Green Screen

Green Screen

by David Ingram

This book combines film studies with environmental history and politics, aiming to establish a cultural criticism informed by 'green' thought. David Ingram argues that Hollywood cinema has largely perpetuated romantic attitudes to nature and has played an important ideological role in the'greenwashing' of ecological discourses.
The book accounts for

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This book combines film studies with environmental history and politics, aiming to establish a cultural criticism informed by 'green' thought. David Ingram argues that Hollywood cinema has largely perpetuated romantic attitudes to nature and has played an important ideological role in the'greenwashing' of ecological discourses.
The book accounts for the rise of environmental concerns in Hollywood cinema and explores the ways in which attitudes to nature and the environment are constructed in a number of movies. It is divided into three sections: Wilderness in Hollywood Cinema, Wild Animals in Hollywood Cinema, and Development and the Politics of Land Use.

Editorial Reviews

Forum for Modern Languages

“This book is primarily an agenda-setter. As such it makes clear how complex and important are the debates that film studies and American studies more widely will need to tackle regarding representations and critique of late-capitalist consumerism in its global phase.” –Forum for Modern Languages, Vol. 38, No. 1, 2002

Oct 2001

“[Ingram’s] filmography in Green Screen: Environmentalism and Hollywood Cinema contains more than 150 Hollywood movies from the 1890s to the 1990s “in which an environmental issue is raised explicitly and is central to the narrative”. He manages to analyze almost half of these in a dozen short chapters organized around three central themes: the wilderness, wild animals, and the politics of land use including the impacts of the automobile and nuclear power. This book will be valuable to anyone interested in politics and popular culture, American movies, and environmentalist debates on the meaning of nature.”

— American Studies International , Vol. 39, No. 3

ISLE 9.1

“Green Screen combines film criticism, cultural criticism, ecocriticism, and a bit of environmental history in an engaging and useful way.  Its selection of films, many of which are described in some detail, will be useful to those who are entering the field. Its insights will be of value to ecocritical scholars and to those who want to bring environmental film into their classroom.” –ISLE 9.1, Winter 2002

Oct 2001 - American Studies International

“[Ingram’s] filmography in Green Screen: Environmentalism and Hollywood Cinema contains more than 150 Hollywood movies from the 1890s to the 1990s “in which an environmental issue is raised explicitly and is central to the narrative”. He manages to analyze almost half of these in a dozen short chapters organized around three central themes: the wilderness, wild animals, and the politics of land use including the impacts of the automobile and nuclear power. This book will be valuable to anyone interested in politics and popular culture, American movies, and environmentalist debates on the meaning of nature.”

This might be the only full-scale scholarly monograph on nature in Hollywood cinema, especially by a scholar in Britain (Ingram lectures in American Studies at Brunel University). The muse for Ingram's brand of environmentalist critique is the philosopher Kate Soper, whom Ingram classifies as a critical realist, at least partly because she believes that concern for nature, rather than mystical awe and reverence for it, is more likely to lead to effective environmental strategies. Ingram subdivides Hollywood nature into wilderness, wild animals, and land use, analyzing film after film (about 140) containing, among other things, hunting narratives, nuclear power themes, and representations of pure primitives and automobiles. Ingram most often takes a sobering position between Hollywood's glorification of nature and its critics' dismissive responses. Distributed by David Brown Book Company. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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Product Details

University of Exeter Press
Publication date:
Representing American Culture Series
Product dimensions:
9.50(w) x 6.40(h) x 1.00(d)

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Green Screen

Environmentalism and Hollywood Cinema

By David Ingram

University of Exeter Press

Copyright © 2000 David Ingram
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85989-608-5


Discourses of Nature and Environmentalism

The Hollywood movies examined in this book draw on and combine a range of different environmentalist discourses, from conservationism to preservationism, and mainstream to radical environmentalism. It is useful at this point to offer a brief overview of these discourses, before undertaking an analysis of how they are mediated by the films themselves.

Conservationism, since its origins in Progressivism at the turn of the nineteenth century, has taken a utilitarian attitude to non-human nature, treating it as a resource to be managed and developed for use and economic profit. In contrast, preservationism has argued for the need to preserve wilderness as a realm of spiritual and aesthetic contemplation separate from resource use. With the rise of modern environmentalism in the early 1960s, conservationism has become the 'mainstream' ('reform', 'moderate', or 'shallow') wing of environmentalism. Mainstream environmentalism continues to place environmental concerns within the needs of a capitalist economy to sustain commodity consumption, profit maximization and economic growth, by calling on the expert knowledge of economists, engineers and scientists to provide ad hoc, technical solutions to environmental problems. For example, the addition of catalytic converters to automobile exhausts is a key mainstream environmentalist proposal to address the problem of air pollution. In being defined as technical rather than political, environmental problems are viewed as solvable within the existing system of capitalist bureaucratic-technocratic rationality administered by the state and private corporations. Advocates of mainstream environmentalism argue that these solutions are practical, pragmatic and realistic, and are therefore the most effective form of environmental restoration.

Radical environmentalism includes a range of different approaches, from deep ecology to social ecology and ecofeminism. The broad area of agreement between these groups is that mainstream environmentalism is ultimately counter-productive, in that its attempts to strengthen capitalism simply perpetuate one of the fundamental causes of ecological decline itself. According to radical environmentalists, mainstream environmentalist faith in the reform potential of technology is also misguided. Moreover, they argue that by depoliticizing environmental issues, mainstream environmentalism prevents the emergence of more radical or revolutionary environmental politics based on notions of social justice. Mainstream environmentalism relies instead on 'greenwashing', or the attempt to deny or cover up the fundamental causes of environmental degradation. Socialist environmentalist Tom Athanasiou defines 'greenwashing' as a mainstream strategy in which 'images of change substitute for and exaggerate change itself'.

Marxist David Harvey draws on Herbert Marcuse's notion of 'repressive tolerance' to argue that mainstream environmentalism is in the process of incorporating more radical and oppositional environmental ideologies for its own benefit. What he calls a 'limited articulation of difference' in official environmental discourses thus plays a 'sustaining role for hegemonic and centralized control of the key institutional and material practices that really matter for the perpetuation of capitalist social and power relations'. Harvey contends that prospects for environmental restoration and social justice are set back by the incorporation of radical ecology into mainstream environmentalism, because the latter is thereby strengthened. In contrast, anthropologist Martin W Lewis argues that the incorporation of radical ecological thinking by mainstream environmentalism is bad for the prospects of environmental restoration, not because it strengthens mainstream environmentalism, but because it weakens it. For Lewis, radical environmentalism is itself counterproductive, particularly in what he sees as its anti-scientific, romantic and technophobic tendencies.

The main intention of this book is not so much to adjudicate between these contending theories, as to analyse the ways in which particular Hollywood movies mediate such ideologies in often complex, contradictory and incoherent ways. The rest of this chapter will therefore examine the different constructions of non-human nature in Hollywood cinema, and speculate on the implications they hold for environmentalist politics.

Conservationism and the western: Valley of the Giants

Although the popularity of the western genre coincided with the emergence of federal conservationism in the early years of the twentieth century, few westerns developed an explicitly conservationist stance towards contemporary struggles over land use. Instead, the classical western celebrated Manifest Destiny, and the settlement and development of American land for ranching and agriculture. The wilderness was turned into a garden through the heroic work of the pioneers, supported by the justified violence of the white male hero. Nevertheless, the western was often ambivalent in its attitude to the transformation and development of what it took to be pristine wilderness. John Ford's The Iron Horse (1924) celebrated the epic unification of the American nation by the transcontinental railroad. Yet the same director's Stagecoach (1939) displayed for the Depression era a nostalgic yearning for the unspoiled wilderness, and romanticized its avatar, the Ringo Kid (John Wayne), as free of the corruptions associated with small-town 'civilization'. Despite such ambivalence, however, the classical western, as Robert Ray shows, drew on the myth of American exceptionalism to assume a future for the nation that was open and without limits.

An early exception to the omission of conservationist issues from the western genre was a series of movies based on Peter B. Kyne's novel The Valley of the Giants (1918). These movies attempted to reconcile a desire to preserve wilderness as a space for spiritual contemplation with its use as a resource for capitalist expansionism. The first film version of The Valley of the Giants was made in 1919. Kyne's book was subsequently filmed three more times, in 1927, 1938 and 1952, the latter version as The Big Trees.

The second version of Valley of the Giants (1927) begins with a title that alludes to the nationalistic cult surrounding the giant redwood tree in American culture: 'A century after the Declaration of Independence, the giant redwoods of California were still a forest primeval—virgin, venerable and awe-inspiring'. As historian Simon Schama has shown, visitors from the East influenced by Transcendentalism saw the Sierra Nevada redwood (Sequoia-dendron gigantea), or Big Tree, as a visible sign of the presence of God in nature, and of divine sanction for American national interests. The gigantic size of the Big Trees proclaimed, in Schama's words, 'a manifest destiny that had been primordially planted; something which altogether dwarfed the timetables of conventional European and even classical history'. The Big Trees thus became an early cause for nature preservationists wishing to preserve them for the access they granted to moral and spiritual enlightenment. These calls for preservation were helped by the fact that, unlike the coastal redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) to which early botanists mistakenly related it, the Sierra Nevada redwood is too brittle for timber.

In any case, as Nancy K. Anderson observes, when 'the supply of big trees was perceived as unlimited, all uses were sanctioned'. As its second title made clear, then, the 1927 version of Valley of the Giants was able to evoke the symbolic connotations of the Big Trees while at the same time celebrating the clearing of the Californian forests by a heroic American pioneer:

In the Valley of the Giants, John Cardigan built his home—amid trees that were old when Ancient Rome was new. Through fifty years he toiled—heaving an empire from the wilderness—building a city, with lumber mills employing thousands.

John Cardigan (George Fawcett) has preserved the Valley of the Giants, 'the finest redwoods in the world', as a memorial to his late wife. As the camera pans upwards from her grave past the trees to the sky, it constructs a cinematic version of the image of the redwood forest as a natural cathedral, with divine sunlight shining through the trees, popularized in the nineteenth-century photographs of Carelton Watkins and the paintings of Albert Bierstadt.

When John Cardigan's son Bryce (Milton Sills) arrives from New York to inherit his father's lumber business, the movie further reconciles the desire to preserve the Valley of the Giants with the successful running of the logging company. Bryce's greedy business rival Pennington (Charles Sellon) has designs on the Valley of the Giants, and therefore refuses to renew the hauling contract that allows Bryce to use his railroad to export his logs. However, the soft, Eastern greenhorn toughens up sufficiently to survive and prosper in the West. Furthermore, although Pennington accuses the Cardigans of spoiling their workers, the movie celebrates Bryce as a paternalistic capitalist, who is able to draw upon the loyalty of his workers, as well as their self-interest in defending their jobs and homes, to build his own railroad, and thereby continue the Cardigan family business. As Bryce says of his workers: 'I love these men and their families as if they were my own children'. In addition to his benevolent treatment of his workers, it is the sentimental attitude that Bryce shows towards his mother's redwood memorial that guarantees that the form of capitalism he practices is beneficent. In terms of contemporary environ-mentalism, the movie's reconciliation of redwood preservation with capitalist growth is an endorsement of Gifford Pinchot's official conservationist policy of managing forests for use through selective cutting, which he initiated when he assumed leadership of the Division of Forestry in 1898.

Appropriate to its New Deal context, the 1938 version of Valley of the Giants, remade for sound by Warners, was more sceptical than its predecessor of the virtues of unregulated capitalism. The movie opens with a title that also states a more explicit and urgent conservationist agenda than the 1927 movie:

The Pacific slopes of California—where, like living cathedrals, giant redwoods stand as an heritage of beauty symbolizing in their grandeur man's hope for immortality—but man in his greed saw in these trees only a source of profit and soon—backed by limitless power and wealth the timber barons moved in, ruthlessly crushing small land owners, destroying human happiness and beauty alike. It was the era of the timber steal.

In this version of the story, Bill Cardigan (Wayne Morris) has vowed to conserve the Valley of the Giants as a memorial for his late parents, who are buried there. He wants to preserve the redwood park as a place for contemplation in a materialistic society. 'People change when they come in contact with the woods', he says. 'The trees make 'em stop and think about a lot of things they've been too busy to notice before'.

In contrast to Cardigan's reverence for the Big Trees, Howard Fallon (Charles Bickford) is a land grabber and claim jumper, whose attitude is unsentimental and mercantile. 'Trees are trees', he says. 'If you've seen one, you've seen them all'. The greedy and exploitative Fallon tells Cardigan of his ambition to fell more trees in order to make more money. More explicitly than in the 1927 movie, Cardigan's response reflects official federal conservationist policies that called for the planned management of trees as a sustainable natural resource:

Cardigan: The way you operate, these forests would be cleaned out in ten years.

Fallon: What of it? There's a lot of other places to move on to.

Cardigan: We don't figure to move on. There'll always be enough timber here, with reasonable cutting and planned reforestation.

Fallon: Reforestation? What do you care what's growing fifty years from now?

Cardigan: You wouldn't understand that, Fallon. My father spent his whole life planning a safe future for this district and the friends who settled here with him.

The subsequent conflict between Cardigan and Fallon is resolved through a liberal interpretation of Cardigan's notion of 'reasonable cutting'. Fallon files a claim under the Timber Act in order to evict the homesteaders who are in the way of his logging scheme. He then buys Cardigan's note with the bank, and demands payment within six weeks. In response, Cardigan decides to increase the logging of his other trees in order to raise money to pay off the note, and thereby preserve the Valley of the Giants from Fallon's claim.

'Every time you sink your axe into a redwood', Cardigan encourages his workers, 'you're whittling Fallon down to our size'. The climax of the movie thus becomes a celebration of the heroic work of the logger, with scenes of logging accompanied by uplifting music on the soundtrack. However excessive and complacent this resolution appears in retrospect, when judged from the perspective of decades of deforestation in the American West, its enthusiastic endorsement of a notion of sustainable logging is in keeping with the official utilitarian conservationism of its day.

The most recent version of The Valley of the Giants, renamed The Big Trees (1952), shifted the focus of preservationist concerns from a logging family to a religious colony, which fights to save its giant sequoias from an illegal timber claim made by a Wisconsin syndicate led by Jim Fallon (Kirk Douglas). The sequoias are again viewed as both sacred and a source of national pride, and are signified as sublime by upward panning shots set to Christian choral music. In contrast to this reverential attitude to nature, Fallon is again greedy and materialistic, viewing the trees solely as commodities, a mind-set symbolized by his habit of measuring them with a ruler. The plot hinges on the decision of the religious colony to cut down and sell its smaller trees in order to pay the filing fees to claim their land back from Fallon, and thereby preserve their sacred redwoods. As in the previous versions of the story, therefore, the conflict over redwood preservation is resolved in a way that celebrates economic growth and development as forces of social good.

Despite this endorsement of the commodification of the Big Trees, however, the figure of the logger in all of the movies based on Kyne's The Valley of the Giants remains ambiguous: logging is seen as a noble profession when it upholds official conservationist policies and sentimental attitudes to nature, but not when practiced by unregulated, unscrupulous businessmen. The main difference between the movies and official conservationist polices, however, is that none of them makes a case for either the public ownership or federal regulation of forests. Instead, in keeping with the conventions of the western genre, they valorize small, private ownership of land and the need for individual, vigilante action to protect it. Their hero is therefore the good outlaw who reluctantly resorts to justified violence in order to protect innocent people against robber barons who manipulate the law for their own corrupt vested interests. The environmental politics of this cycle of movies is therefore ultimately shaped by the melodramatic conventions of the western genre.

Disney's Bambi and the 'balance of nature'

Scientific journalist Stephen Budiansky examines three questionable assumptions about non-human nature that have become commonplace in both radical and mainstream environmentalist thought, and are also perpetuated in the artefacts of popular culture. 'Today', he writes, 'many nature lovers innocently believe that the "balance of nature", or the notion that every species is interconnected in a delicate "web of life" that will collapse if but a single strand is cut, or the idea that "nature knows best" how to manage itself are scientific statements of fact derived from modern ecological research'. These dubious notions, he argues, lead to the misleading conclusion that nature, 'if only it is left alone and freed from human interference, tends toward a state of harmony, balance, and beauty—and conversely, that wherever man treads is trouble'.

The concept of the 'balance of nature', implying that nature is static, timeless and harmonious, has recently been challenged not only by scientific ecologists but also by environmental historians. Both argue that natural systems should be more accurately thought of as dynamic phenomena which are more often than not the product of an ongoing, complex history of interactions with human cultures. The natural landscape is, in part at least, a human artefact, the historical product of millions of years of human transformations, such as forest clearances, agriculture, deliberate burning, and the importation of exotic plants and animals. Even old-growth forests are not simply 'natural' or 'virgin', but are the historical products of annual burning by indigenous peoples.

Moreover, far from balanced and harmonious, nature as understood by contemporary scientific ecology is chaotic and unstable. Budiansky argues that the myth of nature as static, balanced and pristine has had a debilitating effect on the prospects for ecological restoration. 'Man's long history as an agent of change in nature and nature's own perverse tendency toward disorder and complexity', he writes, 'pose a complication that simple policies built upon the idea of nature's innate balance cannot even begin to cope with'.


Excerpted from Green Screen by David Ingram. Copyright © 2000 David Ingram. Excerpted by permission of University of Exeter Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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