Recently I watched Peter Weir’s 1986 film The Mosquito Coast, starring Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren. This has always been one of my favorite movies despite the fact that it doesn’t have a lot of fans out there. Weir, an Australian director, began making films in America in the early 1980s, and The Mosquito Coast was his second pairing with blockbuster star Harrison Ford, who previously appeared in his Witness in 1985. Though the movie failed to find an audience, I think it’s extremely thought-provoking, especially with regard to the political and social issues that it raises, many of them ahead of their time. [Obviously, spoilers ahead].
Based on a 1982 novel by Paul Theroux, The Mosquito Coast is the story of Ally Fox (Ford), a quirky Massachusetts inventor, and his large family. Fox is extremely opinionated and harshly critical of modern American consumerist society. In the first minutes of the film he rants to his son Charlie (River Phoenix) about how “America is going to the dogs” and how welfare is “free money”; almost instantly he berates a hardware store clerk (a pre-Seinfeld Jason Alexander) for trying to sell a part that’s made in Japan. Fed up with the modern world, Fox sells out and takes his wife (Helen Mirren), two sons and twin daughters to Central America, where he builds a breakaway community in a remote river village, whose centerpiece is a giant machine of his own invention that makes ice without electricity. While building his “superior civilization,” Fox comes into increasing conflict with Spellgood, a Christian missionary (Andre Gregory). Fox believes Spellgood is brainwashing people to be compliant slaves; Spellgood thinks Fox and his family are Communists.
Although the film avoids any explicit discussion of politics, Fox’s social philosophy appears to be strongly Libertarian–left-leaning to be sure, but Libertarian nonetheless. He chafes under any form of authority and believes strongly in self-determination. He professes to love America, which he says is the reason he left, likening it to his dying mother: “I loved her too much to watch her die.” Everything in Geronimo, the town he builds, appears at first to be open-source and available to everyone. Yet as he builds the town he is shown constantly bossing around the local natives, as well as haranguing them about the decline of America; everything, from farm fields to fish ponds to the family’s ingenious two-story house (with air conditioning, no less) is built precisely according to his vision and his specifications. He demands that residents tempted by Spellgood’s teachings make a choice whether to stay with him or go with the missionaries. Though cloaked in egalitarian open-source clothing, proudly flaunting its can-do entrepreneurial sustainability, it’s clear that Geronimo is an absolute dictatorship under the rule of Ally Fox.
In a subtle but extremely powerful way, The Mosquito Coast provides a profound lesson in the hazards of utopia-building in general, and Libertarian social experimentation in particular. Fox’s paradise begins to unravel when the local residents begin taking his ice machine for granted. He leads a Quixotic expedition into the jungle to bring ice to a primitive Indian tribe, assuming that they will revere him for it; this expedition attracts the attention of three gruff mercenaries, who make it clear that they want to stay in Geronimo and live off its largesse. The mercenaries have guns; Fox and family don’t. Fox manages to dispose of the mercenaries through trickery, but at great cost: the ice machine explodes and leaches poisonous chemicals everywhere, forcing the family to flee elsewhere for survival.
Ally Fox (Harrison Ford) explains to his children why he felt compelled to leave America in a telling scene from The Mosquito Coast.
Despite this setback Fox’s resolve stiffens. For the rest of the film his behavior and philosophy become even more rigid and unyielding; at one point he tells his 10-year-old son to leave and never come back, for the sin of questioning whether remaining in the family’s makeshift camp on a trash-strewn beach is preferable to returning to civilization. He also tells his family that they can’t go back because America has been destroyed in a nuclear holocaust. Finally he goes too far, launching an attack on Spellgood’s mercenary settlement which Fox seems to believe is morally justified. By now the family, especially Charlie, realize that Fox’s utopian visions are mere delusions, and they are unwilling to follow him.
It was my husband who observed while watching the film that Fox’s Geronimo is essentially “pre-militarized Libertarianism.” Harrison Ford portrays Fox as an intelligent and idealistic man, but also a strangely naive one. He expects the world to conform to his own views of how a “superior civilization” should work. It has no government (except him), no rules for social welfare (because everyone’s self-interest is presumed to work in the community’s favor), and defiantly exists in a bubble sealed off from the world. Indeed The Mosquito Coast eerily presages ideas of utopian communities that have been floated (no pun intended) in modern times, like the “Seasteading Institute.” This is supposed to be an artificially created island colony outside the jurisdiction of any nation, and it’s the brainchild of PayPal founder Peter Thiel and Patri Friedman, both outspoken Libertarians. The idea of a “Libertarian island” was recently parodied on the popular show Silicon Valley. If built, a Libertarian island would probably function very much like Geronimo does in this film–except probably festooned with the heaviest weaponry money can buy. Ally Fox never gets the chance to militarize Geronimo, but the attack by the mercenaries demonstrates why that would be the next logical step in its development. Now, instead of a peaceful commune with children and water-wheels, we’re imagining a hostile enclave defended with booby traps and machine guns.
The Seasteading Project envisions a sort of “Libertarian Island” supposedly free from the constraints of pesky things like government regulation and social responsibility. It has not been built yet, but plans (like this) exist.
In the film Ally Fox believes his social philosophy is perfect and inviolate, and when reality threatens the smooth operation of Geronimo, it is not his social theory that must yield to reality, but vice-versa. Libertarianism, especially its extreme forms of “anarcho-capitalism,” is a similarly rigid and obstinate theory. It’s a political, economic and social construct that prizes ideological purity above almost everything else: no part of the doctrine can be modified, or even questioned. That Fox thinks along these lines is obvious, as he’s willing to jettison his own family when they begin to question his philosophy. At the end, unable to count on the hearts and minds of those still left in his circle, Fox lashes out, seeking out an enemy to destroy (Spellgood) as an artificial means of shoring up his flagging ideology. A Libertarian society would probably function this way too: if unable to bend hostile realities to its will, it might well elect to begin destroying them.
The Mosquito Coast, then, is an interesting rumination on the clash between ideas and reality. Many people in history of all political persuasions–from Marx and Mao to Ayn Rand and F.A. Hayek–have dreamed up intellectually beautiful theories, which then fall into ruin when product-tested in the disillusioning arena of the real world. Libertarian utopias, where a better world is expected to arise from individual initiative and hard work, are even more fragile–and possibly more dangerous–than other kinds. In The Mosquito Coast Ally Fox never seems to notice the yawning gap between his theory and the real world. Unfortunately, as our society grows increasingly polarized into political and economic camps that can tolerate no deviation from their orthodoxies–and as conditions like climate change cause us to yearn ever more longingly toward utopias–this sad story may play out in real life all too often in our future.