrates the negative consequences of economic and fair use approaches to ecology. Economic consequences affect both locals and their environment in a series of negative externalities, once again made blatant after the Deepwater Horizon disaster sixty-two years later.

Thunder Bay’s populist presentation of progress and organismic or wise use approaches to ecology seem like more viable choices for both local shrimpers and their environment. But those visions also break down in the face of the negative externalities ever present during offshore oil drilling. Although the film suggests shrimpers and oil drillers can build and maintain interdependent relationships that serve them both economically while preserving the sea and its marine life, suggesting the possibility of sustainable development in the gulf, those claims are all based in fiction (myth) rather than fact (reality).

Progressivist vs. populist visions of progress

In Gunfighter Nation and Regeneration Through Violence, Richard Slotkin argues that the frontier myth rested on both progressive and populist schools of American ideology (Gunfighter Nation 22). According to Slotkin,

“The ‘progressive’ style … reads the history of savage warfare and westward expansion as a Social Darwinian parable, explaining the emergence of a new managerial ruling class and justifying its right to subordinate lesser classes to its purposes” (22).

In contrast, the populist style rests on premises that

“combined the agrarian imagery of Jeffersonianism and the belief in economic individualism and mobility characteristic of pre-Civil War ‘free labor’ ideology. Progress in the populist style is measured by the degree to which the present state of society facilitates a broad diffusion of property, of the opportunity to ‘rise in the world,’ and of political power” (22).

According to Slotkin, however, both progressive and populist styles draw on a common myth/ideological language in which there is substantial agreement on such central concerns as the exceptional character of American life and history, the necessity and desirability of economic development, the vitality of “democratic” politics and the relevance of something called “The Frontier” as a way of explaining and rationalizing what is most distinctive and valuable in “the American way.” (Gunfighter Nation 23-24). Ultimately, both progressive and populist views of progress rest on an empire-building model that exploits resources and desecrates the environment. Whether the empire sustains either the few or the many, the environment suffers, since both “draw on a common myth” especially one that rests on

“the vitality of ‘democratic’ politics and the relevance of something called ‘The Frontier’ as a way of explaining and rationalizing what is most distinctive and valuable in ‘the American way’” (23-24).

An overview of organismic (wise use) and
economic (fair use) approaches to ecology

These films not only move toward a more populist vision of progress, however, they also seem to embrace an organismic approach to ecology that encourages sustainability. According to environmental historian, Carolyn Merchant, organismic ecology is based on Frederic Clements’ view of a plant community as a living organism that evolves through succession. This process of succession paralleled both the life cycle and the developmental history of the United States, with pioneer species invading ecosystems until climax communities of species were established: the deciduous forest climax, the prairie-plains climax, the mountain range climaxes of the Rocky Mountains, and the desert climaxes of the Southwest. A plant community is also vulnerable to disruption or death by technologies such as those that caused the Dust Bowl, as well and “strives for a nature of cooperation among individuals in animal and human communities” (Merchant 184), a view that ecologist Aldo Leopold applied to human communities in his manifesto, “The Land Ethic,” which encouraged an ecologically centered view of the land as a biotic pyramid in which humans were a part.           

Whereas the organismic approach to ecology encouraged preservationist policies toward the environment; the economic approach, in which ecosystems were seen as sums of their parts, not living organisms, encouraged fair use politics that called for the exploitation of resources for human gain. Such an approach valorized humans as managers who were “above nature and able to control it” (Merchant 186) and use environmental resources for human benefit. Economic ecologist Kenneth Watt asserts, for example, that human beings are economic animals, and

“economic ecology’s goal is to maximize the productivity of each type of ecosystem and each level of that ecosystem for human benefit” (qtd. in Merchant 188).

Although ecologist Eugene Odum connected the tenets of organismic ecology with those of the economic to demonstrate ways humans can repair the natural world, the ultimate goal of economic ecology—maximizing benefits of nature for humans—serves as more of a disruption than a tool for healing.

Louisiana Story and separation between
humans and the natural world

The support for oil drilling and its benefits illustrated in Louisiana Story should come as no surprise because the Standard Oil Company financed the film. In his biography of Robert Flaherty, The Innocent Eye, Arthur Calder-Marshall asserts that Standard Oil began negotiating with Flaherty as early as 1944 for “a film dramatizing to the public the risk and difficulties of getting oil from beneath the earth” (211). Roy Stryker, Standard Oil’s public relations officer in New Jersey, suggested that

“Flaherty would produce an idea, not yet perceived, which would discover in the romance of oil-drilling a theme so compelling that it would play the commercial theatres” (211).

In The World of Robert Flaherty, biographer Richard Griffith associates Standard Oil’s choice of Flaherty to direct their public relations film with the success of Nanook of the North, which had also been sponsored by a commercial company and “hailed as a classic with no complaint from anyone that its finances might be tainted” (148).

In her biography of her husband, Frances Hubbard Flaherty takes this relationship between Flaherty and Standard Oil further, claiming that Standard Oil commissioned Flaherty despite a cynical response from a film industry that saw Flaherty as a free-lance filmmaker without the professional resources to support a film project of this size. According to Frances Flaherty, instead of the superficial films Hollywood produced, Standard Oil wanted “a classic, a permanent and artistic record of the contribution which the oil industry has made to civilization” presented “with the dignity and epic sweep it deserved and assure this story a lasting place on the highest plane of literature of the screen” (quoted in Flaherty 34). All of these biographical sources suggest that Flaherty has created an art piece that, as did Nanook the North, transcends its corporate funding.

Contemporaneous reviews of the film support the claim that the film’s source of financing does not detract from its success as a work of art. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times asserts that the film “is not a submissive nod” to technology; yet,

“it is recognition that the machine can be a useful friend of man, no more rapacious, in some way, than primitive man or nature themselves.”

Crowther declares the scenes highlighting the oil drilling operation “the most powerful and truly eloquent phases” of Louisiana Story. Despite the sympathetic portrayal of the oil drillers, however, Crowther doubts money supplied by Standard Oil encouraged Flaherty’s perspective. Instead, Crowther asserts that “the ring of sincerity is clear in Flaherty’s film.”

Variety calls the film “a documentary-type story told almost purely in camera terms.” The Variety review mentions that Standard Oil of New Jersey funded the production only in passing, asserting instead that Louisiana Story  “has a slender, appealing story, moments of agonizing suspense, vivid atmosphere and superlative photography.”  Instead of valorizing either the Cajuns or the oil drillers, the review suggests that “there are no real heroes or villains” in the film. According to Variety, “the simple Cajun family is friendly, and the oil-drilling crew is pleasant and likable.” The stylistic choices deserve the most kudos, the review asserts, with “long sequences being told by the camera, with eloquent sound effects and Virgil Thomson’s expressive music in the background” rather than through concentrated dialogue-driven scenes.

None of these contemporaneous reviews suggest that financing by Standard Oil in any way skewed the rhetoric of Louisiana Story, even though the offshore drilling on display here is shown from the perspective of a Cajun boy. Instead, the reviews and biographical overviews of the film agree with and substantiate the message on display in the film: offshore oil drilling, even in a fragile bayou, will have no affect on the pristine wild nature around a well or on the innocent Cajuns who are enriched by mineral rights contracts and lease payments received from the drilling company, a company that enters the bayou and then all but disappears by the end of the film. 

Despite clear evidence that oil drilling cannot leave the water and land around it untouched, the film and its reviewers assert the opposite, demonstrating through the experience of oil drillers and a Cajun boy that human and nonhuman nature can maintain separate existences and thrive. Instead of emphasizing the interdependent relationship between humans and the natural world, Louisiana Story suggests that to maintain the innocence of nature in the bayou, and of its more natural Cajun inhabitants, a humanity more aligned with culture and technology must leave wild nature behind, entering it only briefly and with caution to avoid an indelible affect. Two myths are perpetuated by the film, then: the myth that oil drilling can leave a natural setting untouched, and the myth that humans are somehow separate from nature rather than interconnected with it. 

Louisiana Story perpetuates these two myths through both its aesthetic and its narrative. Close-ups of a pristine bayou open Louisiana Story. Flowers, an alligator, and a heron on an evergreen tree emphasize the film’s naturalistic setting. A lone boy poles through weeping cypress trees in a small boat. We see the bayou from his point of view, including water below him. A narrator describes the scene, even mentioning werewolves to set the mythic tone of this innocent scene. The boy wears salt on his waist and something inside his shirt to protect him from all that bubbles, we are told and smiles at a raccoon in a tree, connecting him to both natural and supernatural elements. A snake, gators, and grasses blowing in the wind continue the scene.

When the boy shoots at an animal, and the pristine scene is disrupted, the conflicting element in the film is introduced: modernism in the shape of oil drilling in the bayou.  Other explosions take the gun shot’s place, then, as wheeled machinery drive up into the bayou. The machine looks like a tractor, a cultivator cutting a path through the grass. The boy floats away, demonstrating the separation between culture and nature the film perpetuates.

The boy and his Cajun family represent an innocence that is untouched by civilization. When the boy heads home to his Cajun family, a family structure more in touch with the natural world is introduced. Their cabin sits beside the bayou and can only be accessed by boat. Inside the cabin, the boy’s father talks about “gators” in a Cajun accent to a lean cut younger man, reinforcing his connection to nature. The boy’s mother does offer coffee, a connection with culture, but the boy’s entrance by boat at his parent’s dock again highlights how isolated this family is from society. The blasting that continues, however, contrasts and conflicts with this innocent, more “natural” scene, highlighting the intervention on display. Modern culture has entered the pristine wilderness of the bayou and infiltrated the innocent Cajun family that is still tied to the natural world.

To seal this connection, the oil drillers offer lease agreements to the boy’s father: “Can that thing really tell where oil is?” the older man asks, and signs his name to a contract.

Evidence in the film, however, suggests that nature and culture can and must remain separated. The oilmen, representing culture, leave the rustic cabin in their speedboat. Later the boy and his raccoon, representing nature, watch the oilmen from their rowboat as the drillers prepare to build their rig and platform. The boy fishes while Cajuns hunt along a pristine shore, further connecting them to the natural world. We get a view of homes on the shore from a houseboat, and a shore view of the motorboat and its wake. The boy and raccoon continue watching, and the wake of the motorboat throws him out of his boat, so he is literally connected with the natural world. But the boy seems fascinated with the elements of culture brought by the oilmen and watches a man survey the area and a tall rig rolling up the bayou to the spot the surveyor has indicated. The boy and his raccoon watch this modern scene from the safety of nature—the waters and fecund grasses of the bayou. They remain innocent, smiling as they observe without relinquishing their connection with the natural world.

The rig contrasts with the natural scene around it, maintaining its separation from the natural world. The technology of the rig and the oil drilling it represents become a beautiful and powerful opposition to the peaceful bayou. Steam surrounds the rig, and we hear the pumping sounds of the drill. Although the boy talks to a couple of oilmen and asks what they are doing, he does not board the rig when invited. Instead, he paddles away, reinforcing his separation, and watching from his boat as the long drill comes out of the well, so worn down, the drillers must replace it.  A sunset over the bayou further separates the mechanization of oil drilling from the natural scene, which the boy and his boat both envelop and represent.

The separation between culture and nature continues even after the boy boards the rig for a closer look. The film shows the whole process of preparing the drill before the boy goes on board to see for himself. The rig is loud as chains swing around pipes to tighten and loosen connections. We cannot hear the boy and oilman’s conversation but see them smile, suggesting a connection between them and, consequently, a connection between culture and nature beyond the economic vision of ecology supported by the film’s narrative.

The boy is enraptured by derrick but climbs it as if it were a tree, emphasizing his continuing connection to the natural world. The boy pours ritual salt into the well in a superstitious gesture further connecting him to pristine nature.
Completion of the ritual by spitting brings only laughter from the oil men, who see the natural world as inferior. The community of drillers laughs at the boy’s efforts, preparing us for an onscreen headline that credits technology for the well’s success.

After this long segment demonstrating the process of oil drilling, however, the scene shifts back to the boy and his raccoon in the bayou and, in a long sequence, highlights a battle between elements of nature. The boy leaves his raccoon and examines eggs left by an alligator. When the gator comes back on shore, the boy and we see the ‘gator eggs hatch. The boy holds a baby gator until the mother gator roars, and the boy runs away. The raccoon is now loose and swims up on a log, but the gator is close behind. The boy searches for his pet and passes representatives of wild nature: a spider in a web, a rabbit, a skunk, singing birds, and a deer. When he sees the broken line on the boat and realizes the coon has escaped, he fears the gator has killed the coon. In a parallel to the boy’s fears, the gator devours a water bird, so the boy sets a gator trap to avenge his friend’s death. His attempts fail alone, however, but his father has been searching for him and helps him out of the water, telling him, “We’ll get him.”  Together they kill the alligator, it seems. Although we do not see the actual slaughter, we assume it occurs because father and son visit the oilrig and bring the gator’s skin to show the drillers on board, holding it up for them to admire from their rowboat.

This resolution of the battle between human and nonhuman nature is paralleled on the rig with a battle between humans and elements of culture when one of the oilmen, Tom, tests oil levels. Father kids him about never finding oil, while the boy fishes from the platform, and his father sets traps for game. We hear a rushing sound and see water spurting over machinery—a blowout that illustrates a battle between human and nonhuman culture in the context of Louisiana Story. The boy runs and father watches water spurt up the rig. It is gas and salt water, according to a newspaper headline, so the well must be capped using a blowout preventer. This initial drilling has failed, just as the boy’s attempts the kill the alligator were thwarted.

Yet just as the alligator is ultimately killed when the boy’s father intervenes, the oil drilling gains when, according the film’s narrative, the boy helps, seemingly connecting the natural and supernatural with the culture of modernism represented by the oil rig and its men. The boy, still enraptured by the derrick, climbs it as if it were a Christmas tree, and tries dropping salt in the well for good luck, spitting on the salt for good measure. The oilmen laugh when he tells the oilmen, but while the boy is at home peeling potatoes later, he tells his family, “I know she won’t go away.” Then they hear the drill. According to an onscreen newspaper headline, “angling the hold to bypass the pressure area,” saved the well and brings the oil drillers success.

Any connection between culture and nature ends once the oilmen test the oil and find it good. The lease money from the father’s contract buys groceries and a new pot for mom, and a new rifle for the boy, but the family members continue to speak Cajun without translation.

Presents from oil lease profits at least temporarily bring together modernist culture and romantic pristine nature in the film. A new gun for the father’s son may change his dynamic with the natural world, but boy and father continue to speak Cajun throughout the scene, emphasizing their connection to the Bayou instead of the mechanized world.

Despite the relative prosperity the lease money brings to the family, the last two scenes from the film perpetuate the separation between nature and culture and suggest that human intervention—even oil drilling—can leave the natural world pure and untouched. In the first of these scenes, the boy sees his raccoon in the tree, complete with the rope collar around its neck, so boy and ‘coon are reunited and, consequently, the boy is reconnected with the natural world. In the second and last of these two scenes, the derrick leaves slowly, and oil is pumped through a pipeline under the bayou and hidden from the natural world.  The boy and his pet watch the process and wave goodbye to the rig, its oilmen and the culture they represent. Only a lone Christmas tree-like pole remains, and it is now more tree than derrick, a tangible claim in the film that human exploitation of nature’s resources can leave its pure innocence untouched.

Go to page 2

To topPrint versionJC 53 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.