The film Chinatown (1974) is more than a film about corruption and murder. It holds several environmental and political implications. In order to uncover these implications, the characters and their actions can be viewed through the narrative analysis. Through narrative, actions are placed in their historical, cultural, and social contexts. Chinatown (1974) was influenced by the California Water Wars of the early 1900s when water was diverted via aqueduct from an agricultural valley to support Los Angeles’ growing population and to meet their increasing water demand, resulting in the drying up of a major lake and diminishing agricultural production in the valley (1995). In this time period, political corruption and manipulation was common with profit being a major motivator. I will analyze different roles in the movie through the four facets of the narrative analysis framework: knowledge and experience, motivation and emotion, mental models about political issues, and values, interests, and politics.

Knowledge and experience play a critical role in how people see and respond to a situation. Their background knowledge and training, information processing limits, and changes in available knowledge contribute to their responses as well. Mr. Mulwray’s actions were based on his experience and past knowledge. As the chief engineer of Water and Power, Mr. Mulwray had seen the damages and human casualties that had come out of a dam he had previously overseen construction of. Feeling responsible for these deaths and knowing the geological foundation on which the dam was to be built, he opposed the construction of a new dam. Not only that, he was investigating corruption associated with the drought. His background experience with the failure of the first dam and the new geological information are what led to his refusal to build a new dam. This combined with his suspicions of corruption led to his murder.

Those responsible for Mr. Mulwray’s murder had different motivations and emotions towards the environment than Mr. Mulwray. The head of those responsible was Mr. Cross, a wealthy man who had once been Mr. Mulwray’s business partner. The money he could make off the land motivated Mr. Cross; he had no connection to the people, the place, or the wildlife other than that of exploitation through diverting water to dry out the land and feign drought for his own financial gain.

Mental models about environmental issues refers to the different ways people perceive how the environment works in regards to cause and effect relationships, including seeing symptoms over causes. Looking at symptoms instead of causes is a mental model that is prevalent in Chinatown (1974). The people of Los Angeles were less interested in what was causing the drought, which in this case was caused by corruption at the political level in order to buy lands at cheap prices. When Mr. Mulwray began to investigate the cause of the drought, not just the effects, he was murdered in an attempt to keep the cause out of the public eye.

The public’s values and interests were on increasing their water supply, which required the construction of a new dam. The farmers’ values and interests were on maintaining their farms, which depended on no new dam construction. Different still were the values and interests of Mr. Cross and his pawns, which were financially based only leading them to wasting water to achieve their goals. And finally, Mr. Gittes’ values and interests were on uncovering the truth about Mr. Mulwray’s murder and the corruption he suspected within Water and Power.

The narrative analysis provides valuable insight on environmental and political implications of experience, motivation, and values and interests in relation to action as well as helps put events into historical, political, and social context. This is a valuable framework because it can reveal bias that can exist in narrative (Cronon 1992). The presence of bias in narrative highlights the importance of viewing an issue in as much historical, cultural, and social context as possible, without which the story may be skewed.





Carlson, John E. 1995. “Western Times and Water Wars: State, Culture and Rebellion in California.” Rural Sociology 60, no. 1 165-166. <>


Polanski, R. (1974). Chinatown. Paramount Home Video (Firm). Hollywood, CA: Paramount.


William Cronon. 1992. “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative,” The Journal of American History 78(4), p. 1347-1376 (29).

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