Towards the end of John Boorman’s unjustly neglected film about the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, a group of indigenous women have escaped from a militarized brothel. The brothel, which is surrounded by barbed wire, and criss crossed by high-voltage powerlines, is a grim, dreary, terrifying place, a concentration camp where women, who have been purchased from a corrupt local tribe in exchange for automatic weapons, are trafficked out to the invaders despoiling the pristine landscape. As the women run back into the forest, they tear off the cheap clothes they had been forced to wear in captivity, throwing them to the ground in disgust, happy, once again, to be naked and free.
That the women were helped to escape by a white American named Bill Markham and his son Tommy may at first seem like a rescue fantasy out of a column by Nicholas Kristof. The Emerald Forest, however, has a far richer, far more complex, and far more subversive narrative about contact between Europeans and the indigenous than just about any film I’ve ever seen. An anarcho-primitivist rereading of the Tarzan myth, it comes down squarely on the side of the indigenous against “civilization” while simultaneously avoiding the trap of “the noble savage.” There are very few movies I would call “revolutionary.” The Emerald Forest is one.
The Emerald Forest begins in the high-rise apartment of Bill Markham, an American helping to build a gigantic damn deep in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. One day, he decides to take his wife, his daughter, and his 10-year-old son Tommy on a tour of the construction site. While we immediately recognize the destructive nature of Markham’s job, he’s a sympathetic character, more clueless than malevolent. After Tommy is kidnapped by the leader of an indigenous tribe we later find out are known as “the Invisible People,” however, Bill Markham becomes Ethan Edwards from The Searchers, a white man obsessed with rescuing a white child from the savages.
After a decade of searching, Markham finds Tommy deep in the Amazon rainforest, or to be more specific, Tommy finds Markham. Karma has caught up with Bill Markham. The “Fierce People,” a tribe who have been displaced by the dam, and who have become dark, almost satanic, kill Markham’s travelling companion, an obnoxious German photojournalist played by the Brazilian actor Eduardo Conde, and chase Markham through the jungle. Markham, who’s armed with an M-16, and an almost endless supply of ammunition, puts up a ferocious resistance, but not only do the Fierce People manage to hit him with arrows, multiple times, he comes off like an invader, an imperialist with an automatic weapon. His very presence feels jarring and unnatural.
After Tommy, who is now in his late teens, and who goes by the name of Tomme, persuades Chief Wanadi, the leader of the Invisible People and his adopted father, to save his biological father, we learn that the young man has no desire to go back to civilization. Chief Wanadi also tries to talk Markham into joining the Invisible People himself, explaining to him why he kidnapped his son the decade before. When he saw the little boy smile, he recalls, he couldn’t let him go back to “the dead world,” as the Invisible People refer to the city where Markham lives.
What makes The Emerald Forest such a revolutionary film is how we already see that Chief Wanadi is right. Tommy is alive in a way he never would have been in a western city, going through an initiation ceremony, and passing from boy to man, and courting Kachiri, the daughter of another indigenous leader. For Ethan Edwards, and Bill Markham, the idea of a white man, or woman, giving up the comforts of western civilization for a rough life in the jungle is unthinkable. Neither Tomme, nor the Invisible People, however, have anything remotely corresponding to the European idea that skin color is destiny. Race, for Chief Wanadi and his adopted son, isn’t even something to be overcome. It simply doesn’t exist. Tommy has decided to follow the way of the Invisible People, so he’s one of them, authentically indigenous in spite of his blond hair and blue eyes. Bill Markham has decided to go back to “the termite people,” who eat through trees and destroy the forest. They write him off as a lost cause.
“I wouldn’t be chief if I told People what to do,” Wanadi says to Markham. The way of the Invisible People does not allow the kind of repression that’s essential to capitalism and western civilization. The Invisible People are not “noble savages.” They’re a superior culture who have not forgotten the teachings of the forest. The “Fierce People” on the other hand, who have lost their homeland, have become thoroughly colonized by European imperialism, making a deal with a local sex trafficker to hunt women in exchange for “fire spears,” automatic weapons. When he used an M-16 to fight for his life, Markham had, quite unintentionally, become a snake in the Garden of Eden. His biological son, in turn, becomes the agent of his moral redemption. After the Fierce People, now armed with machine guns, attack The Invisible People, and take most of their woman, including Kachiri, Tomme realizes that the only person who can help get her back is the white man he remembers from his early childhood.
Initially,Tomme has no idea where his biological father lives, or how to make his way around the ugly, morally degenerate city eating its way into the jungle. Eventually, however, he reaches back into his subconscious, visualizing the concrete high-rise where he spent the first ten years of his life. In the most remarkable sequence in The Emerald Forest, Tomme finds his way home, climbing up the side of his father’s building — it literally doesn’t occur to him to walk through the front door — and persuading Markham to help him rescue Kachiri and the other woman from the brothel/concentration camp. Without their women, Chief Wanadi has explained, the Invisible People would die as a nation. After Wanadi himself dies, and Tomme takes his place as chief, Bill Markham realizes that it’s not only the loss of their women that will doom the Invisible people. Even with Kachiri back at Tomme’s side, the Invisible People will still die as a nation without the homeland, the dense primeval forest where they can be one with nature, he’s helping to destroy with his damn. So Markham destroys the damn.
Never has the idea of blowing up a damn, well-known from the work of writers like Derrick Jensen and Edward Abbey, been visualized quite so vividly as it is in the climactic scene of The Emerald Forest. There’s a great storm. Since the river is rising in a way that might destroy the damn, even without human intervention, Markham sees his opportunity. He persuades the construction crews to evacuate, and places dynamite at strategic points along the gigantic structure, triggering the explosive devices just as the water is cresting. He has bought Tomme and Kachiri a few more years. In the film’s last frame, we see them, speculating about which members of the Invisible People would make good couples, making plans to rebuild their shattered tribe, which came perilously close to vanishing from the face of the earth. But the damn will, inevitably be rebuilt. As the credits roll, John Boorman posts the warning we probably should have heeded back in 1985.
“At one time 4 million indigenous people lived in the rainforests of Latin American. Now there are less than 150,000.”