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A 1997 movie based on a novel by David Brin, about a wanderer in post-apocalyptic Oregon who disguises himself as a U.S. Postman and weaves an intricate story about the government being reformed to get food and shelter from people. He rapidly progresses from pretending to deliver the mail to delivering the mail in earnest, and with the help of a young man he meets early in his travels, ends up recreating the postal service he claimed to represent. In the process he raises the ire of the Holnists, a cult of survivalists who have recently moved in and rule the area as feudal overlords, and the Postman and his new followers quickly find himself embroiled in a war.
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It was not a very successful movie, failing at the box office, derailing Kevin Costner's directing career and winning several Razzie Awards, but its reception has become more positive since its original release.

Not to be confused with Il Postino (1994), another movie named "The Postman" from the 1990s.


Includes examples of the following tropes:

  • 0% Approval Rating: General Bethlehem's followers apparently hate him every bit as much as the townsfolk they oppress. None of them seems unhappy to see him gone after the one racist redneck killed early on. Then again, several of them (like Shakespeare) are shown to be conscripts recruited at gunpoint who only stay because Bethlehem makes sure they have nowhere else to go, so it makes sense.
  • 20 Minutes into the Future: The opening of this movie states on the caption that it takes place in 2013. The movie was made in 1997.
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  • Adaptation Decay: Played for Laughs. While in the book, Nathan Holn was a far-right revisionist historian and a Straw Nihilist who eventually got lynched for starting the Holnist movement, in the movie he's merely a writer of a really lowbrow self-help book. That doesn't stop Bethlehem from running his army efficiently based on that book, but casts the affair in a completely different light.
  • Adaptational Wimp: Holnists are highly organised and well-armed, but still not nearly so effective as the ultra-survivalist Always Chaotic Evil original from books, who even included super soldiers. Even their evilness has been considerably toned down.
  • After the End
  • All Crimes Are Equal: The last of the Holnists' eight laws stipulates "There is only one penalty: death", even for such "crimes" as failing to sit down when ordered to because there weren't enough chairs. We see this demonstrated when General Bethlehem kills the poor fool who failed to. Killing potentially or proven useful men may seem short-sighted, but it does instill some obedience through fear.
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  • All Hail the Great God Mickey!: Borderline. The Holnists are a survivalist cult founded on the teachings of an author of trashy self-help books, who they worship as a near-deity.
  • All There in the Manual: Even if it's a very Pragmatic Adaptation, the film is much more comprehensible if you've read the book.
  • Alternate History: The film is set in 2013, and it's said the Postman survived "the war" with the last great cities destroyed when he was a child. Because at the end he is revealed to have been born in 1976, plus the other references to what occurred which fits with a nuclear war, there was probably one during the early 1980s. The book came out in 1985, so it fits with the prospect then.
  • Apocalypse How: It seems to be a class 2, since the townspeople ask whether Europe survived, but things are vague.
  • Ascended Extra: Abby in the book shows up only in the first section and even in that part her role is rather small.
  • As Long as There is One Man: General Bethlehem fully realizes the beginning of his own doom towards the end...
    Ford: Who are you?
    Californian Carrier: Name's Clark. Postal Carrier of the restored Republic of California. Who are you?
    Ford: Postmaster Ford Lincoln Mercury.
    Californian Carrier: [Takes off his cap, shake hands] It's an honor, sir.
    Bethlehem: Wait a minute ... wait a minute! You don't know each other? This will never be over. It'll go on, except I'll be fighting a goddamn ghost.
  • Asskicking Equals Authority: The Holnists base their leadership on this. Their seventh law does allow any member to challenge for leadership of the clan. The last man who challenged Bethlehem got both his tongue and balls cut off. However, the Postman exploits it at the end.
  • Badass Army: The Holnists are basically an evil, repressive, violent, destructive group of bandits, but they're extremely well-organized and well-equipped, especially compared to the militias of the disorganized villages they extort. While one town in particular has "five guns and twenty rounds of ammunition for the entire town", and this is implied to be a typical situation in Oregon, the Holnists have enough AR-15s to equip their entire army and a seemingly infinite amount of 5.56 ammo, in addition to machine guns, anti-aircraft cannons, and at least one battery of howitzers. Their base seems to be well-equipped too, enough so it's possible they manufacture new ammunition.
  • Badass Bookworm: General Bethlehem. He then subverts it by having the books he's done with burned.
  • Beard of Evil: General Bethlehem.
  • Becoming the Mask: The premise of the movie is basically "Man pretends to be a postman for the fictional Restored United States of America to con people out of food and shelter, in the process ends up accidentally creating the Restored United States of America and becoming a postman for it."
  • Blatant Lies:
    • All Shakespeare's lies about the reformed United States government go unquestioned despite how obviously evasive and unconvincing he is.
    • No one questions that the new President of the United States has the same real name as Ringo Starr. It's also possibly justified since his real name isn't as well known in the US, and would be even less so years After the End.
    • Possibly justified by the fact that it's not that he's convincing, but that people just want to believe in these things that badly. Plus he's nearly shot the first time he tells these lies, but by the time he gets going he's delivering mail from "the next village over", making his position much more plausible.
  • Blood Knight: General Bethlehem is obsessed with being able to fight a "real war", against a general and an army worthy of his skill. When the Postal Service reorganizes itself into an army and openly opposes him, he isn't scared or angry, he's ecstatic.
    Holnist scout: Think they're surrendering, sir?
    General Bethlehem: God, I hope not.
  • Book Burning: Bethlehem orders Shakespeare's copy of William Shakespeare's works burnt while trying to recruit Shakespeare to be an officer in his army.
  • Burning the Flag: Bethlehem orders the flag of the restored Pineview post office to be burnt when he sees it.
    Bethlehem: The United States of America doesn't exist! That flag is an abomination.
  • Canon Foreigner: Ford, General Bethlehem, the sheriff of Pineview ... the list is quite lengthy, given the nature of the film.
  • Celebrity Survivor: Tom Petty.
    Shakespeare: I know you. You're ... famous.
    Tom Petty: I was once ... sorta. Kinda. Not anymore.
    • One of his subsequent lines implies that Costner's unnamed character, known only as Shakespeare, is Costner himself.
    • The birth-death dates on the Postman's monument shown at the end (1976–2049) don't match up, though.
  • Character Name Alias: President "Richard Starkey." Richard Starkey, the drummer? Then who's Vice President? Reginald Dwight?
  • Chekhov's Gun: The brand that recruits into Bethlehem's army are given including Shakespeare.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Colonel Getty. Also inverted: we know from early in the film that Ford has personally recruited many, if not all, of the mail couriers in Oregon. Near the end of the film, he is stood up next to another mail carrier who he's never seen before in his life. The other mail carrier is from the Restored Republic of California, and this serves as The Reveal that the movement has spread significantly.
  • Child Soldiers: Most of the Postman's courier-crew-turned-militia is pretty young. Justified in that life expectancy in a Post Apocalyptic world would be comparable to Real Life pre-Industrial eras, so relative age categories are adjusted accordingly ("late teens" becomes "young adult fit to fight").
  • Chosen Conception Partner: Abby and her husband Michael approach the Postman with the proposal that he father a child with her, since Michael's infertile. He rejects the idea at first, but agrees after she enters his room and strips in front of him. At first she treats him as merely "the body father" upon conceiving, viewing the baby as her husband's (who has died by the time she finds out). Later, however, they fall in love for real and end up raising their daughter together.
  • Coitus Ensues: Abby enters the Postman's room and asks him if he's decided on the request to father a child with her yet (her husband is infertile). He hesitates, and she undresses. Then he quickly says yes, and they have sex, in a pretty unnecessary scene (at least actually showing it).
  • Compressed Adaptation: The movie omitted a good deal of the book's plot, especially the augments and practically the entire conflict between the towns loyal to the Reunited States of America and the Holnists. It also omitted things like Reunited-aligned soldiers secretly raping the corpses of their own female soldiers to demonize the Holnists further when the bodies were discovered.
  • Conscription: This appears to be how the Holnists get most of their soldiers, as seen at the beginning (it contrasts with the book). It also neatly explains why they happily join the Postman at the end.
  • Crazy Survivalist: The Holnists appear to be this in the movie.
  • Cruel Mercy: General Bethlehem gets this at one point. Almost.
  • Death by Adaptation: Poor Michael. In the book he was very much alive and well by the end. Of course, both he and Abby only appeared in the book briefly.
  • Defiant to the End: Sheriff Briscoe, letter carrier Clark, and Woody.
    Briscoe: Ride, Postman! Ride!
  • Delayed Narrator Introduction: The narrator who speaks at the beginning is finally shown in the ending as The Postman's grown daughter Rose. It became more obvious over time since she calls him "My father" and then how he conceived a baby with Abby was shown.
  • Developing Doomed Characters: The first hour involves a group of characters conscripted to join the Holnists, most of whom are dead within an hour and long forgotten by the end of the film. There isn't even a "Postman" until after this — a full hour in. For contrast, the book almost opened with Gordon getting the postman uniform.
  • Did You Just Flip Off Cthulhu?: Combined with Description Cut. A couple of the gatemen at Benning, the second town the Postman visits, do this to Bethlehem when they think that the Postman's presence means order has been restored.
    Holnist: They won't open the gates. They say they got a representative of the Restored United States in there. They say this army is illegal and they say—
    Benning Gatekeepers: [From distance] DROP DEAD, AND GO TO HELL!
    Holnist: That's what they say.
  • Dies Differently in Adaptation: Nathan Holn is said to have died of skin cancer a few years ago, instead of being lynched by an angry mob shortly after his teachings began to inspire real crazies. While its possible that the Postman was lying (given how many other whoppers he tells in that scene), he presumably would have been in a position to know given his time as a Holnist conscript. There is also his sudden confidence and having a detailed, specific info, rather than pausing and then blubbering something randomly, indicating at least this part of his story is real.
  • "Do It Yourself" Theme Tune: Kevin Costner himself sings the song on the credits.
  • Droit du Seigneur: General Bethlehem tries to pull this with Abby, and kills Michael after he protests it.
    Bethlehem: Do you know what system of government we have here, son? [Michael shrugs] We have what's known as a feudal system, like in the Middle Ages. That's lords and vassals. That's you and me. Now those lords, they had some ideas. They believed that if a vassal got married, it was the lord's right, his right, to sleep with the bride on the wedding night.
    Michael: Me and Abby have been married for three years.
    Bethlehem: Sorry, but I wasn't invited to the wedding.
  • Evil Army: Averted. The Holnists could well be the least enthusiastic gang of plunderers and murderers in history.
  • Expy: The Postman starts off as one to Max Rockatansky before Character Development sets in. Several critics noted that he and Costner's Mariner in Waterworld are Max's copycat descendants.
  • Failed a Spot Check: General Bethlehem accepts Woody, who's clearly mixed-race, as a conscript into the racist Holnist army, somehow not noticing this (which his minion Idaho later gripes about).
  • Fake Ultimate Hero: Kevin Costner's Postman, at first.
  • A Father to His Men: General Bethlehem thinks he's one of these. Amusingly, it's fairly clear almost every one of his men hates him to the core but none of them wants to stand up to him (assuming the other people in the army are loyal Holnists). He was just smart enough to scare everyone into strict submission during their period of "conscription".
    • We're shown that many are forcibly conscripted (including the Postman) so it's not that surprising if most aren't there by choice and hate Bethlehem. Also probably explains their poor Evil Army showing above.
  • Feudal Future: The Holnists have set up this arrangement with the towns they extort into giving them goods and conscripts, as Bethlehem explains when invoking his "right" to sleep with Abby.
  • Fingerless Gloves: Worn by practically every character, perhaps because the fingers all wear out and they can't fix or replace them anymore.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare:
    • General Bethlehem mentions that before the war, he was a copier salesman.
    • Shakespeare was just a random vagrant who ends up as de facto leader of the Restored Postal Service and one of the biggest players in the northwestern USA. He manages to muster an army just by his sheer charisma.
  • Frontline General: Bethlehem and later Shakespeare.
  • Hell-Bent for Leather: The Holnists.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Idaho orders Woody at gunpoint to kill Shakespeare with a knife. He takes some swings at him, then turns and throws it into Idaho's shoulder, then lunges for him. Idaho instantly shoots him dead, but this distracts him long enough to help Shakespeare escape.
  • Hidden Depths: The Holnist troops would rather watch an old musical film than a gung-ho action one. It also hints at their lack of enthusiasm for Bethlehem's acts.
  • Honor Before Reason: Defied. Shakespeare goes out of his way to impress upon his postmen and -women that he does not want them to give their lives to protect the mail.
    Tell me something: how much mail can a dead Postman deliver?
  • Hyper-Competent Sidekick: Ford is the real brains behind the new postal service. After leaving Pineview, he sets up an extensive network between towns.
  • Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy: Arguably, the scene with the Postman swimming away downriver. Yes, it's hard to hit a target moving independently and with the current just about randomly, but they fired a lot of shots.
  • Informed Ability: We are told that Bethlehem utterly destroyed his last challenger in five seconds of hand-to-hand combat. Bethlehem's actual unarmed fighting skills, shown at the end of the movie, are about as good as your average second-grader's. Possibly an intentional trope, as the five-second story may have been mere propaganda all along. Of course the man who had challenged him was quite a bit older and seems less fit, so it's not impossible.
  • In Name Only: Compared with the novel, the movie is barely recognizable. The scene where the main character discovers the postman's uniform is the only scene from the book to make it into the movie. Otherwise the main character and his motivation is completely different (in the book he's much less of an obvious white-hat), the love interest is completely different, the villain is completely different (in the book being a genetically enhanced warrior, in the movie just a weird guy with a Beard of Evil), there is a second 'hero' who was Adapted Out, and an interesting subplot about a super-powerful AI that is guiding a remote village of survivors back to civilization goes likewise unmentioned in the film. The author is well aware that a movie adaptation necessitated changes and has always rather liked the result.
  • Ironic Name: The Big Bad is a warlord who shares his name with Bethlehem, the town where Jesus, one of the most famous pacifists ever to live, was born.
  • It Has Been an Honor: Ford and his fellow captive shake hands and invoke this trope as they face Bethlehem's firing squad, even though this is the first time the two of them have met.
  • I Will Punish Your Friend for Your Failure: As punishment for housing the Postman, General Bethlehem lays waste to an entire town with his oversized artillery.
    General Bethlehem: These people made it through the bugs and the riots and the three-year winter. But they're not going to survive you.
  • Klingon Promotion: Members of Bethelehem's army are allowed to challenge him in one-on-one combat for his position (the last man who did got his tongue and testicles cut off). This becomes important later on.
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: Bethlehem, to an extent. The most obvious example is his "invocation" of the jus primae noctis which (mostly) never existed.
  • Last-Name Basis: General Bethlehem and Colonel Getty are only ever referred to by their last names.
  • Mauve Shirt: The three letter carriers who follow the Postman to Bridge City. Unusually for this trope, they all survive.
  • Meaningful Name: Abby and Shakespeare's daughter is named Hope. It is not very subtle.
  • Mysterious Past: We never learn anything about Shakespeare's aside from his birth date at the end and how he was a child when the war happened, even his real name. The memorial to him just says "The Postman."
  • Mythology Gag:
    • The original novel ends in 2012, being the only time when the year is specified. The film opens in 2013, also the only time the year is specified.
    • The novel focuses on developments inside the Willamette Valley and uses the geography of it for various plot points. The film, while having location shots all over Oregon, explicitly stays away from the Valley and all the "plains" were filmed on the eastern side of the Cascades.
  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: The Holnists. Social Darwinism? Check. Militarism? Check. Racial purity? Check. Being total dicks generally? Check.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Shakespeare gives some of his food to another conscript, who repays him by telling the officers about his escape plan and trying to capture Shakespeare when he makes a break for it. Somewhat forgivable since he was obviously mentally challenged, thus likely trying to do what (apparently) was the right thing (i.e. help the authorities).
    • Also, his efforts in simply delivering mail causes several towns to be attacked, with many people dying in the process and then another being executed for supporting the Postal Service.
  • Nominal Importance: The first characters to die are left unnamed, or only get named in the credits.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Along with Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep". The main character is called "Shakespeare" when anyone wants to call him by a particular name, because he made a living traveling from place to place performing the works of William Shakespeare (after a fashion) until the events at the beginning of the movie. For most of the rest of the movie, he is addressed simply as The Postman. He doesn't even get a birth name on his memorial unveiled near the end.
  • Only One Name: Most of the characters (including the titular Postman) are referred to by just one name (first, last or nicknames).
  • Our Founder: Costner's bronze statute in the epilogue. Gene Siskel sarcastically dubbed the film Dances with Myself.
  • Paranoia Gambit: In a stare-down with Bethlehem, the Postman claims the U.S. government has moved into the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis and has sent reinforcements.
  • Plot Armor: The Postman and Ford have a peculiar immunity to the Holnists' bullets. In the case of the Postman, it's played with — when he saves Abby, he takes a bullet in the process. For the next half-year he stays with her in a cabin, recovering from his wound, marking the point when the romance plot begins to take over.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: The Holnists, being built on a rather reactionary foundation, refuse to conscript people with African or Asian ancestry. However, a mixed-race man is also conscripted, which only one Holnist notices (while calling the man a slur), claiming General Bethlehem didn't recognize his African ancestry.
  • Population: X, and Counting: The Pineview town sign has a population number that has been repeatedly crossed out and re-written, going from 267 to 132 even before the town came to the attention of the Holnists.
  • Post-Apocalyptic Dog: Bill the donkey fulfills the same function for "Shakespeare" in the opening.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: There was no realistic way that a movie made in The '90s was going to do a very good job trying to deal with everything that happens in the book, so the movie took the core concept of the story and ran with it.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: After The Reveal, Bethlehem realizes that he would gain nothing from Ford's execution and calls it off.
  • Prayer of Malice: As the Holnists cry "God rest his soul!" after General Bethlehem in memory of Nathan Holn, whom they view as their founder, Shakespeare mutters instead, "May he burn in Hell."
  • Race Lift:
    • In the book, Abby was mixed-race, with Asian ancestry. Here she's white.
    • Ford says his name used to be John Stevens (he's also called "Johnny"), and he's black. The "Johnny" Stevens in the book is white (he's also a teenager).
  • Reality Ensues: The Postman survives being shot in the torso by a Holnist with an AR-15 ... and, without access to modern medicine, spends five months recovering from the bullet wound. In a broader sense, just like the source material, the movie tries to portray the post-apocalypse more realistically. It takes care to show the types of people that would come to power in a vacuum left behind, why laws and the ability to enforce them are generally good things, why communications are vital in maintaining civilization and in general treats the post-apocalypse like an actual place rather than just a sandbox for a protagonist to be badass in. And the Postman himself mostly just survives with copious amounts of dumb luck.
  • Refusal of the Call: For about three-quarters of the film, Shakespeare is visibly uncomfortable about being treated like a hero, actively trying to discourage the various mail-carriers' "do or die" attitude. He's absolutely horrified by Ford's statement that he (Ford) "would die to get a letter through," especially since Shakespeare knows he was the inspiration for it all. It's only near the end that he accepts his role, raising an army to fight the Holnists directly.
  • Resignations Not Accepted: When the Postman tries to escape, the rest of the army tries to kill him. But this trope is important later.
  • The Reveal: The Postman's mail carriers aren't the only ones who took up the cause.
    Bethlehem: Wait a minute ... you two don't know each other?!
  • Right-Wing Militia Fanatic: The Holnists appear to have started as a group of these, before the war or during its aftermath. A radio broadcast that plays over the opening scenes blames them for a past rise in hate crimes. Now, with no government left, they have taken over at least part of Oregon.
  • Separated by a Common Language: Sort of — while the term "postman" is sometimes used in the United States, the more common word is "mailman". But "The Mailman" sounds silly as the title to a dramatic film.
  • The Social Darwinist: The racist Holnists set up a feudal system and have their leadership based on who's strongest.
  • Take That, Critics!: After his performance, "Shakespeare" is mocked by an amateur critic who, of course, turns out to be both an idiot and a failed actor, and is told that he doesn't have the right to say anything bad anyway since he didn't pay to see Costner perform.
  • Token Minority: Woody, Ford, and Clark are the only people of color with speaking parts in the film (only a few others are even shown).
  • Trailers Always Spoil: Not only does it drag on for almost four minutes, it gives away every single plot element.
  • Unspecified Apocalypse: There are some hints of what happened, but it is never made clear exactly what.
    • General Bethlehem claims to have been at "the Battle of Georgetown" and seen the White House burn to the ground.
    • In the opening sequence, the old news reports playing in the background have what are clearly missiles going off. A nuclear exchange can therefore be inferred to have happened, which explains the "three-year [i.e. nuclear] winter" and why no one goes near major cities (likely destroyed and irradiated).
    • The old letter that Shakespeare delivers talks about strange weather, food shortages and a soldier returning home because the war was already over by the time he got there.
    • The events which brought the world to this are varied and unexplained, with events like "the war", "the rains" and "the bad mumps".note 
    • As the main character was in his childhood "when the last of the great cities died" plus at the end he was revealed to be born ca. 1976, we can infer this was probably the Cold War gone hot. Europe is also mentioned to have been affected (as they would be in such a scenario) and someone asks how they fared (though no answer is forthcoming). Given this, it's probable the war took place in the early 1980s.
  • Unstoppable Mailman: What the protagonist becomes, and what his protégés vow to be. Considering they deliver mail in a Post Apocalyptic world, there's not much arguing with this one.
  • Vehicular Theme Naming: Ford Lincoln Mercury.
  • Virtue Is Weakness: The Holnists' third law says "Mercy is for the weak", and, boy, does General Bethlehem live it out. He doesn't expect it himself at the end as a result, but then the Postman spares him. Then he tries to shoot the Postman after this, but is shot himself. This is all part of the Holnists' cruel Social Darwinist ideology.
  • Wham Line: When Ford and another captured mail carrier are about to be executed:
    Ford: Who are you?
    Carrier: Name's Clark. Postal Carrier of the restored Republic of California. Who are you?
  • You Have Failed Me: General Bethlehem does it to one member of a conscript batch, to scare the rest into total, strict obedience. It's lampshaded to be his standard procedure, as there is always one chair fewer than men to sit on them, so one man will always be executed for not following orders to sit. (One wonders why nobody ever even tried to share a chair, however...)invoked
  • You Make Me Sic: "You spelled 'tyranny' wrong." The Postman told the young people printing the leaflets the same thing earlier.

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