Blood Diamond and the Epic Death of Danny Archer
Caution: spoilers ahead!
In the fabulous comedy Shakespeare in Love, Queen Elizabeth boldly sets a wager to her obsequious courtiers: “Can a play show us the very truth and nature of love?” I’ve been wondering about a similar notion: Can a contemporary film show us the essence of human tragedy in the epic sense of the word?
Sometimes in the evening, I roll through the cable stations on television and particular films grab my attention again and again. There are movies I’ve seen at least a dozen times and a great number I’ve viewed portions of 20 or 30 times. Recently, I’ve found myself transfixed with several films starring Leonardo DiCaprio, including The Aviator, The Departed, and Inception. DiCaprio also won an Oscar this year for The Revenant, a movie that in itself is a remarkable, stunning achievement.
But it is DiCaprio’s performance as Danny Archer in the 2006 film Blood Diamond that I find most fascinating. Blood Diamond is like no other movie I’ve ever seen and Archer is a unique, stand out character, with his strong Rhodesian accent, mannerisms, and mindset. Blood Diamond takes place in 1999 during the horrific unrest in Sierra Leone, and the title refers to the mined conflict diamonds illegally financing the combatants while enriching foreign companies that go on to sell the goods around the world. Jennifer Connelly portrays Maddy Bowen, a journalist set on exposing the trade in hopes of stemming it, and it is her efforts that show the modern audience how complicit we could be in the crime if anyone who innocently buys diamonds for a necklace, earrings, or engagement ring turns away blindly from knowing the terrible, often murderous source of the stones.
The movie’s plot centers on a poor fisherman, Solomon Vandy (played by Oscar-nominated Djimon Hounsou) whose young son is captured by the crazed Revolutionary United Front and forced to be a child soldier for their rampaging cause. Solomon is coerced to mine diamonds by the group and secretly, far out in a stream in the wilds, comes across an enormous, priceless stone which he conceals. In the meantime, Archer is a diamond smuggler working secretly with a large South African mining company and is a gunrunner for the fighting factions as well. He was formerly trained as a soldier by the Afrikaner Colonel Coetzee (Arnold Vosloo) and works with the Colonel’s smuggling efforts to get stones to Liberia and then, through a complex series of transactions, on to the European and American markets. Archer learns that Solomon, now freed from slavery, has hidden the diamond deep in the country’s interior, and they team together (and for a danger-filled time, with the journalist, Maddy Bowen) to retrieve both Solomon’s son and the stone.
Archer has witnessed a lifetime of the terrors of war and violence, including the brutal murder of his parents as a child. He and Colonel Coetzee are as hard and tough as any man can be, their emotional dictionaries long shut after participating in years of battles, but bent now only on making their personal profit and, for the Colonel, managing wars in Africa for power and gain. When the lives of Bowen and Archer intersect, she is able to slowly bring him to a state of empathy for the long trail of innocent victims of war and to fully comprehend the horrors in Sierra Leone. Archer especially learns to feel for what Solomon is seeking in regaining his son and how willing Solomon is to risk death in the slim hope of reuniting his family.
Colonel Coetzee, when meeting Archer on the Colonel’s massive South African property, tells Archer that he must find the huge diamond and hand it over to compensate him for a deal gone bad. Archer notes that he wants to take Solomon’s stone to make his way out of Africa, as his ticket “off of this God-forsaken continent.” In a moment of intense drama, the Colonel has Archer crouch down on his farmland and as he runs a reddish soil through his hands, explains to him that its crimson tint is said to come from the area’s long history of bloodshed. He tells Archer to face that he’ll never leave Africa. Archer squints in resignation, and feigns acquiescence, saying, “If you say so, Colonel, if you say so.”
After much soul-searching and bloodshed, Danny and Solomon locate the diamond amid the rebel stronghold and retrieve Solomon’s son. The Colonel, who with his mercenaries, attempted to take the stone by murdering Archer and Solomon, is killed when shot by Archer, but not before firing a bullet into Archer’s abdomen. This is where we begin to find the essence of a modern tragedy.
The many camera shots of Africa shown in Blood Diamond are stunning, leading one to wonder how such a place so different from America could exist on the same planet, just a plane ride away. As Solomon, his son and Archer flee the retaliating soldiers of the late Colonel in this lush landscape, Danny’s wound begins to incapacitate him. As they climb a steep plateau towards an airstrip atop which Archer’s partner in stealing the diamond will soon be landing a small aircraft, Solomon is tasked with carrying Archer on his back towards the summit.
At one point during their desperate ascent, Archer demands that Solomon put him down and explains that he’ll fend off the approaching soldiers as Solomon and his son race to the plane and to safety. The final exchange between Archer and the African tribesman, Solomon, is one that can move the viewer to tears, and includes a laugh between them on how they both knew that Archer might just as well have stolen the huge diamond. Solomon and his son make it to safety and Archer is left leaning against a large rock, bleeding out. He takes a moment to use his army communications phone to call Maddy Bowen, now in Europe, and charge her with writing the exposé of the blood diamond in Solomon’s possession, and to see to the release of the rest of Solomon’s family being held in a massive internment camp.
The love that had been growing between Danny and Maddy hits its peak as she realizes that he is doomed. Her final words to him: “I wish I could be with you,” to which he replies gazing out at the beautiful sight of Africa, “it’s alright, I’m exactly where I should be.”
Archer grabs some soil, the blood running off his hand to mix with the dirt, fulfilling the Colonel’s prophecy that Danny would never leave Africa and that very ground of the continent is mixed with the blood spilled over its riches, in the name of colonialism, and through tribal hatred. We last see Archer leaning against the rock, head tilted to the right, as the camera pulls away to expose the beautiful land with its one tragic son. Danny has come to know the love between a father and son, and the love of a woman who, although American, is very much akin to him. His heroic death is not in the vein of ancient tragedy, where a strong-headed king gets his comeuppance while the chorus weeps and wails, tearing their garments. Danny dies in the bright light of the lush African wild content from having learnt more about life and love than he could ever have believed was within himself and that his compatriots on the dangerous journey, are righteous, good, and set to change the world for the better.