8 November 2013 | utgard14
Bizarre Fascinating Depressing
A lot of what you read about "Oil for the Lamps of China" focuses on the socialist, anti-big oil themes of the film's story. While this is a particularly fascinating aspect of the film, historically and philosophically, I can't help but feel the real crux of the story is much darker and more depressing. As a matter of fact, this is one of the most depressing films I've ever seen from the 1930's.
This movie tells the story of a man profoundly lacking in the slightest shred of dignity. A man who has no self-respect and allows himself to be abused and mistreated by the company he works for. He allows his very soul to be raped by this company. Why, the complete and total devotion he shows to this company surpasses the reasonable and enters the realm of psychosis.
This, to me, is why the movie is about more than just bashing the corporation and propping this guy up as some kind of hero through victimization. This man is no hero. He's pretty disgusting to me. He is complicit in many of the company's sins, as well as his own. He is the one who repeatedly chooses the company over his wife, his baby, his friends, his pride. This isn't some Steinbeck story about what a man will do to keep from starving. There is no indication Stephen Chase couldn't go back to the States and get another job. He refuses to do so. Refuses because he delusionally believes his job is a part of some greater calling and that there is some payoff at the end of all this. There could not be a reward to make it all worthwhile really. Any rational man or woman would know this. The film seems to say that it is Stephen's idealism that allows him to suffer and make others suffer. But I find that pretty hard to swallow. He doesn't just take it on the chin the whole time but he passes it on to those around him.
It's certainly a highly interesting character study, as well as all it has to say about corporations and business practices. But it's also pretty bleak and soul-crushing. The actors are all superb and the direction is fine. It's a film that gives you quite a bit to chew over but be prepared to not like the taste of everything you're chewing.