Taking place in the modern day – it was released in 2007, but with no technological references, it fits as well today as it did then – the entire movie takes place in a cabin. More specifically, it takes place around a fireplace, rarely sidestepping into the other rooms or outside. Seven people gather to see off John Oldman
, a Professor who appears to be in his mid-30s: a biologist (Harry), an art history professor (Edith), an anthropologist (Dan), a historian (Sandy), and an archaeologist (Art) with his student (Linda). Eventually an eighth character arrives, a psychiatrist (Will).
Sitting around the main room, with the fireplace as the focus, the story unfolds. Slowly, John reveals to his coworkers the nature of his going-away. He is a “caveman”, a Cro-Magnon, immortal but not invincible, and he must live a nomadic lifestyle as people become suspicious after approximately a decade of his unchanging visage.
Set in a singular area, with a relatively consistent light source, the movie evokes the campfire storyteller wonderfully. Along with this lighting comes an excellent use of music: although it can at times be overbearing, it’s never unwelcome. The audio is as on point as the visuals.
Through the narrative, John Oldman does a wonderful job weaving reality, historical fiction
s and historical theories into the story of his life. Though some gems are harder to swallow than others, and much of his history is full of coincidence, it is a fascinating story. Many of the issues that can be brought up with John’s story are addressed through “consultation” amongst his peers. For example, John’s memories are selective, which he points out, as any person’s memory would be. He was also not instantly aware that he is some magical caveman, but rather came to understand his condition over the course of 14 centuries. He learned his own history by keeping up with the species; as the Harry suggests, he can only know as much as the species does, he’s just a normal person living long. John says at one point that when he started he “didn’t know up from sideways”, and for the first few thousand years, nothing could be known. Agricultural civilizations with written and consistently kept libraries/knowledge bases were not accessible. Also addressed in the narrative is that though he learns, he cannot keep up, as any person couldn’t. His knowledge is relative to the time he learned it, and though he has many degrees, they are over hundreds of years and mostly outdated. The suggestion that he’d remember where he came form is also addressed, in asking the student to remember from her own childhood, what her childhood home would look like now, built up and changed, directions learned by landmarks no longer relevant, places found by following family and not personal knowledge and so forth, he makes the point that home is lost over time.
Most importantly throughout all of this, the banter is fluid. There are no awkward moments of stagnant dialogue. There is a sense of a naturally explorative conversation, an almost Socratic Dialogue of back and forth, hemming and hawing to bring forth deeper knowledge, with attempts to understand, believe, and dismiss John’s case.
The movie is not without flaws, however. In one case the character is weak, in others and most commonly, the coincidental nature of John’s life and some of the historical oddities that don’t line up with our current understandings. Edith, “the” Christian character is an aggravating straw man of a religiously intolerant person that shouts blasphemy everywhere because she doesn’t have the capacity to entertain a thought without believing it. She reacts to everything John says as if by hearing it she is damned to Hell, and everything he says is to be taken at face value. However Harry is a counterweight of sorts, representing a religious indifference (citing the varied views of his own household, and being more than happy to indulge John’s story). They both fall into a cliché, the Christian an overbearing zealot, and the Jewish character as more or less indifferent to their faith.
As for the historical holes, the first is at the beginning of the movie. John is supposed to have known Van Gogh, and the movie starts off with the Edith remarking on an unknown painting in John’s possession. This constitutes an heirloom of sorts, a prize, but in the scenes soon to come John makes a point of how he wouldn’t have keepsakes as an immortal that prove his story, as items would all be “tools”, no more valuable or lasting than a pen. He says he keeps no artifacts, but he clearly keeps sentimental items.
It must also be said that Art is a complete dick, and needlessly outraged at John for nothing. Dan, Sandy, Linda and Harry react appropriately; they treat it as a fascinating story, but Art and Edith act like crazy people.
Coincidentally, John also happens to have known Columbus, or at least had the chance to sail with him. He remarks on being certain the world was flat, but that the world was round was an old idea, predating Christianity by hundreds of years as recognized in ancient Greek philosophy and mathematics. Though it can be said that he is far older than any theory so he would hold a personal disbelief/uncertainty of the Earth’s body, it still seems uncharacteristic of him to be stuck in the past. Moreover, he later, coincidence again, reveals he met the Buddha and was Jesus. He is rightfully disgusted by what Christianity is and its implementation. However, his disgust at Christianity is almost surprising considering he didn’t make any mention of how awful Columbus was in every respect, a man that used his Christianity to validate the horrors he perpetuated.
Unfortunately, the notion of a white Jesus plays into a long-standing history of stepping on other cultures and forcing the notion of white-is-right; Jesus is depicted as whatever the local flavour is, in most cases. As with any notion of a historical Jesus hailing from Judea and being Jewish himself, he would have been a much different looking man. It is one thing to pose Jesus as white for the local consumption; it is another to propose he was actually white when any real Jesus would have been a person of colour.
On the flip side of the blind Christian, Dan is at times TOO into the story, to the point that he refers to time as immeasurable, when we use measurements of time every day, from seconds to years, these are measurements of time as metres are of distance. He says clocks are measured against other clocks, but that is how all measurement is done, rulers against rulers, scales against scales. His delivery of his character is fantastic, but it almost feels like he’s going to create a cult afterwards, and that this conversation has been a theological revelation for him.
Though his lack of scarring is explained as part of his regenerative process, bearing no scars from his crucifixion, his survival of many plagues and so forth, it fails to encapsulate entropy. John has lived for 14 centuries, yet has seemingly avoided war, personal violence, simply being hit by a car in the last hundred years, or falling down a flight of stairs. All manner of simple, day-to-day death, accidental and violent, has simply passed over him. It isn’t addressed if he is actually invincible on top of being immortal
There is also an odd, hierarchical and patriarchal bent to his nomadic society. It is unfair to say they are all the same, but often, and even into modern times, nomadic societies will be more egalitarian due to necessity and scarcity of resources. It is common for hunter-gather societies to be horizontal, not vertical in structure.
A bit of context to this movie, the story was written by Jerome Bixby. Bixby also wrote a very, very similar story for Star Trek: The Original Series. The episode “Requiem for Methuselah” is about a mysterious figure encountered on a planet by the Enterprise, that just so happens to be immortal, and throughout his life was a number of “great men”
In the same year of the movie’s release, a completely different movie was released sharing a particular element. TMNT (2007) was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, in which the antagonist was an Aztec warrior turned immortal, who also happened to be numerous historical conquerors and figures. It’s worth mentioning just because it’s funny that these two movies, both containing an immortal that was historical figures, should come out in the same year. Also, TMNT (2007) is a fun movie, go watch it.
Finally, I entirely recommend The Man from Earth. It’s a silly movie, considering it’s weird shoe-horning of historical elements, but if you let yourself get absorbed into the story like Dan does, then it’s a thrilling ride and a wonderful story to hear around the camp fire. The full movie is actually up on Youtube, posted by the owning company Starz Media/Anchor Bay.
Quick links for the curious:
(Header image taken from ManFromEarth.)