John Sayles’ accidental trilogy: The Secret of Roan Inish, Lone Star, and Men with Guns

Note: This article was published on Fandor in the summer of 2016. I recently discovered that the article is no longer available on that site. I therefore placed it here.


John Sayles’ Lone Star turns 20 this year. Few people will notice it, and that’s a shame. Both commercially and artistically, Lone Star was the peak (so far) of Sayles’ career as an independent filmmaker.

It’s also the centerpiece of John Sayles’ Oral History Trilogy. It’s not a trilogy in the usual sense. The stories don’t connect. They’re of different genres and take place in different countries. As far as I know, Sayles never called them a trilogy. But they all create a strong sense of place and a focus on storytelling. The protagonists learn local histories from the stories people tell. As often than not, these stories have been told and retold until they have become myth.

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Sayles made these films sequentially in the mid-1990s. Two were commercial hits (by John Sayles standards), and one flopped. In my opinion, they’re his best works.

You don’t hear much about John Sayles these days, but in the last two decades of the twentieth century, he was an independent icon. He still makes bold films about race, class, imperialism, and very real human beings. He keeps his budgets low to avoid compromise, and earns extra money on the side writing for Hollywood.

He’s been using that formula since 1979. But it’s been a long time since he made a film as good as any these three works from the mid-90s.

The Secret of Roan Inish (1994)

The trilogy begins with a John Sayles film unlike any other. The Secret of Roan Inish is apolitical. It’s a fantasy. And it’s family friendly–provided your kids are mature enough to enjoy an atmospheric movie without action sequences.

As with many Sayles films, it’s about a place as much as it’s about people. The place here is rural, coastal west Ireland, soon after World War II. Celtic fables, Irish music, and beautiful, rugged scenery saturate the film.

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Roan Inish begins as Fiona (Jeni Courtney) comes to live with her grandparents. From them and others, she learns about her mysterious family history. Along with Fiona, we learn why the family no longer lives on the nearby island of Roan Inish, how her baby brother was lost to the sea, and why one local seal took such an interest in Fiona’s arrival.

One of Fiona’s ancestors, she’s told, was a selkie–a seal who took human form. As a woman, she married into the family, lived for years on Roan Inish (the name translates as Seal Island), and had human children. But the pull of the sea was too great, and she returned to her original form.

Of the three films, The Secret of Roan Inish goes deepest into oral history. Maybe a third of the runtime is given over to someone telling Fiona a story–usually accompanied with flashbacks.

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In the end, the history–and a lot of hard, physical labor–allows Fiona to heal her family. The movie is clearly a fantasy, and Haskell Wexler’s misty photography helps create the magic.

The Secret of Roan Inish grossed about $6.2 million at the box office. For Hollywood, that might cover catering expenses. According to Sayles biographer Gerry Molyneaux, that made Roan Inish “Sayles’ most popular release at the time.”

Lone Star (1996)

Sayles’ second oral history film brought in over $13 million, doubling the gross of Roan Inish and still by far his biggest hit.

And you can easily to see why. It’s a murder mystery with a likeable protagonist, a sweet romantic subplot, multiple generational conflicts, and an easy-to-hate villain (albeit one who’s been dead for nearly 40 years). Sayles filled the screenplay with witty dialog that never seems forced: “It’s always heartwarming to see a prejudice defeated by a deeper prejudice.” It helped that 1996 was the highpoint of American independent cinema; people were flocking to low-budget films like Fargo and The Piano.

This is my favorite Sayles film, and the only one that now belongs on my A+  list of personal beloved classics.

Sayles sets the story in a fictitious Texas border county and what appears to be its one small town. The Hispanic majority will soon take over local government.

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But the Jim Crow past isn’t far behind. Some still pine for the days when people didn’t “want their salt and sugar in the same jar.” And even the more enlightened citizens can’t escape their community’s dark past.

The film begins with a discovery: The murdered body of a long-missing sheriff. The current sheriff, Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper), assumes that his recently-deceased father was the murderer. That father, “Buddy” Deeds, took over the Sheriff job after the disappearance and became a local legend.

We learn about Buddy (a not-yet-famous Matthew McConaughey) and his murdered predecessor, Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson) through the old-timers’ stories. Charlie Wade, in everyone’s memory, was an over-the-top villain–corrupt, sadistic, racist, and trigger-happy. The legendary version of Buddy is virtuous, fair, and fearless. Sam, who grew up in his father’s house, knows better.

The first flashback clearly describes a myth, not a reality. Sam asks an old-timer to tell “your version” of the time Buddy faced down Charlie Wade. As the old-timer begins to talk, the camera pans down from him to a basket of tortillas on the table, and then up to the then-living Sherriff Wade, and we know that we’re in a tale.

Sayles uses pans to bring us in and out of most of the film’s flashbacks. Sometimes, one person in the modern story begins the tale, and another one closes it. The real present and the mythical past weave into each other.

The past is everywhere in Lone Star. Sam reconnects with his high-school sweetheart Pilar (Elizabeth Peña). Pilar’s mother (Miriam Colon) tries to deny her clearly-visible Mexican heritage. Joe Morton plays a hard-ass army Colonel who wants nothing to do with the father who deserted him–a father who now runs the only African-American bar in town.

Lone Star lets us discover a town with skeletons in the closet (or, more literally, in the dirt). And in showing us this town’s mythology, Sayles says something about an America that can’t get away from its racist past.

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With Lone Star’s commercial success, Sayles could have joined Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers in the marketable gray area between independent films and Hollywood. Instead, he made a great film that was guaranteed to flop.

Men with Guns (1997)

Conventional wisdom states that Men with Guns tanked at the box office because of its subtitles (it grossed less than $750,000 in the USA). Very little of the film is in English.

But the film’s title didn’t help. Men with Guns sounds like an action movie. The type of people who like serious, political, subtitled cinema often shy away from movies with titles like Men with Guns.

But the picture isn’t really about men with guns. It’s about people at the mercy of men with guns. And whether those men belong to the army or to the rebels, they don’t show much mercy.

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Sayles set the film in an unnamed Central American country. The wealthy, comfortable, and urbane Dr. Fuentes (Federico Luppi) leaves the city to find the young doctors he had trained years ago to help the rural, indigenous poor. But he can’t find any of them alive. Men with guns don’t like people who help the poor.

Along the way he collects fellow travelers: a boy without a family, a deserter from the army, a former priest, and a traumatized young rape victim. Their tales will widen Dr. Fuentes’ initially limited view.

Sayles frames the film as oral history. The picture begins and ends with an indigenous mother telling her daughter about the man from the city who can heal people.

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That’s not the only tale. The priest tells his fellow travelers a story about a village given an awful task by the army. As we watch the flashback, we see what the priest doesn’t tell his companions; that he was in the story and now carries considerable guilt. This is oral history at its freshest–recent memories fated to become myth through future tellings.

Men with Guns is a road movie to a desperate destination, and a lesson in the cruelty of organized violence. It’s also a stunning drama of discovery and disenchantment.

Rarely shown these days, John Sayles’ trilogy is fading from our cultural memory. These three films need to be seen and kept alive. Otherwise, they may become mere myths that we tell to our grandchildren.