Realism vs. Magic: On John Sayles’s “Men with Guns” (1997)

A screenshot from John Sayles's "Men with Guns" (1997)

John Sayles, while primarily known for his committed sense of realism (Matewan, Lone Star, Men with Guns), is no stranger to the realm of the mythic. His most direct engagement (if one doesn’t count his credit on The Spiderwick Chronicles script, or other movies he only wrote for) with the fantastical is his 1994 film The Secret of Roan Inish, in which a girl in a seaside Irish town encounters a legendary selkie. There, he merges the fantasy elements with the experience of childhood to marvelous affect, resulting in not only a wonderful children’s film, but a wonderful film, period – mostly due to the gravity with which Sayles approaches the material, and the total lack of condescension to the viewer.

Stories like this are usually termed “magical realism.” Its most popular manifestation occurred in the books of Latin American authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende, and in cinema, filmmakers as diverse as Hayao Miyazaki and Woody Allen have incorporated magical realism into their works – all to varying degrees of success. The genre’s main weakness is that, more often than not, the “magical” tends to override the “realism,” thus spoiling any genuine relatability to the content. Or (and this is particularly prevalent in Miyazaki) the fantastical elements are overly elaborated to paper over its too-simplistic narrative, which gets you an aesthetically pleasing work, but not a deep one.

Such genre-fusion demands an artist adept enough in both to bring out its potential, but even artists as talented as John Sayles – for my money, America’s greatest living independent filmmaker – can err every now and again. His 1997 Spanish-language drama Men with Guns falls victim, however slightly, to the pitfalls of magical realism. This is not to say that Men with Guns is a bad film. It’s actually very good, perhaps near-great, and one of Sayles’s best. It is also a testament to his curiosity and willingness to diversify (in spite of a rather workaday visual palette) and steep himself in/explore/engage with cultures alien to his own – thus mining universal concerns out of its particulars.

The story follows Fuentes (Federico Luppi), an old, wealthy doctor in an unnamed Latin American city who, after the death of his wife, is nearing retirement and is set for a long vacation in which he plans to examine his new life as a widower. We learn that he was involved in a government program that sent young doctors into the mountainous countryside to treat its indigenous populations, and, despite nagging doubts, he remains convinced of the program’s efficacy. However, his doubts are intensified when he randomly encounters one of his old students, Bravo (Roberto Sosa) in the city – the young man bristles at Fuentes’s questioning, and it is revealed that the program was a failure, and Bravo is now a drug dealer (“So your classes weren’t a complete waste,” he claims sardonically). He implies that another student by the name of Cienfuegos has met a grim fate, and pushes Fuentes to find him, for Bravo has nothing else to say to the doctor, whom he clearly sees as deluded. This is a key element of the film, as Fuentes’s vision of himself and the world will be constantly parallaxed against the stark realities of his environs, especially when – troubled by Bravo’s words – the doctor decides to spend his vacation searching for his former students in the war-torn wilderness.

What follows is a long and somber examination of power and violence – most of it filtered through Fuentes’s need to justify his life in the face of his beloved program’s failure. John Sayles wisely takes no political sides, opting instead to zero in on the brute fact of power and the lawlessness it engenders when it runs amok. In the countryside, the choices are clear: one is either brutalized by the army or by the guerilla factions they are hunting, and power belongs not in the hands of the righteous nor the evil but in those who are sufficiently armed. The simplicity of the film’s title is the first major indication of Sayles’s approach – along with the unnamed country it’s set in, as well as the generic names of the villages encountered – and helps buoy a viewer who might be unfamiliar with the setting and the cultures Sayles mimics.

In Men with Guns, Sayles deals less with the actuality of people and place – their specificities, idiosyncrasies, etc. – than with their ideas, and is clearly making a more general statement about society than he does in other films. The film could’ve been set in post-colonial Southeast Asia or Central Africa or the frontiers of the early American Republic with only basic cosmetic changes; any setting, really, where so-called civilization is hemmed in by largely ungoverned land and/or in a state of decay/gestation. This allows John Sayles some creative leeway, as he is not from Latin America (although he is clearly learned, with genuine bona fides in the experience of the common man), but also creates some stoppage in the level of depth he can reach – not so much because it can’t be done, but because it’s clear that his strengths as an artist rely mainly on detailing personalities rather than philosophies (in an abstract sense), as his earlier masterpiece Lone Star (1996) attests to. His dip into magical realism might be symptomatic of this limit, which I’ll discuss later on.

Fuentes picks up a coterie of stragglers in his journey: Conejo (Dan Rivera Gonzalez), an orphan whom Fuentes parents, Domingo (Damian Delgado), an army deserter/ex-medic, Padre Portillo (Damian Alcazar), a fallen priest who abandoned his indigenous flock to slaughter, and Graciela (Tania Cruz), a young woman who became mute after soldiers raped her. Each are fleeing some form of destitution, whether it be emotional or material or both, and are haunted by the demons of their past. Only Fuentes remains relatively unflapped by the horrors surrounding him, protected as he is by his apparent status and the lightness of his skin. The only ones less outwardly disturbed than Fuentes are a pair of American tourists (played by Mandy Patinkin and Kathryn Grody) who seem to be visitors not only from another country but another sort of movie entirely.

As they journey from locale to locale, Fuentes learns of the alleged demises of his students – killed by either the army or guerillas. He is disturbed (more so by this news than the countryside’s squalor) but plods ahead nonetheless. They are told about Cerca del Cielo, a rumored haven for refugees fleeing from the army’s onslaught. It is hidden so deep in the mountains that not even the military helicopters can spot it. When his last student, a young woman named Dr. Montoya, is said to have journeyed there, they make the arduous trip upwards. A stop in the ruins of an ancient city of the Lotecs (a fictional Mesoamerican civilization) involves another encounter with the American tourists. When they finally reach the fabled Cerca del Cielo, it is revealed to be a small, rundown camp with malnourished Indians and no doctor. One assumes Montoya met a fate as dark as that of her fellow students.

A screenshot from John Sayles's "Men with Guns" (1997)

Men with Guns ends when Fuentes, exhausted and bitterly amused by the outcome of his beloved program, ruminates on his legacy and dies from heart failure (foreshadowed by the revelation of cardiovascular issues in an earlier scene). Then, an Indian girl approaches the group, asking for a doctor for her mother. Domingo tells her that their doctor has died, but at Graciela’s silent imploring, Domingo relents and goes to help the girl’s mother, having had some prior experience as a medic.

This final scene is set up by the film’s very first one, with the Indian girl and mother talking by a fire, seemingly foretelling the arrival of a doctor to their camp. It’s a quintessential trick of magical realism to lace an otherwise realistic tale with such mysticism, although thankfully it doesn’t play a huge part of the story, and it’s mediated somewhat by the bait-and-switch of Domingo’s assumption of the doctor role upon Fuentes’s death. It’s not a terrible choice, but it does play into the Magical Native American trope, and seems more like an easy excuse for John Sayles to bookend his narrative than anything more meaningful, especially when he straddles the line far better in other moments, such as with Padre Portillo, who relates his story in the form of a parable/ghost story. This actually works on a psychological level, as the severity of his fall from grace could easily make the priest disassociate, referring to himself in the third person and illustrating his own life as a cautionary tale. Or, on a larger level, as previously mentioned the generic names of the locations (and the unspecified, probably fictional, country the film is set in) give a mythic feel to the proceedings without any need for supernatural elements.

Even the American tourists, stereotypical gringos who attempt broken Spanish, might function as a sort of meta-critique, as argued by Roger Ebert in one of his classic reviews:

The tourists serve a satirical purpose, but I found myself seeing them in a different light. From time to time, reviewing a movie, I’ll say the leading characters were shallow but the people in the background seemed interesting. In that sense, ‘Men With Guns’ is about the background. Sayles finances his own films. If he had taken this script to a studio executive, he no doubt would have been told to beef up the American tourist roles and cast the roles with stars. The film would have become an action sitcom, with Indians, doctors, priests and orphans in the background as local color.

The tourists seem to swagger into frame as visitors from this type of film, and their good-natured ignorance and myopia reflects this – but John Sayles gives them shades of depth that a studio exec would never dare to, especially when the Patinkin character contemplates past epochs in the Lotec city scene.

Other minor imperfections dot the film, such as the film’s very final and trite scene where Graciela smiles into the sunlight of Cerca del Cielo, but they don’t as much make Men with Guns worse as they do keep it from being better. The best parts are when the characters interact with each other, for John Sayles is one of the premier dialogue writers, most adept at coring into character through conversation. In Fuentes’s first scene, his appointment with a middle-aged patient begins quite banally, but as the dialogue progresses, a tinge of menace enters as the patient is revealed to be a bigshot general, who chides Fuentes for his ignorance – not too dissimilar from how Bravo belittles him, later on. The simple motion of the general shrugging into his coat, bedecked with medals and insignias, and throwaway comments revealing his status and mentality are far more effective than any outright revelation.

As for Fuentes, he may or may not be a fool, but he certainly is emblematic of highly educated ignorance – a native, less bumbling version of the American tourists – and is perpetually befuddled by the stark brutality of the environment he has found himself in. “In a struggle against death, a small advantage in technology can win the battle,” Fuentes says early on, in a flashback of him lecturing his students. “Cortes won an empire with a few men – but he had the horse and the gun and his adversary didn’t. Where you’re going your principal enemies will be bacteria and ignorance. Bacteria can be fought with drugs, but their ally, ignorance – nobody is immune to this disease.” In an ironic reversal, it is the program that renders its medical missionaries ignorant of the power struggles and corruption that ultimately doom them.

If the film creates too striking a line between Fuentes’s world and the “natural” one, then it is a byproduct of the duality Sayles chooses to engage in. Fuentes seems to enter a place of allegory rather than reality, with his accrued posse almost archetypal in their makeup: a Child, a Wandering Warrior, a Fallen Priest, and a Despoiled Maiden. But the strokes of realism save this film from being overly allegorical, along with quality acting from the whole cast.

In a revelatory introduction to a book (published by faber and faber) of the shooting scripts of Men with Guns and Lone Star, John Sayles compares/contrasts the two, and all but outright admits their differing qualities: “Though legend is invoked in Lone Star, the story itself is steeped in detail and idiosyncrasy. The characters in Men with Guns have the feel of real human beings caught in a horrific fable.” And in a later passage: “Whereas the quest in Lone Star reveals layers of complexity and interdependence, life in Men with Guns boils down to a dynamic as old as human society – men who have weapons and are willing to use them have power over those who don’t.” Sayles, to his credit, captures this simplicity well, but it is a simplicity, nonetheless.

To point this out is no death blow to the film, though, regardless of its “magical realism” demerits. It’s quite good, with some marvelous moments – take, for instance, a scene where the group meets a pair of gum collectors who work with the sap from trees. Fuentes has just picked up the ex-priest and they all commiserate by a fire at night. The amiable pair ask for a story, and Padre Portillo acquiesces, relating the tale of a ghost who wanders the jungle roads in penance for some great sin. The tale is clearly his own, and as he finishes, one of the gum collectors seems dumbly ignorant of this, but the other bears an almost horrified expression on his face. It’s as if he knows, but chooses to stay silent, in fear of the specter before him – and Domingo? Behind Fuentes, who betrays no obvious knowledge of the priest’s part in his story and simply asks simple questions, the ex-soldier is swathed in shadow, his own expression masked, for he has secret torments, and the fallen man of the cloth’s tale has important relevance to his own need for absolution.

None of the above, by the way, was expressly asked for in the actual script. Much of the scene’s excellence is derived from staging and acting, the quality of which springs out of the day of shooting, as well as the editing in post-production. But the words, in terms of its dialogue, were almost entirely preserved. John Sayles writes, directs and edits his films. Watch Men with Guns and witness his talents in action.

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If you enjoyed this piece, check out the automachination YouTube channel and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include an interview with singer Eva Schubert on writing good songs, a philosophical look at kitsch, aesthetics, and NFTs with UK painter Ethan Pinch, and a long discussion of photography from Alfred Stieglitz to Fan Ho and Vivian Maier.

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