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Knee Deep – The Usefulness of Mud on Film

AS the title spells out, mud is an integral element in Dee Rees’ latest film Mudbound. The film, based on a novel by Hillary Jordan, takes place in post-World War Two Mississippi as two returning soldiers deal with the horrors of post-traumatic distress and the highly-strung racial tensions of the time.

Mud is everywhere – both on the battlefield and the Mississippi farms. Character wade through it knee deep, a reflection of the harsh landscape they must survive in – and, on a more allegoric level, the difficult, stagnant social climate they have been born into.

At one point, Rees’ camera poetically shows a young girl eating a spoonful of mud. It is part of their harsh reality, engrained in their everyday life. As Carey Mulligan’s character beautifully puts it: ‘I dreamed in brown.’

Films that deal with war have often tried to recreate the muddy harshness of conflict. World War Two films Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Hacksaw Ridge (2016) both paid attention to this gritty reality of war with dirty faced men and explosion-flung muck.

No film, however, captures this muddy hell of World War Two more viscerally than David Ayer’s Fury (2014). The inescapable presence of boot trodden – and tank battered – dirt is felt in almost every frame, particularly when Ayer’s camera rests uncomfortably beside the tank thread as it churns through the masses of muck. In this climate, life is always challenged, if not impossible.

Unsurprisingly to welly wearing Brits who are familiar with sticky mud, much of the Fury was shot in the Hertfordshire countryside. Just this year, the mud-coated side of our country was represented on the big-screen by Hope Dickson Leach’s absorbing The Levelling and Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country.

Mud takes on a different role when it comes to Vietnam War films. Open battlefields were replaced by a dense, tropical forest and guerrilla warfare. Instead of mud bogging down our fighters, they used it to their advantage – perhaps (therapeutically) reaching back to the victorious days of the Second World War.

Francis Ford Coppola’s epic Apocalypse Now (1979) reaches a hypnotic climax to the sounds of The Doors as Willard gets ready to complete his mission and assassinate Captain Kurtz. Willard submerges himself in muddy water, an iconic visual that provokes thoughts of a war-like rebirth and, more practically, gives him a camouflaged face.

There is a similar rebirth in mud during Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (2006). As Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) races to escape his fate as a victim of tribal human sacrifice he falls into sinking mud. The young man somehow re-emerges from the mud, an event that harkens back to the oracle’s words: ‘Beware the man who brings the jaguar. Behold him reborn from mud and earth.’

Two musclebound, machismo figures tasked with getting redemption for the pain of Vietnam also rely on mud. Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo covers his face in mud to sneak up on a solider in Rambo: First Blood II (1985), while Arnold Schwarzenegger uses mud to hide from the heat-seeking killer alien in Predator (1987).


Stallone gets muddy in Rambo


As we have seen, mud can be an effective obstacle and conveyor of struggle. That may have entered Steven Spielberg’s thought process when creating the rainy atmosphere of Jurassic Park (1993). The T-Rex’s terrifying arrival coincides with the heavens opening as the dinosaur’s earth-shaking foot stomps to the ground, crushing a pile of mud in the process.

Mud helps build tension in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) when Furiosa’s War Rig gets stuck in the swampland. As Nux tries to get the truck moving, Furiosa takes the sniper off Max to fire a final bullet at their pursuers. In these moments, the full-throttle thrill-ride that is George Miller’s Fury Road takes a brief – and effective – pause in the mud for some sapphire-lit tension.

In Shawshank Redemption (1994), Andy (Tim Robbins) crawls his way to freedom through 500 yards of filth (mostly human waste) to finally taste well-deserved freedom. In this case, it is one last punishing trip through the mud until justice is finally served.

Speaking of prison, Gareth Evans’ masterfully choreographed action film The Raid 2 (2014) sees prisoners and guards take to the mud for a brutal fight. Evans’ camera moves (seemingly uncut) through the action with the mud adding to the scene’s intense brutality.

A less spectacular – but just as compelling – fight in the mud sees Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) slap and humiliate Eli (Paul Dano) in There Will Be Blood (2007). Daniel, whose ruthless capitalist streak has taken hold, drags the young man through the mud, treating him like a child and showing how little care he has left beyond profit.

The humiliation of fighting in mud can also provide enjoyment in more light-hearted circumstances.

In McLintock (1963), George (John Wayne) starts a fight that quickly escalates into a mass brawl with many falling down a mud slide and into a dirty, puddled ditch. His wife Katherine (Maureen O’Hara), suited in a fancy dress and hat, ends up joining the pile of men in the mud to add to the borderline slapstick fun.

More jovial mud flinging fun is enjoyed between Aurora (Elle Fanning) and Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) in Maleficent (2014). Likewise, a playful mud fight between Ronnie (Miley Cyrus) and Will (Liam Hemsworth) in The Last Song (2010) adds to the endearing nature of their young romance. Mud, on these occasions, brings harmless fun and a chance to escape the stress and order of reality.


Ronnie and Will bond in the mud


A close relative of mud fighting – mud wrestling – is often done to satisfy the male gaze. Scantily clad women do exactly this in ‘70s flicks Cabaret (1972) and The Big Doll House (1971). Richard Linklater’s thoughtful college film, Everybody Wants Some (2014), puts a slight twist on this gaze as a man joins in with the mud wrestling – and is quickly defeated by his female opponent.

However useless or irritating mud may seem it has served many meaningful purposes in cinema. It has been used to evoke feelings of struggle, a literal or metaphorical obstacle to overcome. If not, it is often used to humiliate for comedic or, perhaps, more sinister purposes.

Mudbound is the latest offering. A mighty muddy – and magnificent – one at that.

Read our review of Mudbound here!

Also check out our interview with Mudbound actress Lucy Faust

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