What Does Avatar Have to Do With History?
I joined the mob at Avatar this past weekend. Like most people I was dazzled by the 3-D computer animation, the world that took shape on the screen. But I was struck by the profoundly false turn of the plot. I hope I am not ruining any weekend plans for you when I say that a key moment in the film comes when the people of the bow and arrow decide to take up arms against the people of iron and steel. In reality, that was a strategy that led to death for Native Americans — it did somewhat better for the Zulu, though they too lost. And so the question comes, why is the most popular movie in history based around a fantasy of defeat for most of the movie-goers, with a hint of parallel possible defeat in our current conflict in Afghanistan?
Why is the story of, in effect, the cowboys losing to the Indians, the railroad losing to the horse, the modern drone losing to the sniper so appealing? Isn’t it odd that we root for those who historically lost? Is that because we Americans define ourselves by the Revolution — when we were the ragtag band? Is it our way of dealing with guilt over the losses the Indians suffered? Or is it because we need history to be neat? Once upon a time we told the story of heroic cowboys and savage red men. Now we tell the story of steroidal sky people and heroic bluepeople in touch with an eternal goddess of nature.
Popular movies are popular movies — they need the big finish, the dramatic clash, the outcome that makes you feel good inside. That is what a myth made visible in 3-D must deliver. But I suspect there is also something else — real history is hard because it is not nice, it is tragic. Both sides are wrong. Both sides are right. We clash in ways we don’t totally undestand, leaving death behind — and then we pick up the pieces. The Ghost Dance ceremony did not make the Indians invulnerable to bullets — it led them to die. Avatar suggests that the audience wishes that were not so, that the Indians could have tapped some force that allowed them to hold back the outsides and keep their land. That is a wonderful dream — so long as we also know the much more painful history.