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Exploring myth and madness along "The Mosquito Coast"

Images complied by Sarah Hussain
Harrison Ford as "Col. Lucas" in "Apocalypse Now" (1979); Ford as "Allie Fox" in "The Mosquito Coast" (1986)
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Themes and imagery in Peter Weir's 1986 film The Mosquito Coast, starring Harrison Ford, River Phoenix and Helen Mirren echo events and stories past, present and future. 

OKLAHOMA CITY -- In the opening sequence of the 1986 Peter Weir film The Mosquito Coast, father/inventor/madman Allie Fox (Harrison Ford) is talking with his wife in the kitchen of their New England home.

On the wall, above their heads, is a clock which gives the time as 11:09 a.m., or read as: 9/11. And while this film was released 15 years before the September 11, 2001 attacks, films like Back to the Future (1985) allude to 9/11 in a number of scenes, as discovered by sync explorer Joe Alexander in his recent video "Back to the Future: 9/11 Prediction."

While obviously not a clue that was significant at the time of release, it is now in light of the film’s subtle (and not-so subtle) colonialist themes and imagery. A scene, later in the film, shows a tower-like structure igniting and bursting into flame and exploding, killing three Hispanic men inside who are burned to death, as happened to some of the victims of the Twin Towers before it imploded and collapsed in on itself. It also syncs with atomic-bomb tests via the name of the structure and how the explosion contaminates the countryside forcing the main characters to flee the area, as is often the case with a nuclear detonation.

Ticket out of Hatfield

River Phoenix plays the eldest son, Charlie Fox. He is the narrator in the film (which was based on the Paul Theroux novel of the same name) and begins by saying that “I grew up with the belief … that the world belonged to him and that everything he said was true.”

In these opening scenes, father Allie and son Charlie are driving into the bucolic American town of Hatfield (major sync: “Ticket to Hatfield”) to get some supplies for Allie’s latest invention – “Fat Boy.”

As he drives his beat-up pick-up, Allie is ranting to his son about the decline of American society, sarcastically saying: “Have a Coke! Watch TV. Have a nice day. Go on welfare. Get free money. Turn to crime. Crime pays in this country.” Charlie laughs, knowingly.

Continuing, Allie says: “The whole damn country is turning into a dope-taking, door-locking, ulcerated danger zone of rabid scavengers … criminal millionaires and moral sneaks. Nobody ever thinks of leaving this country. I do. I think about it every day.

In a hardware store, Allie annoys the clerk (Jason Alexander) when he says he won't buy supplies made in Japan (not unlike nationalists or some on the left who are upset about globalism). 

A brilliant Harvard dropout, Allie, close to his breaking point, rants like a modern-day Tea Partier going on about Obama and the liberals. But we are to find that outside of the brilliant observations, Allie is one of T.S. Eliot’s “hollow men,” despite his claims of love and compassion.

And then Allie talks about the zeitgeist of the tail end of the Cold War era …an indictment of the moral emptiness of the modern world … how no one cares anymore.

They talk about nuclear destruction as if it were a game show topic.” Allie barks, echoing comments echo the statements made by “preppers” here in the second decade of the 21st century. One could argue that things are more out-of-balance now than they were in the mid-1980's of Reaganomics, Cold War concerns and the farm crisis.

Charlie, narrating, says that his father has been warning about a “war in America” and that stupid, greedy people will contribute to the end of civilization as we know it. Allie is preparing, that is certain. He wants to get out of the country and start a new civilization while there is still time.

In a bit of irony, as we noted earlier, Allie’s invention, which freezes water into ice using kerosene (an alchemical marriage of sorts, as The Libyan Sibyl noted here), is called “Fat Boy,” a reference to the “Fat Man” ((plutonium-fueled) and “Little Boy” (uranium-235) atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945. In fact, one of Red Dirt Report’s writers, Sarah Hussain, interviewed a survivor of the horrific, atomic attack on Hiroshima just a few days ago.

Fat Boy. That’s what we’ll call it. Fat Boy,” Allie says with a crooked smile to a frustrated asparagus farmer who is more interested in saving his crop more than Allie’s inventions.

Dwelling on “Fat Boy,” one can’t help but think about “Jumbo” and the alchemical “creation and destruction of primordial matter” via the July 16, 1945 Trinity nuclear test at the White Sands Testing Range in New Mexico on the 33rd degree latitude.

As noted in a 2009 interview with Fortean/Discordian author and researcher Adam Gorightly, “Jumbo” was a “half-million pound steel bottle, code-named ‘Jumbo.’” This utterly enormous “container” was to be shipped from Ohio to New Mexico by rail and sent to Trinity (the name of the river that passes 33rd degree Dallas, Texas, near the site of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy) and was supposed to "contain" an explosion. Allegedly things didn't go according to plan ...

James Shelby Downard, an Ardmore, Oklahoma native whom Gorightly wrote about in James Shelby Downard's Mystical War, suggested that “Jumbo” actually contained a Crowley-styled “Mannikin,” “an inanimate body infused with nuclear energy” in hopes of creating a ‘homunculous; an elemental being birthed from the atomic inferno.” (Read more about that here).

Allie’s “Fat Boy” prototype impresses the farmer (slightly) and the African-American migrant workers (greatly). A “jumbo” version of Allie’s alchemical device will later be created – Fitzcarraldo-style – on a jungle hillside and stand like a sentinel or an ancient, Mayan pyramid, rising above the thick, green foliage, bringing ice to a hot land.

If they saw an ice cube, they’d probably think it was … a diamond, or a jewel of some kind," says Allie with wonder.

Adds Allie: “Ice … is civilization.” He sees himself as the "great man" to help the poor savages in the jungle. 

Allie’s narrow view of life and reality doesn’t get in the way of his practical, mechanical-minded abilities to create. Perhaps that is why he is so dangerous. He only listens to himself. Others, even his family, seem to be in the way.

Apocalypse then and now

In a scene in Apocalypse Now (a film that has ranked in my top three films of all time, alongside 2001: A Space Odyssey and Treasure of the Sierra Madre) (sync the line “Weird scenes inside the goldmine” from The Doors’ “The End,” the key track on the Apocalypse Now soundtrack), the primal urges and tendencies in all men is addressed in the form of Col. Walt Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who, leading troops into war, somewhere in the Vietnam/Cambodia jungle-choked borderlands, “reached his breaking point.”

In this war, things get confused out there … but out there, with these natives, it must be a temptation to be God,” says General Corman to Capt. Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) as Col. Lucas, played by Harrison Ford, sits nearby, listening to Corman address Kurtz’s descent into madness.

Because there’s a conflict in every human heart, between the rational and irrational. Between good and evil. And good does not always triumph. Sometimes the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the ‘better angels of our nature.’Every man has got a breaking point. You and I have them. Walt Kurtz has reached his. And very obviously he has gone insane.”

Willard agrees with Corman’s analysis of the crazed Kurtz. At this point, Col. Lucas (Ford) jumps in and explains Willard’s secret mission – to proceed up the Nung River in a Navy patrol boat and “terminate the Colonel’s command.”

And just as Willard and the others go upriver – the serpentine, snaking river into the heart of darkness, so does the Fox family in The Mosquito Coast.

Ride the snake, ride the snake, to the lake, the ancient lake … he’s old and his skin is cold …”

Jim Morrison, who wrote “The End,” deals with serious, nightmarish Oedipal issues that Morrison was tackling at that time in his life – loving the mother and wanting to kill the father.

It should be noted that Jim Morrison’s father, Admiral George Morrison was the commander in charge of the Carrier Division of the U.S. Navy during the controversial 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, which led to the massive escalation of the Vietnam War.

Legend has it that when Morrison was in the bathtub in Paris in July 1971, he was listening to old Doors albums and that “The End” was the last song he heard, which was side 2 of their 1967 debut album. “The End” is the last song on side 2.

The sensitive Jerry Fox (Jadrien Steele), the younger brother who is a bit more skeptical than his older brother about the idea of going to the jungle confesses to his mother (called “Mother” and played by the demure Helen Mirren, who played a Soviet cosmonaut in 1984’s 2010: The Year We Make Contact) “I think something is going to happen … something terrible.”

Jerry's intuition will turn out to be right on the mark.

As an aside, in 2010, the astronaut/Star Child Dave Bowman appears to his wife on a TV screen and tells her “Something’s going to happen … something wonderful.

Jeronimo

This bit of foreshadowing – “something terrible” - stays with you as Allie wakes up one morning, tells the family to drop everything and they head to the harbor, bordering a ship called the “Unicorn” and go to the Mosquito Coast of Central America (either Nicaragua or Belize) where he will set up his ice-making device and his utopian community. (Unicorn symbolism can be found in many mythological traditions around the world. I suspect Peter Weir, behind the eerie film Picnic at Hanging Rock, used it deliberately).

During their journey aboard the Unicorn, Allie and his family encounter the Spellgood family – also heading to the Mosquito Coast (Mosquitia) on the Caribbean Sea. The father is Rev. Spellgood (Andre Gregory of My Dinner With Andre fame) and they are missionaries to the poor people there. As far as we can tell, the Fox family are atheists and Allie makes it clear to Spellgood that his superstitious religious beliefs won’t work with him and his family. And when Spellgood tries to force a hip “Blue-Jeans Bible” on him, Allie cracks a dry joke: “Look at this, kids. It’s just what I’ve been warning you about.”

Once in Central America, Allie wastes no time in buying the rights to a village – upriver – called Jeronimo. The town’s name is obviously a reference to the American government-hating Apache known as Geronimo, whose remains were graverobbed by Yale Bonesmen like Bush (remember that Allie Fox is a former “Harvard man”) and how paratroopers would yell “Geronimo!” when jumping out of an airplane to prove they had no fear.

Earlier, when Jerry tells Mother that his dad is “worried,” Mother reminds him that “he’s always like that before a new invention.”

And now, fearlessly taking on the Central American jungle, Fox continues his forced march into the Conrad-ian ‘heart of darkness.’ Synchronistically speaking, the actor who plays launchboat captain “Mr. Haddy” is Conrad Roberts, who also appeared in the 1988 horror film The Serpent and the Rainbow. Haddy is reminiscent of Chief Phillips (Albert Hall), the skeptical boat captain of PBR Street Gang in Apocalypse Now

And like a “serpent” (“ride the snake, to the lake, the ancient lake”), aerial shots of the launch, with Mr. Haddy and the Fox family on board, are quite reminiscent of the aforementioned PBR Street Gang Navy boat heading up the Nung River –as Harrison Ford’s Col. Lucas tells Capt. Willard – to “terminate” Kurtz’s command with extreme prejudice. Lucas takes orders. He gives orders. Allie Fox only gives orders in The Mosquito Coast. His family begins to hate him for it, just as Jim Morrison hated his father, the admiral who played a key role in ramping up a vicious, unnecessary war in Southeast Asia.

The Mosquito Coast's Allie Fox and Apocalypse Now's Capt. Willard both know, deep down, that their lives are going to change in dramatic ways as they “go upriver.” Ironically, it is Allie Fox who says things go upriver to live and downriver to die. This is also foreshadowing.

Rev. Spellgood pays the Jeronimo community an unexpected visit, one that angers Allie and ends with Allie demanding that the authoritarian, Jim Jones-like missionary leave immediately. It is at this time that all is going well with the productive-yet-primitive community deep in the jungle. Local natives seem excited to help build it into something, a village Allie calls a “superior civilization.”

It is also at this time that the ice-making machine – the Jumbo version – is being crafted, a “monster,” as he called it. And Allie was “Dr. Frankenstein.”

And while the villagers say Allie makes magic with his imposing creation, when he lights the new “Fat Boy” he smiles and says, “This is no miracle. This is thermodynamics.”

When Fat Boy comes alive – it’s alive! – the ice is created and the people are happy. “Ice from fire!” they say.

While Allie is seen as a driven, domineering father – Mother and the children are nearly mute the entire film – his dark side is exposed even more. While he reprimands his sons for calling the migrant workers shack back in Hatfield as “the Monkey House,” here, in the jungle, they are “happy savages.” There is a racist, colonial feeling about Allie’s project and how he treats people. Just as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, complex issues regarding civilized society vs. barbarism are explored, as is the horrors (“the horror, the horror”) of imperialism.

“Exterminate all the brutes!” Kurtz states in Heart of Darkness, there along Africa’s Congo River.

Spellgood is determined to get rid of the godless, Fox influence, accusing them of being communists.

We’re not communists,” Allie says to the local people. “It’s just jealousy and envy. You build something up and people come along and want to take it away from you.” Because of Marxist revolutionaries being common in Central America at that time, it is not surprising to hear Spellgood accuse them of being communists. It was also a good excuse for the CIA to use "Christian missionaries" to spread propaganda and infiltrate populist movements and governments in foreign countries.

In The Mosquito Coast, it’s Allie Fox’s way or the highway (“Ride the king’s highway, baby”). Charlie and Jerry, the adolescent brothers, are beginning to see that their father really is a Dr. Frankenstein. A monster. A brute. Driven to utter madness as he drags a lump of ice through the rain forest to a remote native village, only to find that the ice melted during the trip. While there, some thuggish mercenaries are encountered and Allie mistakenly invites them to their community. It is then that they realize the three gun-toting mercenaries have no intention of leaving.

Death and destruction and contamination

It is decided when they are sleeping in quarters in Fat Boy’s belly, that they will be frozen to to death, since they refuse to leave. Like a scene from The Wicker Man, Allie instructs Charlie to freeze them “they won’t feel a thing” and trap them inside. But things go wrong and a fire and explosion are triggered and like a burning tower, reminiscent of 9/11, which we noted early in this piece, Fat Boy consumes the three mercenaries as they scream in agony.

It is here we should note that Harrison Ford, recently in a plane crash, synchromystically involving a World War II vintage aircraft, which we wrote about here, is still much-loved by cinema audiences. His Indiana Jones character is a cinematic icon. And it is this scene, where Fat Boy explodes into a towering inferno - syncing with 9/11, as noted at the beginning of this article - that we are reminded of that infamous scene in 2008's Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, where Indy, realizing he is near ground zero of an atomic-bomb test in Nevada, hides in a lead-lined refrigerator in the mock house and survives the nuclear explosion, largely intact. Film geeks rolled their eyes at this scene and, like Fonzie "jumping the shark," when something implausible or bad happens, they say it's "nuking the fridge." (And regarding "crystal skulls"? Read more here, and consider the Egyptian connection), especially as Spellgood, looking like Moses with a staff, accuses Allie of being like Pharoah in Egypt, demanding that he let the people go! This is noted in Exodus 6:11 - just turn that 6 to a 9 - "If 6 Was 9" by Jimi Hendrix comes to mind ... "I'm gonna wave my freak flag high!"

And yet, in one frame, we see Allie's sillhouette, standing in the light of the inferno, echoing a future scene in The Crystal Skull, where he looks up at the fiery mushroom cloud. Interestingly, you can buy Indiana Jones action figures with Indy coming out of a miniature fridge, just as you can get "Andre Gregory" action figures, from My Dinner With Andre, as noted in Waiting for Guffman.

At this point, Jerry Fox's warning early in the film is coming to pass. Something terrible is happening. And as the fire expands, the ammonium hydroxide that was used in Fat Boy, now a blazing ruin, has contaminated the life-giving river.

“If we stay here we die,” Allie says matter-of-factly as Mr. Haddy looks at his half-sunken launch along the riverbank. They escape Jeronimo in a smaller, exposed boat, not sure where to go next. Ultimately it leads them back to the sea, humbled and a little wiser, perhaps.

The experience back in Jeronimo has changed the family. They are transformed in deep ways. Allie realizes using chemicals and poisons is wrong. He’s going the way of fellow Harvard academic-turned-Luddite Ted “The Unabomber” Kaczynski. Recall that The Mosquito Coast came out a decade before the man behind the “Industrial Society and its Future” manifesto was caught.

The family, though, wants to go home. Allie realizes that his authority is being questioned. He wants to stay on the exposed beach, using whatever they find. He lies to the family, telling them that America is gone via a “cataclysm, a blinding flash” and that they have to stay there on the coast.

Allie is becoming more and more unpleasant to be around. Jerry repeatedly tells his brother how much he hates his father. This, as Allie says their new home will be “a thriving village living in harmony with nature” and that neither Haddy nor his own family were wise enough to understand his “vision.”

But commonsense is eluding Allie, particularly as Haddy warns them that being on the beach, that close to the water, is dangerous. A storm will sweep them out to sea.

And it does, although thanks to Haddy leaving some spark plugs with Charlie, they are able to motor to safety. They go upriver again. This time they happen upon Spellgood’s clean, appealing missionary camp – surrounded by barbed wire. Allie sees this and calls it a “Christian concentration camp.” The kids see safety and familiar things – a basketball goal. Stability. Their unstable father has fire in his ice-cold eyes, behind those wire frames. He hates Spellgood, religion and everything they stand for. They are in the way of his vision. We already know how Spellgood feels about Allie.

The end of the river

When it gets down to it, Allie is more like Apocalypse Now’s Kurtz than one would initially suspect. While well-read and intellectual, we don’t see him feeding his intellectual needs through books while creating utopia in the jungle – the books, now unnecessary in his mind, were left behind back in Hatfield. Bible verses are stored in Allie’s head, used against the pious Spellgood. Books for his children? Nowhere to be seen.

Kurtz, meanwhile, keeps the Bible, The Golden Bough and From Ritual to Romance at his side, books that “explore the significance of rituals and myths in so-called ‘primitive’ societies.” Kurtz’s adversary, Willard, “ritually sacrifices” Kurtz, while the zealous Christian missionary Spellgood, using fear and mind control on his seemingly hapless victims, shoots down his adversary – Allie Fox - without a second thought. 

Yes, Allie proceeds to burn down Spellgood’s chapel and Spellgood turns his rifle on Allie, snarling “Communists!” and shoots him down, paralyzing him. It would appear that his spine has been severed since he can’t move his body. One wonders if Theroux and/or Weir were referencing the primal energy force of Kundalini, at the base of the spine. Allie is now helpless as the family went back downstream – where people go to die – while telling Allie, as he died, that they were going upriver.

Like Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, Allie Fox had a vision. Kurtz was willing to sacrifice much in order to win the war. But the North Vietnamese were more committed to their cause and this frustrates and angers Kurtz, because – like today – war is a game for the generals to play. Kurtz and the others - Col. Lucas included - are mere pawns in a game they can't control.

"You have no right to judge me," Kurtz tells Willard before Willard completes his mission in that horrific corner of the hellish jungle. Adds Kurtz: "Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies."

A once-lifegiving presence that turned in on itself, Charlie, as he narrates the end of the film (reminiscent of the end of Apocalypse Now after Willard terminates Kurtz) he too is changed. He is becoming a man, sure of himself. A lesson he learned from his dad, who was driven to madness in an environment that proved to be more powerful and primal than he had ever imagined.

Once I had believed in Father, and the world had seemed small and old. Now he was gone and I wasn’t afraid to love him anymore. And the world seemed limitless.” 

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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