Ulee’s Gold film (1997)
Ulee’s Gold is an American drama film directed by Victor Nuñez and starring Peter Fonda as the main actor. In short, Ulysses Jackson (nicknamed Ulee) is a Vietnam War veteran and a beekeeper that gets into trouble because of his son’s past. Jimmy (his son) his in prison for a bank heist and his former partners track down his wife and Ulee himself to try finding Jimmy’s share of the money left from the heist.
Whereas the film’s title directly refers to bees and the lead character is a commercial beekeeper, bees seem to be chiefly a hovering metaphor, and beekeeping “sexy” props, that the main concern of the film. But as always when bees are involved there are a lot of metaphors to unpack. Gold in the title refers to Ulee’s honey being its main source of income but also a spiritual one that helps him to navigate this bleak period of his life. Beekeeping, or being a beekeeper, is associated with honest hard work; here performed by Ulee in contrast to his son Jimmy, who is in prison, and his stepdaughter, a drug addict that abandoned their two children – whom Ulee is taking care of. As a beekeeper he is also an analogy for the good American citizen. Quite early in the film, we see Ulee discussing a transaction with a honey buyer and together they conclude that Ulee’s honey is pure not like “Chinese honey” (05:20 to 05:45). Their racist comment underline the idea that beekeeping in the US is special, Ulee mentions a unique relationship with his bees that Chinese would lack but also a material one: “Chinese don’t have anything like our Tupelo honey.” (05:35). A rare honey which is Ulee’s bees main source of nectar that comes from the Tupelo tree. We don’t learn much more about his business through the film but by deduction he seems to own a relatively small farm – for a commercial beekeeper. He has up to 5 apiaries during the height of the season and his bees are hived in modern hives (seemingly Langstroth’s models, see the fourth film still below). Early on in the film he makes a deal to sell 30 barrels from which he ended up only honouring 23. Quick maths makes me think that he probably owns around 100 to 150 beehives. (150 L per barrel x 23 = 3450 litres of honey, counting between 20 and 40 kilos per hives it results in around 120 hives). The size seems realistic to manage alone but it would definitely be hard work as underlined multiple times through the film. The bee metaphor also describes a traditional family model, as Ulee learnt beekeeping from his dad, who himself learnt the job from his dad and at the end we understand that Ulee will keep the tradition in the family and pass it to his son.
When the film was produced, the cold war only recently ended, the new enemy of the US empire could become China but it seems mostly to be the loss of value within the American society and the impact of globalisation that brought Varroa mites and cut/cheap honey into the US. An idea reinforced by Ulee saying towards the end of the film:
“Now I feel like an old drone, they don’t need me now. It is not like before.” (01:48:35).
For readers that are not familiar with the life of a bee, Ulee here refers to the tragic faith of drones. Once they did they insemination job, they are no more worthwhile for the bee organism and they become useless mouth to feed. So before winter comes they are through out of the hive by worker bees and left out to die. Regarding bees themselves, akin to Ulee, they seem to be in danger from different threats. In one of the last scenes of the film, Jimmy asks Ulee how the bees are doing. Ulee’s answer is typical of a beekeeper:
“Mites are choking them, insecticide is killing them, draught is starving them … They are fine.” (01:45:30)
And when his son asks him if he could help at the apiary after his time in prison, he continues:
“I don’t know Jimmy, future bees isn’t too clear right now, stuff about the mites and all of this is true.” (01:46:00)
Ulee’s main concern seems to be this mite he refers to, which I can confidently say is the Varroa mites – even though it is never directly called like this in the film. The production of the film coincide with this growing concern in the US as Varroa arrived in this country at the end of the eighties.
Overall, the film’s depiction of beekeeping is convincing, I’m pretty sure that they had a beekeeper on set to gather some advice because his beekeeping farm is believable and all the beekeeping talks make sense and are timely. Bees and beekeeping are used as metaphors to raise the contextual dismay of the film, ranging from environmental concern (mites, insecticide and draughts) to an indicator of moral value (hard work, the good American citizen and so on).
Directed by Victor Nuñez
Written by Victor Nuñez
Produced by Jonathan Demme
- Peter Fonda
- Patricia Richardson
- Jessica Biel
- J. Kenneth Campbell
- Christine Dunford
- Steven Flynn
- Dewey Weber
- Tom Wood
- Vanessa Zima
Cinematography by Virgil Mirano
Edited by Victor Nuñez
Music by Charles Engstrom
Release date 13th of June, 1997
Running time 113 minutes
Country United States