Published December 1, 1997
The Postman by Kevin Costner was made about 25 years too late. This is the kind of thing that would have seemed “deep,” or possibly “heavy” to the drugged-out hippies of the Vietnam era, but is just laughable now. Even the audience of film critics I saw it with laughed out loud at several of the parts which were meant to be most deeply affecting. You’d think Costner would have learned his lesson after Waterworld. No more futuristic romances about lonely men (naturally played by Costner himself) who come out of nowhere to save the world from anarchy and militarism! But he’s at it again in Postman, which makes Waterworld look like Citizen Kane.
The evil militarists who inhabit the post-apocalyptic Pacific Northwest in 2013 are called the Holnists and are led by the warlord General Bethlehem (Will Patton). Costner’s character (who is never named) is captured by them, tortured and beaten. They want to turn him into one of their soldiers. But he escapes. On the run, he finds a post office Jeep with the skeleton of the postman still in it. Somehow, the dead man has had time to decay to the bare bones, but his uniform is still in good shape and his lighter still works. Also, Costner finds a sack of undelivered mail. This he takes with him as a dodge to get into a town and get a meal. He tells people that the United States is “restored” and that he is a postman sent by the new goverment of President Richard Starkey (Ringo?), who governs from the Hubert Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, to start delivering the mail again.
Already it is clear what kind of dichotomy the film is setting up: the brutal, thuggish, racist (recruits have to be of the “right ethnic foundation” and even a mule is condemned to death for being the bastard offspring of a horse and a donkey) and, above all, the all-male society presided over by General Bethlehem faces off against the gentle flower children of the little towns of Oregon where the Postman tries to find a place to stay. These townspeople are into folk singing and folk dancing—and wife-swapping, since the gorgeous Abby (Olivia Williams) offers herself to the Postman because he has “good seed” and her own husband is sterile on account of the “bad mumps.” At one point the rock musician, Tom Petty, appears as the leader of a sort of hippie commune with an impressive alternative technology and helps the now legendary Postman at a crucial moment.
One of the film’s most revealing moments comes shortly after the future Postman has a Shakespeare-quoting contest with his captor for the moment, General Bethlehem. The tags that both men remember are only the most familiar and the larger point of their counterpointing each other was lost on me. But later, Costner’s character (who had before his capture scraped a living as a strolling player) explains to one of his fellow recruits a line that he claims is in Macbeth: “At least we’ll die with harness off our back.” What does that mean?” asks the other. Costner tells him that he thinks it means Live Free or Die. Is it possible that Costner himself does not know that the quotation is in fact “At least we’ll die with harness on our backs”?
For Macbeth, that is, the honor of going down fighting is its own reward, whereas Costner wants to make him instead into a champion of his hippie “freedom.” In another mangled quotation, Henry V’s speech before the walls of Harfleur comes out as having exhorted his soldiers to “close the wall up with our dead,” omitting what would seem to have been to Shakespeare the essential word “English” before “dead.” Such forays of clumsy deconstruction are typical of the film’s hippie-like spirit of whimsy. If don’t like the world as it is (or Shakespeare as he is), you can always smoke something and pretend it’s something else.
Such silliness reaches a culmination in the climactic scene where Costner’s co-ed army of rag-tag long hairs finally faces off with General Bethlehem’s absurdly macho updating of the Pentagon’s Masters of War. In fulfilment of another hippie dream, Costner says to his rival: “Wouldn’t it be great if wars could be fought just by the a******* who start them?” And, lo, so it comes to pass. For Costner has the “8” brand, and so by the Holnists’ rules is entitled to challenge General B for leadership. Then, when he defeats him, he still doesn’t want to finish him off: “It doesn’t have to be this way,” he says to Bethlehem when he has him at his mercy. (Audience laughter). When his sidekick (Larenz Tate) offers to kill him instead, Costner says: “He isn’t worth it.” Of course, the general takes advantage of their mercy to grab a gun, but his own sidekick—a man who had once challenged him for the leadership and, having lost, suffered a humiliating double mutilation—kills him before he can shoot.
At this point a cheer goes up from both armies. For in the hippie dream it is only murderous psychotics like Bethlehem who start wars. Even the macho types in his army would rather put flowers in their hair. Thus as his first act as supreme dictator, Costner emends the Holnist laws: “Law one: there is to be no more killing; there’s going to be peace.”
“Yeah!” shouts the crowd.
“Law eight, live and let live,” he continues.
“Yeah!” shouts the crowd.
I predict that that will be the only cheering associated with this foolish fanatasy.