Yesterday, I wrote in a disparaging manner about a Joseph Campbell-generated template I was given by a movie studio executive who insisted it was the “One True Way” of telling a story. Most specifically, “The Hero’s Journey” story.
Upon further consideration, I have moved to the position that I may possibly have been in error.
For those of you scoring at home, for the first time ever.
The impetus for my possible mind-change takes me back to the fifties, not to movies, or to television shows. Correction. It was a television show. Just not a scripted television show.
What I’m talking about is wrestling. (Which, it turns out, actually was a scripted television show.)
During television’s infancy, wrestling was a ratings bonanza. (Not to be confused with the western Bonanza, which was itself a television bonanza a decade later.)
Wrestling was a natural for the fledgling medium – a crowd-pleasing hoot to watch, and comparatively inexpensive to produce. It required no soundstage, nor money-sapping production costs. The action was in full swing at the local sports arena; all that was required was to bring in the cameras. Include a colorful cast of participants and a carnival barker “Whoa, Nellie!” announcer and, if you will pardon the sports crossover, you were off to the races.
A few names – to illuminate the young, and nostalgify the aging. Pat Flanagan (Finishing Move: “The Mule Kick.”) Bobo Brazil (Finishing Move: “The Coco Butt.”) Canadian icon “Whipper” Billy Watson (Finishing Move: “The Canuck Commando Hold.”) And 609-pound “Haystacks” Calhoun (Finishing Move: “Sitting on People.”)
The wrestlers were divided into two categories: One category was the “Good Guys”, such as multiple champion Lou Thesz, “Argentina”, “Sweet Daddy” Siki, and Ricky Starr (“The Wrestling Rabbi.”)
On the other side were “The Villains” – Ivan Kalmikoff, Dick “The Bruiser”, the dreaded “Sheik” and “Killer” Kowalski – though once, to my eternal horror and dismay, I was informed by a Canadian pal colleging in Boston that “Good Guy” “Whipper” Billy Watson, whom I had once witnessed flip the cap off a Coke bottle with his thumb, reconfigured himself into a crazed, frothing-at-the-mouth “Villain” in Massachusetts.
Oh, “Whipper”, how could you?
Every match back then pitted a “Good Guy” against a “Villain.” (Or, during “tag team” matches, two “Good Guys” against two “Villains.”) The “Good Guy” fought clean; the “Villain” egregiously broke the rules by, for example, sneaking out a sliver of sandpaper secreted in the waste band of their trunks and, during clinches, unseen by the referee, rubbing the sandpaper viciously across his opponent’s eyes. (An atrocity inevitably followed, when challenged, by the “Villain’s” “personally affronted” – and always “Boo”-inducing, “Who, me?” reaction.)
So here’s where I’m going with this.
Each wrestling bout followed the exact same trajectory. They’d fight evenly for a while, each wrestler eluding his opponent’s potentially devastating grasp. Then, at virtually the same point in every match, things would change.
“The Villain” would gain the upper hand, often illegally, by, say, banging the “Good Guy’s” head into the metal post supporting the ropes – often, more than once – before the referee instructed him to stop.
By then, the “Good Guy” was often dead on his feet, offering an opportune moment for “The Villain” to drop him to the canvas, with a trip, or a series of elbow bludgeons to the face, pin him for a count of three, and win the match.
At this point, things looked hopeless for the “Good Guy”, a certain loser despite the encouragements of the crowd, which, at least in the fifties, were not so perverse as to root for “The Villain”, despite what may be indicated on Mad Men.
With the groggy “Good Guy” on his back, his shoulders kissing the canvas, “The Villain” dropped down himself onto his dazed, and near-motionless body.
It’s a pin!
The referee counts off the seconds, slamming his palm rhythmically onto the mat. Remember: Three palm slams, and it’s over.
The ref counts “One!”
The “Good Guy” doesn’t move.
As the referee is about to slam his hand on the mat for the third and final time, somehow, from somewhere, the “Good Guy” summons the energy to bounce “The Villain” off his body…
And “The Comeback” begins.
To the approving roars of the, God bless ‘em, not jaded fifties audience, the “Good Guy” subdues “The Villain” and wins the match.
Remind you of anything?
How about every action picture you’ve ever seen. Die Hard, and its sequels. Bruce Willis “down for the count”, turns the tables, and inevitably prevails. “Jason Bourne” should definitely be dead by now. But I believe there is yet another sequel on its way where – I’ll put money on it – he emerges from near-oblivion, vanquishing the evildoers once again!
In every one of my cherished westerns, at some point, it appeared impossible that the hero would survive. But he always did. And the “Bad Guys” were locked in the calaboose.ß
And it wasn’t only the only the “Morally Just” outcome. There was an almost viscerally comforting element in the storytelling itself.
Almost as if…
There was, indeed, “One True Way” of telling a story.
Movies from European countries may vary from this template, though even they put heroes in jeopardy and for the most part, they don’t die. The difference is usually in the degree and nature of the victory, European countries preferring partial, more ambiguous resolutions, America tending towards ones with “Rocky” music backing them up.
Other countries’ – Asian or African – approaches may differ even further. Just like their music. You know, the “Doe, a deer…” musical scale sounds melodious to our ears? In other countries – we may be jarred by their musical constructions, but they dance to them at weddings.
But other countries aside, we seem to have an almost hardwired manner of constructing a story. And any deviation from it seems “wrong.”
The question – and there is always a question – is this:
Is it possible to deviate from that formula and still succeed?
Or are writers confined to the same old tree, with simply different decorations?