Is Road to Perdition based on a true story?

Synopsis of Road to Perdition

Road to Perdition is a period gangster drama set in the backdrop of the Great Depression of 1931. Mike Sullivan is an associate of John Rooney, the southern Illinois mafia kingpin. Rooney, having raised and sheltered an orphan Mike since his childhood, has a lot of fondness for him. Perhaps, more than what he has for his maniacal son, Conner Rooney. Sullivan’s elder son Michael, curious about his mysterious father, accidentally witnesses a mob encounter carried out by his father and Connor. Michael is caught and swears to keep the secret, but Connor sees him as a loose end. This brings Sullivan into conflict with Rooney. As a consequence, he sides with his son, which makes Sullivan an adversary of the syndicate. Sullivan then flees with his son to protect themselves and simultaneously plots revenge on the Rooneys.

The film makes references to a lot of real-life people and events and is extremely real in its portrayal of the story. In this article, we are going to examine if it is based on a true story or not.

Artistic Influences

The story of an executor of a criminal syndicate who has to flee from his bosses together with his son is fictitious but is loosely based on similar events from real life, which we’ll see later. It is also based on a graphic novel by the American thriller writer Max Alan Collins, which itself is based on a Japanese Manga series which translates as Lone Wolf and Cub. In fact, many have heavily criticized the story of the film for using too many gangster-genre tropes that are universal in nature. Like a boy being raised by a gangster, the resultant jealousy within the family, the good son-bad son banality, the “blood is thicker than water” impulse of the father, et cetera. All in all, it is fair to say that the film has a large number of international influences.

1) Road to Perdition – Book by Max Adam Collins
2) Lone Wolf and Cub – Manga by writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima

Real-life Counterparts of Road to Perdition

Road to Perdition, therefore, has its origins in fantasy. Howbeit, Mike Sullivan’s conflict with his boss resembles a fight that a true gang leader, John Patrick Looney, had with one of his employees, Dan Drost, whose son died as a consequence of it. The creator designed and named the character of John Rooney in a way similar to Looney, who also operated in Rock Islands. He was one of the top mafia kingpins of the country; and the police finally caught him in 1922, almost a decade before the Depression. Sam Mendes’ film, on the other hand, opens in 1931.  

John Pattrick Looney

Like Rooney in the movie, Looney also had a son named Connor, who got killed in Rock Islands during a brawl with a rival gang in 1921. Connor gets murdered in the film as well, not in a gang war though; rather he dies as a result of Sullivan’s attack on the family. In the film, Sullivan kills Rooney before taking his own life, which is not true either. Looney’s real-life had a less histrionic end; he served eight years in jail for manslaughter and lived a quiet life for 13 more years after they released him. He died of tuberculosis in 1942.

Reward poster for the capture of Looney issued after the 1922 murder of William Gabel
Reward poster for the capture of Looney issued after the 1922 murder of William Gabel

Truthful depiction of the Great Depression

An important way in which Road to Perdition is based in fact is in its truthful portrayal of the Great Depression. Survival was tough in those desperate times, especially for those who relied on the mainstream economy. Gang culture was a parallel economy that provided a glimmer of hope to the general population. “What men do after work is what made us rich. No need to screw them at work as well.” – this line of John Rooney from the film gives us a sense of this parallel economy. Gangsters symbolized resistance to the traditional economic apparatus. Cinema also helped to propagate this notion in those times. In hit movies like Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, Hollywood depicts gangsters as champions of individualism and self-made men in tough economic times.

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There existed a feeling of being superior within the crime syndicates; and also a belief that it’s the social inadequacy and inferiority of the commoners because of which they are suffering. Mike, talking about the paradoxical spending behavior of the commoners, says, “Sometimes, I despair the species, you know?” Cinematography plays a crucial role in storytelling. It lends realism to it. The idea of rich people looking at commoners as inferior beings; has been captured precisely by the way in which it’s shot. Multiple times in the movie, the common public is shown to be walking ceaselessly in one direction; like sheep, with no sense of purpose. In fact, the opening scene shows ordinary men walking in that fashion. It’s only the criminals and their families to whom the movie has afforded close-up shots.

The opening scene of Road to Perdition
The opening scene of Road to Perdition
Stills from Road to Perdition
Stills from Road to Perdition

Conclusion of Road to Perdition

At the start of this article, we discussed how the story employs a whole lot of gangster stereotypes. The way in which it is shot and told, however, does away with all the clichés of the gangster genre. Cinematographer Conrad Hall once said about the film, “The thing that makes this picture work so well is a kind of honesty, it’s a sort of honest reality that doesn’t try to be theatrical in any way. There is no blue moonlight, no green vistas, none of that kind of stuff. The film has very carefully crafted compositions, it’s meticulously cut, and it’s placed very gently and slowly.”  Road to Perdition is a truthful narration of a fabricated story.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Sarakshie

    Really insightful

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