John Sayles receives the 1997-8 Steinbeck Award

John Sayles
John Sayles, with Dr. Susan Shillinglaw speaking at the Towne Theater, February 14, 1998. Sayles received the Steinbeck Award in conjunction with the premiere of his film, Men with Guns.

I first met John Sayles on the sidewalk outside the Engineering Building at San Jose State University. He looked relaxed. I was a mess: "the auditorium is full and there is a line of about 100 people waiting, hoping to hear you." He smiled at me as if this were not a problem at all. "Then let them in." 

They sat on the floor, crowded aisles, surrounded John Sayles on the stage. 

The second annual John Steinbeck Award was presented to filmmaker John Sayles on 14 February 1998, followed by a Mexican dinner and, at 8:00 P.M., the Bay Area premiere of his latest film, the acclaimed Men with Guns. Each event was packed to overflowing. At each John Sayles was warm, gracious, eloquent. Clearly he loved filmmaking, this particular film, and John Steinbeck's work--he spoke movingly about the author both during the lecture and at the presentation. And he returned after the film to answer questions. Unbounded generosity of spirit. In production notes for the film, Sayles reports: 

The idea for Men with Guns came from stories told to me by friends . . . One, the novelist Francisco Goldman, had an uncle who was a doctor in Guatemala and got involved in an international health program. A few years later he found that most of his students, who he had sent off in good faith to serve as barefoot doctors in the poor communities, had been murdered by the very government that claimed to support the program. Another friend's father was an agronomist for the Rockefeller Foundation - several of the people he trained to increase their corn yield were killed within three years of their return to the countryside.

Reviews of the film were overwhelmingly positive and bore out the audience's response at the premiere. "Guns Hits the Mark," announced the San Francisco Chronicle

Sayles' great trick is to make it all personal . . . In Spanish with English subtitles, this unusual film is a dare throughout: foreign but familiar; distant yet close to home. It plays like a narrative but also has a kind of journalistic urgency, like an eye-opening documentary about everyday life in a remote region that exposes a drama of global proportions. 

The subject of Sayles' movie should resonate with Steinbeck aficionados familiar with The Forgotten Village, a documentary shot in Mexico in 1940. There are some intriguing similarities between the two films: Steinbeck's project, like Sayles', was intensely personal. After returning form his trip to the Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck insisted on going to Mexico to make the film, in spite of his co-writers Ed Ricketts' objections - Ricketts didn't like the theme or the fact that Steinbeck was putting aside writing Sea Of Cortez. Sayles' partner reacted with a similar lack of enthusiasm. "When John Sayles told his longtime producer, Maggie Renzi, that he planned to follow Lone Star - his biggest box-office hit in 17 years as an independent filmmaker - with a Spanish-language movie starring mostly unknown actors, Renzi suggested he find someone else to produce it," notes Ruthie Stein in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Both films are shot on location in remote areas, Sayles' in Mexico City, Veracruz, Chiapus, Steinbeck's in a Mexican village. Herbert Kline, director of The Forgotten Village, notes some of the difficulties in using village Indians as actors: "None of them had ever seen a movie camera before. The rumor spread that it was a surveyor's device and that we were not people who made photographs, but were out to survey the land and take it away from its rightful owners." 

Both films, dedicated to a true and empathetic vision of village life, linger in the mind. As Elaine Steinbeck told me, "John was always proud of that film," and as a friend whose daughter is in Central America this summer told me, "Sayles' film haunts me. I hope she's safe."