At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991) review

Rated: 4 / 5

Wokeness: 1 / 5

The Parable of Weeds among the Wheat

24 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

Matthew 13:24-30

In all my life, I have seen five noteworthy films dealing with the topic of civilization coming into contact with native tribes, possibly attempting to convert them to their ways, and what happened as a result. The Emerald Forest (1985), The Mission (1986), Dances with Wolves (1990), Black Robe (1991), and End of the Spear (2005). Then there’s this film, which beats out all of them, and is also the most difficult to find in physical form outside of VHS and Laserdisc. An epic 3 hour film that deals with the consequences of culture clash in a most effective manner I haven’t seen any other film come within a mile of accomplishing.

At the outset, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this film. On paper, it sounded like another typical film about how Christians/Catholics are bad, they cause bad shit to happen in spite of their seemingly good intentions, and their attempts at conversion will inevitably lead to disaster. I expected this to be a one-sided critique about the folly of religious conversion of a different culture with its own different religion, being stereotypical with how it portrays these missionaries. Especially with a man with Indian ancestry (from North America, as opposed to the South American setting this film takes place in) being there to let the parallels between what’s happening in this film, and what happened during America’s past when European settlers spread to take over North America at the expense of the Indian inhabitants already there, become more pronounced.

I expected this to be preachy. But my expectations could not have been more subverted, in such a pleasant way. It’s amazing what a 3 hour film is capable of when it uses every minute of its runtime to great effect. That is not to say this is a fast-paced film, far from it. But in order for a story like this, based on the famous must-read (from what I’ve heard) book of the same name, to be told effectively, it has to be done in a slow burn style. It has to allow the viewer to get slowly settled into the environment, to become familiar with the characters viewers will be spending much of their time with. Individual characters, and the group of natives themselves. And in so making this a slow burn, preachiness becomes not only unnecessary, but entirely unwarranted (assuming it should ever be warranted in a good film). Roger Ebert stated it best in his review:

These messages are buried in the very fabric of the film, in the way it was shot, in its use of locations, and we are not told them, we absorb them.

Roger Ebert

When a film is given as much time to breathe as this one is, it allows for its messages to be this subtle and natural. And believe me, anyone who says the main message of this film is about how the missionaries were wrong to try and convert the natives, is doing this film a disservice. Sure it shows how certain characters, particularly the priest Leslie Huben played by John Lithgow, aren’t shown in the best light for most of the runtime. But the run time allows for moments of humanity and even humility to be shown in characters like him. Not enough to fully sway one into believing he’s a good guy, but enough to show that he’s human. These are people who believe they are working in the fields of the Lord, but instead they are playing in them.

The whole angle of the dangers of maliciousness (whether conscious or not) on the part of the missionaries may be a message contained in the film, but you have to understand that’s small potatoes in the grand scheme of things. The devastation that is eventually wrought on the tribe due to rejection of messages and materials from another culture that tries to subject them to it, in addition to acquiring diseases from the foreigners many tribesmen are not capable of having an immunity to, and how their fate was sealed regardless, makes this so much more than a criticism of missionaries and their work (for a contrasting point of view, I can recommend End of the Spear). Especially when one of the most valid criticisms is verbally stated early on in the movie:

“You really like Indians don’t you? Their language, their customs. They really interest you?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact it interests me a great deal.”

“So why do you want to change them? If the Lord made the Indians as they are, who are you people to make them different?”

Another instance where the dialogue is this sharp:

“Let me just tell you, personally, as an American I would be very proud to have Indian blood! Yeah, I believe there would be many Americans proud to have it!”

“Oh they would huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Just how much Indian blood would Americans be proud to have?”

This film is less about the fallacies of religious conversion in general than it is about the consequences of having a culture mingle with another. And the film never just straight up admits this is a bad thing per-se. In fact, there are instances where the film hints at how this can actually work. Tom Berenger’s character, Lewis Moon (part North American Indian), decides to mingle with their people after feeling an instinctual call from his native roots upon seeing them. That he has a rejection for the culture he’s currently in, and a longing for the culture of his past, of his heritage. In the hopes of finding that, he decides to shun his past, and his clothing, to fit in with the natives. And they do accept him, and he does learn their ways and language, and adapts completely to their culture.

Then there’s this man who was once an Indian, but converted fully to Christianity. During the last act of the film, when the faith had been shaken amongst the missionaries, this Indian convert states why he wouldn’t go back to how he was:

“Padre?”

“Yes?”

“Commondante says… that our mission work is the best way to civilize the Indians. That it’s the best way to avoid killing them. Do you agree?”

“There are many ways of killing people.”

“When you contacted the Indians… did you think of what would become of them?”

“If they had the misfortune to be converted.” *nods his head*

“Do you think that?”

“I understand your question. I have no answer.”

“Forgive me Padre… but do you truly believe?”

“My child. Is that a question… or a confession? You see, I love the Church. And, a man like myself… I… I need it. I need it.”

It’s moments like this that make this a more well-rounded movie. It’s not so simple as to fully condemn the work and efforts of missionaries when there are moments of success for Indians who do legitimately want to become integrated into this alternate culture. Likewise, there are moments indicating that it can work for those who aren’t entirely of the Indian culture to integrate into theirs. But those are exceptions to the disasters that normally befall those who try to mix societies.

Alternatively, it is also shown what kinds of people are most likely to integrate successfully in the other culture. The children. Similar to The Emerald Forest, it is shown how the white American boy can hang out with the Indian kids with ease, disrobing his clothing and running naked with the rest of them, putting on their paint, and acting, well, child-like with the rest of them. It’s a moment that many would consider shocking, especially in this day and age, to see a pre-pubescent kid entirely naked, with his nakedness entirely on display with no effort to hide it. But unlike a film like, oh say, Cuties, this isn’t shot in a way that sexualizes him, or any of the Indians (for the most part; there are instances where it is intentional, but it’s entirely in service to the plot and character development when it does happen, and it’s primarily involved with Lewis Moon). And make no mistake, this is done for a legitimate purpose, regardless of whatever criticisms current anti-Hollywood people make about their pedophile circles and pedophilic history. Culture shock. Wouldn’t you find it rather peculiar to not feel any shock for seeing Indian children running around naked (that’s just how they are, it’s how they dress, it’s how they act, it’s normal to them), yet feel shocked at seeing a naked white boy running with them as well? A bit hypocritical, yet also makes the point as to why children are more likely to successfully integrate and possibly bridge the gap between two different cultures. And beyond simple culture shock:

“The next time you strike an Indian for any reason whatsoever, it is you who is going to be sent away. They are different from us, they don’t understand! And besides that, it could be very dangerous for us all.”

“Do you want Billy seeing their filthy tricks?”

It will not seem filthy to him unless we make it so. Honey, it is very natural.”

“Natural? And if one of those nasty little savages puts a hand on him?”

“Then he might enjoy it.”

Emphasis added. That right there sums up the point perfectly. It’s about the intention, the context. Running around naked isn’t filthy or shameful if it’s normal for them, and if it isn’t causing any harm to anyone. One culture prefers to dress modestly, the other prefers to have as little clothing as possible (while still having some).

It can cause one to wonder why it is that our culture has become the way it is, being ashamed of nakedness compared to those who have no reason to view it as shameful. Studying other cultures and understanding them can give insight into one’s own. Then again, a culture can hardly be faulted for showing shock and confusion when witnessing the differences in appearance, mannerisms, and technology from another. It’s a natural defense mechanism. One always wishes to be with those they have a familiarity with in any of those three areas (usually all of the above). Thus it is normal for them to have a shock factor at seeing people of another culture. That shock is a defense mechanism, an instinct letting the individual know that they don’t belong with them. There’s not much comfort to be had when dealing with culture-shock anymore than there’s comfort to be had with shell-shock. It’s an instinct that seeks to protect one’s culture from that of another. And the ultimate way of protecting it is by isolating one’s self from it. By being xenophobic. Which becomes difficult to do when faced with those who believe it is a religious/moral duty to convert those who should remain isolated.

Which is why tragedy is inevitable. And the tragedy strikes first among the child, of course. The child, the one who is most adaptable, the most susceptible to change, is the first to die from diseases carried by the other culture, who live in a different environment and thus have a different immune system that is immune to different forms of diseases (and more susceptible to others). Because there’s not just the culture shock to deal with, but the environmental shock. Something the natives couldn’t comprehend, but couldn’t anticipate. Thus the first victim is claimed for the simplest, yet no less tragic, of reasons.

The same fate begins to befall the natives themselves when they become subjected to the diseases brought upon by the North Americans. And yet this was a tragedy that, in this situation, could’ve been prevented. Lewis Moon, while having transformed himself into looking and acting like a native, still has longings for aspects of his past. Not Indian ancestry, but of his life experiences. Which is when he sees one of the female missionaries naked, Andy Huben (played by Daryl Hannah), he seeks to mate with her, just as he felt a small desire to do the first time he saw her before he converted. As a consequence, he catches a disease from her, which spreads to the other natives he mingles with. He eventually realizes what he had done, and does everything in his power to fix what he broke, by getting them medicine.

Likewise, one of the missionaries who realizes the folly of trying to impose another religion/culture upon them, Martin Quarrier (played by Aidan Quinn) tries to rectify his mistakes. He attempts to do what everyone was encouraged to do from the beginning: convince the natives to leave the area and retreat further into the jungles. Because a certain leader/warlord/corporation wants the gold that’s on the land the Indians are in (of course). And there’s no stopping them anymore than there was stopping the U.S. government from getting a hold of the gold that was on Indian land in North American during the 1800s. Moon was told to do this by bombing their village to scare them into the forest, while Quarrier wants to tell them to do this via dialogue. The best they could hope to do is minimize the damage. But they both realize too late that all they have done was do more damage than what would’ve otherwise occurred if the village was simply bombed in the first place, without the attempt at converting them to “save their souls,” or to integrate into their society and attempt to teach them how to deal with outsiders.

“It would have been better for them never to have known us.”

Thus the village becomes bombed anyway, and our protagonists find their hopes and dreams and lives dashed. And what the corporation hoped would happen sort of did happen. The idea being that missionaries would pacify the natives so that, one way or another, their territory can be taken over more easily (the implied fate of what happened at the end of Black Robe). And by the end of it, similar to 1990’s Homicide, Moon finds himself alone without a tribe or culture to go back to. He is stranded, in no-man’s-land, without a place to call home, and nowhere to go. Rejected by the tribe he wished to be a part of after he helped bring disaster upon them, and rejected by the rest of the world he turned his back on. The ultimate irony of inadvertently bringing destruction upon the natives similar to how the U.S. government did to the Indians in North America in the past. Doing the very thing he spites the U.S. for, becoming the very thing he hated.

Normally I dislike tragedies, especially Greek tragedies where everything goes to shit for everyone. But what is the purpose of a tragedy? To act as a warning, as a message. To teach the viewers what not to do in such contexts, or in a context similar to their own environment. The warning being a culture shouldn’t impose itself upon another lest disaster strike, leading to the decimation of one or both. This is a message that extends beyond religious interference, it also applies to national interference. Of immigration into another country (as Moon immigrated into the native tribe). Of using a religion as an excuse to live out a fantasy of helping others when one does anything but. Of showcasing exactly how the road to hell is laid with good intentions.

This is a densely layered tragedy that has more to it than what I have written about here. And this comes highly recommended for others to see. This is a film that doesn’t get anywhere near the appreciation is deserves. Let alone a widescreen high definition release that does service to the documentary-like feel of various sequences in the film. When the plane is flying over the land. When we see the tribe. The on-location look of the Amazonia. This film is a rare breed that has died off.

Native American Quote GIF by INTO ACTION

PS: That all being said, I did find it amusing to see Cathy Bates lose her mind in this. I was honestly hoping she would completely snap and go all Misery on everyone, getting an axe or sledgehammer and trying to whack everyone’s ankles while shouting, “I’m gonna kill you you lying cocksucker!” Film still would’ve been pessimistic as shit, but damnit if that wouldn’t have been one of the most entertaining “person going crazy” moments in film history.

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