One of the standout scenes in Raiders of the Lost Ark involves Indy fighting a great big bald German mechanic. Much bigger than him. More muscular. Shirtless. Ready for a fight. Seems to look forward to it, motioning for Indy to climb down from the plane he's trying to steal. The soundtrack plays a reluctant version of Indy's theme as he descends from the wing and puts up his dukes. He misdirects the German and kicks him in the crotch, to no effect. The German knocks him on his ass with one punch. There are more blows. Indy spits out a tooth. He scrambles around, doing everything he can to just stay alive. And then, somehow, he digs up something from somewhere inside, and starts to win. He slugs the German again and again. The German's bloodied face shows distress as he takes one punch after another. Movie theatre audiences cheered. But the German starts to win again. And then he's sliced by the airplane propellor. Win for Indy. The audience cheers again.
Would they have cheered with such excitement if Indy had been holding his own from the start? Or dominating? Why does the hero need to be pushed to the point of near defeat for the victory to mean so much?
The actor who played the German had an almost identical role in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, as a great big Sikh bruiser. Indy takes him on in a fight that unfolds in the exact same way (he dies in a rock crusher). He played a similar role (that resulted in an identical fight) in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which didn't make the final cut. His name was Pat Roach, and his main career was as a professional wrestler. Under the name "Bomber" Roach he held the titles of both British and European wrestling.
The connection with wrestling is entirely appropriate, as those Indy fights perfectly follow the arc of a professional wrestling match (actual competitive wrestling is a different animal altogether)(excellently illustrated in the recent indie movie Win Win). You can see the pattern in the movie The Wrestler. The good guy (known amongst pros as "The Face") draws all the cheers from the fans. The bad guy ("The Heel") gets booed and everybody loves to hate him. They wrestle. The Face starts off strongly, and it looks like he's going to stride into an easy victory. But things turn in the Heel's favour. He employs a dirty trick and gets the advantage. He keeps the ref distracted and enacts further villainy. And it works. The Face absorbs so much punishment he's soon conscious but completely insensible. The Heel runs him across the mat, bounces him against the ropes, contorts his compliant body into whatever position he needs to enact some elaborate move on him, rendering him even more insensible and helpless. The crowd groans and the announcers despair that it really does look like all is lost for the hero. But then… what's this? The hero makes a dramatic and unexpected recovery. Hulk Hogan made this moment famous, as the Heel would lift up the Hulk's right arm and drop it. And lift it up again, and drop it again. Lift it a third time, and… his index finger points up! Wags from side to side… Uh-uh Mr. Villain. Not today. His eyes open, showing even more strength and determination than he's displayed earlier in the match. Hulk punches the Heel away, and stands up, fully recovered, fighting more ferociously than ever before, and he wins the contest with his signature move - the bodyslam. The audience goes bananas.
Superhero comics employ this same pattern. Hero meets the villain, the villain kicks the hero's ass. The hero regroups. Faces the villain again. The hero kicks the villain's ass, but good. This happened in the course of a single issue in decades past. Now it'll span five or six issues and get republished as a graphic novel. Same pattern, though. If you'd like some specific examples I can give you a few dozen.
I wrote about this pattern in another piece, showing its appearance on the TV show Lost, establishing lead character Jack Shepard as a worthy and mighty leader when he beat a mysterious and sadistic opponent (who'd previously bested him) into submission, thanks to an upsurge of will and determination.
Most movies follow this pattern. Screenwriter Blake Snyder gave a template that fits a surprisingly diverse array of films in his instructional books Save the Cat and Save the Cat Goes to the Movies (examples include Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Fargo, Alien, Freaky Friday, MASH, Maria Full of Grace, Miss Congeniality and many others). The template, loosely, is this. I'll give bullet points from Star Wars to illustrate.
1. Act One or the Thesis. Establish the protagonist's world. Luke Skywalker is a bored farmboy and hotrodder on a desert planet.
2. The Catalyst. Something comes into the protagonist's life that changes things. R2-D2 plays Princess Leia's call for help.
3. Act Two, or Antithesis. The protagonist enters a new world where everything's different, an upside-down version of Act One. Luke goes into space with Ben and the droids and Han and Chewie. They outrun the imperial ships and Luke learns to use the Force.
4. Mid-point. The protagonist adjusts to this new world, and starts to do very well there. They infiltrate the Death Star and rescue Leia.
5. The bad guys close in. Things start to go badly for the protagonist. They get caught in the trash compactor.
6. All is Lost. Things go even worse. Ben Kenobi dies. NO!!!
7. Long Dark Night of the Soul. The protagonist is worse off than he was at the start of the movie. Luke sits aboard the Millennium Falcon, heartbroken at Ben's death.
8. Act Three, or Synthesis. The protagonist fuses what he knew in Act One (Thesis) with what he learned in Act Two (Antithesis) and finds a renewed strength inside (synthesis). Luke combines his hotshot piloting with his knowledge of the Force and the guidance of the ghostly Ben Kenobi and destroys the Death Star.
This is the Hero's Journey, outlined by Joseph Campbell (and the admitted model for Star Wars' story). The call to adventure, the trials in a strange new world, the hero going into the belly of the whale, and then emerging, stronger, braver, more capable and more knowledgeable than before.
But what I'm looking at here is that Long Dark Night of the Soul moment, followed by the sudden surge of inspiration and newfound strength that ushers in Act Three. Neo embraces his status as The One and Agent Smith can't beat him. Harry realizes that Sally's the one he loves, and runs through the streets of New York on New Year's Eve and convinces her they belong together. Napoleon Dynamite sees his progress with Deb fizzle, and dances in front of the school, which wows everyone and wins the election for Pedro. The Bad News Bears' drunken coach sees how his desire to win has taken the fun out of baseball for his ragtag young players, and lets all them have their turn at bat, which brings them to the brink of victory.
Any sports movie chronicles the rise of an underdog, or a team of underdogs. The straight-on, uncontested victory of the favoured champion(s) just isn't that good of a story. In 1992 the US put its best NBA players on their Olympic basketball team: Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing - nothing but all-stars. The book The Dream Team: America's Quest for Olympic Gold commemorated this, focusing on the selection of the players and the difficulty of getting these former opponents to play on the same side. As one Amazon.com review describes it, "the actual competition is something of an anti-climax." Of course it is. One easy victory after another. Can you imagine how boring that would be as a fictionalized movie?
The producers of the documentary When We Were Kings didn't make this mistake. Muhammad Ali was predicted to lose to George Foreman in their bout in Zaire in 1975. Ali played rope-a-dope, allowing Foreman to exhaust himself hitting him, and taunted him in the clinches: "That all you got? You disappoint me, George." In the sixth round, instead of collapsing in defeat, Ali burst forth with a sudden show of strength and focus and knocked Foreman out, to everyone's disbelief. But Br. Juma, a big fan of Ali, pointed out to me that right before Ali's sudden turn, one announcer describes what has happened thus far as "a very even fight." Juma had watched the fight in its entirety, rebroadcast on a sports channel, and confirmed that it had indeed been very even. Ali did let Foreman wear himself out punching him, but he got in just as many hits as Foreman did. But damn, is it ever a better story when it seemed Ali had lost not only the ability to win this fight, but any fight ever again, and then rose from oblivion and won. Michael Mann used this as the climax for the biopic Ali.
The Vancouver Canucks embodied this pattern in round two of this year's Stanley Cup playoffs. They won their first two games against Chicago. Solid victories. They'd had a great season, with more wins than ever before, and their play-off prospects were strong - but they'd never won the Cup. They'd made it to the finals twice. They've been league underdogs and underachievers most seasons. But maybe this year… Then they lost the next game. And the one after that. Badly. They missed passes. They weren't working as a unit. Their star goalie let in one goal after another. What was going on? In game five they got it back. But then lost game six. And squeaked to victory in game seven! Hooray!!! The dead have risen! They repeated this pattern in the Stanley Cup finals, but without the final win. And then people rioted, and that became the story.
In any case, why is this pattern so pervasive in our mythology (both fiction and non-fiction)? Why do we respond to it so strongly? Why do we want to see it again and again?
The theme of Star Wars, as described in the documentary Star Wars to Jedi: the Making of a Saga, is that even in a world of unprecedented technology, there's still nothing stronger than the human spirit. Star Wars climaxes with Luke flying his ship in the Death Star's trench at extremely high speeds to drop his proton torpedoes into a two meter wide shaft. This is the last chance for the Rebels. Their more experienced pilots have been killed. Luke's friendly technological companion, R2-D2, has been shot and can't help him. He's being pursued by Darth Vader - a figure described in Return of the Jedi as "more machine than man." In The Power of Myth, Bill Moyers said that in the moment in the film when Luke shuts off his targeting computer and trusts the Force, the audience cheered. Certainly none of them cogitated the meaning of that moment. It was an instinctual response. But that something deep down inside us recognizes when someone reaches for that something deep down in themselves.
We all have that something. It's mysterious and unquantifiable. For most of us it lies dormant our entire lives. But every once in a while we can glimpse it, maybe even access it. It can give us an idea for a song, or a drawing or bit of choreography. It can provide a sudden insight that makes everything clear. It can give us presence and composure in a time of trial. It can help us suddenly find the strength to win the race, score the goal, or overcome a giant bald barrel chested German mechanic. It can give us that flash of understanding that prompts us to evolve.
A quick example from my own life: I tour one man shows in theatre festivals across Canada. The first time I did this was in the summer of 1998. I had no reputation. No experience. I hustled like crazy, putting up posters and handing out fliers to people in line-ups for other shows to drum up an audience. Little by little the show gained momentum. Reviews were good. In Winnipeg people started to come out. It looked like I was going to make a go of it after all. Then I got laid low by mononucleosis. Initially misdiagnosed as tonsillitis. Worst of both worlds. No energy, and couldn't even swallow my own saliva. Ain't no medicine for mono. You've gotta wait it out. I cancelled my run in Saskatoon. Emptied my bank account and flew back to Vancouver. Two weeks later I hit the road again. Hustled like crazy again. Before one performance my stage manager told me I had an audience of six waiting. Fuck. What the hell am I doing here. What the hell am I doing at all? But fuck it. Let's do it. And halfway through the show, I found myself radiating a strange kind of bliss. The show was working like never before. And those six people knew it. And I felt so happy to be there, doing what I was doing. Whatever I'd gone through to get there, and whatever I'd have to do to get back there, was all worth it. More than worth it. The next city was Victoria, and people came out. The tour ended in Vancouver, where a good review in the big weekly paper gave me a line-up that snaked around the block. I came on stage to a packed house, cheering before I'd said a word. Princess Leia slipped a medallion around my neck and the closing credits ran.
Pretty much any movie tells the story of someone learning something, growing into something, reaching a further state as a human being. Any sublime athletic accomplishment shows a single person or a unified group achieving something transcendent, something people hadn't thought they'd been capable of before. Every professional wrestling match seeks to remind us that we have a light inside. A hero is someone who searches for that light. It might not seem like it's there. We can come to believe that all is lost, that it would have been better to stay in the comfort of monotony than to have ever tried to reach for something better. And there's no denying that life is full of setbacks, irritations, hurdles, bureaucracy, inanities, insults, injuries and humiliating, crushing defeats. But some part of us knows that light is in there somewhere. When we see someone reach inside and grasp it, and begin to glow with its power, we respond to that. Our own light glows a bit too. If it can happen for him, maybe it can happen for me. And maybe that'll be what gives me the strength to pick myself up the next time life bodyslams me onto the pavement.