For whatever was written in former days was
written for our instruction, so that by
steadfastness and by the encouragement of the
scriptures we might have hope.
The twin brothers Albert and Allen Hughes return to the screen with a fascinating Western-Samurai- Post-Apocalyptic film that bears comparison with the other post-apocalyptic film also showing, The Road. Like that film, it is shot in muted or faded colors, the western landscape across which our protagonist moves every bit as bleak as the destroyed lands in the east. However Eli (Denzil Washington) has no companion, and he is not headed south, but west, and he is infinitely more capable (actually, impossibly so) of protecting himself than the more realistically depicted father of The Road.
There is a seedy looking town with just one street and a bar room scene that one expects in a Western. Also our hero, in keeping with the Western genre, is very reluctant to engage in a fight, but, when forced, he becomes incredibly fast with Bowie knife, sword, gun, fists, and martial arts gymnastics. The number of would-be killers lying dead on the bar room floor could have made up a good-sized posse. But, this hero does not always come to rescue the weak in distress: earlier, when Eli observed from a bluff a scene in which a motorcycle gang are robbing and killing a pair of travelers, he made no attempt to go to their rescue, instead muttering something about not turning aside from his path.
Eli will let nothing turn him aside because, as we learn later, he believes that God has called him on a mission to protect the book entrusted to him and to deliver it to someone awaiting it at the western edge of the ruined country. Thus when Carnegie (Gary Oldman), the boss who rules the town with his gang and their control of the only source of water, a commodity now more valuable than gold, is impressed by Eli’s martial prowess and offers him a job, the traveler says that he cannot stay. Eli does agree to stay the night, Carnegie hoping that he will change his mind. But when the boss sends to his room his own stepdaughter Solara (Mila Kunis) to service him for the night, Eli, as pure-minded as Galahad, turns her down. She begs him to let her stay the night, lest Carnegie beat her for failing to seduce him. He offers to share the precious food that she has brought him, but before she can take a bite, he stops her and offers a warm prayer of thanksgiving. Afterward she first sees the book that he keeps wrapped in his knapsack, but he refuses her request to examine it.
We know that Carnegie has been sending out his motorcycle gang to seize from the travelers they assault any books they are carrying, and that he is disappointed that the one book he is seeking is not among them. Later, after Eli has escaped from the town despite the gang’s attempt to stop him, and he refuses to allow Solara to accompany him, and then still later rescues her from brutal rapists, he quotes from the book. Our assumption as to its identity is proven right. The book that he is protecting is a pulpit Bible. Solara asks him to read from it, and without opening it, Eli quotes the 23rd Psalm. Eli explains (I am not sure whether here or at another point) that after the war between the nations had destroyed so much, people turned on the Bible, blaming it for the war. They burned every copy, so now this is the only one left.
Carnegie wants the Bible because he recalls enough of its language to know how beautiful and engaging it is. He believes that by quoting it he can use it to persuade people in other villages to accept his authority, thus expanding his power. Thus he decides to pursue the pair, and sets off with three armored cars to catch up with them. The film has almost as full of action and violence as any Mad Max-type film, and yet all the mayhem is under girded by a spiritual theme stressing the importance of the Hebrew-Christian Scriptures (Eli also later quotes from the apostle Paul). However, Eli, in keeping with his name, is much more of an Old Testament hero than one shaped by the teachings of the New Testament. He calmly employs his skill in martial arts to wreak mayhem against those who stand in his way—and in one scene he dispatches a wounded adversary without any trace of mercy.
The film’s violence will off-put some, but it does offer people of faith an opportunity to explore issues about the Bible, contrasting two ways of regarding it—one as a source for inward spiritual nurture, and the other as a means of obtaining power over others. And the little twist at the end is satisfying, both in regard to the form of the book and Eli’s dedication, and the other as to the fate of the villain. In most Westerns-martial arts film, there is a climactic showdown with the bad guy suffering some horrible death. I don not think it is giving too much away to write that Carnegie’s fate draws on the Greek myth of Tantalus—and a very satisfying one it is. Be sure to see this film and Road, the latter as a spiritual meditation, and Eli as a thriller that might serve as a Midrash on of the words of the One who said, “Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away.”
This definitely contains spoilers toward the end in order to fully explore the film.
1. What did you think of when you first learned of its title? That it seemed like the name of a book? How might a title like Eli’s Book or Protector of the Book be a truer description? And yet what book does the title sound like it could be taken from, something no doubt inteneded?
2. Compare Eli with the protagonist of most Westerns or martial arts films? How is he similar; and how is he different from such figures?
3. Were you disappointed when he just watched the couple being robbed and killed? Puzzled by his barely heard words about not turning from the path? When did you realize what he meant by that?
4. What do you think of Carnegie as a villain? When the motorcycle thugs bring him the cache of stolen books, what did you think it was that Carnegie was looking for? You must have guessed then that the book Eli was carrying was also the object of the villain’s obsession, but did suspect then that the book that Eli was willing to die or kill for was the Bible?
5. When Solara, born after the great War had ended, asks Eli what life was like then, what do you think of his reply: “People had more than they needed. We had no idea of what was precious.” Compare this with what Jesus taught in Matthew 6:19-21 and following verses. Does this describe your own life or those whom you know? How does his mealtime prayer show that he has learned this lesson?
6. What does Eli “read from” when he responds to Solara’s request that he read something from the book to her? How do you now see that this was a hint as to what we discover at the conclusion of the film? In light of all that has befallen Eli, how is this perhaps the most appropriate passage for him to share with her? In what situations have you turned to this great psalm?
7. As they travel together toward the west (how is this similar to Abraham’s journey?), Solara asks, “How do you know that you are going in the right direction?” What is his reply? Compare this to 2 Corinthians 5:6. (Also, if you have seen The Road, compare this dependence upon faith, also translated at times as trust, with the closing words of that film.)
8. What did you think of the old couple George and Martha, so delightfully played by Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour? From wha
t the travelers see in the backyard, why did the couple want them to stay? Was it just for tea, or—?
9. Were you disappointed that Carnegie succeeded in obtaining the book? In the sequence that follows, how does Solara’s act show Eli the need for a companion: that is, can one really live a solitary life with no need of anyone else?
10. What did you think of what Eli and Solara encounter at the end of the film? What irony do you see that the site was Alcatraz? How is this community similar to the monastic communities during the so-called Dark Ages? Or to that in Ray Bradbury’s great story, and the film based on it, Fahrenheit 451? How is it that the Book was not really lost after all?
11. Did Eli’s words about finishing the course sound familiar; and if so, what is their source? (Hint: try 2 Timothy 4:7) How are they appropriate for him? What do you think of Solara’s decision about staying in the community? What do you think might become of her? (Maybe the subject of a sequel?)
12. How is the fate of the villain more satisfying than the traditional way of dispatching him? How does Claudia (Jennifer Beals), who seemed up to now a rather unimportant character, suddenly is key to this fate? Had you suspected her condition? Or the nature of the Book’s “language” ? How is what happens to Carnegie similar to the myth of Tantalus? And thus does he “get away with” his crimes?
13. Contrast the different attitudes in which Eli and Carnegie hold in regards to the Book and its use. How is the Bible indeed a source of power? (This might be a good time to read the great psalm on the Torah, Psalm 119.) How has this been misused through the centuries: during the Middle Ages? In the conflicts between those opposed to freeing the slaves or allowing women full rights?
14. An excellent book for exploring with a group how the Bible has been misused is Jim Hill and Rand Cheadle’s The Bible Tells me So: Uses and Abuses of Holy Scriptures. (New York: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1996) The articles are concise (and illustrated) yet comprehensive in their scope of the multitude of subjects included.