In Europe we tend to have preconceived ideas concerning American movies. We are familiar with their heroes, their bad guys and the plots in which all get exactly what they deserve. Good and evil are often presented in pure physical and moral shapes. The characters who represent them cannot hold the interest of the viewers for long, the emptiness that hereby results has to be filled with lots of circus acrobatics and fireworks. Don't get me wrong: this can well be art or at least good, nicely crafted entertainment. But sometimes you'd really like to get a feel of the real everyday USA through a movie
The Onion Field offers this possibility. It is really moving and struck me as an utterly credible, sensitively dramatized story.
POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD
The movie is based on a true incident: Two policemen are kidnapped by two small time criminals during a routine check, driven out of town and into an onion field. For some crooked and completely senseless reason the criminals decide to shoot the two officers. They execute one of them, the other manages to escape. Both criminals are detained soon afterwards.
The story, however, starts earlier. The viewers get to know the four involved characters and their everyday lives before the mentioned incident. They are, I believe, "average Americans". The two cops, young, sensitive and rather fragile men, are new in the force. Their joining it was second choice for both of them after dreams of achieving higher professional goals had come to nothing. Yet they are cautiously optimistic, determined to make the best of their lives, and they honestly want to "serve the community". The expressed frankness about their personal circumstances and their humble will to put up with them make the two characters very endearing. They represent the kind of people I would like to call true heroes. On "the other side" there are the two petty criminals, aimlessly drifting about, whose general misery is depicted almost in documentary style. One of them is a dangerous and highly intelligent psychopath, the other the classic sidekick character who is scared of the dominating partner.
After the incident the movie shows how the criminal psychopath succeeds in starting an endless series of court trials. He actually dominates the often grotesque proceedings, getting a great kick out of it all. The surviving officer is forced to tell the awful, humiliating story over and over again in the witness stand. He is gradually overcome by his feeling of guilt and self hate. He commits petty thefts and has to quit the force. He loses every faith in himself, although his wive, the third hero in this story, tirelessly tries to bolster him up and show him that she will always believe in him. In presenting this process of mental decline in quiet, undramatic sequences, the film shows true greatness: There are no big scenes, no one goes loudly berserk, there is just an encompassing feeling of sadness and "little people" who fight bravely against it.
How do you act in the event of finding yourself opposite an armed aggressor? The Onion Field broaches this question with an openness which I trust is found rarely in our freshly started 21st century. After the incident, during a conference in the precinct, the chief of the station says that, if he were to decide, every policeman who surrenders his arm to a criminal would be fired from the force immediately. The officer who could escape had exactly done this. He is present at the conference, and it is clear to everyone who the chief was referring to. After these words are spoken, a seasoned, stereotypical older uniformed cop gets up, telling his anecdote about the issue. The clue of the straight told story: If a gun is pointed to your face there is only one course of action do what the man says.
Even in dealing with the ending, the film finds a good solution. Everybody knows that a true story of that kind does not just end. So the movie closes with a community gathering where bagpipes are played. The dead policeman was a fanatical bagpipe player and used to practice in the cell block of his station. His mother approaches a teenager practising playing and marching at the side of the gathering. She compliments him on his playing telling him that her son also got great pleasure out of it. With this final note, expressing the hope that the world goes on and that there will always be people in whose happiness you can rejoice, this movie ends, bestowing to each character involved the dignity and respect it has a right to.
It is remarkable that this movie has no stars. It appears to be the result of a common effort of all people involved in it, almost like a community project. No one is highlighted, every character is firmly embedded in the course of everyday life. Apparently this reflects the story of the making of The Onion Field, as told in the documentary The Return to the Onion Field, a documentary I can also highly recommend.