Ancient Myths in Modern Movies

by Dr. Cora Angier Sowa

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Blackfeet Indians

The Old West is the setting of many movies, with an enduring place in the mythology of America. (Illustration: "Blackfeet Indians--Three Buttes," engraving from the United States Pacific Railroad Explorations & Surveys--47th & 49th Parallels, ca. 1855, collection of C.A. Sowa.)


Ancient and mediaeval epic tales like the Iliad and Odyssey, Gilgamesh, and the Chanson de Roland had plots made up of modular elements taken from traditional themes or story lines. Among these themes were The Hero's Life, The Journey, The Marriage of the Fertility Goddess, The Epiphany of a God, and Invention of Technology. These same themes, with the same panoply of elements, as outlined in the following essay, have persisted through many civilizations, and can be found in our own movies. Such survivals appear not just in self-conscious imitations of Greek and other myth like O Brother Where Art Thou (which purposely adapted plot elements from the Odyssey) but in movies like The Godfather, Jaws, The Phantom of the Opera, and even Lassie Come Home. The same characters also recur in the stories, like The Goddess Across the Water, the Two Helpers, The Substitute Who Dies, and The Trickster-Inventor. We act out the plots of our myths, too, as can be seen in some poignant moments from our space program.

The essay that follows was originally delivered as a lecture at the Center for Coördination of Ancient and Modern Studies at the University of Michigan on February 21, 1973, and was subsequently used in a training course in personal development at IBM. The movies named are ones that were current in theaters or on television at the time. Later readers can fill in the blanks with movies of other eras, finding in them the same themes and the same recurring characters.


Identifying the elements of myth: The Godfather and Odysseus

Blood spurting from his chest, the young Italian writhes in a dance of death, his body jerking to the rhythm of the machine gun bullets. A shark's ragged jaws open, red and mangled with the flesh of victims, and a man disappears screaming into the bloody throat. Do these scenes, from The Godfather and Jaws, represent an American myth of cruelty and violence? Or should the word "myth" be reserved for more austere and decorous tales, like those we associate with the gods and goddesses of an idealized Greek and Roman antiquity, leaving us to dismiss The Godfather and Jaws as gruesomely hypnotic stories? (A third definition of "myth" would simply say that it is "something that isn't so," which gets us off the hook without supplying an explanation.)

Many people are surprised to learn that ancient myth was often at least as violent, if not more so, than the mayhem of our modern fantasies. The Greek god Kronos castrated his father with a pruning hook, then swallowed his own children; later, he was forced to vomit them up. The accursed hero Atreus cut the children of his brother Thyestes into little pieces, then served them to their father at a banquet. So much for the austere and decorous. But mythologers today define "myth" in a more subtle and discerning way, to include both the Corleone family and the shark, and Kronos and Thyestes, as well as gentler products of the human imagination. Myth is the system of recurring patterns and themes that people use to make sense out of the world. Significantly, ancient and modern patterns often turn out to be the same, even in small details; in their universality, they seem to have an intimate connection with the way all human beings think. The Godfather, and its companion, Godfather II, have been justly praised for excellence in such technical matters as acting and direction; their popularity is enhanced by less pleasant preoccupations: a lust for violence accentuated in recent years; an obsession with the details of organized crime; a cynical belief that only small distinctions separate lawless behavior from ordinary business practice. But deeper, more archaic reasons lie back of the Mafia saga's tremendous vogue. These reasons have to do with the film's mythic content.

The Succession Myth, or the cycle of older and younger generations

The basic myth of The Godfather is the Succession Myth, one of mankind's oldest myths, found in the literature of the Greeks and Babylonians and other ancient peoples. The typical Succession Myth covers three generations--grandfather, father, and son. Or the succession might be a series of female characters, grandmother, mother, and daughter. It chronicles the passage of power from generation to generation. A typical ancient example is the Theogony of Hesiod, a contemporary of Homer: Ouranos, the Sky God, was castrated by his son Kronos; Kronos, in turn, was overthrown by his youngest son Zeus, who became king of the gods. This story, with its Oedipal associations, describes the basic facts of family descent and competition.

Like Zeus, The Godfather's Michael Corleone is a youngest son, who inherits his aging father's position as head of an organized crime family. He is the youngest of three sons: the eldest brother, Sonny, is a hot-head who gets himself killed, and Fredo, the second brother, is disqualified by his stupidity, making way for Michael to head the family. This variation in which the youngest and least-favored ends by being the most successful, is known from folklore as The Tale of the Three Brothers. The female equivalent is Cinderella. The birth of Michael's son, who is present at the old Don's death, supplies the third generation of the Succession myth.

It is the way of mythic stories to combine more than one myth; the basic theme is extended with subplots from other mythic themes. This gives greater length and variety. The story of the son who overthrows his father in the Succession Myth generally includes the Hero's Birth and the Hero's Consolidation of His Power--themes found both in the Theogony and in The Godfather. Born in secret, the infant Hero is hidden from hostile members of the older generation. In ancient stories, the hostile figure may be the Hero's wicked stepmother or his father, who does not want his son to rob him of his power. Zeus's father Kronos swallowed all of Zeus's brothers and sisters, and would have swallowed Zeus, too, if he had not been tricked into swallowing a stone wrapped in blankets, baby-fashion. But the Hero grows miraculously fast, or attains prodigious strength at an early age, and so is able to save himself. Zeus grew quickly under the care of the Nymphs, and forced his father to vomit up all his brothers and sisters, whom he had swallowed--demonstrating that we moderns have nothing on the ancients when it comes to action and violence. When he is older, the Hero performs the Great Exploit, which confirms him as a mature Hero. Always one of the most popular parts of the Hero myth, this is the part where the Hero kills the Monster, or performs some equivalent feat. The world has always loved a good monster. Zeus destroyed Typhoeus and the Titans, but the Exploit proliferates easily into a whole series, like the Twelve Labors of Herakles. After the Exploit, the Hero consolidates his power by distributing rewards and positions to his friends and punishing his enemies.

In The Godfather, Michael's comfortable upbringing precluded the element of secrecy we find in many Heroes' origins; but Godfather Part II, while adding little in most respects to Part I, supplied this crucial element. Part II's flashbacks show us the darker side of the Hero's origins, in young Vito Corleone's secret flight from the Sicilian Mafiosi who killed his parents. Part II also makes Michael the third generation, as the young Hero of the Succession Myth ought to be. His children are the fourth--Zeus, too, had many sons. Michael's Great Exploit--the combat with the Monster--is the killing of his first cop.

The Journey: the Goddess Across the Water, the Two Helpers, and the Death of the Substitute

The Hero often goes on a Journey. Michael goes to Sicily to escape the cop-killing rap. The Journey theme has always been a favorite one for story-tellers everywhere, as a metaphor for life and its experiences. It was a favorite among the Greeks, who were a seafaring people; Homer's Odyssey has given its name for all time to every great journey. It is popular with us, too, for Americans are also a mobile people. From Huckleberry Finn to Easy Rider and Harry and Tonto, we see constant proof of its popularity.

"Come stay with me and be my husband," the Goddess says to the Hero, "and I will make you immortal." She is the Goddess Across the Water, and the Hero's encounter with her is one of the incidents that appear almost without fail in every Journey story. But the relationship of man and Goddess is doomed, for the Hero returns to his human wife. The Hero also meets two Helpers, one female, the other male, an aged or immortal seer. The First Helper may be the same as the Goddess Across the Water, and the second Helper is sometimes her father. On his return, the Hero loses someone near and dear to him, the Substitute Who Dies in place of the Hero. The Substitute may be the Hero's best friend, his mother, or even his dog. In The Godfather, Apollonia, the beautiful girl described as "looking more Greek than Italian," is the Goddess with whom the Hero lives but with whom he cannot stay. The Sicilians call Michael's sudden infatuation with Apollonia "the thunderbolt," reminding us of another ancient myth; for in Greek epic, men who slept with goddesses were often punished by Zeus's thunderbolt. Iasion, beloved of Demeter, suffered this punishment; Anchises dared not reveal his afternoon of love with Aphrodite for fear of it. But in The Godfather it is Apollonia herself who is killed, by a bomb in their car intended for Michael. Tragedy for the goddess was always implicit in the theme; for though immortal, the ancient goddess was touched by death by losing her mortal lover. With the mortal Apollonia, the motif is made explicit. Michael goes back alone to America, where he marries his back-home girlfriend, Kay Adams. Kay's role is that of the human wife, to whom the Hero returns after his adventure with the Goddess. She is Penelope to Apollonia's Circe. But Michael's absence is marked by another loss, for while he is away, his oldest brother, Sonny, the hot-head, is ambushed and killed. This is the Death of the Substitute, without which the Hero cannot return from the great Journey.

The Journey theme is a myth of Death and Resurrection. Throughout mythology, there are many death and resurrection myths, sometimes literal, as in Christian mythology, but also including journeys to the Underworld of the Dead, journeys up to Heaven and back, and other lengthy absences from society. A woman or young person occupying the role of Hero may experience "death" by being raped or kidnapped--an involuntary journey. But usually the Journey is motivated by a felt lack or longing, and there is good reason to think the basic longing is for immortality. A myth even older than the Greek, the Sumero-Babylonian Gilgamesh epic, illustrates this clearly. Gilgamesh crossed the sea in search of immortality. Arrived at the other side, he was told that if he could stay awake for six days and seven nights, he would become immortal, but he fell asleep. He was given another chance to become immortal, if he could pluck and eat the magic plant that grew at the bottom of the sea. He plucked the plant, but before he could eat it, a snake ate it, and became immortal instead of Gilgamesh. The Search for the Secret of Life is not unknown to us: it appears in the anti-utopian film Soylent Green, where the inhabitants of an overpopulated future are living on little wafers called Soylent, which everyone thinks are made out of soybeans and lentils. A detective named Thorn (Charlton Heston) sets out to learn the secret that he knows the authorities are hiding from the people. Thorn's Journey to the Land of the Dead is his secret journey to the factory where the wafers are made. Helped by a beautiful girl and an old man, appropriately named Solomon, Thorn learns the secret, which is that the wafers are made from human corpses. But he cannot bring back the secret; he is murdered by the authorities before he can tell the people what they are eating.

But the Journey Myth, in common with other Death and Resurrection myths, may have less to do with literal dying and its literal aftermath than with the psychological coming to maturity of the individual, who must give up his infantile belief in his own immortality and omnipotence, and confront his own mortality. It is an experience from which he emerges a sadder but wiser person. This is why the Substitute must die: No one can return from the Land of the Dead without losing some part of himself; no one can reach maturity except at great cost. Or perhaps: nothing can survive without changing. The Death of the Substitute is so important that it often appears even in stories that lack an explicit Journey. War stories frequently have both the meeting with the goddess and the Death of the Substitute. In such movies as The Big Parade, Wings, Task Force, and many others, the hero goes overseas to war, falls in love with a girl (often French or Oriental), and his best buddy gets killed. In the war movies, the hero sometimes gets the girl at the end and sometimes not, but someone important to the hero always dies.

Michael Corleone's Journey, then, is another aspect of his initiation into life, which began with his Great Exploit. The cop-killing provides the motivation for the Journey, and this, too, is thematically correct; a Journey required as expiation for a murder is a variation known from many ancient examples. Apollonia, the Goddess, represents both sexual initiation and that life-enhancing touch with mysterious forces that we often, for lack of a better explanation, ascribe to a supernatural agency. But Michael cannot remain forever isolated from real life in his idyllic Sicilian hideaway. Like all of us, he returns to the responsibilities of his mature life. On his return, he consolidates his position by distributing positions and power to his friends and punishing his enemies, completing his role in the Succession myth.

Why would a film about the Succession Myth be popular in the 1970's? (A Godfather III is already being readied for television.) We have had other Succession stories; the familiar show-business story about the aging star who is being displaced by the younger, more glamorous star is another version of the same myth. The most famous examples are A Star is Born, which has just been remade again, and All About Eve, recently revived on Broadway under its original name of Applause. All About Eve has the classic three generations; it ends with the younger actress' own stardom being threatened by the schemes of an even younger woman. Fellini's Oscar-winning Amarcord follows the same cycle of generations. In a story framed by the cyclic year that begins with the burning of the Witch of Winter, an old woman dies, a young woman marries, and a little girl catches the bridal bouquet. The 1960's and 70's have been a time of massive changes, when old ways of looking at things and doing things have been called in question, and the younger generation has tried to reshape the world in its own image. 1972, the year the original Godfather was released, also gave us the film version of Fiddler On The Roof and TV's All In The Family, both of which also derived their dramatic tension from the conflict of the generations. The myth of Ouranos, Kronos, and Zeus is old, but it seems to have a particular applicability to our own times. The Succession and the Journey, two powerful themes, combine to give The Godfather a strong mythic foundation, on which its other messages--about law and order, American business ethics, and the problems of America's immigrant ethnic minorities--can be laid.


Widening our search for mythic themes: sharecroppers, suburbanites, and movie Westerns

If we can apply this kind of mythic analysis to The Godfather, can we do the same for other movies? Indeed we can, and a look at some other movies from this point of view gives a deeper understanding of both the movies and the myths. Some movies use the myths already found in The Godfather, but other themes appear, too, illuminating other aspects of our personal and social lives. For the mythic themes have to do with the universal life crises--birth, maturation, survival, sickness, death, and those moments when human beings confront the inexplicable forces of the universe. The myths separate and interweave, even as the events of which they are stylized versions touch us in changing patterns during our real lives. The myth that is the "frame" in one story may supply the subject for another and vice versa. In The Godfather, the frame, or basic myth, was the Succession, and the Journey was the subsidiary theme. But the Journey could just as well be, and often is, the frame, into which other myths are fit as details.

Sounder: the heroic dog as injured Substitute

Sounder, the highly acclaimed Black movie, used the Journey as the basic myth, combined with the Son's Search and the Return of the Hero. In structure, it is almost identical to Homer's Odyssey, which also featured a long-gone father and the son who goes looking for him. Odysseus spent ten years getting home from the Trojan War, which had itself lasted ten years. Telemachos, his son, seeking to oust the wicked barons who had usurped his father's lands and who planned to force his mother into marriage with one of their number, goes looking for his father. In Sounder, Nathan Morgan, the Black sharecropper, is sentenced to a work camp for a petty theft. And this, on the same day that he had proved his prowess in an American heroic activity, the local baseball game. Things go badly at home in Nathan's absence, too, without Nathan to help bring the crops in. His son David goes looking for him. As in the Odyssey, the son does not find his father, though in both stories the father eventually returns. David's journey, like that of Telemachos, serves instead as a vehicle for his own attainment of maturity. David meets the Two Helpers, but instead of male and female, they are both female--but one is White, the other Black. Returning, like Odysseus, injured and in rags, the father--again like Odysseus--is recognized first by his dog on his return. Sounder lacks the Odyssey's bloody Revenge scene--none is necessary--but Nathan's return sets the family fortunes happily to rights.

Who is the Substitute Who Dies in Sounder? Actually, nobody dies, but Sounder, the dog, comes to mind, especially when we remember how Odysseus' old hunting dog, Argos, dies after greeting his master one last time. Sounder is injured by the sheriff's men and disappears for a while, though he returns to accompany the son on his Search. But father and son return home injured, too, and a close look reveals a recurring symbolism: Three Journeys, from which each character--man, dog, and boy--returns damaged in some way, as the price of his return. And this is the basic meaning of the Death of the Substitute, that no one can return from the Land of the Dead except at the loss of some part of himself.

The Swimmer: paddling home to a ghostly house

The Rip Van Winkle motif, where the long-gone Hero returns to find conditions of change and devastation at home, is prominent in Sounder. It is almost the whole story in a curious and little-noticed movie called The Swimmer, based on a story by John Cheever. A Connecticut suburbanite (played by Burt Lancaster) decides to go home by swimming across all his neighbors' swimming pools. He arrives, through a series of more and more dreamlike sequences, to find his once-lovely house mysteriously vacant, a ghostly ruin. Devastation at home during the Hero's absence is, in a way, the other side of the Death of the Substitute, and almost as necessary. Even in The Godfather, the Corleone family is diminished and failing in strength on Michael's return from Sicily, and needs to be put to rights by him. No one can reach maturity without changing, but life changes around us, too. The old secure world of the home dies, and a new life must be created anew by each adult for himself.

The Creation Myth and the Cattle of the Sun in the Old West

The Creation myth itself provides a frame for certain stories, notably cowboy and Western movies. The connection between cattle and creation did not begin with the Old West. As we look into ancient mythology, we find an important connection between the two, especially involving the Cattle of the Sun. In the mythology of ancient India, Indra, the young Hero-god, kills the demon of darkness, Vritra, who had imprisoned the Cows of the Waters, whose moisture is necessary for creation. Indra frees the cows and impregnates them, and they give birth to the Sun, which provides warmth for creation. Indra and Varuna then create the world. Cattle have always occupied an important place in the mythologies of people who keep cattle, as symbols of fertility, virility, and creation--as well as being one of the oldest forms of property. Stories about cattle--the stealing of cattle as a heroic enterprise, and the taking of cattle from an enemy settlement--are prominent in their epic. In our own culture, too, cowboy stories are a Creation myth. While the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock have never caught on as a popular subject, the Western has thrived as our myth of nation-building--"How the West Was Won."

The Virginian, whose 1929 version, starring Gary Cooper, is the most familiar, is a good example of the straight Western, with no irony, no questioning of the epic myth, and humor only of a fusty sort. Cattle-stealing is the film's heroic activity. A changed ethic no longer allows cattle-stealing as a legal activity, carried out against enemy towns or an unpleasant cattle baron like Vritra; it is a crime, for which Gary Cooper's friend is hanged (by a posse led by Cooper himself), thus providing the story with its Death of the Substitute. Gary Cooper gets the girl, with whom both men were in love. This is the Contest, where the girl must choose the best from among many suitors. The girl, a transplanted New England schoolteacher, is a typical epic heroine--her role is to mourn over the fallen and to refuse to accept the cruelties of the heroic code. The survivor guilt inevitably associated with the Death of the Substitute is rationalized, as it usually is, by Cooper's role in his friend's death. Before he marries the girl, Cooper avenges the loss of his friend by killing the chief rustler, who led his friend astray. This, too, is an epic motif, the Hero who refuses to consummate his marriage, until he has settled a score. We see the same sequence of events--the hero and his friend in love with the same girl, the friend killed through the agancy of the hero--in war movies like Wings and Chain Lightning, with the heroic acitivity changed from cattle-herding to flying. In Chain Lightning, Humphrey Bogart and his friend are test pilots; the friend dies in an accident. "We drove him to it," says the girl to Bogart, and Bogart "avenges" the other man's death before marrying the girl; flying grimly through the thunderstorm on an almost empty gas tank, he ejects successfully from the same experimental escape system that killed the other pilot.

Very different in its irony from the naive seriousness of The Virginian is the later Western The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean; yet its use of myth is, if anything, richer. For it gives us the opening of the West and the founding of its towns as the frame, with elements of the Succession, the Journey, the Goddess, the Substitute, the devastated home, and the Son's Revenge, which has become, for the purpose of this movie, a Daughter's Revenge. Roy Bean, a desperado who has just robbed an bank, comes into a little Texas town bragging of his deed. He is beaten, robbed, and left to die by the keepers of the local brothel. With the help of a young girl (indispensable in many a heroic tale; she later becomes his wife), he comes back and murders the robbers. He converts the brothel into a saloon; and having found a copy of the Laws of Texas in the place, sets himself up as Judge Roy Bean, the Law West of the Pecos, with several other desperadoes as his marshals. In this we see the Hero of hidden origins who performs the Great Exploit and consolidates his power by rewarding his friends and punishing his enemies. But Bean's saloon is also a shrine to actress Lily Langtry, with whose portraits Bean papers the walls. The ritual of the shrine is poker, which is played at critical moments in the story. "It was," as someone in the movie says, "like a religion to them." A surprise for the mythologist; although the heroes of ancient epic not infrequently confirmed their power by founding shrines, the motif is unusual in the movies.

The Epiphany of Lily Langtry as Deus ex Machina

Lily Langtry, the goddess figure in Roy Bean, occupies a central place in the film's mythology, thought she appears in person only at its conclusion. Played by legendary glamour queen Ava Gardner, she is a true descendant of Homer's Athena, making her presence felt even when absent. Of Bean's many adventures, one is the Journey to the Land of the Goddess. Bean goes to the big city to see her perform on stage, but is unable to get a ticket to her show, is robbed and returns without having seen her--the relationship with the Goddess is doomed. The Substitute Who Dies is the Watch-Bear, a fearsome animal who, abandoned by his former owner, terrified the town. The beast stayed to become a pet and guardian for Bean and his family, and dies defending his masters against the villains--the friend who later dies for the Hero often begins as the Hero's adversary. On the untimely death of his wife, Bean withdraws and disappears for many years. When he returns, he finds that his town--the settlement he had once envisioned as a city with marble courthouses--has been taken over by a crooked oil speculator and his henchmen. Like Odysseus, he is joined by his only child--his daughter, Rose--and by his old retainers, in a great battle in which they kill or drive out the usurpers. The battle scene is pure Odyssey, as Bean, like Odysseus, "leaps upon the great threshold and shouts" to his enemies.

But the most remarkable mythic echo is saved for the end: Bean is dead, and his saloon has been converted into the Judge Roy Bean Museum. One day, Lily Langtry herself descends from her private railroad car to visit the Museum. This is the Epiphany of the Goddess, and, as in Greek Tragedy, she comes at the end, as a deus ex machina. Now we understand why she comes; for the appearance of the deus ex machina always represents a kind of putting in divine perspective of everything that has happened.

The Goddess has her own point of view in her encounter with the Hero

The Hero's encounter with the Goddess can also be told from the Goddess' point of view, and in such stories the tragic element often predominates. The ancient Greek Hymn to Aphrodite told of the goddess' love affair with the mortal Anchises, whom she wished to make immortal, but could not. Mourning her lost love and her shame, she becomes by him the mother of the hero Aeneas, later the hero of Vergil's Aeneid. Goddesses, like Aphrodite, who seduce Heroes, often appear in disguise; only later do they reveal their true identity to the Hero. A movie example is the 1936 film Dracula's Daughter, in which "Countess Ileska" entices the hero to her Transylvanian castle, where she offers him immortality--by turning him into a vampire like herself. He refuses her offer, and goes back to his human sweetheart, while the vampire loses both his love and her own life. The same feeling for the Goddess' tragic loss comes out in episodes of Star Trek, where the hero is beguiled by a Princess from an Alien Planet.

Death Takes a Bride

Modern treatments of the Goddess' love affair with a man are generally remarkable for the polarization of the two female roles, the Goddess and the Wife. Where the ancient epic gave the Goddess a believably nuanced personality, and provided the wife, like Odysseus' Penelope, with a vitality and intelligence equal to her husband's, the movies usually offer us an intelligent but malevolent goddess (an amalgam of Goddess and monster), in contrast to a weak and vapid human sweetheart. Women in myth are not infrequently faced with a similar choice between a supernatural lover and a human lover, and the same opportunity for polarization arises. Like the Goddess, the supernatural lover tends to be the more interesting of the two, played off against a weak juvenile lead. The Phantom of the Opera, whose literal humanness does not detract from his supernatural role, is a more compelling character than the "hero" who rescues the girl. But some girls abandon the human lover for the supernatural lover, a variation we call Death Takes a Bride, like the heroines of Death Takes a Holiday (1934) and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947).

The Deathly suitor takes many shapes, some frankly monstrous, like as not the same monster that the Hero slays as his Heroic Exploit. Monsters, both ancient and modern, are projections of our own fears and hostile impulses, which we exteriorize in order to disown them. Monsters that menace entire towns and communitites (the Things, Blobs, and yes, giant sharks) are projections of the antisocial impulses of an entire society. It is likely that the monster from whom the Hero rescues the girl is her own feared sexuality--the shark on the poster for Jaws is poised beneath the swimming girl like a giant male organ. The monster frequently turns into the Hero--the Beauty and the Beast or Frog-Prince motif. This variation supplied the plot for I Married A Monster From Outer Space, in which a monster "occupies" a man's body; the monster's death leaves the man outwardly the same, but returns him to his human identity. Has the woman worked through her own fears and accpted the "monster" as human? The monster within the human body reappears in The Exorcist; despite its occult trimmings, this film was basically an ordinary monster picture, except that the creature menaced the heroine not from the outside but from the inside.

The best of all modern monster pictures is still King Kong. Its success is due to the unusually sympathetic role given the monster throughout. While there is a conventional hero who rescues Fay Wray from the giant gorilla, Kong himself is a tragic hero who rescues the heroine from the tyrannosaurus and other perils of his prehistoric jungle. When, like a grotesque Christ or Herakles, he dies his heroic death at the top of the Empire State Building, we feel a sense of loss and tragedy.

The Mad Inventor as bringer of civilization, destroyer of the Golden Age

I Was A Teenage Werewolf is a monster story in a different frame. It had all the cliches of the 1950's, including the confessional title and the misunderstanding between disturbed teenagers and their ineffectual parents (much better done in Rebel Without A Cause). But it is worth mentioning because it combined the Monster theme with the Myth of the Golden Age and the Mad Inventor. The Encounter with the Goddess and the Combat With the Monster are just two of the themes that describe the play of mysterious forces in our lives. Stories of invention and the origins of civilization have a supernatural element, too. In folklore, such things as the use of fire are not attributed to human invention, but are regarded as having come from the gods. (Erich von Däniken's travelers from outer space in Chariots of the Gods? have revived the idea in our own day.) The ancient exemplar was Prometheus, a god of the older generation deposed by Zeus, who stole fire from the ruling gods and gave it to mankind. The culture-bringer is traditionally a trickster-hero, whose gift is a theft. Ambivalent feelings of gratefulness and guilt color our attitude toward technology even today. The trickster-inventor lives on vestigially in our movies as the Mad Scientist.

Civilization was preceded by the Golden Age, when everything man needed was supplied by the gods. This is the Age of Kronos of the Greeks and the Garden of Eden of the Bible. The Mad Scientist of I Was A Teenage Werewolf rather inconsistently tries to use science to get back to the Golden Age. He injects drugs into the title character in an attempt to regress him back to his genetic origins. Worse still, he has designs on the whole human race, which he thinks can only be saved by a fresh evolutionary start. He succeeds only in turning the boy into a wolf-like monster who murders maidens, fellow-students, and eventually the scientist himself. The film's somewhat muddled message is conveyed in the final words of the reporter who covers the case (this is a newspaper picture, too): "It's not for man to interfere in the ways of God."

The myth of the Golden Age has been a dominant myth in America since its beginning. The founders of American were haunted by the idea that by coming to a new place, they could build a new Paradise, with a new Adam, free from all the problems of a decadent Europe. Today's utopians leave the cities to seek Eden in the suburbs. But as American novelists from Hawthorne to Fitzgerald have recognized, there can be no Eden without a Fall, and the innocent new Adam must eventually confront the realities of the adult world or be destroyed--another myth of coming to maturity by facing one's own limitations and the limitations of life.

This was the myth of The Great Gatsby, one of those stories that crystallize an entire idea and symbolize it forever. The movie version did not fail, as some have said, because it suffered from a story that would not transfer well to film. Its theme was that of Eden lost, of the innocent new Adam in his tragic confrontation with the real world. By changing his name and assuming a new identity, Gatsby thinks he can make a fresh start, and regain Paradise by recovering a lost relationship. Biblical scholars tell us that the apple of the Tree of Knowledge (of good and evil), which Eve gave Adam, is historically the same as the magic plant that Gilgamesh plucked from the bottom of the sea. The Tree is the Tree of Life, and its fruit was supposed to grant immortality. But it granted knowledge instead--knowledge of the human condition and man's mortality. Lured by Daisy's green light instead of an apple, Gatsby longs for a fantasy that cannot be fulfilled because it never existed. As a film, The Great Gatsby failed because its makers failed to comprehend the theme, and tried to turn it into an ordinary love story. Sam Waterston's portrayal of Nick Carraway, the narrator who is forced to confront the same reality, but survives the confrontation, did achieve much of the quality of disillusionment and acceptance that is inherent in the theme, and as a result was one of the best performances in the film.

The transformations of the mythic themes are endless, and once the viewer starts looking for them, they fairly leap out from the screen. Deliverance, which was supposedly about whitewater canoeing, has the Journey, the aspect of sexual initiation (with a homosexual rape replacing the visit to the Goddess), and the Death of the Substitute. The Substitute is Drew, the nice guy who is either shot by the cretinous mountain man or drowned, one is never sure which. In Lassie Come Home, that classic of sentimentalized animal pictures, we have the Journey with a dog as protagonist. The female helper is the old lady who wants Lassie to stay with her; the male Helper is the old man with the cart who makes a living exhibiting his trick dog. The trick dog dies, providing an appropriate Death of the Substitute. The journey in American Graffiti takes place mostly in cars in a constant state of "cruising," but ends with the real departure of Curt for the East. The Goddess is the mysterious Blonde in the White Thunderbird. Wolfman Jack is the Wise Old Man. His supernatural identity is evident in his maniacal cry, "THE WOLFMAN IS EVERYWHERE!" Since no one dies in the picture, the Substitute must die in an epilogue that tells what happened to the characters afterwards. Walking Tall, with its Southern sheriff coming home to clean up the town, featured the Hero's Homecoming and Revenge. Bang the Drum Slowly was an entire movie built around the Death of the Substitute. The spate of disaster pictures--The Poseidon Adventure, the Airport films, Earthquake, The Towering Inferno, The Hindenburg--are a new type of monster picture. In them, too, our dark anxieties are given a palpable shape, reduced to physical objects that can be dealt with positively and thus exorcized.


Why the movies are so mythic

What is there about the movies that makes them outstanding carriers of mythic themes, that attracts these remnants of an ancient imagination, buried within our brains? The answer lies partly in the nature of the medium itself. The movies are the modern equivalent of one of the world's oldest art forms, the oral epic. In ancient Greece and Mesopotamia, Egypt and India, the oral bard brought his stories to every corner of the inhabited world, just as movies and TV bring all the latest fact and fiction to us today. The oral epic is traditional and formulaic; unlike most modern poetry, which is composed in writing, it is improvised live before an audience. Like the movies and TV, it is an audio-visual experience that is both a form of public entertainment and a vehicle for popular education. The motion picture resembles the oral epic both in form and function; small wonder that the same themes can be found in both.

We know the scene from descriptions in Homer: Roast meat and a goblet of wine comfortably at his elbow, the bard strikes a tune on the lyre's responsive strings, and begins his song of Troy and godlike heroes. We may take Homer himself and his contemporary, Hesiod, as prototypes of the oral bard. Both lived around 750 B.C., just about the time writing was introduced into Greece, yet it is unlikely that either of them ever learned to write. They recited their poems--or rather sang them to the accompaniment of the lyre--at banquets, weddings, funerals, and at the many religious festivals. If two or more well-known bards were present on the same occasion, there might be a contest between them to see who could sing the best song, often on the same subject. Such a contest is said to have taken place between Homer and Hesiod; Hesiod won. The bard received free food and drink, and perhaps a more substantial payment, like an expensive drinking bowl or metal tripod.

The oral bard's stories were traditional. Subjects included the cosmic and the heroic--the origins of the world, the deeds of gods and heroes--but they also included more practical matters, like how to navigate a ship, run a farm, or choose a wife. The poet sang the same songs wherever he went, and the same stories were used by one poet after another. Many different audiences heard these stories, just as movies are shown in town after town. But the same story was never sung the same way twice, even by the same poet; perhaps we should compare different performances to movie remakes. For the bard does not memorize his songs verbatim; like the jazz musician, he recomposes his song each time he sings it, using formulaic expressions. Phrases like "godlike Achilles" or "Then, when rosy-fingered Dawn appeared" were Homeric favorites. The same story might be longer one time, shorter another, depending on the interest shown by the audience. Even so do television networks shorten--but usually do not lengthen--movies, to suit the time requirements of the sponsors.

Improvisation in movies and epic

Movies are improvised, too. The amount of improvisation differs from one picture to another, and some filmmakers make few changes in the script once shooting has started; but more than one director has begun with only a vague idea of how the picture was to proceed, and then allowed either himself or his actors to improvise the rest. The large number of people involved in the creation of a movie--screenwriter, producer, director, actors, cameramen, and even the audience, whose tastes dictate what is to go into a movie--gives the project a communal aspect. This is similar to the oral epic, to whose construction many generations of bards and audiences have contributed. Such community projects are likely to be reduced to a common denominator of formulaic and traditional material. The actual reuse of film footage from one "B" movie to another is a manifestation of this--the same wheel falling off the same stage coach; the same aerial dogfights reappearing in epics of World War I. But the most important traditional elements are the mythic themes.

"If this story isn't true, it should be"

Whatever is told using the themes becomes distorted to fit them. James Notopoulos, who studied and recorded the songs of modern oral Greek poets, still practicing in remote mountain villages, reported a Cretan bard's version of the Nazi invasion of Crete. In his song, the German general (who really came in a tank) entered the village on a white horse, because that's the way the theme goes. As it said at the beginning of The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, "If this story isn't true, it should be." The same thing happens in the movies, especially where the movie has been made from a book or written play. Writing is the product of a different sensibility, which puts a premium on the individual, the quantifiable, and the discrete. Where a book is made into a movie, the story is generally changed in the direction of the mythic, with elements that differ from the myth being replaced by more mythic ones. In Chinatown, the director changed a written screenplay to make it more mythic. Screenwriter Robert Towne gave the story a happier ending, which director Roman Polanski changed to one of unmitigated defeat. But the finale of Chinatown is mythically correct; the detective (like Thorn in Soylent Green) who discovers the Great Secret is never able to enoy his secret or communicate it to others. Mythically, Towne was wrong, Polanski was right.

Oral epic included both tragedy and comedy, just as our movies do. The Battle of the Frogs and Mice mocked the Iliad in the same way that Blazing Saddles parodies our Westerns, and Woody Allen's Sleeper (with its Journey into the future and its earnestly vacuous goddess figure) pokes fun at the Journey theme. Laughter allays our anxieties, and it is no wonder that the mythic themes, which grew out of the anxieties of the life crises, should also produce some of the best comedy.

The characters of oral epic supply role models of what to be. (Be like Odysseus and Penelope; don't be like the Wicked Suitors). The mythic themes, with their unchanging sequence of events, supply action models of what to do. Generations of young Greeks and Babylonians got their ideas of how to cope with life by listening to the oral bard, just as our children learn what the world expects of them (and what to expect of the world) by watching movies and TV. Many of our ideas about right and wrong, responsible behavior, and the relationship between men and women can be traced to mythic themes dispensed by our media.

Are the themes inborn, a part of our brain structure, or are they inherited as part of our culture? Science has given us no answer as yet; in the absence of hard evidence, a middle view seems preferable. The tendency to form myths, to form patterns for organizing reality, is probably inborn. The content of the patterns is due to our common biological heritage: we all are born, we all die, we all eat, we all encounter things we don't understand. This inner reality may be more faithfully represented by a mythic story than are the outward events supposedly described in the story. Nor do we know what alternatives there are to thinking in these patterns. Perhaps it is up to such systems as psychotherapy, Zen, and art itself, whose aim is to break down our usual modes of conceptualization, to provide evidence that there is an alternative to mythic thinking.

The "Fallen Astronaut" on the moon

The impact of the mythic themes is best seen when we act them out. When the astronauts went to the moon, they went on a great Journey. And on that Journey they learned the lesson of all great Journeys, the Secret of Life, which is precisely the fact that we are mortal. The astronauts has almost universally testified to the poignant understanding they gained not only of their own mortality but of the fragility of the entire Earth. Like all those who make the Journey, they were never fully able to communicate that vision to the rest of us. On the moon they left a little statue, the "Fallen Astronaut," commemorating the astronauts and cosmonauts who have died in the space program. The gesture perhaps seemed silly, a bit sentimental, but it is thematically correct. The statue represents the Substitute Who Dies, without whose death no one can return from the Land of the Dead.

Social planners like to talk about the need for "imaginative solutions for modern problems." Implicit in this phrase is the assumption that the problems of our age are unique, and that we must seek new and unprecedented ways of dealing with them. But the old gods have not died; from the fictional Godfather to the space program, they continue to vigorously assert their existence, guiding our perceptions and shaping our actions. The world must change in order to survive--is that not the message of the Death of the Substitute? But the constant regeneration of the ancient myths should contain a warning for anyone who tries to change the world by forcing a new world view upon it; for the new world view just might turn out to be, in a new guise, the old world view.

Copyright © 2001, Cora Angier Sowa. All rights reserved.

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