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Film / The Postman

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A 1997 movie based on a book by David Brin, about a wanderer in post-apocalyptic Oregon who ends up disguising himself as a U.S. Postman and weaving an intricate story about the government being reformed in order to con people out of food and shelter. He rapidly progresses from merely pretending to deliver the mail to actually delivering the mail, and with the help of a young man he meets early on 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. It was not a very successful movie, tanking at the box office, derailing Kevin Costner's career and winning several Razzie Awards, but it has been looked on much more favorably in recent years.

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. Not a single one of them seems unhappy to see him gone after the one racist redneck killed early on.
    • Then again, a fair amount 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.
  • Adaptation Decay: Played for laughs. While in the book Nathan Holn was a far-right revisionist historian and a Nietzsche Wannabe who eventually got lynched for starting the Holnist movement, in the movie he's a writer of a really low-brow self-help book. That doesn't stop Bethlehem from running his army efficiently based on that book, but casts the whole thing 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 had super soldiers among them. Even their evilness has been considerably toned down.
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  • After the End
  • All Crimes Are Equal: Among the Holnists' laws, one states "The only punishment is death", even for such "crimes" as failing to sit down when ordered to because there weren't enough chairs. We see this demonstrated when the poor fool who failed to gets killed by General Bethlehem. This may seem short-sighted to kill useful men, but it does instill some obedience through fear.
  • 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 after reading the book.
  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: The Holnists. Social Darwinism? Check. Militarism? Check. Racial purity? Check. Being total dicks generally? Check.
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  • Apocalypse How: It seems to be a class 2, since the townspeople ask about if 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.
    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. Any member can challenge General Bethlehem to be the new leader. The last man who did got both his tongue and balls cut off. However, it's used by the Postman 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 of 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.
      • 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 almost gets shot when he starts his 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 Pineveiw post office to be burnt when he sees it.
    Bethlehem: The United States doesn't exist. That flag is an abomination.
  • Canon Foreigner: Ford, General Bethlehem, the sheriff of Pine View... 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 imply 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."
  • 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 they fall in love though and end up raising their daughter together.
  • Compressed Adaptation: The movie left out quite a bit of the plot of the book, particularly the augments and pretty much the entire conflict between the towns loyal to the Reunited States of America and the Holnists.
    • Pragmatic Adaptation: It also left out things like Reunited-aligned soldiers secretly raping the corpses of their own female soldiers to further demonize the Holnists 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, he only appeared in the book briefly-as did Abby.
  • Developing Doomed Characters: The first hour involves a group of characters conscripted to join the Holinists, most of which are dead by one hour in 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.
  • "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.
  • 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.
  • Evil Army: Averted. The Holnists are probably the least enthusiastic gang of plunderers and murderers in history.
  • 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 want 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 "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.
  • Hell-Bent for Leather: The Holnists.
  • 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 that he does not want them giving their lives to protect the mail.
    Tell me something: how much mail can a dead Postman deliver?
  • Hypercompetent Sidekick: Ford is the real brains behind the postal service. After leaving Pineview, he sets up an extensive network between towns.
  • 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.
  • 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 more or less 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.
  • 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 balls cut off). This becomes important later on.
  • Known Only 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 (more or less) until the events at the beginning of the movie. For most of the rest of the movie, he is addressed simply as The Postman. Even on his memorial unveiled near the end, they still don't reveal it.
  • 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.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Shakespeare gives some of his food to one of the other conscripts, 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).
  • Mythology Gag: The original novel ends in 2012, being the only time when the year is specified. The film opens in 2013, again being the only time the year is specified.
  • Our Founder: Costner's bronze statute in the epilogue. Gene Siskel snarkily dubbed the film Dances With Himself.
  • Paranoia Gambit: In a stare-down with Bethlehem, the Postman claims the U.S. government has moved into the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome and has sent reinforcements.
  • Plot Armor: The Postman and Ford have a peculiar immunity to the Holnists' bullets.
    • In case of the Postman, it's played with-when he saves Abby, he takes a bullet in the process. For the next half a year he stays with her in a cabin, recovering from his wound, marking the point when Romantic Plot Tumor becomes a real issue.
  • 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 then conscripted and, apart from a single racial slur from a bit character, this is never mentioned again. Maybe they can't really afford to be too picky with their conscription.
  • 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 Holinists.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: There really wasn't any 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. For what it is worth, David Brin liked the movie.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: After The Reveal, Bethleham realizes that nothing will be gained from Ford's execution, and calls it off.
  • Race Lift: In the book, Abby was mixed race, with Asian ancestry. Here she's white.
  • 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 do a more realistic take on what the post-apocalypse really would be like. 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 civilisation and in general treats the post-apocalypse like an actual place rather than just some sandbox for a protagonist to be badass in. And the Postman himself mostly just survives with copious amounts of dumb luck.
  • 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.
    • Oh, Crap!: Bethlehem's reaction on learning this.
    Bethlehem: Wait a two don't know each other?!
  • 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 dopey as the title to a dramatic film.
  • The Social Darwinist: The Holnists, who are racists, 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: Ford.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: Not only does it drag on for almost 4 minutes, but gives away every single plot element.
  • 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.
  • Unspecified Apocalypse: There are some hints of what happened, but it is never made clear exactly what happened.
    • General Bethlehem claims to have been there at "the Battle of Georgetown" and saw the White House burn.
    • In the opening sequence, the old news reports playing in the background have what is 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 
  • Unstoppable Mailman: What the protagonist becomes, and what his apprentices 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.
  • 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 less than men to sit on them, so there will be always one man to be executed for not following orders to sit.
  • You Make Me Sic: "You spelled 'tyranny' wrong."


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