David Stevens’s overlooked film, Kansas, is an important work that examines America’s national consciousness after two terms of the Reagan/George H. Bush Administration. Released in 1988, (1) the film paints a portrait of a Midwestern farming community’s fall from innocence. Using film as a political allegory of the state of American society in the mid to late ’80s, I argue that Stevens and screenwriter Spencer Eastman use many cinematic devices to criticize the Reagan ideology: specifically of the Great Communicator’s iconography, related to the image of paternal masculinity. Kansas also problematically deals with the virulent effects of the Reagan Administration’s agricultural policy on the disenfranchised youth. The film visually deifies the Midwestern American landscape in order to demonstrate the destructive political forces related to the farm debt crisis of the mid-1980s. Finally, Kansas presents the ramifications of trickle-down economics on minorities and the working class. However, the film is more wary and reserved in its criticisms of Reagan and his policies than the screenplay by Eastman, which is somewhat more critical of them.
Eastman’s screenplay shows how the Midwestern farm sector deteriorated due to sinking commodity prices and a rapid decline in farm income; it devotes additional attention to the Reagan Administration’s treatment of the farm debt crisis than Stevens’s resultant film. In translation from script to film, Kansas begins as a muddled and watered down version of the screenplay’s critique and by its conclusion, presents a full-blown celebration of the Reagan ethos.
The film’s internal contradictions are best demonstrated through the contrasting ideological beliefs about the farm debt crisis of its two main characters: the upper-class East Coaster Wade Corey (Andrew McCarthy) and the working-class Midwesterner Doyle Kennedy (Matt Dillon). During the film’s first fourth, the ulterior motives of Wade and Doyle are not clear-cut or easily discernible. However, when Doyle breaks into an upper-middle class home and later decides to rob the town bank, Wade is reluctant to participate and their material values begin to surface; Wade is much less concerned with money and opts to migrate to a prosperous American farm, the chief beneficiary of Reaganomics. On the other hand, Doyle sorely needs money because Reagan’s economic policy has harmed him. By the film’s close, Wade woos a beautiful woman on the Reagan Farm and Doyle is killed for the corrupt actions he takes to destroy the mythological farm. So ultimately, Kansas condones the Reagan Administration’s policies rather than shuns them. With Doyle as the film’s nemesis established and Wade as exemplar for the Reaganite hero, Kansas thus employs an ultra-conservative framework.
Eastman and Stevens have incorporated Wade’s goals as being part of a hero quest in the screenplay and the film and I delineate them here: (1) save the child of an important political leader (a simulacrum of President Reagan) and reaffirm the patriarchal order; (2) adapt a Reaganesque “hard body” image and battle any traitor/dissenter (principally Doyle Kennedy) of American capitalism; and (3) achieve glory and return home to an Edenic inhabitance with a romantic woman at a prized American farm, a chief beneficiary of Reaganomics. I contrast Wade’s hero quest with the diabolical agenda of Doyle Kennedy, who is a victim of Reagan’s financial and agricultural programs and forever bitter for his displacement. Doyle wishes to de-beautify the American landscapes by destroying the mythic power they possess.
This essay examines the film and screenplay as well as the sociocultural and political climate of Kansas. I hope to establish how the film might have been received by audiences at the time. Before turning to the film and its production, however, I first examine the farm debt crisis of the mid-1980s, Reagan’s domestic economic policy, and the issue of civil rights/affirmative action.
The thematic locus and ideological underpinnings of the rhetorical structure of Kansas is grounded primarily in America’s mid-1980s farm debt crisis. Economics and agriculture professor Neil Harl cites three causes precipitating the agricultural quagmire: one of the earliest was high inflation rates, which emanated from four previous administrations and was particularly difficult to get under control during Reagan’s first term of office. Because farmers could not index their economic fortunes in response, they sometimes were forced to expedite the purchase of capital assets in accordance with rising costs of machinery, equipment, and land prices. (2) This means that they had to act erratically in order to keep up with the burdening pressures of inflation. A second factor delineated by Harl is the Federal Reserve Board’s decision to eliminate inflation and its potential consequences from its economic plan in October 1979. Interest rates subsequently rose exponentially and farmers were bereft of necessary funds to support the debt. Further, farmland investment opportunities dwindled and U.S. farm exports plummeted more than 40 percent from 1983-1986. (3) Finally, Harl lists the federal budget deficit, which increased from 1981’s federal income tax cuts, as the third driving force for agriculture’s downward spiral. The deficit’s beginnings also occurred during a period of rising federal receipts and expenditures. (4)
When critiquing Reagan’s national speaking engagements regarding the farm crisis from August-December 1985, Amos Kiewe and Davis W. Houck specify that inflation rose in double digits, interest rates were at 21 percent to federal programs, and farmers were sent mixed signals when it came to subsidies and price supports. (5) The legislation headlined in Reagan’s speeches was a farm debt relief plan and a debt restructuring proposal. When they were received as underdeveloped and haphazard, Reagan infamously quipped to a prominent White House political advisor at a dinner, “we should keep the grain and export the farmers”. (6) The Reagan Administration’s domestic economic policies, discussed in the next section, actually intensified the financial crisis.
When discussing Reagan’s October 7, 1980 speech denunciating Jimmy Carter’s economic policies, Kiewe and Houck define the origins of Reaganomics in public discourse as an economic program that tailors competitive advantages for the wealthy to accumulate more wealth, which it was assumed would trickle down to those on the economy’s lower echelon of standard of living. (7) John W. Sloan sees Reaganomics as accentuating supply-side tax cuts to expand economic growth and utilize monetarism to control inflation. (8) Economist William A. Niskanen describes the chief directives of Reaganomics as limiting government’s role in the U.S. economy by cutting back government spending, reducing tax rates, regulation, and slowing the growth of money supply. Although Niskanen bluntly stipulates that Reaganomics was the most radically progressive change in U.S. economic policy since the New Deal, he acknowledges that one of its unintended outcomes (and failures) was the persistent growth of real federal spending as evidenced by the annual increase rate of 2.7 percent from FY 1981 through FY 1987. (9)
The ultimate result of Reaganomics, from a liberal economist’s point of view, can be summed up by Reagan biographer Lou Cannon who argues that the President’s supply-side doctrine was based on “balancing the budget on the backs of the poor.” (10) There was indeed a vast differentiation between the economic situations faced by the various classes. According to the Census Bureau, by 1989 the richest two-fifths of families had the uppermost share of national income at 67.8 percent while the poorest two-fifths had the lowest share at 15.4 percent. One out of five American children (many of them black) lived in poverty in 1987, which represented a 24 percent increase since 1979. (11)
The politics of race and civil rights during the Reagan era are certainly very important to Kansas’ cinematic language as their themes provide instructive commentary in several noteworthy scenes. Political scholar Nicholas Laham aligns Reagan’s conservative civil rights agenda with the moderate Republican elites. This group had the most influence on his civil rights policy made up of colourblind justice and limited government. (12) Colourblind law, as it came to be known, entails the equal treatment of all individuals, regardless of race. (13) However, in endorsing a “colourblind” society, Reagan was against federal affirmative action groups and proposed reform by surrounding himself with individuals with the same set of beliefs. Political scientist Robert R. Detlefsen notes that Reagan’s staff was comprised of policy makers “resolutely opposed to affirmative action.” He also observes that Reagan was typically reticent on the question of civil rights and only occasionally issued an obligatory remark in support of nondiscrimination. (14) Although Reagan largely tried to ignore the disparagements made by antidiscrimination groups, he eventually was forced to abandon modifying the hotly contested topic of affirmative action in order to avoid more political backlash. In the next section, I look at academic film criticism that has addressed political filmmaking in the eighties, other farming movies of the period, and, as a useful comparison, films made in the wake of the Depression and Dust Bowl Era.
Reagan entered the Oval Office on January 20, 1981 and following his inauguration, a proliferation of political-oriented films saturated the market for a better part of the decade that were cultural reflections of the fortieth President’s domestic and foreign policies. In her book Hard Bodies, Susan Jeffords observes a paradigmatic shift in the sociopolitical ideologies of the Reagan Administration and the Carter Presidency. Whereas Carter was accused of being a “soft body” (i.e., possessing traits of nonaggressiveness, indecisiveness, and placidity) with increasing femininity due to First Lady Rosalynn Carter’s input as a key policy advisor in over one hundred meetings, Reagan’s image and platform was the opposite; he was tough, strong-willed, and resolute. These attributes helped mold him into a “hard body” and burly geriatric cowboy on the national stage by demonstrating machismo through such actions as “chopping wood, breaking horses, toughing out an assassination attempt, bullying Congress, and staging showdowns with the Soviet Union.” (15)
Stephen Prince notes that Reagan emerged as an immense presence in American political life and a towering force in presidential history. Hollywood responded with films that endorsed his rightward way of thinking. For example, there was a spate of action-adventure films that also characterized the Soviet Union as an “Evil Empire,” to borrow Reagan’s coined phrase. Prince cites John Milius’s Red Dawn (1984) as a work that rejuvenates the Red Scare hysteria of the 1950s with a story about a phalanx of teenagers who turn into guerrilla fighters when the Russian and Cuban armies march on American soil at the precipice of World War III. Milius’s film is thus emblematic of the moral beliefs, political tropes, and fixations espoused by the Reagan regime. (16) Similarly, Hollywood celebrated the myth of individualism of the lone action hero in Joseph Zito’s Invasion U.S.A. (1985) with an American protagonist who becomes a one-man army to ward off a bevy of Cold War foes. (17)
In contrast to the politically pro-Reaganism films released in the ’80s, critics have identified a wave of films that were also typical of the industry’s topical production cycle in the eighties; these were described as “save the family farm from wholesale foreclosure films” that showed the detrimental effects of Reaganomics and celebrated liberal causes. (18) The three most noteworthy are Robert Benton’s Places in the Heart, Richard Pearce’s Country, and Mark Rydell’s The River, all released in 1984. Douglas Brode says the films created their own genre in the eighties and became “the cinematic equivalent of Farm Aid” by staging the farmer’s dilemma as a central media event through the power of performances turned in by real-life activists Sally Field, Jessica Lange, and Sissy Spacek. (19)
It could be argued that the farm debt crisis of the eighties is the Great Depression of the modern era, which requires some clarification and perspective. As a corollary, I would like to address their cinematic antecedents beginning in the early thirties and continuing to the first part of the forties. One of the first studio pictures to foreground the Depression as its main subject was William Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road, which was released by Warner Bros. in 1933 and catered to a working-class audience. Gillian Klein uses Wellman’s realist drama as a template to construct a rhetorical framework for the Depression film. Wild Boys of the Road employs salient rhetorical devices that seek to understand the relevant issues of its historical period by reinforcing the importance patriarchal forces (several of which are a quasi-FDR) have on a place’s social and economic stability. (20) Paternalism is also central to the historical framework of Kansas. Although Reagan was widely known as the father of the country, he was also a “man’s man” and as I show in my analysis of Kansas, his distinctive personality becomes an imaginary signifier in the film’s dichotomous treatment of masculinity.
Six years after Wild Boys of the Road, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer also released a film about two poor migrating vagabonds who try to establish themselves on a stranger’s farm. That film, Of Mice and Men (1939), is a prestigious adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel and play directed by Lewis Milestone. It follows the trail of the uneducated yet good-hearted George (Burgess Meredith) who is in charge of the mentally retarded Lennie (Lon Chaney Jr.), his brother. George E. Turner notes that scenes of the big skies, the sun and shade on rolling hills, and the men and machines laboring in the barley fields add to the film’s richness. (21) Moreover, the pictorial beauty of these segments counters the melancholic lifestyle which has kept George and Lennie dormant for so long; the cinematography romanticizes the California plains by offering the brothers a paradisiacal valley they have only dreamt about. So despite the bittersweet ending where George shoots Lennie to prevent him from being lynched by Curley’s gang, an uplifting forecast of hope and promise for the American heartland is issued along the same lines as Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road.
A year later in 1940, 20th Century Fox President Daryl F. Zanuck and director John Ford adapted a second major Steinbeck novel entitled The Grapes of Wrath, which has become the benchmark for all Depression-era films. The project was a labour of love for Zanuck and Ford in a film whose socialist politics and subtle sentimentality polarized American audiences after years of suffering under the same conditions. But The Grapes of Wrath was overshadowed by a much larger film that was released in close proximity, Gone with the Wind, which was directed by Victor Fleming and distributed by MGM.
In her book The Hero and the Perennial Journey Home in American Film, Susan Mackey-Kallis analyses Gone with the Wind by exploring how its messages are an allegory for the Depression-era values and how it emblematizes the family farm/home. (22) Gone with the Wind is an example of a cultural myth that is rooted in other myths such as Western expansion, the universal hero quest, and the Garden of Eden. (23) Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) traverses each of these mythic paths over the course of the film and becomes an iconic figure in Western civilization and to moviegoing audiences watching her journey.
Indeed Scarlett is a stand-in for the American population of the thirties as her trials and tribulations parallel the millions of families who have lost their homes and been set back by financial deprivation. In 1939, the moviegoing public could sense this desperation because they also were scrounging for the next meal and worrying about feeding their families. Overall, Mackey-Kallis argues that Gone with the Wind is escapist entertainment in which cinema patrons could immerse themselves in the pageantry and spectacle of the film and forget their everyday problems. (24)
All of these Depression-era and farm credit crisis films are positive affirmations of hope and optimism as they celebrate the power of the people who march on for better lives. This populism manifests itself again in Kansas by virtue of Wade Corey. In the next section, I explore these issues by conducting a sociocultural and neo-formalist analysis of Kansas and explain how it carves out a niche in the farm debt crisis and new Depression films.
Stephen Prince argues that many American films in the eighties “were tied so closely to the desires and anxieties of their audiences that they could not do otherwise than embody and refract the currents of social and political culture that helped define the era to which they belonged.” (25) I see Kansas fitting Prince’s criteria for an American political film of the eighties; it provided many pithy insights into the plethora of problems American farmers and agricultural labourers experienced throughout the decade. While Kansas was not popular upon its release and did not reach a wide audience, I view it in retrospect as a flawed cultural text that investigated several of the topical issues of its time. These were highlighted by the 1988 Presidential debates.
The controversy over farm policy came to a head in the autumn of 1988 during the Presidential Debates. In the first Presidential Debate on September 25, just three days before Kansas’ premiere, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis proposed to limit spending on agriculture and castigated Reagan/Bush: “We ought to be able to come up with an agricultural policy in this country that gives our farm families a fair price and a decent future without spending $20-25 billion a year, which is what we’ve been doing under this administration.” (26) To protect the credibility of Reagan and himself, Republican nominee George H. Bush responded in the second Presidential Debate a few weeks later by arguing that the 1985 Farm Bill was “outstanding legislation.” (27) So it is notable that the plight of farmers was acknowledged by both candidates when Kansas was hitting theaters across America. In the next part, I examine the film as it reflects the class values of farmers that these politicians debated and the manifestations of Reagan’s social programs. Although Kansas is well-intentioned in its narrative goals, it is incredibly erratic and inconsistent in depicting Doyle Kennedy as a sympathetic figure in the farm debt milieu; he is someone the audience should root for because he tries to expose what’s “wrong” with Reagan’s America but, as my analysis shows, the film opts to condemn him with its ultra-conservative agenda.
The ideological and philosophical conflict between Doyle and Wade is part of the film’s thread and is connected by the binary of the deification of the American landscape versus the destruction of that landscape. During the main titles and intermittently in other scenes of Kansas, the camera eloquently lingers over images of the verdant countryside, daffodils, and ripening winter wheat. The pictorial sumptuousness of the compositions signifies the splendor of the American heartland before the ill-conceived farm policies shattered that beauty. Moreover, the film deliberately positions Wade in tight proximity with nature in early scenes to foreshadow him as the chief beneficiary of flourishing farmer George Bayles (Arlen Dean Snyder) and his Garden of Eden, a “gift” from Reaganomics. Wade sleeps on the land and even brushes his teeth upon awaking one morning, further connecting his ritualistic association with nature.
The victim along the farm debt’s spectrum is Doyle, who wants to ravage the land he grew up to love. Before Doyle sets the Bayles’ Fairview Farm on fire, he sticks a knife to Wade’s neck and tells him that America betrayed him: “You know Wade, I thought this was America. You plan something, you take the risk, you collect the award.” (28) Doyle elaborates on Wade’s position as a farmer and the values he feels cynical about: “It’s you I worry about. I think you like being a farmer, having dirt underneath your fingernails, right?” (29) To emphasize his point, Doyle ignites a fistful of straw and burns the barn down. So clearly by making Doyle both the villain and victim of Reaganomics, the film is ultra-conservative as it celebrates Reaganomics and its potential to resuscitate the rich land.
At the beginning of the film, however, the film masks the characters and their identification to the land. During the film’s opening sequence in the boxcar, the two strangers (Doyle Kennedy and Wade Corey) only exchange information about their demographic backgrounds. However, when the film shifts to a scene in a Kansas suburban home, Doyle’s material motives are brought up but in different degrees in the film and screenplay.
It is important to understand that Doyle has a drive to move up the economic ladder when he pillages an upper middle-class home. Screenwriter Spencer Eastman calls the house “large and practical with a plastic swimming pool and lounge chairs.” (30) This is perhaps the film’s first example to circumvent the script as the pool and chairs are not easily visible in any of the scene’s compositions. So the screenplay establishes the house as affluent whereas the film masks this quality. More, the film’s omission is an early indication that it has clouded Doyle’s material motives.
When Doyle breaks in the house, he nevertheless is seduced by the place’s fine amenities. Later, he meets the man (James Lea Raupp) whose “gaudy shirt” (31) he stole and wears it in front of him. The man is startled to see Doyle with it on and asks if he bought it at the department store, Hershheimer’s. Doyle’s response speaks to his own inequity compared to the other man’s: “Been in Hershheimer’s before but I’ll be damned if I remember buying it there.” (32) The man is adamant that he purchased his at the same store. Doyle chastises the corporate message-making world when he replies, “Well, that’s not the first time a salesman’s lied to me, and I’m sure it’s not the last.” (33) So in this humorous scene with a man better off, Doyle is unwilling to participate in a system of American capitalism but amuses himself by stealing the goods; thus I believe he indirectly pokes fun at the efficacy of Reaganomics and what it represents.
The next scene crystallizes Doyle’s anathema for Reaganomics when he attacks the nation’s most preeminent financial institution: the bank. Doyle uses Wade as an accomplice when he robs the town bank not only so he can shield himself as the main perpetrator (i.e., to split up the money and flee the scene separately), but also to reveal the massive disparities of income between the social classes in eighties America. In the end Doyle obviously wants to recoup all the money but he exploits the upper-class Wade here in order to carry out the heist. This scene represents a “revenge metaphor” for Doyle; Reaganomics “robbed” the farmers and so Doyle robs back the bank (a symbol of stature and financial power).
Moreover, the film also demonstrates how Reaganomics takes its toll on African Americans from the lower classes. A critical scene that highlights the notion that the “bread crumbs” or remnants trickle down to the less fortunate is when Lori Bayles (Leslie Hope) plays tennis with her boyfriend Ted Stevenson (Clint Allen). Tennis is a sport that is traditionally played by those from privileged backgrounds and indeed Lori and Ted are two WASPS from affluent families. The establishing long shot tilts down to frame a tennis court fence on the outside, which not only denotes the characters’ social isolation from other classes, but also connotes they are nestled in a utopian bourgeois cocoon. The lustful Wade stands outside in the right foreground and the film expresses his affinity for Lori and her riches. The predominant placement of Wade in the shot suggests that because of his upper middle class standing, he is not metaphorically impervious to the fence’s wires and can penetrate them. In fact, he later asks Lori to play tennis with him and she is flattered by the offer.
Yet what is also significant about the scene is how Buckshot (Brent Jennings), an African-American farmhand, is positioned within the frame. He enters in the second shot from the side and the camera never returns to the rear where in the opening, it presents Lori, Ted, and Wade all together. By only shooting Buckshot from side angles, the film iterates that lower-class individuals have no chance to infiltrate the ideological fence of money club members. Buckshot admits this assumption to Wade: “[I] couldn’t afford the dues or the white pants. Boyfriend’s name’s Ted. He belongs to the country club, he can afford the dues.” (34) Moreover, a subsequent scene on the ranch shows Lori’s well heeled prominence when she is shot from the left foreground and Buckshot is relegated to the distant background. The composition delineates the power relations on the farm with Lori’s elegant white shirt and hands folded to contrast with Buckshot’s workman clothes and hands slumbered in his pockets. Lori and her farm stand in for the affluent upper clan, the beneficiaries of Reaganomics.
However, Kansas is not content to just show the effects of Reaganomics but also to critique Reagan’s civil rights and affirmative action programs. Earlier, I discussed a scene where Doyle ridicules Reaganomics in front of a man better off than him. In the scene before the tennis match, Doyle performs a derisive parody of The Great Communicator and his indifference to issues that involve people of colour. Deron Overpeck observes that by 1988, the year of Kansas’ release, Reagan was frequently seen in public life wearing a cowboy hat, denim shirt, and jeans. Doyle appropriates this Reagan façade which Overpeck calls an “image of reality” (35) in the film when he is seen with similar apparel in the lobby of the Hotel Frederic. With his white cowboy hat, tight shirt, jeans, and suede boots, Doyle looks like a Reagan archetype. But since Doyle is a working-class stiff pummelled by Reaganomics, he takes on this appearance as a joke to give the audience an acerbic personification of Reagan. Doyle approaches a young kid he calls “Junior” (Gary Cosey), a black Cuban a notch below him on the totem pole, and inquires if he has seen Wade around the hotel. Junior replies, “I already told you, I haven’t seen anyone like that. If anyone comes in here, I’ve seen him.” As Junior speaks, Doyle only listens passively and lights a Camel cigarette. This cold and dismissive posture typifies Reagan’s policy of “colourblindness” which diverts its attention from affirmative action. As a caustic insult, Doyle hands Junior a cigarette. Kansas therefore makes a pointed criticism of the Reagan Administration’s maltreatment of blacks and complacent attitude towards progressive civil rights enactments. The film implies that Reagan’s race-related programs are ineffective and no better than generations past. In the next paragraph, I supply a reason for Doyle’s unhappiness with Reagan America and the impetus for his amoral choices.
Doyle’s crimes and mordant caricature of Reagan are attributed to the poverty-like conditions he and is family (like the Joad’s in The Grapes of Wrath) are forced to live in as a result of Reagan’s farm legislation. Kansas devotes only one scene to show Doyle’s parents but it is a crucial one. The Doyle farmhouse is “unpretentious” (36) and like Places in the Heart, Country, and The River, it is a victim of the farm debt crisis. But what the scene best reveals is the failure of the father figure. When two state investigators arrive to inquire about Doyle’s whereabouts after the robbery, Doyle’s mother goes inside because the news is too painful. Outside, the elder Kennedy (T. Max Graham) laments his regret that he was not more cautious to raise and look after his son: “Yeah, I never knew who he ran with… mean kids like himself. Never reachable. I guess we’d all feel a lot better if we thought he didn’t do it… didn’t do a lot of the things he’s done.” (37) It is important to note that he breathes heavily as he talks, which indicates the torment and angst he feels over how Doyle has turned out.
As soon as Mr. Kennedy finishes his monologue, the camera cuts away to make his words a painful reality; underneath a bridge, Doyle has intoxicated an army sergeant who he condemns as another failed figure of paternity. Doyle cradles the man, makes him confess the misdeeds he did to his son, and lulls him to sleep. It is as if Kansas is making an insult in reverse by placing Doyle in the father role but in reality, he has been abandoned by his country’s “Daddy,” Ronald Reagan.
In a bar scene earlier, the sergeant tells Doyle that he is proud his oldest son graduated from college and is ready to pursue the American Dream of farm life. Doyle is incredulous to this way of life because of his experience with his own father. The exchange between Doyle (who utters his remarks with wisecracking sarcasm to counter the Reagan rhetoric) and the sergeant illuminates Doyle’s cynicism of fathers and sons and their relationship to agriculture:
SERGEANT: Celebrating a kid graduated college. Kenny, my oldest… love that goddam kid.
DOYLE: Bet you do, Sarge. So what’s the young man gonna do now, Sarge? Now that he’s matriculated, got his fists on that diploma? Space shuttle, maybe?
SEARGEANT: Farm, work the land… all he’s wanted to do.
DOYLE: Better clue him in. You don’t work it, it works you. Ask my old man.
SERGEANT: Ever farm yourself?
DOYLE: Kicked the dirt off my boots a long time ago. Don’t care for it under my fingernails, neither. (38)
This critique of paternalism is the exact opposite of the pro-Reagan films discussed earlier. Those films celebrate the archetypal Reagan father. In Kansas, on the contrary, Reagan has failed to provide Doyle with the basic necessities of social welfare. Indeed all farmers have been abandoned by our Patriarch Reagan.
Given that Doyle and his father failed to achieve the American Dream, he realizes Kenny, the sergeant’s son, is emasculated and will fail too. Doyle believes it is too late for redemption and as punishment, he symbolically castrates Kenny’s father. After he pours whiskey down the sergeant’s throat, Doyle utters lines of bitter irony: “Kenny? If he was any kind of kid at all, he’d come and get you. It’s June now, I think Father’s Day’s coming up.” (39) But unfortunately Doyle has also been emasculated in becoming a farm debt sufferer and outlaw. The biggest problem with Kansas, however, is that Doyle does not fully receive the audience’s sympathy as he should—because he is shown as the bad guy.
In stark contrast, Wade Corey embraces the patriarchal social order of Reagan’s America and seeks out two paternal figures in the film. One is the Governor of Kansas (Harry Northup); although his political party affiliation is never revealed, he is a stand-in for Reagan and the Great Communicator’s populist rhetoric. Hence the Governor is our hero, making the film pro-Reagan. At an Independence Day gathering, he delivers a sanguine speech to townspeople and like Reagan, assuages everyone that the farm crisis will ameliorate itself: “You tell me that you are having tough times. Is that right?” (40) The film tries to mask some of the Governor’s other thoughts about the farm dilemma but Eastman un-codes them in his screenplay. The Governor continues with, “…The facts are that forty percent of all farms are debt free and those with positive cash flows have started paying off debt…” (41) When the Governor queries the audience about any “tough times,” the camera sharply cuts away to a farmer in the back of the crowd who responds with scornful disbelief: “How’d you figure that out, Governor?” (42) The people around the farmer, who are also from the lower class, applaud and cheer his protest.
Although Wade only partially listens to the Governor’s speech, it is apparent that he more or less agrees with his viewpoints and by rescuing the Governor’s daughter, he also becomes a stand-in for Reagan and his hard body image. Unlike Doyle, there is not one instance where Wade questions a farmer’s economic inequities. It is not surprising then that Wade reasserts Reagan America when he saves the Governor’s daughter, a symbol of America’s innocence. Wade’s valiant act thus upholds the nation’s moral righteousness for a leader like Reagan.
The film’s famous photograph of Wade as he hoists the girl up from the water is published on the front cover of U.S. News & World Report with the caption, “HEROISM IN THE NATION’S HEARTLAND.” With hyperbole Eastman proclaims that the pictorial moment has the “emotional impact of Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima.” (43) When the truth is later revealed about Wade’s identity, he is hailed as a savior and serenaded with a newspaper headline that reads, “Nation Swoons For Kansas Hero.” Interestingly, Eastman takes it a step further in his script; he links Wade’s act with a hero of the Depression era, the aviator Charles Lindberg; another headline states, “DRIFTER LATEST LINDY!” (44) The inclusion of this historical corollary by Eastman subtly suggests how two iconic American heroes provide an impecunious country with a beacon of salvation. Overall, Wade’s positive actions remind the audience of the film heroes who pervaded the eighties and who reified the Reagan mantra.
In addition to his advocacy for patriarchal authority, Wade discovers a surrogate father who ties in closely with his class: the thriving farmer George Bayles. Eastman characterizes the Bayles house as, “Not ostentatious but hints of wealth in its beamed ceiling and brick floor.” (45) The initial encounter between Bayles and Wade occurs in the Bayles kitchen and the family patriarch offers Wade some wages, three meals a day, and a bunk through the harvest season. Conspicuously, Bayles tenders fifty dollars to Wade in advance. Wade’s unique opportunity is surprising given that in a prior scene, he is caught in the barn by Bayles’s daughter, Lori, before he drives away with her father’s plush 1949 Ford. It is at this point where the film problematizes the role of gender.
Late in the first act, Wade spots a gorgeous young woman adorned with an Arabian mare as she proceeds through a street parade. Stevens’s film is at its most cinematic and self-reflexive here when the camera switches to slow-motion and composer Pino Donnagio’s romantic non-diegetic score enters the front of the sound track, techniques that command the spectator’s attention. Wade mesmerizes over Lorie Bayles’s beauty and he is therefore serendipitous to pass through her father’s wheat ranch. When Lorie strolls into the barn on horseback, she is lit with an angelic halo behind her head. She notices Wade is about to drive off with her father’s antique automobile but Wade’s cool temperament is enough to win her over. As Kansas progresses, Wade’s attraction to her family’s fortunes increases. Additionally, Lori’s high moral principles convince Wade he committed a sin when he conspired with Doyle; together, Lori and Wade join to seek their own American Dream and experience it in Lori’s Edenic backyard.
Wade’s salvation is tied to the Bayles’ farm and to Lori; when he gazes at her ride across the wheatlands, he joins her on his horse. When they meet, Wade kisses Lori and sweet-talks her to stay with him. They ride through the wide-open plains together and Donnagio’s same melody returns. So Lori’s emergence as the female heroine is not only instrumental to Wade’s rejuvenation as the film’s protagonist, but it also grants him a paternal figure. In fact, George Bayles grows closer to Wade when he asks him to work longer and also when Wade is celebrated for the rescue of the Governor’s daughter. The implication of the film’s ending (where Wade elopes with Lori) is that Mr. Bayles becomes Wade’s father-in-law.
In sum, Kansas is a severely muddled film that unevenly captures a slice of the American Midwest’s descent into the agricultural abyss in the eighties. In the concluding section, I explain how Kansas emerges from this ambiguousness to cement its status as a pro-Reagan film.
Earlier I alluded that Kansas closes with the reunion of its two protagonists, Wade Corey and Lori Bayles, and the vanquishing of its antagonist, Doyle Kennedy. Besides the generic fulfillment of a formulaic Hollywood ending, the film’s conclusion carries broader implications. The valorization of Wade and Lori as wholesome American folk heroes who live in a luxurious underbelly is a sign the nation will continue to operate under the aegis of Reaganism via a status-quo and ultra-conservative framework from 1988 onward. Indeed Kansas’ ending rather prophetically forecasted the trajectory of the November 1988 Presidential Election. George H. Bush won with a substantial margin over Michael Dukakis. Bush largely maintained the same farm policies and programs that were enacted during Reagan’s two terms. They catered to the needs and wishes of farmers like Wade and the Bayles family while providing little support to the lower class, such as Doyle and his parents. However, I do not want to conjecture that Wade is necessarily an alter-ego of Bush or that Doyle is a descendent of the Dukakis philosophy on agriculture. Rather, the two main characters of Kansas and their views represent two divergent directions that the country was headed in the wake of an enormous farm debt crisis.
In the introduction, I accentuated that Spencer Eastman’s screenplay was a bit more forthright and open in its admonition of the Reagan Administration’s paltry plan and economic recovery effort for Midwestern farmers than the film. Eastman does not shy away from supplying explicit and detailed instances of the ways the farm debt crisis affected the values and motives of Doyle and to a lesser extent, Wade. On other hand, David Stevens tries too hard to safeguard the intentions of his major characters and the completed film emits the opposite version of Eastman’s work. While Stevens adequately documents the licentious actions Doyle inflicts on the world of agribusiness, Eastman more amply delves into his mental and physiological states as well as his sentiments and feelings about agricultural life. He gives Wade and his hero expedition a sociohistorical context (e.g., a reference to Charles Lindberg) and his characterization is less simpleminded than the film wants the audience to believe. The glaring weakness of Kansas as a motion picture is that it is such a muddled critique of the farm debt crisis. With Doyle dead, the movie ultimately valorizes Wade and Lori as they live happily ever after. The resolute ending thus clinches Kansas as pro-Reagan.
This article has been peer reviewed.
An earlier version of this paper was presented in San Diego, CA at the National Communication Association convention in November 2008.
- Kansas was largely misunderstood upon its domestic and international theatrical releases as it received mostly mediocre to dreadful reviews. According to Variety, the film grossed a meager $2,336,709 at the U.S. box office.
- Neil E. Harl, The Farm Debt Crisis of the 1980s, Ames: Iowa State UP, 1990, pp. 13-14.
- Harl, pp. 14-15.
- Harl, pp. 15-16.
- Amos Kiewe and Davis W. Houck, A Shining City on a Hill: Ronald Reagan’s Economic Rhetoric, Praeger Series in Political Communication. New York, Westport, Connecticut, and London: Praeger, 1991, p. 190.
- Harl, pp. 89, 91, 180.
- Kiewe and Houck, p. 130.
- John W. Sloan, The Reagan Effect: Economics and Presidential Leadership, Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 1999, p. 33.
- William A. Niskanen, “Reflections on Reaganomics” in Assessing the Reagan Years, Ed. David Boaz, Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 1988, p. 9.
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- Nicholas Laham, The Reagan Presidency and the Politics of Race: In Pursuit of Colorblind Justice and Limited Government, Westport, Connecticut, and London: Praeger, 1998, p. 14.
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- Stephen Prince, “Movies and the 1980s” in American Cinema of the 1980s: Themes and Variations, Ed. Prince, New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 2007, p. 12; Prince, A New Pot of Gold: Hollywood Under the Electronic Rainbow, 1980-1989, History of the American cinema, Vol. 10, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2000, pp. xv-xvi.
- Prince, “Movies and the 1980s,” p. 12.
- Prince, A New Pot of Gold, p. 314; Rhonda Hammer and Douglas Kellner, “1984 — Movies and Battles over Reaganite Conservatism” in American Cinema of the 1980s: Themes and Variations, Ed. Stephen Prince, New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 2007, pp. 111-112.
- Douglas Brode, The Films of the Eighties, New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1990, p. 110.
- Gillian Klein, “Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road: The Rhetoric of A Depression Movie.” The Velvet Light Trap 15 (Autumn 1975), p. 6.
- George E. Turner, “Of Mice and Men; Classic Americana,” American Cinematographer 71.5 (May 1990), p. 40.
- Susan Mackey-Kallis, The Hero and the Perennial Journey Home in American Film, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001, p. 128.
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- Mackey-Kallis, pp. 141-43.
- Prince, Visions of Empire: Political Imagery in Contemporary American Film, Praeger Series in Political Communication, New York, Westport, Connecticut, and London: Praeger, 1992, p. 1.
- “The First Presidential Debate: Part I” in Debating Our Destiny: 1988, PBS Online, 6 Dec. 2007 < http://www.pbs.org/newshour/debatingourdestiny/88debates/1prez1.html>.
- “The Second Presidential Debate: Part III” in Debating Our Destiny: 1988, PBS Online, 6 Dec. 2007 <http://www.pbs.org/newshour/debatingourdestiny/88debates/2prez3.html>.
- Kansas, Dir. David Stevens. Perf. Matt Dillon, Andrew McCarthy, Leslie Hope, Kyra Sedgwick, and Arlen Dean Snyder, 1988, DVD, MGM Home Entertainment.
- Kansas DVD.
- Spencer Eastman, Unpublished screenplay for Kansas, Hollywood: Trans World Entertainment, 1987, p. 8.
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- Eastman, p. 34.