Every July, Americans celebrate our independence, and revel in what makes us unique as a country. Well, this July we at Deluxe Video Online are going to celebrate one profession that captures the American spirit: the Postman. An iconic reminder of our civil society, your local postal carrier embodies many of the virtues that have made our country great. Dedication. Hard work. Solidarity. A penchant for gunfire. What’s more American than that?
This month we’ll round up our favorite movies from yesteryear involving the timely delivery of mail. There may be some junk mail along the way, but we’ll steer you towards the priority first class without fail.
Retro Review: The Postman (1997)
Aptly enough, our first stop for cinematic letter carrying is Kevin Costner’s post-apocalyptic romp, The Postman. Taking place after an unspecified collapse of American society (or as they call it in Detroit, Wednesday) this film examines how important little tokens of civility, such as being able to count on the mail, become when life is brutal and lawless, the only certainty being that Will Patton is coming to take your women.
Costner plays the titular civil servant…although he comes about this “calling” in a deceptive manner. A traveling performer by trade, Costner is unlucky enough to arrive at small encampment in Oregon just ahead of the local warlord, General Bethlehem (Patton.) When all of the able-bodied men are rounded up to be conscripted into Patton’s Holnist Militia, Costner bravely scampers away, eventually hiding out in the long-abandoned wreck of a Post Office delivery van. Using the dead letter carrier’s effects, he concocts a new ruse to gain food and lodging on his travels: claiming to be a representive of a restored United States Government back east which almost surely does not exist.
At first, the ruse works like gangbusters. The town of Pineview takes him in and sets him up in the local Post Office. After he is fortuitously able to produce a letter addressed to one of the town’s citizens, people begin to hope that order and stability are finally returning to America. Despite the reservations of the town’s sheriff, the people rally around the Postman, despite his claims all being pure bunk. A young teen (Larenz Tate) is inspired enough to begin recruiting other children to help jump start the Post Office (help which Costner is leery to accept…he only needs this gravy train to last a few days, not a lifetime.)
As Costner ambles about the countryside, accepting free meals and lodging, he eventually runs afoul of General Bethlehem again, who is incensed that the US Government is horning in on his action. He kidnaps a woman who Costner had dallied with in Pineview, shoots up the place, and then lays a trap for the wandering con-artist at the next large settlement.
The scene is set for confrontation, and the common people (including a folksy Tom Petty) must decide if they wish to live in fear, or to embrace a fleeting chance at stability offered by the illusion that the Postman is inadvertently creating.
Rough around the Edges
The Postman certainly contains flaws, the chief of which is a skewed sense of period. The script obviously calls for an Old West feel for the piece, but the time-line just doesn’t jibe. Enough time has passed that cars are a fleeting memory, roads are completely shot, and most infrastructure is pre-industrial…yet Costner finds letters addressed to living residents inside the van. How quickly did complete disorder set in? Was that Postal vehicle literally the last working car? Post apocalyptic films usually fudge their dates: Mad Max has been keeping cars and roads running for just a few years, yet people have devolved into bloodthirsty hooligans almost immediately (was Lord Humungus just chafing away at a desk job somewhere, polishing up his Beast Master armor for a rainy day/end of the world to come around?) The Postman is no exception.
Likewise, as fast as everything has apparently gone to pot, the Oregon settlements double-time their recovery once Costner scatters the seeds of hope. Wounded in the trap, Costner hides out for the winter in a remote shack. When he returns to the world a short season later, Tate has managed a full scale reorganization of the Post Office, with carriers scattered far and wide, even to California. I guess that the time was just ripe…
A few wink and nod moments (such as Tate’s name being Ford Lincoln Mercury) are a bit ham-fisted. It seems that the production company was keen to keep the tone light (well, as light as a movie featuring a war lord who kills a man so he can kidnap and ostensibly rape his wife can be) so as to avoid drawing comparisons to Costner’s other post Apocalypse film: Waterworld.
I was shocked to find the degree of loathing many critics held for The Postman. An amiable adventure with some cool visuals, a decent amount of action, and a generally likeable cast, this is certainly no sequel to that debacle. Costner, though once again an anti-hero, manages to portray a put-upon scoundrel who would really much prefer to live honestly, if living honestly would earn him more bread than bullets. His turn from reluctant con-man to revolutionary leader feels organic to the film, and doesn’t become too over the top. I could have done without the reciting of Henry the Fifth, but it was established pretty early that Costner was a performer before becoming a charlatan.
Over all, this film manages to be fun and fantastical, while at the same time delivering a simple message: you’ll miss what you’ve got when it’s gone. These days, with crack-pot militias and tri-cornered blowhards screaming for the death of the government on a daily basis, it is especially relevant to see a future where anarchy has played out and people have grown tired of it in short order. While people may fixate on the end of the world as a chance to live like an Old West bad ass, just remember: there’s usually only one Mad Max in those pictures. Everybody else ends up being bullet catchers for some lunatic like Lord Humungus.