Themes of "The Postman": A Journey Through Post-Apocalyptic America

05 September 2023
"The Postman" is a 1997 American post-apocalyptic action-adventure film directed by Kevin Costner (Dances with Wolves), who also stars in the title role. 

The screenplay was written by Eric Roth and Brian Helgeland, based on the 1985 novel of the same name by David Brin. The film was released on December 25, 1997.

Set in a post-apocalyptic America, the movie explores the journey of a drifter who becomes an unwitting symbol of hope and resistance. The purpose of this review is to delve into the various themes that are intricately woven into the fabric of the film.

In a post-apocalyptic future, a nameless drifter, later known as The Postman, wanders through the American Northwest. After discovering an abandoned postal van, he assumes the role of a mail carrier.

The story unfolds as he interacts with various communities and faces off against a tyrannical warlord, General Bethlehem. Other key characters include Ford Lincoln Mercury, a young man inspired by The Postman, and Abby, a woman who becomes emotionally involved with him.

themes of the postman film costner

Let's explore the themes of The Postman.

Hope and Restoration

In a world ravaged by war and societal collapse, the concept of hope seems almost foreign. Yet, it is precisely in this bleak setting that the character of The Postman emerges as a luminous beacon of hope and restoration. His journey is not just a physical one across the desolate landscapes of post-apocalyptic America; it's also a thematic voyage that rekindles the lost virtues of hope, communication, and community.

The Uniform as a Symbol

One of the most poignant scenes in the film occurs when The Postman stumbles upon an abandoned postal van and dons the uniform found inside. This is not merely a change of clothes; it's a transformation. The uniform serves as a relic from a bygone era, a time when society had structure and the mail system was a symbol of reliable communication. When he puts on the uniform, he takes on an identity that transcends his individual self. He becomes a representation of something greater, something that people can believe in. The uniform is not just fabric; it's a mantle of hope.

The Role of Letters and Communication

The Postman's decision to deliver the old letters he finds in the van is a revolutionary act in a world where communication has broken down. Letters are more than pieces of paper; they are fragments of a lost world, carrying emotions, stories, and a sense of continuity. When people receive these letters, it's as if a part of their past has returned, and with it, a glimmer of the future.

The act of delivering mail becomes a ritual of restoring human connection.

In a particularly touching scene, The Postman takes oaths from new recruits who wish to become postmen. This simple act of swearing an oath becomes a powerful symbol of commitment and duty, virtues that have been largely forgotten. The new postmen don't just deliver mail; they deliver hope, acting as emissaries of a new social contract.

Catalyst for Hope

The Postman's actions have a ripple effect. His mere presence and the services he provides become a catalyst for hope among the communities he visits. People begin to believe in the possibility of a better future, one where the basic tenets of society, like communication and mutual aid, are restored. His role evolves from a mere mail carrier to a leader and symbol of the resurgence of civil society.

The Restoration of Normalcy

What's striking is how the film portrays the restoration of "normalcy" as a form of hope. In a world where survival is the primary concern, the return of a mail system signifies the rebirth of civil institutions that form the bedrock of any functioning society. It's not just about the mail; it's about what the mail represents—order, connection, and a future.

Leadership and Authority

In "The Postman," the theme of leadership and authority is not just a subplot but a central axis around which the narrative revolves. The film offers a compelling study in contrasts between its two main characters—The Postman and General Bethlehem—each embodying a distinct style of leadership that reflects broader themes of governance, power dynamics, and human psychology.

The Postman: Leadership Through Inspiration

The Postman's leadership is organic, emerging from his actions rather than any self-proclaimed authority. He doesn't command people to follow him; they choose to do so because he represents ideals that resonate with them—hope, communication, and community. His leadership is not about control but about inspiring others to rediscover their humanity. He leads by example, whether it's delivering mail or standing up to tyranny, and in doing so, he empowers others to take action.

General Bethlehem: Leadership Through Fear

In stark contrast stands General Bethlehem, a warlord who rules through intimidation and brute force. His leadership style is hierarchical, relying on a strict chain of command and severe punishments for disobedience. Bethlehem's authority is maintained not through respect but through fear, as he employs violence and psychological manipulation to keep his followers in line.

The Shakespearean Monologue: A Study in Authoritarianism

One of the most memorable scenes that encapsulate this dichotomy is when General Bethlehem delivers a Shakespearean monologue to assert his authority. This is not just theatrical flair but a calculated move. By invoking Shakespeare, he cloaks his authoritarian regime in the guise of culture and sophistication, making it all the more insidious. The monologue serves as a critique of authoritarian regimes, highlighting how they can manipulate art and language to legitimize their rule.

The Critique of Authoritarian Regimes

This moment in the film serves a dual purpose. On one level, it showcases Bethlehem's intellectual prowess and charisma, making him a more complex villain. On another level, it serves as a critique of authoritarian regimes, illustrating how they often use grandiose rhetoric and performative gestures to mask their oppressive nature. The film suggests that authoritarian leaders often exploit cultural and intellectual symbols to legitimize their power, making them not just physically but also psychologically oppressive.

The Consequences of Leadership Styles

As the film progresses, the consequences of these contrasting leadership styles become evident. The Postman's leadership fosters community, trust, and a shared vision for a better future. In contrast, Bethlehem's leadership leads to dissent, fear, and ultimately, the disintegration of his militia. The film thus not only contrasts the methods of leadership but also their long-term sustainability and impact on the people they govern.

In summary, "The Postman" offers a rich exploration of leadership and authority through its main characters. By contrasting The Postman's inspirational leadership with General Bethlehem's authoritarian rule, the film delves into complex questions about the nature of power, the ethics of governance, and the psychological mechanisms through which leaders can either uplift or oppress their followers.

Community and Isolation

The theme of community and isolation is a cornerstone in "The Postman," serving as both a narrative device and a thematic exploration of human nature in extreme circumstances. The film delves into the complexities of community building and the psychological toll of isolation, offering a nuanced perspective on how individuals and communities adapt, survive, and find meaning in a post-apocalyptic world.

In a world where the collapse of civilization has led to widespread anarchy, the concept of community becomes a lifeline. The film portrays several communities, but one that stands out is Pineview. This settlement serves as a microcosm of what society could look like when people come together for mutual benefit. In Pineview, we see elements of governance, trade, and social interaction, all of which are essential for human well-being. The community isn't just a place of residence; it's a sanctuary of shared values, responsibilities, and hopes.

Pineview is particularly noteworthy because it showcases how a community can function effectively even in dire circumstances. The people here have roles, from governance to defense to food production, and this division of labor is not just practical but also symbolic. It represents a collective effort to restore some semblance of normalcy and civilization. The community's ability to offer shelter to The Postman and later support his mission further emphasizes its role as a beacon of cooperative living.

Contrasting sharply with the idea of community is The Postman's initial state of isolation. When we first meet him, he is a lone wanderer, scavenging for survival, devoid of purpose or connection. His isolation is not just physical but also emotional and existential. He is a man disconnected from the world and himself, a stark representation of what life can become when stripped of community and purpose.

The film doesn't shy away from showing the psychological toll that such isolation can take. The Postman's initial aimlessness and despair are palpable, serving as a cautionary tale of the human condition when cut off from social interaction and communal bonds. It's a poignant reminder that while humans can survive alone, they thrive together.

As The Postman becomes more involved with various communities and takes on a leadership role, his own sense of isolation diminishes. This transformation underscores an important thematic point: community and individual well-being are interlinked. The Postman finds purpose and identity in becoming a part of something larger than himself, just as the communities he impacts find hope and direction through his actions.

The Power of Myth and Legend

The theme of myth and legend is intricately woven into the fabric of "The Postman," serving as a lens through which the film explores the human need for heroes, the collective imagination, and the transformative power of belief. As the narrative unfolds, The Postman evolves from a mere survivor to a mythic figure, embodying the hopes and aspirations of the communities he encounters. This transformation is not just a character arc but a thematic exploration of how myths and legends are created, sustained, and why they are so essential to the human experience.

When The Postman first takes on his role, he is driven by practical concerns—survival and the potential benefits that come with impersonating a mail carrier. However, as he continues to deliver mail and interact with various communities, he becomes more than just a man; he becomes a symbol. Children sketch drawings of him, and adults discuss him with a sense of awe and reverence. He is no longer just a mail carrier; he is "The Postman," a title that carries with it the weight of legend.

The film delves into the mechanics of how myths are created. Myths often arise from a kernel of truth, embellished and magnified through collective imagination. For example, The Postman's actions, such as delivering mail and standing up to General Bethlehem, are real. However, the stories that circulate about him often contain exaggerations and embellishments. These are not merely distortions but essential elements in the creation of myth. They transform a man into a larger-than-life figure, capable of inspiring an entire generation.

The community plays a crucial role in the myth-making process. Myths are not created in isolation; they are a collective endeavor. In the film, we see how communities contribute to the legend of The Postman. Whether it's the children who view him as a superhero or the adults who see him as a symbol of resistance against tyranny, each community member adds a layer to his growing legend. This collective belief in The Postman empowers the community, giving them a unified vision and hope for the future.

One of the most compelling aspects of this theme is the film's exploration of why myths and legends are so vital to human psychology and society. In a world devoid of traditional structures and certainties, myths provide a sense of stability and meaning. They give people something to believe in, a narrative that makes sense of chaos and offers a vision of a better future. Myths are not just stories; they are psychological and societal frameworks that help people navigate the complexities of life.
The Double-Edged Sword of Myth

While the film largely portrays the positive impact of myths, it also subtly hints at their potential pitfalls. Myths can be manipulated for nefarious purposes, as seen in the authoritarian rule of General Bethlehem, who creates his own myth of invincibility. This serves as a cautionary note, reminding us that while myths have the power to inspire, they also have the power to deceive.

Criticisms and Controversies

"The Postman" has not been without its share of criticisms and controversies, most notably concerning its length and pacing. Clocking in at nearly three hours, the film has been criticized for being overly long, leading to issues with pacing that some viewers find tedious. These criticisms, while valid from a cinematic standpoint, do not necessarily detract from the film's thematic depth and complexity.

Or was it the Tom Petty cameo?

So wait, maybe is was 'Lover, you don't treat me no good' song?

In fact, one could argue that the deliberate pacing allows for a more nuanced exploration of the film's multifaceted themes, from hope and leadership to community and the power of myth. While the length may challenge the viewer's patience, it also provides the space for the narrative to breathe, enabling a deeper engagement with the complex issues the film seeks to address.

Therefore, while the criticisms are worth noting, they should be weighed against the thematic richness that "The Postman" brings to the table.

"The Postman" is a film that tackles multiple themes—hope, leadership, community, and the power of myth—in a post-apocalyptic setting. Through its narrative and characters, especially The Postman and General Bethlehem, the film offers a complex exploration of these themes. Despite its criticisms, it serves as a compelling study of human behavior and societal structures in the face of extreme adversity.

The Postman always delivers!

But to be fair, as a young teenage reader, I loved the book more, weird ending aside. 


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About the author Jimmy Jangles

My name is Jimmy Jangles, the founder of The Astromech. I have always been fascinated by the world of science fiction, especially the Star Wars universe, and I created this website to share my love for it with fellow fans.

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