copyright 2011, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 53, summer 2011

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.”

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.

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. 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.

Thunder Bay and the myth of interdependence

Unlike Louisiana Story, Thunder Bay approaches off-shore oil drilling from a strictly fictional point of view, without claiming a more fact-based documentary approach to the subject, but it also illustrates a skewed point of view of  oil drilling perhaps reinforced by one of the film’s star’s (James Stewart) connections to the oil industry. In her updated biography of Anthony Mann, for example, Jeanine Basinger recounts James Stewart’s connection to the film and its subject, explaining that Thunder Bay was one of three projects Stewart found and asked Mann to direct, in this case because Stewart had joined a partnership with a Texas oilman (132). With a weak script, Anthony Mann’s “mastery of physical space” (Basinger 132) stands out in Thunder Bay. According to Basinger,

“Although it is somewhat unsettling today to watch a movie that sets a conflict between oil-drilling and nature—and oil-drilling is the hero—the machinery and the rig are photographed as things of beauty and majesty” (132).

From Basinger’s perspective, “Hard industrial grays and reds replace the greens and blues of nature and become the ‘colors’ of the modern era” (132). A. W. of The New York Times agrees, asserting that visually, “the complex off-shore drilling apparatus is the most distinctive aspect of Thunder Bay.” Shot in Technicolor and shown on an innovative “wide, curved screen [with] stereophonic [stereo] (or directional) sound” (A.W.) in the Loew’s State Theatre, Thunder Bay’s vast setting took center stage, overshadowing its weak narrative.

Basinger calls the film and its ending “a modern environmentalist’s worst nightmare” based on her reading of the film as a conflict between oil-drilling and nature in which oil-drilling wins, perhaps missing the film’s implausible environmental message: shrimpers and oil men can live together interdependently because the elusive golden shrimp are not only undamaged by oil drilling but attracted to the rig. Other reviewers address this move toward interdependence. Reviewer Dennis Schwartz claims the film’s resolution

“has shrimpers and oil men willing to live with each other in harmony, saying there’s room for both.”

Reviewer Dan Jardine asserts that Anthony Mann establishes a conflict of worldviews between what he calls Hispanic shrimp fishermen and speculative oil men but “backs away from the dialectic he has established from the get-go and gives us a soppy and completely implausible restorative ending.”

Although we agree that the film’s ending is implausible, we argue that the seeds of a resolution to the conflict between shrimpers and oilmen are planted early in the film when the romantic plot between Johnny Gambi (Dan Duryea) and Francesca Rigaud (Marcia Henderson) is broached. Thunder Bay moves beyond Louisiana Story, then, not only claiming that oil drilling can leave the natural world untouched, but also asserting that oil drilling and shrimping can coexist interdependently. 

Set in 1946 Louisiana, Thunder Bay connects oil drilling and shrimping from its opening shot of Johnny Gambi and Steve Martin (James Stewart) walking down a long deserted road: They carry a heavy chest and discuss a money making idea that will require a $2 million investment, but then a Port Filliay Fish Company truck picks them up and takes them into town for a 2:00 p.m. appointment, aligning their oil drilling plan with the community’s fishing industry. The connection between fishing and oil drilling broached by the film is emphasized here, especially since, once they reach town, Gambi rents a shrimp boat for $50 a day, so the two can, they hope, form a partnership with a big oil man, Kermit MacDonald (Jay C. Flippen).

At first, however, the relationship between oil drilling and fishing is seen as conflicting rather than interdependent. To offset any hostility their enterprise might ignite, Gambi and Martin encourage area fishermen to think they are opening a fish cannery. But when their potential investors arrive by seaplane and, despite company troubles, agree to fund Steve Martin’s project, an offshore drilling platform and rig, the film’s major conflict is broached. Even though business investor MacDonald gives Stewart money in advance to pay off debts and promises to deposit $500,000.00 the next day, the area shrimpers are skeptical of this possible disruption to their means of survival and way of life.

The shrimp boat owner Dominique’s (Antonio Moreno) daughters serve as love interests for Gambi and Martin and another source of conflict between local fishermen and the oil drillers: the elder sister Stella (Joanne Dru) eventually partners with Martin, and the younger sister Francesca (Marcia Henderson)  pairs up with Gambi.  Primarily, however, the townspeople oppose Martin and Gambi, believing that oil and shrimp can’t mix. The primary conflict of Thunder Bay, then, is between those who make a living from the sea—shrimpers and other fishermen—and those who would like to make a living from what lies beneath its waters—oilmen. Although history suggests this conflict is irresolvable, however, the film negotiates a resolution between these two worldviews and sources of income that is based in organismic approaches to ecology.

Ultimately, Thunder Bay reinforces Steve Martin’s position on offshore oil drilling. Martin effectively argues for the off-shore drilling by stressing interdependence, an organismic approach to ecology,  claiming that oil and shrimp can not only mix but bring prosperity to all: “There’s oil down there,” Martin proclaims, and “this is going to be good for the town, good for the people.”

The conflict is not so easily resolved, however, and must first rise to a climax. Because of his opposition to oil drilling, for example, Dominique will no longer rent his shrimp boat to Martin and Gambi, but his friend Teche (Gilbert Roland) will, perhaps only as another income source. The other shrimpers remain concerned: “Don’t they know they’re killing the shrimp?” Dominique asks. Stella, Dominique’s oldest daughter agrees, exclaiming, “The town’s not enough. They have to kill the whole bay.”

During the initial seismic blasting that will locate the best areas for underwater drilling, Martin disagrees and reinforces his claims that oilmen and shrimpers can build a prosperous community together: “Those shrimp can withstand ten times the blast,” he asserts. After the blasting, however, the townspeople plan to stop Martin and Gambi because they believe their dynamite may have destroyed the shrimp beds. When Stella warns Martin that the townspeople may confront him, however, he continues to stress the potential for an interdependent relationship between shrimpers and oilmen, telling her that dynamite won’t “do any harm. If it hurt the shrimp, I’d stop it.” And when the townspeople nearly attack him, Martin continues to espouse his claims for an interdependent relationship between them:

“Nothing we do spoils the fish or the town…. Oil is going to do good things for the place.”

Dominique remains unconvinced, however, and induces Mr. Parker (uncredited) from the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to intervene with a cease and desist order for Martin and Gambi.  When Dominique and Parker arrive with the order, Martin has already stopped the blasting, since they have chosen a drilling site. Now Martin’s financial support, Macdonald, “Mac,” gives him twenty-six days to find oil below the rig and, perhaps, even less time to convince the locals that oil and shrimp can build prosperity. 

During the initial drilling process, shrimpers and oilmen remain in opposition. Martin is so dedicated to this mission that he stays on the rig during a possible hurricane. But when Stella comes to make sure her younger sister, Francesca, does not marry Gambi, Martin explains the challenge of oil drilling and establishes a foundation for his own beliefs in mutual progress: “Now oil was found…. It was found from things dying millions of years ago” and can build a future from the past putting all time together. This is an evolutionary argument that highlights a desire for a progress built on a rich past and, of course, on oil.

The climax of the film occurs, however, when Francesca’s fiancé Phillipe (Robert Monet) tries to blow up the rig, violently opposing oil drilling and causing Martin to think Stella is part of the plan. Martin stops the blasting, but fiancé Phillipe falls and Martin can’t save him. Drilling continues despite this disaster, with a montage sequence illustrating progress. With eight days to go, however, Mac must pull out of the operation. The company would not finance the drilling, Mac explains, so Mac did, and he is out of money. Now the corporate board will no longer support the project, and it seems as if the shrimpers have won.

The consequence of the looming deadline provides an exciting spectacle to heighten tension and, in a parallel to the shrimping families ashore, to demonstrate the strong community built on the oilrig. Drilling is going so fast to meet the deadline that a warning bell goes off. It is a saltwater blow, and Gambi is not on the rig to stop it, since he has not yet returned from his secret shore visit with Francesca. All men run to their stations and use the blow out prevention system to stop the blow. When the automatic system fails, they turn to the manual operation, turning the wheels together. Mac and Martin work alongside the men, and the system works.

The oilrig community seems to be working to ensure a successful drilling process. With Gambi still away, Martin offers the men a $200 bonus if they hit oil, explaining that they will need to work for free for the last week of the operation, since their funding has fallen through. Martin exclaims, there’s “enough oil there to lubricate the universe.”

When Gambi returns, however, he and Martin fight, so Gambi nearly loses his job, and the rest of the crew nearly leaves the rig. But when Gambi hears about the financial situation, he brings the men back into their oilrig community, telling them, “We oughta have some of the glory for bringing in the first offshore rig.” Then men stay, and Gambi has married Francesca, building the first tangible bridge between oilmen and shrimpers, so after Martin goes in for supplies, he brings Francesca back for the first honeymoon on an oilrig.

Gambi also comes back to good news that confirms his claims that shrimp and oil do mix. The golden shrimp are clogging up the pumping devices. The shrimp are attracted to the rig and its drilling apparatus, the film asserts, and Martin reflects on how he should tell the shrimpers about this marvelous discovery. According to Gambi, the golden shrimp only come out at night in this particular part of the bay and could provide shrimpers with a bounty they have never seen before.

Before Martin can reveal the good news, however, Dominique nearly eradicates the possibility of this effective connection. Instead, he wants to fight Martin and Gambi, rescue Francesca, and destroy the rig. Dominique proclaims, “They’ll kill our fish. They will take everything from us.” The conflict between oil drilling and shrimping is still in place, but, in the film’s context, only because the “truth” has not yet been revealed to Dominique and his friends.

Once one of the shrimpers, Teche, learns that golden shrimp, shrimp that have eluded them for decades, are attracted to the rig, interdependence becomes possible. Martin shows Teche the golden shrimp off camera, so when Dominique and the townspeople arrive to take Francesca away, a symbiotic relationship between oilmen and shrimpers is established instead of the continuing conflict Dominique predicts. On camera, Martin tells Teche the golden shrimp foul up their intake valves at night and asks Teche what he might do for him. Teche declares, “What a dumb oil man,” but the ice has been broken and the battle between the shrimpers and oilmen is a short one.

Martin connects that relationship between the two worldviews to Francesca’s marriage to Gambi, telling the townspeople, “She’s here to stay, and so are we,” when they ask for Francesca. “We won’t hurt ya. We never will. You look for one thing in the gulf. We look for something else. That’s the only business…. Without oil this country would die.” The rig begins to shake as if she will blow. “It’s going to be the richest oil field in the world.” And a gusher rushes up the rig: “Cap that thing fast!”

Now both oilmen and shrimpers can reap the benefits of oil drilling in the fantasy narrative on display in Thunder Bay. The oilmen rejoice, covered in oil, and Teche shows fellow shrimpers how to catch the golden shrimp. There are thousands of these wondrous shrimp, and a biotic community is established between oilmen and fishermen. This symbiotic relationship extends to marriage: Gambi marries Francesca, and Martin follows Stella to New Orleans in a truck borrowed from Teche. In a fantastic resolution to a realistic conflict between shrimpers and oilmen, Thunder Bay asserts interdependence, an organismic approach to ecology that suggests human and nonhuman nature can maintain a thriving relationship that benefits them all.

Dead Ahead: The Exxon Valdez Disaster,
Black Wave: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez,
Crude: The Real Price of Oil : when externalities become transparent

While Louisiana Story and Thunder Bay suggest that oil production will either leave the landscape untouched or benefit its ecosystem, films responding to major oil spills, including the March 24, 1989 Exxon Valdez eco-catastrophe in Alaska’s Prince Edward Sound, highlight the negative effects oil disasters may have on the environment and the cultures and economies it supports. Instead of condemning the oil industry in general, however, these films attack individuals and promote safe production practices. In a move similar to that of Louisiana Story, Dead Ahead: The Exxon Valdez Disaster (1992), Black Wave: The Legacy of Exxon Valdez (2009), and Crude: The Real Price of Oil (2009), assert that because oil and the natural environment don’t mix, they must remain separate.

Unlike Thunder Bay, which asserts that humans and the natural world can share an interdependent relationship, Dead Ahead, Black Wave, and, to a certain extent, Crude suggest that human and environmental disasters occur when safety precautions fail, either because of human error or blatant neglect. If, as in Louisiana Story, however, oil companies enter the natural world briefly and with caution to avoid an indelible effect, then, the films suggest, they can avoid such disasters. Ultimately, these films perpetuate the same two myths upheld by Louisiana Story: If implemented correctly and safely, oil drilling can leave a natural setting untouched, so that humans and their technology can remain separate from nature rather than interconnected with it. 

Dead Ahead: The Exxon Valdez Disaster, for example, focuses primarily on the reasons behind both the spill and its slow cleanup, however, rather than on the inherently dangerous consequences of oil production and shipment. To reinforce this assertion that safety regulations, not the oil industry per se, caused this horrendous disaster and its catastrophic consequences, the film provides a reenactment of the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker catastrophe, from the moments before the tanker ran aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, rupturing its storage tanks and spilling millions of gallons of oil, through its devastating aftermath. According to Los Angeles Times staff writer, Susan King,

“the behind-the-scenes catastrophes after the mammoth oil spill… shocked the British creative team of HBO’s docudrama Dead Ahead.”

The film’s researcher-writer Michael Baker and executive producer Leslie Woodheadcalled the disaster “a black comedy” (King) because of the neglect and greed of oil and pipeline companies, and the disastrous choices made by the Coast Guard, the EPA, and the first Bush Administration.

As King declares, the film

“depicts the bureaucracy, fighting, and finger-pointing among officials at Exxon, the Alyeska Pipeline Company…, the Coast Guard, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Bush Administration, while the spill was left basically unattended for days.”

Anger with these multiple groups’ mistakes prompted Baker and Woodhead to move forward with the film. As Woodhead explains, “It is so infuriating, the revelation that the oil laid there for three days in beautiful weather. It was just a tangle of priorities and people trying to tidy up their own images which left the oil lying there in the water” (King). Baker agrees, asserting,

“People started kind of blaming each other…. It became a question of controlling the media, not cleaning up the oil, but controlling the spill as an event” (King).

From its opening scenes showing Captain Joseph Hazelwood’s (Jackson Davies) absence from the bridge because of alcohol abuse to its dramatization of conflicts between the U.S. EPA and its local representative, Dan Lawn (John Heard) and between Exxon and its spokesperson, Frank Iarossi (Christopher Lloyd), the film effectively addresses the post-spill disaster, arguing both through its narrative and cinematic portrayals of once-pristine waters and landscapes for double hulls in oil tankers and better implementation of protocols if and when another spill occurs. It does not, however, argue against the production and transporting of oil because, as Woodhead states,

“America cannot afford to be without (oil) supply, but we better try to do a lot better in controlling how we get it out of there” (King).

The powerful cinematic representations of the landscape became possible because “establishing shots and aerial footage were shot of the Port of Valdez,” even though Dead Ahead was primarily filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia. According to director Paul Seed, “it would have been difficult to shoot inside Alaska because of the unpredictable weather” (King). The wild shorelines of Vancouver overlap effectively with the establishing shots of Valdez and contrast well with the post-disaster shots of a spill (recreated with a gelatin-based food thickener) to accentuate the dangerous consequences of the spill—losing the pristine beauty of wild nature.

These contrasting shots parallel the positions voiced by Lawn and Iarossi, who both in some ways oppose the organizations they see as responsible for the spill. Iarossi’s character becomes more authentic because Iarossi willingly answered interview questions, revealing, as he had during the actual spill’s aftermath, Exxon’s reactions to the spill. His focus on safety, however, reinforces the film’s emphasis on accident prevention rather than the eradication of oil production and shipment. Then president of the Exxon Shipping Company, Iarossi represented the company during public forums in Valdez and informed investigators that Captain Joe Hazelwood was legally drunk during the tanker disaster.

More importantly, Iarossi revealed that Exxon knew about Hazelwood’s drinking problem but allowed him to continue as captain of the Valdez. Iarossi resigned from Exxon in 1990 and became president of the American Bureau of Shipping, “a nonprofit corporation that classifies ships for insurers, inspects blueprints during construction and surveys vessels to make sure they are seaworthy” (“Where are They Now?). According to a 1999 Anchorage Daily New article, Iarossi told The Business Times of Singapore,

“What we need to do is to try to develop much more of a safety culture, the mentality which is very much safety-oriented on the part of shipping companies and ship operating officers.”

The film draws on this same representation of Iarossi as a figure disillusioned by Exxon’s failure to address safety issues to reinforce its argument for double hulled tankers, but not against oil.

Representations of Dan Lawn parallel that of Iarossi and, again, validate the film’s call for safer transporting of oil. As chief of the Valdez office of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Lawn’s character confronts an unresponsive state government, a complaisant EPA, and an unprepared Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, asserting the need for both better preventative systems and emergency plans to tackle oil spills and their consequences. The film’s portrayal of Lawn draws authentically on his attempts to improve both prevention and response strategies. In a 1989 Seattle Times article, for example, Lawn asserts,

“We are all to blame…. We demand petroleum products, but we’re unwilling to be taxed. We thought someone was taking care of it. We put in pro-industry officials, and our ability to control things went away” (“The Lost Frontier”).

Although the film effectively argues for more effective safety standards to prevent future oil spill disaster, Dead Ahead reinforces the arguments broached in Louisiana Story: If we successfully maintain the bifurcation between nature and culture—between a pristine Alaska and its oil—both can be preserved.   

Black Wave: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez, on the other hand, examines the ongoing negative consequences of the Exxon Valdez disaster from a contemporary perspective. It too, however, blames ineffective choices made by the EPA and corrupt practices of Exxon for the spill’s continuing negative effects. Like Dead Ahead, the film reasserts the reasons for the economic and environmental devastation still rampant in the Valdez area—an oil spill that could have been prevented if appropriate safety measures were in place. Black Wave takes this position further, effectively condemning Exxon not only for its failures during and immediately after the disaster but for their reluctance to clean up Prince Edward Sound and provide relief funds to fishermen and spill workers still affected by the catastrophic repercussions of this unchecked spill.   

In a move similar to that made in both Louisiana Story and Dead Ahead, Black Wave contrasts pristine images of Alaskan waters and shorelines near Cordova with testimonies of fishermen and oil spill workers still affected by the disaster. The film highlights scenes of a fisherman’s daughter fishing alongside her father for the first time since the spill, for example, as a powerful portrait of a family’s connection with St. Edward Sound and its bounty. But the joy the daughter demonstrates in her ode to “the earth, the water, and the fish,” is broken once the film reveals that this is the first time the daughter has fished with her father in twenty years because fishing was not financially feasible until then. Her father, Peter O’Toole, saved enough money to buy a fishing boat and permit in February of 1989. The spill in March of the same year forestalled all fishing and devastated his fishing business for twenty years, all because, as Riki Ott, a marine biologist, reveals, both the salmon and herring runs collapsed. Of the twenty-four species devastated by the spill, the film explains, fifteen have not recovered.

The lasting effects of the spill permeate the communities around Prince Edward Sound, the film explains, with permanent economic crises contributing to increased levels of alcoholism and suicide. The spill’s negative effects extend beyond the Sound’s economy, too, and include health problems faced by spill workers who inhaled oil and dispersants, toxic chemicals used to cleanup the spill. Of the 6724 workers who filed upper respiratory illness claims and the two-dozen lawsuits, only seven were settled. Recollections of Prince Edward Sound immediately after the spill reinforce the cause of both economic and health crises. Documentary footage shows mountains glowing with a glossy pink, the tanker beside them now blood red because inky stained waters have evaporated, forming a haze in the sky, the toxic hydrocarbon vapors inhaled by oil spill workers and residents of villages around the sound.

Ultimately, however, the film centers on Exxon and its greedy and corrupt practices as the cause of these continuing crises. A mandatory class action suit begun in 1994 with 32,000 plaintiffs, for example, seems to bring victory to the plaintiffs, validating Exxon’s claim that they “we will consider whatever it takes to make you whole.” Ultimately, however, a U.S. Supreme decision reduces an initial five billion dollar settlement to $500 million, despite the fact that only three percent of the spill was cleaned up. Oil residue remains in the water and along the shoreline, buried in soil only inches from the top.  Polycyclic hydrocarbon aromatics were a thousand times more toxic than expected, according to the film, affecting both workers and wildlife in and around the sound. Illnesses attack the respiratory and nervous systems of former workers. The ongoing negative effects of the spill, however, are blamed on Exxon’s negligence and greed rather than the oil industry as a whole, however.

Here, as in other documentaries, the $100 million a year lost in the St. Edward Sound Economy  and the fifteen lost species of marine and shore life are blamed on one particular oil company’s practices. The film ends, then, by condemning Exxon Mobile for its greed. The company’s profits are at least $160 billion per year, the film explains, yet the company fought a lawsuit asking for less than three percent of their annual income and refused to be interviewed. Black Wave effectively documents the reasons for and long-term consequences the Exxon Valdez disaster, but the film fails to revile oil as an industry. As in earlier documentaries, the film suggests that if better safety and restoration practices were in place, oil spills could be avoided, as would their dire consequences. 

Crude follows a pattern similar to that of Black Wave, highlighting the need to maintain the separation between nature and culture, while suggesting that oil production, if implemented effectively, can maintain a pristine wilderness. The film documents the battle between Ecuadorian indigenous tribes and Chevron over the oil company’s rampant toxic waste dumping and consequent destruction of both their rainforest home and their sources of water.  With help from Trudie Styler, Sting’s wife, filmmaker Joe Berlinger provides a balanced portrait of both the dangerous outcomes of toxic waste dumping and of the lawsuit between the tribes and Chevron continuing from 1993. According to Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers, however,

“the most telling arguments come from watching tribes living in a toxic wasteland with children ravaged by skin diseases and cancer.”

 According to Travers,

“The shattering sight of sludge creating a poison rainbow on a river argues eloquently about why oil and water don’t mix.”

In the film, however, the focus is not on the inherently incompatibility of oil and water but on Chevron’s negligent practices, just as Dead Ahead and Black Wave highlight the need for a safer approach to oil shipping but not the elimination of our reliance on oil or the oil industry. Recent Ecuadorian court decisions claiming Chevron owes $5 billions for damages were stopped by appeals in the U.S. courts.

Conclusion:  can oil and water mix?

Oil tanker spills like those documented by Dead Ahead and Black Wave seemed to be “a much larger threat,” (Bourne 42) than offshore oil drilling catastrophe like the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster, according to Bourne’s report in the October 2010 National Geographic.  From the first offshore oil well forward, efforts to tap what Bourne calls “the largest U.S. oil discoveries in decades” went further off shore and deeper into the Gulf of Mexico. BP’s Macondo Deepwater Horizon well was fifty miles offshore and a mile below sea level. Despite the obvious risks involved in such offshore drilling, Bourne asserts that “the industry had acted as if such a catastrophe would never occur. So had its regulators. Nothing like it had happened in the Gulf of Mexico since 1979, when a Mexican well called Ixtoc I blew out in the shallow waters of the Bay of Campeche” (42). As Bourne explains,

“Drilling technology had become so good since then, and the demand for oil so irresistible, that oil companies had sailed off the continental shelf into ever deeper waters” (42).

Both Louisiana Story and Thunder Bay draw on this same belief regarding offshore oil drilling. Unlike comparatively more fragile oil tankers, offshore oil wells are regulated by the Minerals Management Service (MMS), who claimed, according to Bourne, “that the chances of a blowout were less than one percent, and that even if one did happen, it wouldn’t release much oil” (42). Despite biogeochemist Mandy Joye’s call “to green power” (quoted in Bourne 53), however, Bourne focuses primarily on BP’s decisions when it became clear their well was not stable. According to Robert Bea, a University of California, Berkeley expert in technological disasters and offshore engineering, for example,

“one problem… was a loss of core competence. After [a] merger BP forced thousands of older, experienced oil field workers into retirement. That decision, which made the company more dependent on contractors for engineering expertise, was a key ingredient in BP’s ‘recipe for disaster’” (quoted in Bourne 47). 

As of March 2011, the effects of the BP oil disaster continue. A Guardian article from Suzanne Goldenberg suggests the spill may have caused the death of 90 bottle-nosed dolphins, for example. Yet according to the final report of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, “Drilling in deep water does not have to be abandoned. It can be done safely.” The last chapter of the report outlines how best to implement the safety precautions that will avoid such disasters and facilitate more offshore oil drilling.

The media responses to the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster, then, draw on the more separatist philosophy represented by Louisiana Story. Although few would suggest that oil, fishing, and the water that sustains it are inherently interdependent, most media representations do assert the need for controlling oil production to maintain pristine nature rather than eliminating it altogether. As Elliot asserts, the oil and fishing industries may have learned to live together because oil brought money and jobs to the region. What remains unanswered, however, is whether or not those jobs are worth the risk to fragile ecosystems in the Gulf, as documented in Dead Ahead, Black Wave, and Crude and illustrated by Louisiana Story and Thunder Bay, films responding to the development of the first off-shore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil and water can mix, they argue, at least if appropriate safety precautions are in place.


Black Wave: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez. Dir. Robert Cornellier. Montreal: Macumba DOC, 2009. DVD. (99 minutes).

Crude. Dir. Joe Berlinger. Beverly Hills, CA.: Entendre, 2009. DVD. (105 minutes).

Dead Ahead: The Exxon Valdez Disaster.  Dir. Paul Seed. HBO, 1992. VHS. (90 minutes).

Louisiana Story. Dir. Robert Flaherty. Robert Flaherty Productions, 1948. DVD. (78 minutes).

Thunder Bay. Dir. Anthony Mann.  Universal, 1953. DVD. (103 minutes).

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