The Book of Eli
starring Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis and Ray Stevenson
written by Gary Whitta
directed by Albert and Allen Hughes
Remember that the word “god,” even if it begins with an upper case “G” is not a name, it is a title, and the Lord God, the creator of heaven and earth and the king of the universe of Judaism and Christianity is not the only god in the Bible.
Called “The Walker” in Japanese The Book of Eli is like Mad Max (1979, with Mel Gibson) transplanted in America, but with a better story. It is another post-apocalyptic story. Eli is walking across America. His destination is often vaguely described as “West.” Then when I learned at the very end of the film that the ruins of San Francisco were the destination I immediately thought of Scott McKenzie’s 1967 hippie anthem “San Francisco,” (it sounds like a Mamas and Papas song because it was written an arranged by John Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas) and I thought maybe the world’s nuclear wounds would be healed by love among aged hippies in Haight-Ashbury or something. But nothing of the sort. It’s a good story, a powerful story of the printed word and the word of God. With nuclear holocaust came the collapse of all electronically-powered technology, which is pretty much everything that we rely on and take for granted these days. No batteries, no soap, no aspirin. Penicillin would sure be handy, if they only had some. Any survivors who want to re-build civilization have to rely on earlier technology. They actually have to burn wood for heat, light and cooking! Some resort to cannibalism.
The Book of Eli accompanies a man calling himself “Eli” (Denzel Washington), a survivor on a faith-inspired trek across America. Along the way he confronts Carnegie (Gary Oldman), a gangster inhabiting a small hamlet of survivors in the desert. Carnegie, a literate man in a world that has largely forgotten how to read, is also searching for a Bible which he seems to want to use in his goal of reassembling society - his society - in the dessert. Carnegie is much like Aunty Entity (Tina Turner) in Mad Max - Beyond Thunderdome (1985) in that he controls his own small army and roams the desert searching for survivors, for artifacts, for weapons, fuel and water - and “the book.” He understands the power of the written word, and the power of the Word of God in particular. Of course, an important point is overlooked here. If scripture was destroyed completely humans would undoubtedly write new scripture as a replacement as a means of processing the real and transformational spiritual experiences we occasionally suffer. Conservatives and Fundamentalists who take the Bible as the literal, inerrant, infallible and definitive Word of God would reject this notion, but I think the sociology of religion indicates its truth. Scripture is made by humans, written by humans in a community to be of service to that community. You cannot divorce scripture from human community.
These days most people incorrectly think that “God” is the name of God, and only seminarians, scholars, and Pipers are apt to use the name “Yahweh” in everyday life.
Interestingly (and I wonder how many people these days will pick up on this) “Eli” is a variant form of the name of God in the Old Testament, as spoken in Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic. Does that mean that the man, Eli, is himself an angel, a messenger from God here to preserve His Word? I like to think so because it makes the story much more interesting. But I suppose most people will watch the movie and dig it for its violence, action, and creepy post-nuclear war environment. God in the Old Testament is variously known as El, El Shaddai, Elhoim and Adonai - which are all titles translated as “Lord” or “God.” Remember that the word “god,” even if it begins with an upper case “G” is not a name, it is a title, and the Lord God, the creator of heaven and earth and the king of the universe of Judaism and Christianity is not the only god in the Bible. The name of God is not “God.” He has an actual name, “Yahweh” also sometimes called “Jehovah” in modern times, and“Yahweh” (or simply “Yah” as in “Hallelu Yah” or “Jah” as in “Hallelujah”) - printed in Hebrew as the four-letter Tetragammeton (הּוּהּיִ), hard to pronounce because ancient Hebrew lacked printed vowels - is sometimes combined with one of the various words meaning “Lord,” then rendered into English as something like “Sovereign Lord,” or “Lord Almighty,”or “Almighty God,” or “Lord God Almighty,” or “Lord Most High,” or “Living God.” These days most people incorrectly think that “God” is the name of God, and only seminarians, scholars, and Pipers are apt to use the name “Yahweh” in everyday life.
It ends at the old Alcatraz prison where we find a cadre of survivors slowly retrieving artifacts of the pre-holocaust life - books, primarily - serving as a kind of civilization reservoir to preserve what was lost. The jewel of the small, nascent library is the King James Bible, the last surviving copy of which Eli is transporting in his backpack. Is it only a coincidence that next year, 2011, is the quatercentenary - the 400th anniversary - of the KJV? It is arguably the single most important English-language document in existence, printed or handwritten. I revel in the reverence and value accorded to the printed book in this movie, because I am a bibliophile in a world that is starting to go too crazy about electronic media - Kindle E-books now, or online books. For all the greatness of computers and electronic media, remember that paper is more durable. We do not yet livein a “paperless society” - much advertised in the stupid 1970s - nor will we ever, because anybody who knows anything at all knows that you must back up your fragile digital records with actual paper records. Always. Digital storage media are just as fragile and vulnerable as celluloid film, not to mention that obsolescence arrives these days within a decade of development. You can credit significance to the fact that the book of Eli is a Bible, or not. That it is a religious book is neither here-nor-there for me, although it is certainly true that despite everything that atheist detractors like Richard Dawkins have to say about organized religion - some of it accurate and true - the Bible is the greatest single civilizing tool in human history.
The final twist in the story is that Eli has saved the Bible in his head, not in his pack, and when he arrives at Alcatraz he must recite it word-for-word to scribes who write it out longhand on foolscap. Wow! You don’t see that much these days.