Anyone who has seen “There Will Be Blood” and not read Oil! will be hard-pressed to remember Paul Watkins, Bunny’s hero (that’s H.W.’s hero, for all you movie-watchers)—but they most certainly will remember Eli Watkins, Paul’s younger brother and child preacher.
The Eli of the film is a huge, imposing character. He’s got a personality to go along with his booming voice, and he is cunning and powerful. The Eli of the book, though, is rather ridiculous.
He is a successful preacher, and he does end up with an enormous congregation, wealthy for a time and later begging J. Arnold Ross for money. But he only gets one over one Ross once, just after they first meet, and he is later made more ridiculous in consequence. It turns out the Third Revelation in Eli’s Church of the Third Revelation was actually an idea lifted from Ross. And he wraps that idea in the ridiculous language Sinclair belittles him with.
“‘I say, can he show the signs? Has he healen the sick? Has he casted out devils? Do the lame rise up and walk? Do the dying take up their beds? Tell me that! Tell me!'” Like a child, he shouts, his voice cracks, he is “shrill and piercing,” whining to Dad about how he is the bearer of the Third Revelation, not his brother. “‘I am him who the Holy Spirit has blessed! I am him who the Lord hath chosen to show the signs! Look at me, I say—look at me! Ain’t my hair fair and my eyes blue? Ain’t my face grave and my voice deep?’—and sure enough, Eli’s voice had gone down again, and Eli was a grown man, a seer of visions and pronouncer of doom.”
That’s when he really starts preaching.
This is at the dinner table at his parents’ ranch, with his family, Bunny, and Mr. Ross. Paul is absent—and he doesn’t have much patience for Eli’s shtick. The following morning Bunny and Mr. Ross overhear Eli at the tabernacle, preaching the exact same words. Bunny: “‘Gee whiz, Dad!…Eli was saying every word that you taught him! Do you suppose he really believes it all?'” Dad wisely explains:
…that only the Holy Spirit could tell that. Eli was a lunatic, and a dangerous one, but a kind that you couldn’t put in an asylum, because he used the phrases of religion. He hadn’t wits enough to make up anything for himself, he had jist enough to see what could be done with the phrases Dad had given him; so now there was a new religion turned loose to plague the poor and ignorant, and the Almighty himself couldn’t stop it.
Eli really doesn’t turn out to be so bad though. Not good, but mostly ineffectual. He does get a tabernacle the size of a city block built in Angel City and a popular radio program, but we see him sneaking around pathetically with young women in hotels, and possibly even selling out by coordinating revivals convenient for Ross’s oil business (keeps the newsmen away from the strikers). Not such a worthy opponent for the oilman at all, here.