Friday, March 07, 2008

Sahara: A Hero in the Moral Desert

Today, let's shoot down a bromide. "No movie is as good as the book it is based on!" How about a movie that’s in some respects better than the book?

Sahara is based on a "Dirk Pitt" adventure novel by Clive Cussler. Bantermeister extraordinaire Dirk Pitt (played by Matthew McConaughey) and his no less flamboyant sidekick Al Giordino (Steve Zahn) are troubleshooters for the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA), run by retired Admiral Sandecker (William H. Macy). Whenever an oceanographic expedition discovers clues to some legendary treasure or some super villain's scheme (and both happens regularly to NUMA, at the rate of at least once per book), Dirk and Al got to get going.

Cussler — whose books are veritable page turners — was my favorite author before I discovered Ayn Rand. Dirk Pitt showed me what it means to be a hero. In the novels, Dirk Pitt saved the world. In real life, he saved my benevolent universe sense of life. He demonstrated to me that the heroic is possible and worth pursuing. In other words, Dirk Pitt novels tided me over until I found The Fountainhead.

How did you do it, Mr. Pitt? Well, as I said, Dirk Pitt is the bantermeister extraordinaire. The most monstrous danger cannot keep Dirk and Al from exchanging their trademark lighthearted wisecracks while they are out to give the bad guys hell.

The role of banter in the life of a hero has deplorably been misunderstood by the wise and the humble alike. Ayn Rand was suspicious of the bantering hero. She thought that humor and taking ideas seriously do not go together. "Heroes do not say 'Gee whiz' — nor any equivalent of it." (Her letter to Henry Blanke, producer of The Fountainhead movie, December 6, 1945.)

On the other side of the aisle, McConaughey, of all people, seems to be the embodiment of what Ayn Rand meant by "Gee whiz." Judging by the intellectual depth of his interviews, he does not take himself or anything seriously because he knows no important ideas. His best shot at philosophy is, "Basically, everyone's just tryin' to take care of themselves, their loved ones, have a roof over their head, eat somethin' and stay healthy." Consequently, McConaughey opines, "[Dirk Pitt is] real good at things, but is real tongue and [sic] cheek about things, doesn't take himself seriously."

However, it is neither ideas nor himself that the bantering hero laughs at. It is evil and danger that he makes light of. Dirk Pitt's sense of life is that evil is powerless and that no danger — whatever it be — must be taken seriously, because it will be overcome by Dirk's legendary resourcefulness, i.e. by the power of man's reasoning mind.

Although heroic, Cussler's books are rather worthless idea-wise. He is lost in the great moral nirvana of our day. Consequently, in his novels government-employed heroes sometimes engage in altruist activity and many villains happen to be businessmen. However, Cussler's books are not deliberately anti-business or pro-altruist. Cussler simply defaults on morality and today's default morality happens to be a weird mixture of Americanism and altruism.

Like every good detective story writer, Cussler dramatizes the fight of good versus evil — and with him, at least the good guys always win. There is no moral gray; his heroes are unbroken — and unbreakable. Yes, Cussler's characters are out to save the whole world; they even collaborate with (wince!) the UN. Yet it is America that triumphs, while the communists, terrorists, dictators, and sundry other villains lose.

Sahara has Dirk and Al looking for a lost rebel ironclad that somehow managed to run the Union blockade and cross the Atlantic. With gold from the Confederate treasury on board, it sought shelter and was left high and dry in some arroyo in the eponymous desert. As our heroes head up the Niger River on NUMA's super yacht Calliope, an unlikely heroine, World Health Organization doctor Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz), hitches a ride with them. She is tracking a mysterious epidemic that emanates from the upriver fiefdom of warlord Kazim (Lennie James), who in turn is involved with French industrialist Yves Massarde (Lambert Wilson).

After a slow and generic beginning with some substandard banter, the movie picks up speed to boom with action and banter with the best of them — though Al deplorably always comes across as a bit of a buffoon. Yet, the humorous possibilities of the movie are boundless. Two men, handcuffed to the disembodied cargo bed of a pickup truck in the middle of the desert — think about it. Our heroes have all the opportunities one may wish for to apply their resourcefulness.

Now, I promised that the movie is in some respects better than the book. What respects? First, Dirk's and Al's employer, the NUMA, modeled by Cussler as a NASA-like government agency (observe the similar acronyms), has been changed into a private foundation. Second, while retaining all important plot elements, one thing has been cut: In the book, it turns out that Abraham Lincoln was held hostage on the ironclad — the guy who got shot in Ford's Theater was an actor!

Outlandish "what if" plot elements like this are what many of Cussler's fans like best about his books — yet they cause continuity problems, because the alternative history created in one book is often forgotten in the next. It seems that Cussler eschews the complexities of remaining true to his alternate universe that would be removed from ours farther and farther book by book.

So, Cussler-wise, my advice: The Sahara movie is well worth watching. Regarding his books, the earlier ones may have less spectacular plot ideas, but offer the reader more charm and better craftsmanship.

Originally published on June 8, 2005, on The Atlasphere.

P.S. Come to think of it, the villain may have been a capitalist, but at least he was a frog eater. ;)

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