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The Battle for Bunker Hill

Article Written by: Melissa Tubbs Loya, Kansas History
*Article used with permission from the Kansas State Historical Society*

The only thing we have to fear, according to yesterday’s news, is nuclear proliferation, climate change, global terrorism, pandemic flu, the earthswallowing black hole being cooked up in the Large Hadron Collider, asteroids, sun storms, nanotechnological self-replicating robots, pirates, and high-fructose corn syrup. Quite a lot, although, as Frank Füredi argues, “compared with the past people living in Western societies have less familiarity with pain, suffering, debilitating disease and death than ever before. And yet, despite an unprecedented level of personal security, fear has become an ever-expanding part of our life” (The Culture of Fear: Risk-Taking and the Morality of Low Expectation, rev. ed. [London: Continuum, 2002], vii–viii). Recently, two Kansas-set screen offerings—the television series Jericho and the film The Battle for Bunker Hill—have asked: what will we do when something genuinely scary happens?

     The question is not surprising. After all, we are less than a decade out from two undeniably terrifying events that linger in our collective unconsciousness. The aftermaths of the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina plainly stand behind both Jericho and Bunker Hill, shaping the fears of their Kansas townsfolk as they struggle to name what cut them off from the world. Like the doggedly hunted Roger Thornhill in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) or the easily spooked neighbors in that famous episode of The Twilight Zone, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” (1960), these citizens have been overwhelmed by unknown boogey men; unlike those cold-war stories, these modern postapocalyptic narratives reflect our current wars, both actual and cultural. Who and what, they ask, should we fear now?

     Jericho takes its name from its setting: a fictional Kansas town of about five thousand, founded in 1876 in “Fillmore County,” just east of the Colorado border. The town’s name recalls the biblical Jericho, home to an apocalypse of its own, though there was also an actual Jericho, Kansas, in Larrabee Township, Gove County, made up of not much besides a post office from 1905 until 1923. In the center of the televised Jericho lies a quaint main street, where all seems well at stores advertising “Guns, Ammo, & Gifts” and “Local Corn Oil” until residents notice a mushroom cloud over what they guess was Denver. They pull out the Geiger counters and set to work surviving. Although their radios, telephones, and televisions go down (as does, eventually, “everything with a circuit board,” the result of the electromagnetic pulse that always accompanies nuclear explosions on film), Jericho residents soon learn that twenty-two other cities were also targets in the “September Attacks.” Not until the show’s finale do they discover who is behind the bombings. From start to finish, then, the residents of Jericho are left to fend for themselves.

     They do fairly well, sometimes too well. The town’s residents are invariably clean, even after they lose the electricity necessary to pump fresh water. And they are, mostly, morally clean as well, almost always coming out on the right side of the difficult choices presented them. For the show’s writers, this common cleanliness characterizes what it means to be from Kansas, and in this and other ways the setting can feel contrived. When, for example, every resident owns multiple firearms, or when the show’s only non-white major character comes from out of town (although there are extras of all races), Jericho feels less like a real place. Kansans can be grateful, however, that we are not typecast as religious fanatics in Jericho; in fact, religion is almost entirely absent from the series.

     Situating the show in rural western Kansas offers its writers opportunities they would not have if their characters lived in New York City, or even in Lawrence or Topeka (the former of which, sorry Jayhawks, was “nuked” in the attacks). Jericho, surrounded by farms, is uniquely positioned to survive but, when refugees begin to arrive, residents have to ask themselves how willing they are to share what they have. At its most engaging, Jericho depicts everyday people struggling to live in a world similar to yet very different from the one they knew. The difference is underlined when the town receives air drops of relief supplies from China, or when residents risk the drive on increasingly dangerous roads (although not yet as dangerous as in Cormac McCarthy’s terrifying postapocalyptic novel The Road [2006]) to get to the regional trading post, where people from nearby towns and refugee camps share news via a giant bulletin board. The border skirmishes that Jericho’s “Rangers” fight with the neighboring town of New Bern also raise interesting questions about who is and is not “one of us.” Ultimately Jericho, with its levelheaded governance and mostly calm and generous townsfolk, would not be a bad place to spend the end of the world.

     The same cannot be said for Bunker Hill, the town at the center of Kansas filmmaker Kevin Willmott’s recent picture. Filmed in Bunker Hill, Nortonville, Lawrence, Coffeyville, West Mineral, Gove, Sedan, and Edna, this postapocalyptic Western radiates Kansas, from the ambient noise of locust calls to the observable heat that squeezes the town’s frayed citizens. These folk initially keep their composure when, on a sunny, cloudless, midsummer afternoon, the town’s emergency sirens go off. But within twenty-four hours, after they lose all communication with “the outside world” and their cars conk out, many residents begin to panic, theorizing about biological warfare (spread via the water system or by crop dusters), anthrax, a dirty bomb, or the Rapture. It becomes clear that the town’s citizens should be afraid, not of the apocalypse, but of what they are willing to do to one another to survive it.

     Stranded along with natives of Bunker Hill is Peter Salem (James McDaniel). Salem’s name thickly hints at the film’s themes, conjuring up witch-hunts and the Arabic and Hebrew words for peace, although the character was surely named after the slave-turned freeman who fought in the Revolutionary Battle of Bunker Hill. Recently released from prison, where he served time for insider trading, Salem catches a bus to town in an attempt to reunite with his estranged family. He has already had his own brush with apocalyptic history, surviving 9/11 because he was late for his job in “Tower Two” after a night of binge drinking. Salem is less than welcome in Bunker Hill, making quick enemies of the town’s token rednecks and refusing to accept the bribe to leave offered him by his ex-wife’s new beau Jim McLain (Kevin Geer). Once they are all trapped together by the seeming end of the world, the film focuses as much on McLain’s increasingly violent attempts to hold onto Hallie (Laura Kirk) as on the town’s larger predicament.

     Bunker Hill asks tough questions of contemporary America, a fear-fueled country that remains confused about the causes of 9/11 and the effects of Katrina. Stark lines are drawn by many in Bunker Hill between “us” and “them.” Sometimes “they” are easily spotted, as in the case of the town’s only Muslim residents, Mr. Farook, a South Asian Indian who wants to be a cowboy (played by the scene-stealing Saeed Jaffrey), and his son Nadim (Ranjit Arab), called “Pakis” and “al-Qaeda piece[s] of shit” by their fellow Bunker Hillians. At other times “they” have to be hunted, because the townspeople are not certain who caused their current crisis. One resident insists that they are “at war.” Asked “with who?,” he replies, “We’ll find somebody.” The film repeatedly reminds us of our real-life war on terror, as when Salem acts as a suicide bomber or when a local landmark of concentric stone circles (Kansas artist Stan Herd’s Prairiehenge) is shot to resemble the burning Twin Towers.

     Jericho and The Battle for Bunker Hill distill our growing list of modern fears into one concentrated terror. Why worry, after all, about mercury in our fish or lead in our toys when the world has just ended? After the final shootout in The Battle for Bunker Hill the townspeople shuffle off to their homes, still in the dark about what caused the lights to go out. As they wander away, a question asked earlier in the film hangs over them: “Do you know what’s out there?” Both Jericho and The Battle for Bunker Hill make the case that what is in here, in the hearts and minds of our fellow Americans, should concern us most.

Melissa Tubbs Loya
Kansas History


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