The Wages of Fear:
Anti-American or Anti-Human Nature?
The messages or themes of The Wages of Fear are fairly easy to understand. Among them all, the strongest of these messages is that, simply, money and greed can corrupt and even kill. This message is clear in several aspects of the film. For example, the plot of the story is that several men take on an incredibly dangerous task, knowing they could die, because the completion of the task could bring them a large sum of money. Of course, the incentive behind their choice can be attributed to the local American oil company that is offering the money, which controls the local economy in the first place (the implication is that these men would not have to go on this dangerous job if the oil company used fair employment practices in the first place). This brings up the question, then, of what exactly is Henri-Georges Clouzot criticizing? Is he commenting on negative aspects of human nature in general, or is he making specific accusations against American big business and the so-called American way? Of course, he could be making an all-encompassing commentary on both of these topics. Regardless, this question will be explored through both the study of the four individuals who undertake the job, and also through an examination of the American oil company involved, and more particularly the boss, O'Brien. Finally, the last scene will be interpreted, and an explanation will be offered as to why this scene was absolutely necessary in order to bind all of Clouzot's criticisms and arguments together.
The first thing that needs to be said is that the characters in the film undertake the job of transporting the highly explosive nitroglycerine under their own free will. They even compete with others for the chance to be one of the drivers. It can be argued from this standpoint, then, that the American oil company is not to blame for the ensuing deaths, and thus the critical aspect of the film is directed solely at human nature in general. One could argue that the characters own lust for money and material objects caused them to take the job transporting the nitroglycerine, and it is their own fault for what happened. After all, when the American oil company went in search of people to hire for the task, they made it very clear what the dangers were, and were entirely honest with the drivers about the possible consequences that they could face. If this argument is to hold fast then, the reasons that the four men, Mario, Bimba, Luigi, and Jo, accepted the job must be explored more closely. Was it only the lust for money that caused them to put themselves in danger, or did they have other motives? To answer this question, the first two characters that should be looked at are Jo and Mario. These are the two characters who undergo the largest character development throughout the film, and who have the most in-depth reasons for putting themselves in danger. First, there is Jo. He is the older career criminal/gangster/ tough guy. His life revolves around portraying an image of being couth, and projecting his superior ego on other people. Mario is the younger tough-guy, still trying to make a reputation for himself, who believes that by hooking up with Jo he can gain some respect from the other people around him. For both of these men, pride plays an important part in their lives. They, along with everyone else who lives in this area, are stuck there. They do not have much in the way of money or nice things. Their lives are not particularly glamorous, and their futures do not hold any bright hopes or promising careers. To these men, going on this job is about more than the money. It is about proving themselves to others, and about being able to feel like they have done something worthwhile. They want to feel, as silly as it may sound, like real men. They want their lives to have more importance than the superficial images that they are trying to project about themselves. Completing this job and having the money to show for it will give them something concrete to back their egos up with, will prove their bravery and will secure their rights to be the “tough-guys” they pretend to be. Thus, it would be wrong to say that their sole motive is simply money. In reality, their motives involve deeper emotions such as pride and acceptance. With that said, it is much harder to say, necessarily, that these things are bad. Of course, the fact that both of these characters eventually die because of these motives can be pointed to as criticism of those aspects of human nature. On the contrary, though, there are many, including these men, who would say that they would rather be dead than live without dignity or pride. It is hard to say which of these modes of thought is right or wrong, so it is perhaps necessary to look at the other two drivers and their motives before making any assumptions.
The other two men who are participants on this journey are Bimba and Luigi. Bimba is a German who spent time in a Nazi prison camp during World War II. To him, the danger of this job is nothing compared to the dangers and horrors he saw during the war. He takes the job because he is unafraid, and to him the money means he could finally have a better life; one that he has never known. It would be premature and wrong to say that his motives were greed or lust, or that his lack of fear necessarily denotes any type of stupidity or flaw. Like Mario and Jo, he simply wants to feel more human. To him, the money represents a means to an end, and this end (a better and more fulfilling life) is not anything to be ashamed of. Bimba's partner on the job, Luigi, also has motives that are not really selfish or greedy. Like Bimba, to him the money represents a way to give himself and his family a better life than the ones they have, and are doomed to have forever unless he can earn this kind of money. He is a kind man, and he is not taking the job out of a greedy or lustful flaw in his nature. He is taking a very serious but calculated risk, in order to, like the others, gain the ability to have a better life.
It seems apparent, after looking back at the reasons of the above characters for taking the risk that they took, that Clouzot is not really criticizing these men or the aspects of their human nature that caused them take this action. In fact, all of their causes come across, for the most part, as rather noble throughout the film. In the first half, or three quarters of the film, as the men drive across the barren country, and we listen to their conversations with one another about why they are on this trip, we almost feel proud of them, and in a way envy their courage. We do not feel like they are stupid or crazy, but instead feel like they are doing this for what they believe in, and that they have decided they can be successful despite the odds being stacked against them. This all seems to be evidence, again, that Clouzot is not critical of human nature in this film. The problem, though, is that the last quarter or so of the film shifts mood from the idea of the characters being courageous and noble, to perhaps being careless and overcome with greed. As they get closer and closer to making it to their final location, they become more and more careless on their trip. Instead of staying focused on their original motivations (hope for a better life), the taste of upcoming success reveals all of their fatal flaws. They start to talk about the things that they are going to do with the money, such as buying new things and taking trips. They allow their focus to slip for a little bit, and they pay less and less attention to the dangers. All of them, with the exception of Jo, feel almost like they are invincible because they have been able to survive thus far. They lose respect for the danger they are in, and at this point, as soon as they let their guards down, the first truck explodes, killing Bimba and Luigi. Despite this, though, Clouzot seems to still be implying that human nature is not bad, because it was these men’s nature to seek a better life, and their reasons were noble and just. To the other contrary, it is the societal influences that can corrupt or overpower human nature and that is why these men all met their downfall during their quest. It was not their human nature that made them greedy and material driven at the end of the film. It was society that corrupted them into believing that money alone was going to solve their problems.
Clouzot makes it very clear that it is not human nature he is criticizing at all, but, as stated above, it is the social corruption of human nature that needs to be criticized. In the beginning of the film, none of the characters saw the actual money as the important element they were chasing. It was the good that the money could achieve that they were going after. By the end of the film, though, they had lost sight of this, and the money itself had become that which they were most obsessed with. Jo was the only one to realize what was happening, and his superficial toughness cracked when he realized the reality of the situation. He understood that money was not going to prove anything to anybody, and that his self-worth was not based on the money or his ego. He was the only one that recognized that their motivation had transferred from pride and natural longing to have a better life to greed and selfishness. He realized that the danger of the situation was no longer worth what they were trying to accomplish, because their goal was now based on corrupt social values, not human nature. Unfortunately, his revelation and realization of the danger they were in could not save him from Mario, who had become entirely obsessed with the idea of getting the money. By the end, Mario's obsession caused him to act irrationally, and to cause the death of Jo, his friend. This murder then, symbolizes the moral depths into which humans can sink as a result of corrupt social values.
The above discussion about social influences corrupting human nature leads into the next topic. This topic, of course, is the depiction of America in the film. It is obvious that Clouzot has used America to stand for the social corruptor, with the local American oil company being the symbol of America in this case. Throughout the film, the company, which is headed by the character of O'Brien, is depicted as a money hungry, inhumane, and basically evil entity. O'Brien becomes the particularly chilling spokesperson for this entity of corporate corruption, and several of his actions are obviously meant to earn our distaste for the American way of business. For example, after an accident at the oil fields, he talks about one of the injured workers as though he were simply an interchangeable piece in a large machine. He even makes reference to the idea that a badly injured employee is more expensive than a dead one, thus implying that he would rather see the employee die than hang on for a long time, requiring the company to pay for medical bills. This somewhat harsh, and perhaps overly stereotypical depiction of the Americans is felt throughout the entire film, and has a constant, albeit unspoken presence throughout the characters' journey.
The question needs to be asked, now, after exploring the natural human motivations of the four drivers, and after introducing the topic of the negative depiction of the American company, as to whether or not The Wages of Fear is anti-American. It has already been established that the film is not anti-human nature, but is instead critical of social influences that corrupt human nature then. And, in this film, these social influences are represented quite clearly by the American big-business of the area. Despite this, though, is it possible that Clouzot is simply being critical of big-business and money driven corporations in general, and that America is simply representing the generic social evil present throughout the world? After examining the film, it seems that the above circumstance is unlikely. Clouzot could have picked any nation, or simply not explicitly named a country when characterizing the oil company. Instead, though, he chose to make the evil oil company and its shady boss very distinctly American, and this was not an accident. Thus all of the dirty business that the company is involved in definitely implies a certain distaste for American business, and even American society in general. In keeping with the theme of the film's criticism of social values corrupting natural human nature, the film is criticizing American society on a whole. The filmmaker is depicting American society as a material based society where the rich get richer while the poor get poorer (whether he is completely right or wrong is an entirely different subject).
The final point, which wraps all of the points together, is a comment on the end of the film. In the end of the film, the sole survivor of the journey, Mario, is so drunk with joy at getting the money, that he carelessly drives his truck off of a cliff, killing himself. The film closes on a shot of his bloody hand, still gripping a ticket that was supposed to be his ticket out of his horrible life. This scene lends itself to interesting interpretation. To many viewers, it may seem like an unnecessarily depressing end, and that Clouzot did not have to end the film that way. Most viewers probably wonder why Mario had to die. The truth is though, is that was absolutely necessary for him to die, or else all of the arguments criticism that Clouzot was trying to make would not have made sense. If Mario had lived, then Clouzot's view of an American social system based on material wealth and the all powerful dollar would have triumphed. All of the deaths and suffering would have been rationalized in the name of money, and that goes against everything that Clouzot was trying to say. His point then, by killing Mario at the end is that ends must justify the means. In Mario's case, by the end of the film, he had become corrupted by the love of money, and therefore all of the things he went through were no longer justified. He may have set out in search of pride and a better life, but by the end of the film, the morals and goals of the characters had become so warped that those natural (and good) human instincts were no longer the most important thing. Thus, he had to die because he was no longer operating under the influence of, as stated above, human nature.
In closing, the original question that was posed was whether The Wages of Fear was anti- American or anti-human nature. After studying the film, it can be said with confidence that it is not the latter. As for whether or not the film is anti-American, it seems to certainly be so. In the film, America stands for all that is wrong with industrialism and even capitalism. While the U.S. is definitely not the only place where such things exist, in Clouzot's interpretation, it seems to be the epitome of the corruption and social disintegration that those systems cause. Thus, The Wages of Fear is a film about the social and emotional influences that money and industrialization (particularly in America) have on human nature. Judging from the fact that at the end of the film, all of the main characters are dead, there is no need to speculate about whether or not these influences are positive or negative.