You know how interested I am in quirky interpretations of the deeper meanings of popular culture – like the discussion over whether Anton Chigurh of No Country For Old Men is actually an angel or whether this year’s Torchwood: Children of Earth miniseries was actually about the recession. So it should come as no surprise that when I read about how The Shining by Stanley Kubrick is supposedly about the genocide of the Native Americans, I was more than a little intrigued.
The main proponent of this thesis is Bill Blakemore, who proposed it in a 1987 article in the San Francisco Chronicle. He makes the point that the film’s overt refences to Native Americans (the fact that the Overlook Hotel is on a Native American burial ground) were added to the film, and were not present in the book:
Stuart Ullman tells the caretaker’s wife Wendy in the only lines in the film in which the Indians are mentioned. Ullman says, “The site is supposed to be located on an Indian burial ground, and I believe they actually had to repel a few Indian attacks as they were building it.” This bit of dialogue does not appear in Stephen King’s novel The Shining. The first and most frequently seen of the film’s very real American “ghosts” is the flooding river of blood that wells out of the elevator shaft, which presumably sinks into the Indian burial ground itself. The blood squeezes out in spite of the fact that the red doors are kept firmly shut within their surrounding Indian artwork embellished frames. We never hear the rushing blood. It is a mute nightmare. It is the blood upon which this nation, like most nations, was built, as was the Overlook Hotel.
There’s also the astute observation that many of the patterns used throughout the film (in furnishings) are Native American designs, even if not overtly recognised as such – an indication that not only have we stolen the land, we’ve also devoured their culture as well:
Indian artwork appear throughout the movie in wall hangings, carpets, architectural details and even the Colorado state flag. Yet we never meet an actual Indian.
There are also less subtle elements of race at play. From Jack and Grady’s discomfort at the interference by an African American (complete with racial epitaph), through to Ullman’s assertion that “all the best people” stay at the overlook. It’s hard not to observe that the only fatality in the film (aside from the villain) is the only black member of the cast. Even Jack’s “white man’s burben” joke plays into this theme, referencing a racist philosophy espoused by Kipling.
Even the final shot of the movie, referencing the July 4th Ball, has overt meaning:
Not only is the site called the Overlook Hotel with its Overlook Maze, but one of the key scenes takes place at the July 4th Ball. That date, too, has particular relevance to American Indians. That’s why Kubrick made a movie in which the American audience sees signs of Indians in almost every frame, yet never really sees what the movie’s about.
It’s very interesting, fascinating in fact. Kubrick has always been fascinated with man’s inhumanity to man – the capacity for distruction by unwitting dupes has been a theme of his going as far back as Dr. Strangelove. It’s fascinating that Stanley Kubrick always wanted to make a film about the Holocaust, but was never able to find a way to produce it to his liking (the word is his family are planning to press ahead anyway). Perhaps The Shining – arguably his most commercial work since Spartacus – afforded him the opportunity to explore the themes of racial cleansing and cultural imperialism in a setting which was… I’m hesitant to use the adjective comfortable, but at least somewhat distant from dealing with the issue head-on.
I think it’s very hard to argue with Blakeman’s practiced observations about the film – his original article is well worth a look for a film fan out there – but I would be hesitant to pigeon-hole the film as explicitly an exploration of the victimisation of the Native Americans. I think Kubrick is studying a far larger canvas, looking at the casual nature of cultural imperialism and the suffering it causes in any guise. Jack Torrence was exploited by forces far more powerful than himself (“the house”, as the bartender would have us believe) and turned into a man of hatred, pursuing a goal even he was unsure of. That is what that sort of ideology can do to us.
Kubrick cleverly peppered the film with hidden references and notices of various forms of prejudice and oppression as a subtle warning. These are the signs which arguably still confront us everyday – we just don’t realise it. They go unnoticed, or they slip under the radar. We don’t ever really acknowledge how much of our modern world is built upon a shameful past.
And perhaps that’s the biggest and boldest statement which Kubrick makes. Blakeman suggests that the use of mirrors throughout the film is not coincidence:
The film’s very relationship to its audience is thus part of the mirror that this movie full of mirrors holds up to the nature of its audience.