Cinema Literature and Energy

A Californian Oil Saga

Oil!, a novel by Upton Sinclair (1927), and the film « There Will Be Blood » (2007)

Cover of the novel Oil! written by Upton Sinclair
© Le livre de poche

Comment realized by Alain Beltran, Senior Research Fellow, French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).

Oil!, an epic saga set mainly in California and spanning more than 20 years, is probably the best-known novel by Upton Sinclair (1878-1968). A politically engaged, distinctly left-wing writer, Sinclair was already famous before Oil! for his damning portrayal of Chicago slaughterhouse working conditions in The Jungle. Oil! opens with a long, traditionally American road trip, where the two main characters are introduced: J. Arnold Ross, a former mule driver who has made his fortune in California, and his son Bunny. As its title suggests, the novel centers on oil production in the early 20th century. Sinclair criticizes the corruption (particularly that of politicians) behind oil wealth, but is nonetheless impressed by the oilmen’s entrepreneurial spirit and ingenuity, as demonstrated by the novel’s protagonist. The author seems to blame an unregulated capitalist system which distributes wealth unevenly and breeds corruption among officials. As the story unfolds, Bunny grows shocked with the way his father pays bribes for leases and buys off public figures. Unsurprisingly, Ross and his partner Vernon support Warren G. Harding (U.S. President from 1921 to 1923) over Woodrow Wilson (President from 1913 to 1921), as Harding is more sympathetic to the arguments and the interests of the oil industry. Over the years, Bunny rebels against this way of doing business, hitting the headlines in the local press (“Son of Oil Magnate Backs Soviets!”, p. 510, French Livre de Poche edition). With Oil!, Sinclair depicts the entire 1920s – from strikes and war to university life, journalism and elections – with remarkable precision. The narrative ends with a wish that “men can find some way to chain the black and cruel demon” after which the novel is named.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s « There Will Be Blood » , which was inspired by Oil!, was a hugely successful film that won several Oscars in 2007, including Best Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis. As Oil! is so densely written, the film focuses on the oil industry exploits of Daniel Plainview (loosely based on Ross from Sinclair’s novel) in two key years, 1911 and 1927, rather than attempting to reproduce the whole narrative in two and a half hours. Although the details of the movie stray quite far from Oil! (especially toward the end), the essence and intensity of the novel are often recognizable throughout. The first part of the film follows Plainview as he makes his fortune, with the second half narrating the oilman’s spiral into misanthropy and solitude before his final downfall. Other key characters are Plainview’s son (who becomes deaf); the Watkins family, including son Eli, pastor and prophet of the Church of the Third Revelation (inspired by a female preacher), and his brother Paul who tips off Plainview about the oil’s location; and a usurper claiming to be Daniel’s brother. Making use of the spectacular side of cinema, dramatic scenes depict the discovery of oil and, sensationally, an eruption of oil followed by a fire raging at night that has to be extinguished using dynamite.

A poster for the film « There will be blood »:


Poster of There will be blood

Oil derricks, Signal Hill, California, 1932:


Oil derricks, Signal Hill, California, 1932

The Man Who Inspired the Novel: Edward L. Doheny

Ross and his partner are clearly inspired by a real person, lesser known than John D. Rockefeller or other oil tycoons: Edward L. Doheny (1856-1935). In « There Will Be Blood » , the main characters allude to their hometown, Fond du Lac. This city in Wisconsin, whose name is French for “Bottom of the Lake”, was also the birthplace of none other than Doheny himself. In 1892, Doheny became the first person to find oil in Southern California, just a few hundred meters away from Sunset Boulevard in central Los Angeles. Within a few years of this discovery, nearly 500 wells had been drilled all over the city. In 1901 Doheny, who was then already very wealthy, expanded his business into Mexico, kicking off the oil era in this country too. He then moved to Venezuela, with similar success. Doheny ran the Pan American Petroleum and Transport Company, which was in the 1920s one of the largest oil companies in the world. He was implicated in a corruption scandal with the U.S. Secretary of the Interior but was eventually acquitted. The tycoon was also well known as a philanthropist in California, particularly for the many donations he made to charity (often to Catholic organizations). Similarly, the Getty family first made their fortune through Californian oil before moving to Texas and Saudi Arabia.

California and the Oil Industry According to Sinclair

While the characters in Upton Sinclair’s novel move through various places, including Europe, California takes center stage. In the United States, California represents a sort of “laboratory of the future”, always at the forefront of innovation and new ideas. In the 1920s, this region on the Pacific coast was seen by Americans as the final frontier, full of hope for a better life. It is of course the capital of cinema, thanks to Hollywood, and of cars, with cities such as Los Angeles designed for driving. At the turn of the 20th century, it was also the most prolific oil producing state in the U.S. The opening scene of Oil! is in a sense an ode to freedom and wide open spaces, made accessible thanks to cars and, therefore, petrol. The first North American oil depositAn accumulation of natural resources, such as oil, natural gas, coal, uranium, metal ore or another commodity... may have been discovered by the famed “Colonel” Drake (who wasn’t actually a Colonel at all) in Pennsylvania in 1859, but it was drills in Texas (such as the Spindletop field) and California that proved the oil potential of the United States. Upton Sinclair researched methods of exploration, production, storage and transportation in the 1910s and 1920s, which were often at the cutting edge of technology. For example, aerial photography was first used in 1920 in California by Union Oil to prospectA potential hydrocarbon deposit. Explorationists seek to locate prospects, determine their configuration and size... for oil in Santa Fe and Richfield. Thanks to this research, Sinclair uses oilmen’s vocabulary and demonstrates their ingenuity, endless patience and physical bravery in difficult situations.

Techniques in the Novel

The novel mentions wild-catting (p. 50, or chapter VI), which refers to drillingThe process of boring a hole into the ground using special equipment... oil exploration wells in an area that has not been fully geologically surveyed. This is the case for the field known as Prospect Hill in the novel, or the Long Beach oil field (south of Los Angeles) discovered in 1921, which led to hundreds of derricks being built in Signal Hill (see photo). In Oil!, this discovery comes in the form of a spectacular eruption: “The inside of the earth seemed to burst out through that hole; a roaring and rushing, as Niagara, and a black column shot up into the air, two hundred feet, two hundred and fifty – no one could say for sure – and came thundering down to earth as a mass of thick, black, slimy, slippery fluid.” While this may be an impressive and fear-inducing sight, it is also a symbol of wealth for the lucky concession holders (in the United States, landowners have rights to the property’s subsurface). For this reason, Sinclair describes frenzied hordes of would-be oilmen waiting impatiently to see if their land will yield “black gold”, as well as scenes of speculation, dashed hopes and success. The book’s protagonist handles these inexperienced crowds with skill. Chapter III, entitled simply “The Drilling”, depicts the equipment used in the early 20th century. First, the fleet arrives: “The first load towered high, a big stationary engine, held in place by heavy timbers bolted fast at the sides [...] Behind it came the ‘mud hogs’ and the ‘draw-works’; and then the ‘string’ of drilling tools, hollow tubes of the best steel, that were screwed end to end and went down into the earth, a mile or more, if need be” (p. 99).

The first drill down is presented as a grandiose moment akin to a ship setting sail (p. 117), with the foreman calling, not without humor, “All aboard for China!” Sinclair also describes the rotary drill (pp. 123-128), which was widely used in California, as opposed to the percussive method that miners used for a long time in Pennsylvania before they too turned to the rotary device. The author does not overlook mud, either, a pervasive and necessary part of drilling: “you swam in pale grey mud until the well came in, and after that you slid in oil” (unless the well is dry, of course). The work is dirty, greasy and dangerous; but it is also very exciting, since even the best geologists do not exactly know where the oil sandsUnconventional oil deposits containing extremely viscous... are. Mishaps are a regular occurrence: when a tube breaks or an object falls to the bottom of the well, the men have to “fish” the piece out and replace the broken parts. The narrative also explains coring (p. 139), the practice of taking a subsurface sample to find out the geological formations underground and measure their dip, to identify anticlines, for example. Then, when the miners are close to extraction, the oil is drawn up using a gas pipelinePipeline used to transport gas over a long distance, either on land or on the seabed.. Despite the precautions in place, fatal accidents can still happen, like the one described on page 277. Another passage describes an eruption “with a sound like an endless express train going by” giving rise to a fire, the “most dreadful thing of all”, which is a turning point in the film as Daniel Plainview’s son is injured. There are various ways to deal with a fire like this without losing the pressure in the well that brings the oil up to the surface. In the book, the characters have to “blow out” the well by causing a dynamite explosion as close as possible to the fire itself (p. 296). The fire is extinguished and calm is restored. Despite the catastrophe, there is a feeling of joy as the men now know there is a vast oil reservoir just beneath their feet.

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