We open with a heavenly soar over the pristine farmlands of Dick Cheney Country, hearing the blow of a soft, gentle wind, and then the uplifting, soulfully sweet cry of a harmonica. Our God’s-eye view finally settles upon a stocky fella clad in denim and a cowboy hat. The hood of his well-worn pickup popped open, the hardy-looking stranger attends to some routine maintenance as the accompanying musical score jumps into a jaunty, almost comic plucking of strings, affording his character an instant purity, an innocence; his tired, young boy and happy, loyal dog wait for him in the front seat of the truck. It’s all laid on pretty thick during the opening frames of Rage, the first theatrical feature film directed by its star, George C. Scott.
Oh, let’s forgive all this cloying obviousness, I thought; this was his first feature film, after all. Scott had only previously helmed the television production of the play The Andersonville Trial two years earlier; two years prior to the release of this conspiracy thriller, he had also famously turned down the Oscar he won for Patton because he had no desire to take part in what he called the Academy’s “meat parade.” By the time Scott’s character stuffed that first wad of chaw into his cheek, though, and we settled into those magic-hour shots worthy of Terrence Malick, I was close to smirking at the aw-shucks-ness of it all. Scott’s a great actor, I reminded myself, so let’s go easy on him.
By the end of the movie, I almost wished he’d have gone a little easier on me.
Though its story was based in part on a real-life 1968 incident in which the testing of nerve gas was blamed for the accidental killing of thousands of sheep near a U.S. Army base in Utah, Rage is a movie of this very moment if any movie is. What first appears to be Scott’s fairly ham-fisted adulation of a certain brand of rugged Americana all makes sense by the time the film closes out on its utterly bitter, cynical images. This is one of the more nihilistic movies I can recall seeing; the black hole of its despair is fully earned, and truly authentic. I can imagine a lot of pretenders trying to make a movie with the ideas involved in Rage, but I suspect very few would be able to match the integrity of the bleak, grim vision Scott renders here.
Distrust of the government is the name of the game in the film. In the beginning, Scott’s widowed Wyoming farmer has no reason we know of to be suspicious of a U.S. Army helicopter passing overhead as he and his son prepare to settle down for a night of camping—but, before anything at all actually happens, he nevertheless regards the passing aircraft with a wary eye.
Echoing the events of Utah’s “Dugway sheep incident,” the film quickly reveals to us the truth about why Scott’s son—who chooses to sleep out in the open air rather than inside a tent, like his dad—wakes up nearly comatose with an unexplained nosebleed. The boy’s arrival at a nearby hospital, along with the death of Scott’s sheep, spurs the Army and their partners in the Chivington Research Laboratories into immediate meetings for damage control, where we discover that testing of a new weapon of biological warfare has resulted in a horrible accident that released a devastatingly toxic quantity (small as it may be) of the deadly “MX3” gas over the area.
The plan agreed upon by the military, the research company, and the Public Health Service is to keep Scott (and everyone else) in the dark about the incident—quickly isolating Scott in the hospital and eventually sedating him to prevent him from discovering that his son has died, and that the reduced amount of exposure he suffered will still be enough to kill him in short order.
It’s no spoiler to reveal that Scott finds out the truth. As the title emotion takes over, Scott escapes from his confinement and, in the parlance of our times, goes postal.
Exactly how he does that, and to whom, and his ultimate fate, are all the things that make Rage so powerfully thought-provoking and relevant today. There is a not-insubstantial segment of the U.S. population that has now bought into the idea (at least partially dependent on who occupies the highest office in the land) that the American government is principally a dishonest and malevolent force to be suspicious of and opposed to at every turn, regardless of evidence or historical context. The recent furor over the “Jade Helm” exercises comes to mind, with vocal groups of our citizens (and even some of our legislators) implying or outright declaring the military exercises both out of the ordinary and secretly sinister in intent.
As the film’s military, medical establishment, and Public Health representatives conspire to cover up the accident, we can see analogs to both the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments and the 2014 Elk River Chemical spill—it’s just about as ironic to have the accident in the film take place near “Medicine Creek” as it is to have had the company responsible for last year’s real-life West Virginia spill be named “Freedom Industries.”
It’s maybe true that Scott leans on perhaps one too many Directing 101! touches in the movie’s early going. As visually efficient as it might be, the expository match cut that links Scott’s dog and his sheep is a bit much; he has different characters repeat exact lines of dialogue to shift us in time and place; when the military arrives at their plan for the cover-up, the leading officer literally “blows smoke” to punctuate the moment (“Prevent Adverse Publicity” takes priority over “Find Those Affected”); after Scott learns of the tragic death of his son, he walks past a billboard that reads “We’re moving to a new life” (Yes, thank you for underlining that. Maybe we can blame this one on the script, who’s to say).
To be fair, there are also times when Scott’s film boasts little visual touches that work well in this way—including the darkly amusing moment when a not-so-well-meaning doctor casually lights up his cigarette right in front of the hospital’s “No Smoking” sign. Once Scott’s character launches his campaign of revenge, however, all of these oh-so-clever authorial touches seem to effortlessly fall away as Rage gets lean and mean and unleashes one deranged surprise after another.
All that matters to Scott’s character is that he’s been lied to about his son’s death; it takes nothing more than that—no facts at all about whether the cause was purposeful or accidental—to break him to the point of getting ready to pursue his “Second Amendment remedies” right away. Perversely, learning more of the truth afterwards doesn’t seem to focus his cross-hairs, it only blurs them. With one notable exception, the innocent are punished along with the guilty—though if you were to accept the logic of some people, nobody within proximity of his intended targets could be regarded as “innocent.”
Maybe we do join with him in self-righteous fury as we watch him hold the lying Public Health representative at gunpoint, but how do we feel when he drives his white van through the front window of the research lab he’s about to blow up? Are we thinking about Timothy McVeigh’s Ryder truck? How can we not?
When Scott enters the military base nearby to make his last stand, are we thinking about Ruby Ridge or are we reminded of the Fort Hood shooting, where the assailant’s moral compass was thought perhaps to be as impaired as Scott’s, in the growing fever of his illness?
And finally, are we maybe, hopefully, reflecting a little on the idea that we see Scott’s character—a man who has just blown up a building and killed cops—being cautiously, non-threateningly approached by a line of well-armed soldiers rather than being exterminated at long distance, by concentrated gunfire, for the terrorist threat he has become? Are we reflecting on how much of a chance at redemption the character is being given, in the face of headlines screaming at us almost daily reveal how certain other American citizens of, shall we just say a different identity, are being treated by law enforcement in 21st-century America? How, as a society, might we react to a parent who chose to act exactly like Scott’s character after he—or she—learned their child was killed by the police without having been accused, much less convicted, of committing a serious crime?
Or if Lila Lipscomb, let’s say, picked up a gun after deciding that one lie was enough?
Rage is a firestorm of a film, going to infinitely darker places than you’d expect. It fascinates because we think of how it might have been received by audiences in the early ‘70s, compared to how similar material might be viewed if produced as a “story of our times” today. I’d say it’s ripe for remaking, but the truth is that Rage is perfectly, instantly alive for us now just as it is, ready to disturb and provoke audiences anew—whether you believe Halliburton is lying about the dangers of fracking or you are convinced the U.S. military is preparing to assist Barack Obama with his plans to invade Texas and take away your guns.
On a closing note, I’d like to add that one of the other virtues of Rage is its marvelous roster of supporting players, from the very young Martin Sheen to Richard Basehart, Barnard Hughes, Kenneth Tobey, and Ed Lauter, who all turn in sturdy performances. It’s George C. Scott’s show all the way, though, and, in the same way we think about Charles Laughton, The Movies are possibly poorer for Scott not having directed more often. That said: You’re going to wonder what the hell Scott is up to with that slow-motion shot of the cat. Be patient; the payoff is guaranteed to make your jaw drop.