O Brother Where Art Thou
Christianity, Where Art Thou: Examining Religion, Mythology, and Mysticism in Film
“What do you sell?” asks Delmar, leaning in to the one-eyed salesman. “The word of God, which, let me tell you, there is damn good money in during these times of woe and want.” The Bible has been misused, misquoted, and misrepresented by history’s finest enemies. The Crusaders, for instance, would chant “God Wills It” as they raped, pillaged, and plundered entire villages. It’s also been used as a source of wealth and fortune, as seen above with the Bible salesman. Abuse of the Bible and Christianity is not a new concept in our world, and the Christianity we see and know today is very different from Christianity 100 years ago, let alone from when it started. We have always mystified religion and become comfortable treating it more like mythology than theology – that is, treating it more like epics and legends of supernatural beings than the actual practice of believing in and worshipping a God.
The film O Brother, Where Art Thou? shines a light on the comparisons between Christianity and mythology, specifically Homer’s epic The Odyssey. The Coen brothers’ film is riddled with evidence of both texts, some more obvious than others. We begin with our protagonist, Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney). While Odysseus is the protagonist of Homer’s Greek myth, his Latin name was none other than Ulysses. Not only do the two protagonists share names, but their spouses do as well – Odysseus has Penelope, and Everett has Penny. Everett is a quick-witted, clever man, but uses such devices to mask a strong sense of arrogance that serves as his downfall. He makes it very clear from the beginning that he’s a bit of a hypocrite when it comes to religion. He ridicules his two comrades for pursuing baptism, yet quotes the Bible when one of them shows signs of negativity. The ridiculing is with good reason, though – the men are alone in an old cemetery and are suddenly overcome by a mass of men and women in all white, seeming somewhat hypnotized and heavily drawn to the water. When they arrive, they form two lines and take turns being baptized. Delmar runs to the front of the line, is dunked underwater by the preacher, and comes back to the men repeating what sounds like a check list one would spout off to prove they were a believer. “Well that’s it, boys. I been redeemed. The preacher done washed away all my sins and transgressions. It’s the straight and narrow from here on out. And heaven everlasting’s my reward!”
This hypnotic eeriness is compared to the lotus-eaters of Odysseus’s story. In the Greek epic, Odysseus’s men are beached on an island and find the native people, the lotus-eaters, who offer them the flowery lotus fruit that entices them to the point of forgetting about their journey and wishing to stay on the island forever with the lotus-eaters. Similarly, once Pete and Delmar are baptized among the Christians, they wish to stay with them forever and to forget about their plan to find the treasure with Everett. This kind of commentary makes an interesting claim about the toxicity and mysticism of modern day Christianity and the harm that blind belief can conjure. If Delmar places concrete facts upon abstract solutions – such as claiming to be free of sin just because a man in white dunked him in a lake – he gives into the occultism of the moment. That doesn’t mean it’s the true form of the religion at hand, it’s simply the form of that religion he was, in that moment, choosing to take upon himself. Immediately after being baptized, the first person the three men run into is Tommy Johnson, a young African-American man who sold his soul to the devil the night before. This stark contrast in spiritual experiences relates the two in their staged and overdramatic nature, both dealing with souls at their three possible stages – saved like Pete and Delmar’s, in limbo like Everett’s, or damned like Tommy’s. The runaways’ time with the Hogwallop family holds an exorbitant amount of religious references that prove useful in advancing the action as well as great examples of ironic, faith-related proclamations. Pete’s cousin, Washington Bartholomew Hogwallop, was given a middle name that matches the name of one of the twelve disciples. After he turns the three men in for bounty, Pete threatens to kill him and calls him Judas Iscariot Hogwallop, referring to the disciple known for betraying Jesus.
When all goes awry and the men are trying to escape from the law enforcement awaiting them below, Everett yells the name of Saint Christopher in a breathless exclamation. Saint Christopher serves as the patron saint of long journeys, perfectly suiting the three vagabonds. Before the three men are hanged, Pete proclaims “God damn it. God forgive me!” The process of damning God then asking for his forgiveness provides a wonderful example of religious irony in the film. Everett’s usage of biblical references is sparse, but very present nonetheless. It seems like it begins as a sort of mockery of the other two men, poking fun at their naïve faith. When Pete grows pessimistic about the outlook of their journey, Everett tells him to “consider the lilies of the field,” quoting Matthew 6:28. He mocks the boys for their baptism and immediate salvation thereafter. It isn’t until they’re about to be hanged and the sheriff tells the boys to say their final prayers that we see Everett in a vulnerable, intimate moment with his God. He gets on his knees and asks that God forgives his wrongdoings. He prays that God takes care of his Penny and girls if he can no longer do so. Soon after, the dam bursts and the three nearly drown, but find a coffin one of them was to be buried in and cling to it as a raft. Pete and Delmar claim the flood was a miracle, while Everett believes it was an obvious incident with coincidental timing, and that the dam was going to be blown that day no matter what had happened to them.
When Pete counters that Everett sure prayed a lot for there to be a scientific explanation, Everett counters that “any human being will cast about in a moment of stress.” Everett sees the Christian God as a superhero, anxiously awaiting a call of distress so that he may swoop in and save the day, then disappear into the shadows until he is needed again. The music plays a large role in the link between the film and Christianity. The first song in the movie, Po’ Lazarus, is a story of a sheriff who asks his deputy to seek out Lazarus and bring him back to the sheriff, dead or alive. The sheriff resolves to retrieving Lazarus himself and shoots him, then brings him back to the commissary, leaving him on the floor to die. Lazarus is also the name of the man in the Bible who laid dead in a tomb for four days before Jesus was fetched by Mary and Martha and resurrected Lazarus. This reference alludes to some kind of resurrection or rebirth, so from the start of the movie, we’re expecting reformation from the characters, most likely in some religious form. Songs like “Down to the River to Pray,” “I’ll Fly Away,” and “Angel Band” are all gospel-like in their verses and form, all alluding to heaven and the Lord in hopes of seeing both someday. The name Odysseus means “a man who is in constant pain and sorrow,” and since Ulysses is the Latin form of Odysseus, his name shares the same meaning (Toscano). This seems fitting considering the song that makes Everett and his two buddies, Delmar and Pete, a hit as the Soggy Bottom Boys is titled “Man of Constant Sorrow.” Everett sings a verse of the song that says “there is one promise that is given//I’ll meet you on God’s golden shore.” Later in the film, once Pete is placed back into slavery, he’s praying at night and says “God, forgive me. I could not gaze upon that far shore.” As the men pray what they believe to be their final prayers, the three grave diggers in front of them chant the words of an old spiritual, “Lonesome Valley” – “You got to go there by yourself//Oh, you got to ask the Lord’s forgiveness//Nobody else can ask him for you.” This mirrors Odysseus’s descent into the underworld during his quest, and allows the viewer to create a parallel between the Christian God and the lord of the underworld, both of which give humans their ultimatum.
There is not a single character in the film with a well-rounded view of who the Christian God is and what he does for his children. Instead, God is either there for us in times of need, for us to make a profit from, or for us to throw all our sins upon so that we may be clean of all transgressions. Destructive distortion of the “word of God” is not a new concept, and this film provides wonderful examples of mistreating and manipulating both to get what the user wants. The Coen brothers find a way to tie mythology and Christianity to one another in a way that puts guilt on all modern “Christians,” holding them accountable for their misuse of the traditional religion they claim to be a part of.
James Carter & The Prisoners. “Po’ Lazarus.” O, Brother Where Art Thou Soundtrack, “T-Bone” Burnett, 2000.
Jay, Mike. “The Lotus Eaters.” Mike Jay. N.p., 29 July 2016. Web.
Nedha, PantherX Says, and Kenneth Corbiere Says. “Difference Between Religion and Mythology.” Difference Between. N.p., 23 June 2011. Web.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? Dir. Joel Coen. Prod. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. 2000. Ruppersburg, Hugh. “”Oh, so many startlements…”: History, Race, and Myth in O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Southern Cultures. UP North Carolina, 13 Nov. 2003. Web.
The Fairfield Four. “Lonesome Valley.” O, Brother Where Art Thou Soundtrack, “T-Bone” Burnett, 2000.
The Soggy Bottom Boys. “Man of Constant Sorrow.” O, Brother Where Art Thou Soundtrack, “T-Bone” Burnett, 2000.
Toscano, Margaret M. “Homer Meets the Coen Brothers: Memory as Artistic Pastiche in O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies. Center for the Study of Film and History, 13 Mar. 2010. Web.
O Brother, Where Art Thou?: The Relationship Between an Epic Poem and the Film It Inspired
The Coen Brothers’ 2000 adventure film O Brother, Where Art Thou? is an American adaptation of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. This recent comedy follows three escaped convicts as they search for a hidden treasure. Despite the considerable gap between the creation of these two works, the film reflects many of the common themes found in the epic poem. But, what makes the film an adaptation rather than a direct re-creation is its setting; the movie takes place within an caricatured version of the American south during the Great Depression. Therefore, solely based upon where it takes place, the movie is unable to fit in with other themes and occurrences that are present within Homer’s poem. Also, due to where and when the movie takes place, customs embedded within the culture of the film give the story an ability to adapt to the occurrences in the The Odyssey. Versions of these events still happen in the movie; they just pertain to the culture in which it is set.
As a whole, the setting of O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the main cause of discrepancy and unity with The Odyssey, which definitely indicates the quality of this adaptation. The most common similarities between the Coen film and the Odyssey are either thematic or characteristic; since the occurrences in the plot are modified in the film adaptation, what unifies the movie with the poem is how The Odyssey’s original themes and characters persist. For example, in both works, said protagonist Odysseus in the The Odyssey and Ulysses, otherwise known as Everett, in O Brother, Where Art Thou? reflect the same characteristics. Both men are very cunning and, in some cases, are known for their ability to speak. In The Odyssey, Odysseus encourages his crew to continue on their trek through hardships as he says, “surely we are not unlearned in evils / This is no greater evil now that it was when the Cyclops had is cooped up in his hollow cave by force and violence /…Then do as I say, let us all be won over.” (12.210-213) and as a result, his crew “quickly obeyed my [Odysseus’] words.” (12.222). In Homer’s poem it is apparent that Odysseus’ speech holds power amongst the people he comes in contact with. This is also present within Coen’s film as Everett speaks far more than his two companions and always leads them through their escapades. This can also be observed through the film’s cinematography as Everett is always placed further up from than the other two escaped convicts.
From a thematic standpoint, O Brother, Where Art Thou? ties in closely with the themes presented in The Odyssey; the film is just set in an entirely different era. One of the main themes that was seen in both works is family in relation to the concept of homecoming. In the film, Everett claims to have “travelled many a weary mile to be back with my [his] wife and kids” (O Brother, Where Art Thou?). While in the poem, after Odysseus returns to his family, he says that he must, “shall go to our [his] estate with its many orchards / to see my noble father who has grieved for me constantly” (23.354-355). Even through all of their trials and tribulations, both of their families are a huge priority. Between the poem and the film, the most notable similarities between them are through their shared themes and characteristics, conceptually making them much easier to compare. However, since the film is an adaptation, it does not follow everything that occurred in The Odyssey word-for-word. Due to the setting of the movie and common standards within American filmmaking, O Brother, Where Art Thou? separates itself from The Odyssey. This is not only seen with how the events in the film occur but also with the film’s structure. The structure of the movie itself contrasts with Homer’s epic poem as its narrative progression is linear. On the other hand, The Odyssey begins in medias res and is known for its ring structure. This contrast relates closely to each works focus; in American film, stories that are well perceived by audiences progress linearly. The Odyssey holds a ring structure because it is a traditional epic oral poem that was mostly told rather than depicted with actors through a camera lens.
With that being said, it is vital to recognize the importance of each work’s settings, which are accompanied with a set of customs that seem ordinary to the audience that experienced it. For example, The Odyssey relied heavily on getting assistance from Greek gods since that was the atmosphere of the society at the time. While in the film, the characters relied on asking for assistance to a singular God and receiving discreet reactions to these prayers because that was the atmosphere of the predominate religion, Christianity, in the American South in during the Great Depression. With that being said, the setting of O Brother, Where Art Thou? is what truly drives the differences between the two works; even though the actual events are very similar, the setting creates modifications so that the events can follow the society and culture that the film is meant to take place in. This can be observed in The Odyssey, as Odysseus and his crew disguise themselves under sheep to escape from Polyphemus the Cyclops while in O Brother, Where Art Thou? the characters disguise themselves as members of the Klu Klux Klan in order to free Tommy. Essentially, these modifications were necessary for the film to stay true to its setting which essentially is the main cause of the structural and narrative differences between the epic poem and the movie.
Even though there is a considerable gap between the creation of these two works, the film reflects many of the common themes found in the epic poem. However, what makes the film an adaptation rather than a direct re-creation is its setting; due to where and when the movie takes place, customs embedded within the culture of the film give the story an ability to adapt to the occurrences in The Odyssey and modify it so these events still happen in the movie. They just pertain to the culture that it is set in. The setting of O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the prime cause of discrepancy and unity with The Odyssey, which definitely indicates the sheer originality of this adaptation.
Odysseus and Ulysses
Modern renditions of classics are notorious for misrepresenting the cherished old works they try to depict, but when they are successful they add modern twists and embellishments while still maintaining the timeless message. In O Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coen brothers honor Homer’s epic, the Odyssey, with an insightful adaptation. The directors artistically implant messages about honor and trust using symbolism and positioning in ways that mirror the format of the epic and create a worthwhile viewing experience for students trying to supplement their education.
Odysseus remains a timeless hero in society not only because of his journeys, but also his larger than life persona and the respect he commands from everyone he meets. Ulysses adopts this mindset in his travels, refusing to be defined as a person based on the situation he is in at any given moment. The symbolism frequent in O Brother, Where Art Thou? adds depth to Ulysses by emphasizing how his care about appearances affects his experiences and decisions. After escaping from jail, Ulysses, Pete, and Delmar are hungry, tired, and have no way of getting to the treasure. Ulysses stops at a store for a car part and some hair pomade, but refuses to accept any brand other then his own, claiming, “I don’t want Fop, goddamn it! I’m a Dapper Dan man!” This refusal to settle for what Ulysses views as a lesser substitute is reminiscent of Odysseus’ determination to reach Ithaca, though on a much more limited scale. Ulysses believes that accepting anything less than what he wants will be a concession of weakness and will demote him to a less honorable status. Odysseus behaves the same way throughout his journey. Calypso expresses her strong desire to keep him on her island indefinitely. While Odysseus does not view this as an entirely unpleasant situation, he knows that his true wish is to finally reach Ithaca and his wife, and therefore implores Calypso to let him leave. Although honor is extremely important to both men, they are willing to admit slight defeats at the chance of a greater opportunity to redeem themselves. In a final, desperate attempt to win back Penny, Ulysses and his men dress up as a band of old men, complete with beards. Ulysses promises that he’s “just gotta get close enough to talk to her.” A bedraggled old man does not match the type of appearance Ulysses traditionally likes to maintain, but he sees the chance it gives him to reunite with Penny and sacrifices the less important aspects of his nature in order to achieve his goals. Odysseus exhibits the same ability to make sacrifices when he spends years at his home in Ithaca, enduring harsh, humiliating treatment from the suitors. Although it pained him to undergo that type of disrespect in his own home, he knew that in order to succeed in his plan he would need to bide his time until he was ready to defeat the suitors. The symbolism evident in the old man disguises represents the patience and sacrifices the men make towards a greater long-term goal. Honor is a major driving force for the adventures of these men, but they still realize when a greater cause is worth a meager sacrifice.
Other sacrifices are made on such adventures when a great amount of trust is required to succeed in the goals of the group. The Coen brothers use subtle positioning throughout the film adaptation to signify who the men trust to lead them throughout their struggles. At the start of their travels, an order needs to be established to prevent conflicts. This issue is addressed quickly, when Pete asks Ulysses, “Who elected you leader of this outfit?” No formal leader is established at this point, but it soon becomes clear whom the men look to for guidance. Ulysses gains their trust quickly, and this is expressed not only through actions but also through the subtle ways Ulysses fulfills common leadership roles. When the men steal a car in order to seek the treasure, Ulysses is the driver. This subtle cue incorporated by the Coen brothers subconsciously places Ulysses in a leadership role. This reflects Odysseus’ position in relation to his crew. Both men are looked to for the decisions of the groups as a whole, and both use this power to help their men escape dangerous situations. Ulysses used his guidance abilities to help his men out of the burning barn at the Hogwallop’s when they were “in a tight spot,” just as Odysseus uses his wit to devise a plan to escape from Polythemus’ cave. Ulysseus is placed in the center again as the lead singer for the Soggy Bottom Boys’ hit song, “Man of Constant Sorrow.” He is clearly a leader in this position, and becomes the face of their fame. Odysseus mirrors this role in his tale, as well. As leader of his crew, Odysseus is the name people wonder about when they talk about how long it has been since their return. Odysseus represents many men, but is the only one remembered for their journey, just as the lead singer so often steals the spotlight from the entirety of a band.
Students reading the Odyssey would do very well to supplement their reading with this modern adaptation of the Greek classic. While still possessing artistic differences and interpretations in the plot, the film does exceptionally well portraying Ulysses as a hero with inner conflict regarding whether to protect his crew or further his personal goals. Odysseus faces these crossroads frequently in the Odyssey, the classic example being the choice he faces on Circe’s island. Upon discovering that Circe had turned his men into pigs, Odysseus must choose to brave the possible danger that the witch brings, or to leave his men there and flee towards Ithaca. He remains loyal to his men and helps liberate them, forming a valuable connection with Circe along the way. The film adaptation excels at demonstrating this conflict of character Ulysses frequently suffers from, although Ulysses, like Odysseus, manages to come through in truly desperate times. When the men stumble upon a KKK gathering Ulysses immediately spots Tommy, their old accompanist, lined up for a lynching. He does not hesitate in his decision when Pete whispers, “We got to save him.” Infiltrating a KKK meeting is a potentially life threating risk for Ulysses to undertake, but his loyalty to his companions drives him, like Odysseus, to taking that chance. The film adaptation, like the book, helps portray the lengths to which the main characters will go to where they are headed, and scenes like this, which offer character change, are crucial to the development of the story and necessary to show in class. The crew can also hinder Odysseus, which adds to the dynamic he maintains with his companions. When the crew is gifted with wind to aid them on the trip back home to Ithaca, the crew soon grows restless and mutinous and decides to investigate the bag with the wind in it. The wind comes roaring out, and their closest chance to reaching Ithaca vanishes in front of them. Ulysses experiences similar setbacks as a result of his men. After the men escape from prison they try to jump on a train for fast passage to the treasure. Two of them get up, but one trips in the attempted jump and drags all three of them off of the train. The incompetence of the crew in this situation is necessary to developing an understanding of the relationship between Ulysses and his men. A huge part of understanding the Odyssey is appreciating how much aid Odysseus receives from companions, and realizing his hesitation to trust many. Many scenes in O Brother, Where Art Thou? expand on this relationship and display it in more distinct terms than may have been offered in the Odyssey, creating an ideal work to be offered to students for enhanced learning.
Homer’s The Odyssey remains so popular to this day in part because of its flexibility to adaptation within many different environments, as masterfully demonstrated by the Coen Brothers in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Both the positive and negative aspects of the relationships and characters developed in the film create lasting impressions about the characters that would prove more difficult to express solely through the book.