Kevin Costner’s movie version of David Brin’s sf novel (or rather, mainly the first of its three sections) has had a decidedly bad press, but looking back from 2021 it is difficult to see why.
Set in a near-future America devastated by a nuclear/biological war, it follows the fortunes of an itinerant who wanders around the scattered townships which remain, in the hope of finding one to take him in. He doesn’t have much luck on that score, as most already have as many people as they can support, until he gets an unexpected break. He finds the remains of a US postman, with a bag of old mail some of which, providentially, is addressed to people in the next town at which he calls.
Costner secures admission by claiming to be a a real postman, working for a (fictionally) restored US government. He is met with some scepticism, especially by the local sheriff, but enough people believe him to encourage him to keep up the masquerade.
However, his hopes are quickly dashed by the arrival of the Bad Guys, a self-appointed militia group called Holnists, who roam around exacting tribute (and conscripts) from the townships They are led by one General Bethlehem, who does not appear in the book. The Holnists as a movement do, but there are important differences in the movie version. Bethlehem is decidedly racist, rejecting one draftee for being of Asian origin, and closely inspecting another for possible Black ancestry. His men even kill and eat Costner’s mule, because a cross-breed of horse and donkey has no place in the New Order. In the book, by contrast, we are explicitly told that their founder, Nathan Holn, was *not* a racist. Though Brin’s Holnists follow a “Might Is Right” philosophy, and practice a form of serfdom, this does not appear to be on racial lines.
This is my one real grumble about the film, which I feel overdoes it a bit, turning the Holnists into cardboard villains. Thus when Bethlehem rides into town, he immediately starts conscripting, without the slightest effort to find volunteers. Yet in this situation, he could probably get quite a few, given that most young men there may well have few job options other than unmechanised farm labour, ie a lifetime contemplating the south ends of northbound mules. Compared to that, service under Bethlehem might really not seem so bad Yet in the film the only character who expresses that view is shown as a dimwit, hardly above the level of the village idiot. Here I feel the movie “cheats” a little, passing over the motives of those who accepted the Holnist life. After all, Nathan Holn’s original followers must have had some reason for following him.
However, for me at least this nitpick is more than offset by the touching (and revealing) scene at the film show, where Bethlehem’s men indignantly reject Universal Soldier in favour of The Sound of Music. Clearly the Holnist rank and file – even willing ones who accept their life as the “least worst” of a rotten set of options – still pine for the happier and gentler things that they have lost, and would welcome an alternative if they saw one. Ib a way, they too are victims. This provides an explanation of their behaviour at the end of the film, where things that Costner has learned during his time with the Holnists will play a crucial part in enabling him to defeat Bethlehem.
But that’s in the future. More immediately, Costner escapes from the Holnists and hides out with his future wife, who eventually (and somewhat forcefully) persuades him to come back to town. On arrival, he finds that he has really started something. The young people of the townships are worshipping him as a hero and organising themselves into a postal service for the whole area. Indeed, it emerges later that he has admirers far beyond the immediate precincts, with others having set up a similar service for a “Restored Republic of California”. We are never told whether this republic really exists or is just a fiction similar to his own, but it hardly matters now. The movement is in full swing.
Needless to say, Bethlehem is not best pleased by any of this, and sees all too clearly the danger to him which the postmen present. He launches all out war, and as the casualties mount, Costner looks on in horror and attempts to call the whole thing off. But this ship has already sailed. His young “disciples” have the bit between their teeth and will not take no for an answer. Costner has made his bed and must lie in it, come what may.
And more does come. The enthusiasm of the young Postmen starts to captivate their elders, who also rally round. In one scene, reminiscent of a WW2 drama, the Sheriff of Pineview, who had once (correctly) dismissed the Postman as an obvious fraud, now defiantly shouts “Ride, Postman, ride!” as he and his fellow townsfolk are mown down by a Holnist firing squad. The fire is well and truly lit.
I have seen some criticism of the way the townsfolk are allegedly portrayed as “sheep” knuckling under to the Holnists until hero-boy comes along, John Wayne style, to set the example. To me though, all this indicates is that Costner has been lucky in his timing. Had he come on the scene ten years earlier, a populace still demoralised from the apocalypse would not have followed him. Ten years later, and he would not have led them to victory because someone else would already have done it. As it is, he has arrived at the critical point, where the townsfolk have recovered enough to take on the Holnists, but haven’t fully realised it yet. Costner is the trigger rather than the bomb.
All in all, I find it a great movie, and certainly far superior to the epidemic of disaster films with which we have been bombarded since, with their ice ages, earthquakes and of course asteroid and meteor impacts ad nauseam. Those who panned when it first came out might perhaps have been cautioned that ”You ain’t seen nuffin yet.” Like those who welcomed Henry VIII as a great relief after his father’s tyranny, little did they know what they had coming.