I love fan theories. I could waste an entire evening just hearing about how all Schwarzenegger movies take place in the terminator universe or reading about how the Harry Potter books are about a delusional child being sent to an institution for the mentally ill. Fascinating and sometimes disturbing, fan theories are great examples of how art is a shared experience. An author sits down and writes a book and intends for it to be one thing, but the reader will almost always see it as slightly different. And when two or more people discuss the book? Very often it transforms into something more different still.
But fan theories take this shared experience to another level. A good fan theory can sometimes seem like an entirely new art form. Lately, I stumbled on a fan theory of my own. It was while I was reading David Brin’s post-apocalyptic book The Postman. I remembered Kevin Costner had made a film based on the book. I hadn’t seen it, but I started to think about his other films. And just like that three unrelated movies from his career suddenly fit into a trilogy.
This is how a writer’s mind works, by the way. You’re reading something or watching something or eating something and the next thing you know you’ve created an entire imaginary world in your head and it’s dark outside and everyone has gone to sleep and you don’t recall the last three pages you read even though you’ve read them fourteen times and there are crumbs everywhere. Just everywhere. The only decision you have to make is – do I write or do I vacuum? There is no correct answer. That’s life. That’s a writer’s life right there.
Where was I?
Oh, yes. I was going to tell you about my Grand Unifying Theory of Kevin Costner… or something like that.
Now, this theory doesn’t exactly fit the movies like a glove and I absolutely do not think any trilogy was ever intended by the creators of the movies, but the character arc of the protagonist of all three films seems to fit together so seamlessly that I think it’s fun to imagine they’re all the same guy. The movies, in order, are Fandango (a 1985 film taking place in 1971), Revenge (1990 film taking place in … well, they don’t say, so we’ll assume 1990) and The Postman (a 1997 film taking place in 2013.) Gardner Barnes is played by Kevin Costner in Fandango and although his name changes in Revenge and The Postman (I told you it didn’t fit like a glove) his heroic journey seems to extend over the course of the three films. In both Fandango and Revenge, although he experiences personal growth he is frustrated and distracted from completing his quest. But in The Postman, he finally gets what his character has been looking for over the course of all three movies.
You should see this movie and if you don’t love it, you should watch it again until you do.
Fandango is my favorite film of all time. I could write an entire blog post about it alone (and I might rabbit, I might) but for our purposes here I’ll just give you the brief run down. The movie is about four (technically five) friends celebrating their college graduation and taking their last road trip before splitting up to pursue grown-up stuff like military service, marriage, the priesthood and business. Every character is ready to get all grown up, except one: our Mr. Gardner Barnes, played by Kevin Costner. Gardner is the charismatic leader of these “Groovers” but he isn’t ready to admit his days of irresponsible youth are behind him. Instead, he fully intends to dodge the draft, run from his ex-girlfriend and flee the country.
But our Gardner is a more complicated soul than he would let us believe. By the end of the movie we come to understand that he isn’t running from his ex-girlfriend Debbie because she’s pursuing him, he’s running because he knows he’s fallen in love with her and is terrified by it. But more than that, his friend Wagner is engaged to be married to her. His irresponsible run for the border is dragging Wagner with him and ruining the man’s chances for marrying her. Finally, Gardner puts away his selfish hope that he can lead his Groovers into a life of extended youth and helps reunite Wagner and Debbie. The last scene where they are all together shows Gardner sharing a last dance, a fandango, with Debbie at their wedding. You can skip to about the 3:00 minute mark, but note the bandana. It’s significant.
So, Gardner loses his love, but perhaps gains a measure of maturity. We don’t see him again until the closing credits, toasting his friends from afar before presumably taking off for Mexico.
Which brings us to our next movie, Revenge. Revenge is the toughest part of this fan theory. It doesn’t quite fit, so it requires a bit of squinting and looking sideways. Barnes, we presume after leaving his friends at the end of Fandango, goes to Mexico. The backstory of the character Costner plays in this movie (Michael J Cochran) is only barely sketched in and we are invited to interpret it. So, some of this is directly referenced in the film and some of it is filled in by me.
In Mexico, Barnes/Cochran meets a man named Tiburon Mendez, an adventuresome and mysterious man of nefarious ambitions. The two stir up some trouble together and they form a friendship after Cochran (I’m just going to refer to him as Gardner Barnes from now on to avoid confusion) saves his life during a hunting trip. Mendez tries to get Barnes to stay and be his partner-in-crime, but Gardner realizes after his flight to Mexico and the experience of saving another man’s life, he has finally put away the irresponsible child and is ready to grow up. Even as he enjoys the company of his new friend, he remembers the friends he left behind and regrets it. He goes back to the U.S. and volunteers for the air force under an assumed identity – Michael J. Cochran. Who knows, perhaps the name of Gardner Barnes had become odious and legally cumbersome or maybe Barnes just needed a clean break from his past?
Squint. Tilt head sideways.
Anyway, he finishes flight school just in time to fly missions in the waning days of the Vietnam War. He never finds his friends again, but he realizes that what he truly wanted was to find a home anyway. The Groovers had been that for him and so he had returned to find them, but while at the Air Force, the military became his new home. He served for many years after the war, achieving many distinctions as a great pilot and natural leader. But the dream of Mexico and the companionship of the one remaining friend of his youth, Tiburon, never left him. When the movie begins, he retires from the service after sixteen years and returns to Mexico and visits with his friend, only to find that instead of reuniting with an old companion, he must fight the oldest of his demons – falling in love.
He meets and quickly falls for Tiburon’s wife, Miryea. They have a brief, passionate affair. The Gardner Barnes character would have loved her and left her, but the Cochran man he had become decides to stay, even though it is exactly the “wife of my best friend” scenario he had dreaded before. But he’s determined to not spurn love this time around, so he stays when he knows he should leave. But instead of taking responsibility and confronting his friend and trying to figure out some kind of realistic future with Miryea, he tries to keep the affair secret. Of course, they are inevitably discovered and Tiburon’s reaction to the betrayal of wife and friend is brutal and deeply disturbing. Gardner is beaten to a bloody pulp and left for dead in the desert and poor Miryea is slashed across the face and sent to serve in a common whorehouse. Barnes gets found and nursed back to health by a man who finds him – a man who apparaently is not unused to finding the bodies of victims of Mendez’s wrath near his place. Miryea, meanwhile, kind of gets the fuzzy end of the lollypop as she is used and abused and ultimately gets “sick” (read AIDS) by sharing a needle (she gets addicted to drugs as the only way to deal with her new life of constant rape and brutalization) with a heroin user.
Yeah, we can stop for a minute here and reflect how common this sort of thing was in cinema even just thirty years ago. If a guy cheated on his wife, he suffered some consequences, but otherwise survived and even came out a better character by the end of a film. If a woman cheated? She gets a fate worse than death. I sometimes look back on the films I grew up with and wonder if my relationships with women over time would have been easier or at least healthier if I had seen them portrayed by Hollywood as human beings instead of object lessons. Probably? Let’s go with probably.
Not that I am one to turn my nose up at a good rabbit stew, mind you!
But getting back to our story, Barnes heals up and then, with the help of Miguel Ferrar (who wears his sunglasses at night) and John Leguizamo (who does not) goes to rescue Miryea. Along the way, he kills some of Tiburon’s henchmen and eventually confronts the man himself. What happens to Tiburon we never find out, but out of respect for the friendship he and Tiburon once had Gardner asks forgiveness for sleeping with his wife and then leaves and finds Miryea just in time to tell her that he loves her before she dies. Throughout her ordeal she never let go of one of Gardner’s dog tags, a touching memento reminiscent of the meaningfulness of the bandana for Debbie.
Yeah, it was kind of a downer movie. I guess I wanted Revenge to fit into this fan theory because of the compelling parallels between Cochran and Barnes when it comes to relationships – specifically, intimate ones. Barnes fled to Mexico in part because he didn’t want to admit he had fallen in love with Debbie. Such a thing would have required that he grow up and try to figure out how adult relationships work. He found the thought terrifying, so he fled. On the flip side, Cochran also flees from relationships (he reveals at one point he had been married and divorced once before, but he admits he was “more in love with jets”) and finally decides to stick around for this one. And what happens? Some pretty bad stuff.
So, the character arc of our hero seems aborted in both movies doesn’t it? In each one, he is forced to sacrifice what he truly desires because he is not quite ready to assume responsibility for it. But the hero in Revenge is much closer to doing it than the hero of Fandango. And now we come to The Postman, a movie (and book) that is dominated by the central question of “Who will take responsibility?”
The Postman’s protagonist has no actual name (it’s Gordon Krantz in the book, which almost seems like a mishmash of Gardner Barnes and Michael J Cochran if you shout both quickly over the sounds of heavy construction) and is delivered to us in the movie with no backstory at all. He has one in the book, but we’ll confine our discussion to the movie. So, we get to fill the blanks ourselves. Fun!
Gardner/Cochran/Postman leaves behind the wreckage of his life and his love affair in Mexico. He wanders the land, crossing from that country back into the United States, just in time for World War III to break out. His training in the Air Force and his experiences in Mexico allow him to survive the devastation as he goes from place to place, scavenging and avoiding gangs of gun-toting survivalists. His knack for making “stone soup” like he did for his friend’s wedding many years ago gets him into the walled-off settlements that arise as civilians and ex-military people slowly rebuild their shattered towns. His natural charisma and his college education also come in handy as he provides people with something they cannot scavenge or grow – entertainment.
… sort of.
He is a nobody – a drifter. The life he had fantasized about when he was younger is finally his, but it’s a brutal and nightmarish imitation of what he had dreamt it could be. He is conscripted by Holnists (read White Supremacists) and made to serve briefly in their army of post-apocalyptical survivalists, but escapes as soon as he can. He finds an old postal carrier’s jeep and exchanges uniforms with the long-dead postman. Thus, dressed as a U.S. postal carrier, he cons his way into the next town – looking for food and a warm place to rest for a while.
The town is so excited to see a representative of a government they thought long gone that they throw a party for him. When he meets Abby, a woman who brazenly propostions him for sex so she can use him as a sperm donor (a “body father”) so she and her beloved but sterile husband can have a baby, he is so spooked by the invitation to intimacy that he tries to flee. Of course, now that the town expects him to deliver mail for them, he can’t leave right away. Abby tries a more direct approach later in the night and of course gets her way because the poor man is not made of stone after all.
And I’ll do a quick aside here to note how the character of Abby is handled in this movie. Whereas Miryea was given a fate worse than death, Abby fares quite a bit better. Not only does she survive the movie, she thrives. True, she loses her husband (but not due to jealousy – the guy is a saint – but rather because he develops a fatal case of sword-through-the-stomach) but almost all of her on-screen time is taken up with displays of strength, practicality and independence. We see she is a woman who can take care of herself, whether it be by finding food and shelter or killing bad guys, but who also would really rather someone else do it. Coincidentally, this makes her exactly like Gardner. Double coincidentally, it’s exactly like everyone everywhere. I believe the scenes in the winter cabin are the best in the movie and serve to elevate what is otherwise a disappointing film.
Really, it’s just not a very good movie. Just how many scenes of Kevin Costner begrudgingly accepting envelopes from people do I need to see, exactly? According to the movie the answer is all of them.
But for my money, Abby comes across as a much more effective and inspiring feminist icon than any Wonder Woman type, because her character is treated with an equal amount of respect as the protagonist and is revealed on-screen as having as much dignity, strength and depth while being portrayed as an equal member of society and not some kind of super hero. I can’t imagine that’s an easy thing to do when you have a movie that is not an ensemble and I have to applaud Costner and Williams for making it happen. I just wish the rest of the movie had been nearly as interesting and full of their incredibly watchable push-pull dynamic.
But by the end of the film Abby is reduced to being more-or-less just Gardner’s love interest. Although I wanted more from her, it’s the love interest of the main character and the choices he is forced to make regarding her where the connection between all three of these movies comes through. Early in The Postman, when Abby departs in the morning after her conceiving a child with Gardner, she leaves a red ribbon from her hair. Gardner takes it with him and almost fetishizes it. Symbolically, this is interesting, because the bandana and the dog tag occupy the same roles in the other two movies. It’s like no matter where Gardner goes he can’t help finding a memento to lead him back towards love and family. The ties that he once shunned as a kid and dangerously played with as an adult now serve to draw him toward his own salvation as a man of middle-years. It’s like in this movie Barnes/Cochran/Postman finally understands that to earn both love and a place to call home, you have to stop running, accept your place in the community and your responsibility as a member – or even a leader.
And there is one scene in the Postman which seems to mirror directly the dance scene in Fandango. You can skip to about 1:35. It’s not a fandango, but I don’t know. I see a bookend there.
Again, there’s a lot of squinting and staring sideways at these movies to see the connections, but I think it’s there if only in the grand character arc of the protagonist. I admit it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine Gardner Barnes joining the Air Force. And the birth year given to the hero in the Postman makes him far younger than either Barnes or Cochran. But it’s also not hard to see how a young man like Gardner could easily and rapidly change his mind and his priorities and it’s certainly not beyond reason that after a nuclear war people’s recollection of accurate dates and times get confused.
But even these are just set-dressing details. The strongest through-line that connects all three movies is how the protagonist of each movie handles a love affair. Gardner Barnes refuses the love that is offered to him and runs from it, only to realize too late that it was the wrong decision. Cochran refuses the responsibility of the love that is offered to him but also doesn’t run from it and realizes too late that it also was the wrong decision. The Postman does not refuse the love that is offered and also decides to stop running and even (although not at first) decides to change himself into the kind of man worthy of love and ready for the responsibility.
The journey of all three characters describe the perfect arc of emotional maturity for one protagonist. At the end of The Postman our hero gets not only a chance to enjoy a healthy and lasting love but also a family and a place to call home, the kind of thing one imagines he had wanted in Fandango and sought in Revenge, but had been too afraid to let himself have until the world blew up and it was nearly too late.