Jacob's Ladder (1990) Poster

(I) (1990)


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  • The primary influences on writer Bruce Joel Rubin were:

    1. The Bardo Thodol (Tibetan Book of the Dead). This eight century Tibetan text, dictated by the Indian yogi Padma Sambhava, and transcribed by his student Yeshe Tsogyal, is to be read aloud to the dying or the recently-deceased. The book is intended as a guide through the experiences after death, during the interval between death and the attainment of spirituality. Death, the book explains, is a three-stage process, with each stage called a bardo. First is the chikhai bardo (the moment of death), then the chonyid bardo (the time between death and spirituality), and finally the sidpa bardo (the process of rebirth). The book sets out to help navigate these three bardos. Of primary importance is the notion that death presents one with an opportunity for liberation (the literal meaning of the word "thodol" is "liberation"); a chance to escape the suffering that characterizes corporeal earthly existence. However at all three stages, the mind fights to hold onto its corporeal worldly connections in an effort to convince itself that it is not really dead. It is this resistance with which the book is primarily concerned, teaching us how we can recognize the heavenly realms instead of remaining in the earthly realms.

    Once death occurs and the mind is freed from the body, it creates its own reality in a manner not dissimilar to how one would experience a dream. This new reality is composed of a journey through the three bardos, a journey manifested as a series of encounters, revelations and self realizations, not unlike those depicted in Dante_Alighieri's Divine Comedy and Seamus Heaney's "Station Island". At every stage along the journey, the book is clear that "liberation" can be attained at any moment if one is simply ready to remove the shackles of life and accept spirituality, although it acknowledges that the mind often finds this difficult.

    Initially, one is given the chance to accept death in the chikhai bardol. This is the split second moment when the mind is presented with a "Clear Light of Inner Radiance", which is the very substance of the state of liberation, if only the soul can recognize it and act in a way so as to remain in that state. If the mind is able to shake off its associations with earthly existence, it can merge with the Clear Light, thus becoming immediately liberated, and be spared the process of moving on to the next bardo. The book suggests that the mind embrace the Clear Light with love and compassion, thus leading to a realization that the mind itself is actually identical with the Clear Light, transcending all time and space. If the mind can recognize this universality, it will immediately attain liberation, and enter into the Clear Light for all eternity.

    If the mind is not ready to free itself from its worldly concerns however, it must move on to the chonyid bardo. Here the mind is presented with visions of the 100 deities of the Buddhist pantheon. First there are the Peaceful Deities, such as the divine Father-Mother (the supreme deity of the universe) and the God of Eternal Life. At each stage, the reaction of the mind to the appearance of the God determines whether or not the mind is ready for liberation. If, after the appearance of the Peaceful Deities, the mind has still not attained liberation, the Wrathful Deities begin to appear, such as Vajra Heruka ("dark blue in color, with three faces, six arms and four legs, carrying a skull-cap, an axe and a ploughshare") and Vajra Krodhisvari ("embracing Heruka's body, her right hand clasped around his neck and her left offering a skull-cap filled with blood to his mouth" - see here for more info). The book advises the mind not to fear these Wrathful Deities, but to look at them and accept that they are in fact not real. If it can do that, it will be liberated, if it cannot, it will enter the third bardo.

    In the sidpa bardo, the mind will experience the sense of being able to move unobstructed through walls, concrete, mountains, to travel over huge distances and float in the air. The mind will be presented with images of the dead body to which it is tethered as well as images of grieving relatives and friends in what is called the "Life Review". Yama (the Lord of Death) will then be encountered and the Mirror of Karma must be faced, wherein all of the virtuous actions of the person's life are counted out in white stones, and all of the non-virtuous in black stones. If there are more black stones than white, Yama will decapitate the individual, take out their heart, pull out their entrails, eat their brains, drink their blood, eat their flesh and lick their bones clean. However, the mind will still conceive of itself as "alive". At this point, the mind will be presented with six caves, which represent the six Lokas or realms of life - god, demigod, human, animal, anguished spirit and hell-being. The mind is encouraged not to enter any of these caves and is given one more chance to attain liberation by entering the Clear Light. If however, after this final chance, the mind has still not freed itself from its corporeal nature, it must then choose one of the Lokas and accept rebirth.

    Interestingly, a literal translation of the term "Bardo Thodol" means "liberation through hearing in the intermediate state", something which is obviously of crucial importance in the film, insofar as much of the content of the narrative is based upon the notion that Jacob Singer is continually being told that he is dead, and all he needs to do is accept it.

    See these links for more details about the Bardo Thodol: "How the Dead Live" article by Mick Brown; "The Tibetan Book of the Dead and NDEs" article by Kevin Williams; Bardo Thodol ebook.

    2. The biblical story of Jacob's ladder as found in the Book of Genesis (28:10-13), in which the patriarch Jacob envisions a ladder ascending to heaven: And Jacob went out from Beer-sheba, and went toward Haran. And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and beheld a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the LORD stood above it, and said, "I am the LORD God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac. [King James Version] There are various interpretations of this vision: (1) the angels represent souls descending to and ascending from earthly bodies (reincarnation); (2) the ladder is the human soul and the angels are God's servants, pulling the soul up in distress and descending in compassion; (3) the dream depicts the ups and downs of life; (4) the ladder represents the continually changing affairs of man; (5) the ladder signifies the exiles which the Jewish people will suffer until the coming of the Messiah; (6) Jacob, as a holy man, was always accompanied by angels, and when he reached the border of the land of Canaan, the angels who were assigned to the Holy Land went back up to Heaven and the angels assigned to other lands came down to meet him; (7) the ladder signifies the "bridge" between Heaven and earth; (8) the ladder is a metaphor for prayer.

    For more information, see "The Ladder" article by Nissan Dovid Dubov.

    3. Robert Enrico's Oscar-winning short film La rivière du hibou (1961) (1962), based on the 1890 Ambrose Bierce short story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge". Set during the American Civil War, the protagonist, Peyton Farquhar, is a Confederate sympathizer who is sentenced to death by hanging upon Owl Creek Bridge. The story opens with Farquhar already bound and ready to ascend to the noose. As he stands by the side of the bridge, Farquhar thinks of his wife and children, and concocts an escape plan which involves him shrugging off the noose and diving into the nearby stream. In flashback form, it is revealed that a disguised Union soldier enlisted Farquhar's aid in demolishing Owl Creek Bridge. Farquhar was subsequently caught, arrested, tried and sentenced. The story returns to the present, and the execution takes place, however, the rope breaks and Farquhar falls into the water. He swims to the surface, escapes the Union soldiers shooting at him and makes it to dry land, immediately heading for his house by going through a nearby forest. The forest however, seems to be endless, and Farquhar becomes disorientated. He begins to experience strange events, to see and hear unusual things in the shadows, and constantly finds it difficult to tell whether he is awake or asleep. Eventually, he collapses and falls asleep. Upon awakening, he sees his house, his wife sitting outside smiling at him. He runs towards her, arms outstretched, but as he does, he suddenly feels a sharp pain in his neck. There is a white flash, and everything goes black. It is then revealed that Farquhar never escaped at all; he imagined the entire incident in the split second prior to the noose breaking his neck.

    The Robert Enrico short film La rivière du hibou (1961) was made in 1962, and went on to win major prizes at both the Cannes Film Festival (Best Short Film) and the Academy Awards (Best Short Subject, Live Action). In 1964, it was screened in the United States as an episode of The Twilight Zone (1959) TV series, under the title "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge". For the most part, the film is loyal to the source material, with all of the major plot points and characters included, and even sections of dialogue reproduced verbatim.

    Download the original Ambrose Bierce short story from Project Gutenberg here, or watch the Enrico short film at Liketelevision.com here. Edit

  • As described above, in the Bible, Jacob's ladder is a ladder ascending from the earth to heaven, which Jacob dreams about as he flees from his brother Esau. There are a number of possible interpretations of the story, the most popular of which are outlined above. In terms of the film, obviously the key interpretation would be that the ladder signifies the "bridge" between Heaven and earth, which is also the most common Christian interpretation of the story. In this sense then, it is significant that the film ends on a staircase, with Jacob's son Gabe leading him up the stairs to the light at the summit. The obvious meaning of this is that since Gabe has been dead for several years, he has come to help guide his father up the ladder and ascend into heaven, hence the comment by the medic that Jacob looks peaceful in death (because he has been reunited with his son).

    Indeed, in writer Bruce Joel Rubin's original script, the staircase at the end of the film was to be a massive marble staircase complete with columns, angels, and a huge golden gates at the summit (not unlike William Blake's famous engraving of the ladder). Director Adrian Lyne however, felt that audiences might laugh at this, and so he developed the idea that if heaven is where we are happiest, it makes sense that the staircase would simply be the staircase in Jacob's home.

    In the immediate context of the film, Jacob's ladder is simply the "bad trip" on which Jacob finds himself after inadvertedly ingesting a drug called The Ladder during the Vietnam war. The drug was designed to help create more potent soldiers, and was called The Ladder because it was seen as rapid descent straight down to man's most basic instincts. The film details Jacob's experience of the ladder, hence the title Jacob's Ladder. Edit

  • The book is The Stranger by Albert Camus. This novel was obviously specifically chosen by the filmmakers insofar as it is thematically related to the film. The basic narrative of The Stranger involves a man waiting to be executed for murder and reflecting upon his life (which is also an important part of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"). Edit

  • All four images come from Gustave Doré's illustrations to Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy.

    1. The first is "The Avaricious" (from Purgatorio, Canto XX, 16-18). See here.

    2. The second is "The Seventh Circle: The Lustful" (from Purgatorio, Canto XXV, 124-126). See here.

    3. The third is "Bertrand de Born" (from Inferno, Canto XXVIII, 121-123). See here.

    4. The fourth is "Giampolo and Alichino" (from Inferno, Canto XXII, 126). See here. Edit

  • BZ (or Agent Buzz) is NATO code for a hallucinogen called 3-Quinuclidinyl benzilate, which was rumored to have been administered to US troops during the Vietnam War in an attempt to increase their combat effectiveness. The Pentagon has always denied the rumor, and those who condemn the story as a complete fabrication have pointed out that BZ would be an unusual drug to administer in an attempt to increase combat efficiency, insofar as BZ is an incapacitating agent, not a stimulant. Such arguments point out that common effects of the drug include a diminished sense of awareness, visual impairment, disorientation, ataxia, slurred speech, irritability, inability to maintain concentration and loss of memory. Other effects, however, would suggest that BZ could very well have been used as a stimulant for combat soldiers. These include delusions, hallucinations, an inability to tell right from wrong, poor judgment, illogical rage and insatiable aggression.

    For incredibly detailed information on BZ see the BZ Vault at Erowid or the eMedicine entry here. Edit

  • The R1 US Special Edition DVD released by Artisan Entertainment in 1999 contains the following special features:

    • A feature length audio commentary with director Adrian Lyne.

    • Cast and crew biographies and filmographies.

    • Production Notes

    Building 'Jacob's Ladder' (1990); a 26-minute making-of featurette.

    • TV Spot

    • US theatrical trailer

    • Three deleted scenes, with optional audio commentary by director Adrian Lyne (see below for more information on these scenes).

    The R2 UK DVD released by Momentum Pictures in 2003 contains only the theatrical trailer. Edit

  • The Special Edition DVD released in 1998 contains 3 deleted scenes:

    1. "The Antidote": After meeting Michael (Matt Craven), Jacob (Tim Robbins) accompanies him to his apartment after Michael explains he has developed a cure for The Ladder. Jacob sits down on the bed and Michael says he has never tried the antidote out. Jacob is reluctant to take it, but Michael convinces him. He takes the medicine and lies down on the bed. After a moment, the room begins to shake, and the ceiling begins to crumble. Michael urges Jacob to calm down, saying it is all in his mind, but Jacob becomes more and more panicked. Then blood begins to pour through the ceiling, and a huge demon punches its way through before looking at Jacob and roaring. We then cut to a shot of the apartment, peaceful and undamaged. Jacob is asleep on the bed, Michael sitting in a chair by the side of the bed. After a moment, Jacob wakes up, and Michael tells him it's all over.

    2. "The Trainstation": Immediately after the above scene, there is a scene in Grand Central Station where a clearly elated Jacob purchases a ticket for Chicago. As he does so, he notices two policemen looking at him, and then sees three men in long black coats also watching him. He gets his ticket and goes into the toilets, passing a homeless man washing his feet in the sink. Jacob goes into a cubicle and sits with his feet up on the rim. After a moment, a bit of toilet paper is pushed through a hole in the wall from the cubicle next door, and as Jacob reaches for it, he hears the demonic voice say, "Dream on." He runs from the cubicle and sees that the sink the homeless man was using is now full of blood.

    3. "Jezzie's Transformation": After returning to his house, Jacob is sitting in the living room when Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña) enters. She tells him that it is over and then she begins to transform into something else. Jacob watches for a moment, and then walks over to her, removing a hood from her head. He then sees his own face, smiling back at him.

    Additionally, three further scenes which were deleted from the film but are not included on the DVD as deleted scenes, can be seen in various places:

    1. As he sits in his mail van eating a sandwich, Jacob notices a sack in the back of the van writhing and squirming. A piece of this scene can be found in the theatrical trailer.

    2. After nearly being run over by the subway train, Jacob tries to enter the men's room. However, as soon as he opens the door, he is threatened by a man with a knife. In the background, we can see a man tied to the ceiling being raped by another man. A piece of this scene is available in the "making of" featurette Building 'Jacob's Ladder' (1990).

    3. After the deleted scene in Grand Central Station, there was a scene where Jacob returns to Michael's apartment. Michael isn't at home, so Jacob goes down into the basement and finds Michael's lab. He looks around for a while, before finding Michael's decapitated head in a filing cabinet. A brief moment of this scene can also be found in the "making of" featurette Building 'Jacob's Ladder' (1990). Edit

  • Yes. Both the US edition, released by Lion's Gate in 2010, and the UK edition, released by StudioCanal in 2010, are identical to their DVD counterparts (ie, the only special feature on the UK edition is the theatrical trailer). Both Blu-rays are region locked - the US edition is Region A only; the UK edition Region B only. The film was re-released in the US in August 2015, but the only difference is new packaging. The special features remain the same (apart from the addition of an Ultraviolet digital version), and the disk is still region locked. Edit



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