Water on Film: The Milagro Beanfield War (1988)
Theatrical Trailer for The Milagro Beanfield War (1988). Courtesy of Universal Movies.
Film Analysis by Kamie Powell
In 1974 John Nichol published a novel titled The Milagro Beanfield War, a comical yet heartfelt tale of one town’s resistance against a big business with political backing. Fourteen years later, director Robert Redford transformed Nichol’s classic tale into an inferior film. However, despite its mediocracy, this film expresses common social disputes seen in the American Southwest during the mid-to-late 1900s while simultaneously demonstrating the lengths communities will go to in order to protect their own use of water. Starring Ruben Blades, Richard Bradford, Sonia Braga, Julie Carmen, James Gammon, Melanie Griffith, John Heard, Carlos Riquelme, Daniel Stern, Christopher Walken, and Chick Vennera, Milagro manages to capture the tensions of a culture clash, and how water is valued and utilized differently depending on your cultural roots.
The main story line follows Joe Mondragon (Vennera), a relatively poor handyman living in the rundown town of Milagro, New Mexico in the 1980s. The predominantly Hispanic town has seen better days, but since an Anglo land development company owned by Ladd Devine (Bradford) bought up property rights in the area, the locals have had a difficult time accessing enough water to feed their agricultural lands. Devine’s company is in the process of constructing a grandiose leisure-time development which will undoubtedly attract wealthier people to the area, ultimately raising taxes and driving the poor community of Milagro elsewhere. In an act of retaliation, Mondragon diverts water from an irrigation ditch owned by Devine to irrigate his own bean field. Once word spreads that Mondragon is irrigating his field, a mild “war” begins between the Milagro community and the developers/government, as the townspeople see symbolism in Mondragon’s reclamation of water and the developers see a necessity to quietly squash this rebellious act before a more significant retaliation movement is born. Ultimately, the film ends with the Milagro community at least temporarily defeating the powerful Anglo establishment, as the final scene is members of the community picking beans from Mondragon’s field while developers hear word that their project has been postponed.
While this film is not specifically based on a single historical event, the story line of this film does follow trends often seen in the American Southwest during this time period. There is a historical clash of cultures somewhat specific to Northern New Mexico between the Indian, Hispanic, and Anglo populations in the mid-1900s. Each of these populations competed for the scarce water resource, and each have traditions regarding how water should be allocated. In modern times, the Anglo concept of property is most commonly practiced, and water is treated as a commodity. However, Hispanic populations (such as the one depicted in the film) are traditionally irrigation communities who don’t necessarily view water as property, but rather as a shared resource necessary for the development of agriculture and the betterment of the community as a whole. This film demonstrates the property concepts of water that the Anglo population imposed on the area, and possible examples of retaliation by Hispanic communities. As the Southwest was being settled in the 1980s and even through this day, similar clashes over water rights occurred, demonstrating the influence water has over people’s actions and attitudes.
The most prevalent water theme demonstrated in this film is that of how water is utilized differently depending on cultural context. Specifically, we see that the Hispanic population of Milagro values water for agricultural use while the Anglo population values water’s potential recreational use. In the film, Devine’s development company buys up rights to what appears to be the majority of the water in the area in order to build cottages and a golf course, among other things. Meanwhile, the Milagro community fights for access to water in order to grow food, make a living, and survive. In the film, the only instance we see the townspeople actually interacting with water (aside from Mondragon irrigating his field) is when an older man attempts to pump water on his property but gives up after about a cup of muddy water is spit out. Even when the locals are drinking, it’s usually beer and never just a glass of water. Finally, a small but important theme in the film is the role of media. Milagro is home to a lawyer/publisher who one local woman convinces to publish articles on Mondragon’s beanfield in an effort to rally the townspeople, while those involved in the development project make attempts to prevent any published material from making its way into the hands of the townspeople. In modern times, the more media coverage an issue gets (whether it is related to water or not), the more likely action will be taken to address the issue.
This film is somewhat of a feel-good production, as the likelihood of a run-down community of about 500 people disrupting a wealthy development company with political backing seems unlikely. This sends a message that if communities come together to protect something precious like water, there’s a good chance they will come out victorious. However, knowledge of current events such as the struggle to stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline forces me to assume this isn’t a realistic message. My takeaways from this film are that cultures will always clash when they value something like water so differently. Water is an extremely important resource that all communities fight for, and people are often ready to make sacrifices in order to improve their chances of accessing water.
 John Nichols, back page summary of The Milagro Beanfield War (New York City: Holt Paperbacks, 2000)
 John E. Loftis, “Community as Protagonist In John Nichols’ The Milagro Beanfield War,” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 38(4), (1984): 201.
 Committee of Western Water Management; National Research Council, “Northern New Mexico: Differing Notions of Water, Property, and Community” in Water Transfers in the West: Efficiency, Equity, and the Environment (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1992), 162-169.
Nichols, John. Back page summary of The Milagro Beanfield War. New York City: Holt Paperbacks, 2000.
Loftis, John E., “Community as Protagonist in John Nichols’ The Milagro Beanfield War,” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, 38(4), 1984: 201-213
Committee of Western Water Management; National Research Council, “Northern New Mexico: Differing Notions of Water, Property, and Community” in Water Transfers in the West: Efficiency, Equity, and the Environment. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1992