First published in Produced By, the official magazine of the Producers Guild of America
Myth to Movie
By Ken Atchity
The formula of the perennial family of stories inspired by the redemption myth:
Because of a previous failure, a hero has withdrawn from the world. Faced with the opportunity to test himself again in the same arena where’s he’s failed before, he refuses, having lost his confidence. But when the stakes are raised and allies and/or provocateurs force his hand, he’s inevitably drawn into the situation that forces him to reenact his trauma. This time, overcoming his own fears, he succeeds.
Films as distinct in flavor as Reign of Fire (2002) and Seabiscuit (2003) draw story pattern from the core myth of redemption.
Analyzed with reference to this “underlying mythic story structure,” two 1993 films, Cliffhanger (directed by Renny Harlin) and In the Line of Fire (Wolfgang Petersen), for example, are retelling the identical mythic pattern. Though one appeals to the popcorn crowd and the other to the smart set, they deliver identical satisfaction to the audience’s universal longing for self-redemption--for getting a second chance, and succeeding.
In the Sylvester Stallone thriller, Gabe Walker has retired from a mountain-climbing rescue team because he believes his recklessness, shown in the breathtaking and perfectly ambiguous opening scene, led to the death of his best friend’s girlfriend; the mythic protagonists we relate to the most seem always to be ones with the greatest hubris, taking the weight of the world on their shoulders. When a plane is downed in the inaccessible Rockies by a daring midair heist engineered by madman Eric Qualen (John Lithgow), even the pleas of Gabe’s former girlfriend Jessie (Janine Turner) fail at first to move him to action. Only Gabe’s knowledge that he alone can pull off this rescue finally triggers his decision to join the purported rescue team, face the antagonist and his own fears, complete the impossible task, and earn back his self-respect. Testimony to the power of a movie story well-shaped by its underlying myth was Roger Ebert’s comment, “True, there’s not a moment in the plot that I could believe. That didn’t bother me for an instant.”
Line of Fire’s Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood) has been nursing his failure to protect President Kennedy with alcohol for nearly three decades when an antagonist straight out of his nightmares, John Malkovich’s Mitch Leary, draws him out of his loser-stupor by announcing that he’s going to kill the present President (played by Jim Curley)—and that Horrigan and Horrigan alone can stop him. Tightly wrapped agent Lilly Raines (Rene Russo) shames Mitch into action and, in a well-orchestrated final sequence, the failed hero relives his past but this time throws himself between the assassin and the President--and rises to a new life.
More recently, The Legend of Bagger Vance shows the redemption and rebirth of Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon), an Old South protagonist whose previous failure came from being bested by the brutalities of war, a game with no gentlemanly rules about how it’s played. Despite his engagement to blue-blood Savannah belle Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron), Rannulph can’t bring himself to face life and disappears into a self-imposed limbo of smoke-filled back rooms. But, like the plane crash in Cliffhanger and the assassin in Line of Fire, fate—this time in the person of Adele, who misses her handsome and absent beau—intervenes to give him a second chance: a golf tournament, a game that “you don’t win, you can only play.” Junnuh’s redemption is assisted not only by the charming connivance of Adele but also by unlikely allies in the person of Bagger Vance (Will Smith), a wise caddy who walks straight out of the mists of myth, and the young boy (J. Michael Moncrief), who believes in Junnuh almost as much as he believes in the game of golf.
Most recently, we see redemption reworked in two 2004 films Alexander Payne’s Sideways, and Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby. In the former, Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) is a failed San Diego writer biding his downward spiral as a disaffected English teacher. His pal Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is an almost-as-failed hero whose few moments of fame have allowed him a faux joie de vivre that leaves Miles in his pale. Their road trip to Santa Ynez explores not only wine country but their own discontent; their allies, Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), lead them through oenophilia to sex to self-awareness, self-acceptance, and the hope of a new, more honest life.
In contrast to the rosé- and Pinot Noire-colored glasses of Payne’s film, Million Dollar Baby is equal parts noir and noir. The redemption of Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), drifting rudderless through a meaningless life, is accomplished through young Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) and ally ex-boxer Eddie Dupris (Morgan Freeman). Maggie’s indomitable dream combines with the wisdom Eddie has distilled from forty years of rejection to reenlist Frankie’s motivation. Though the film ends with a tear-jerking trauma, Frankie emerges reborn with the courage to accept, if not embrace, life one day at a time.
We love redemption because it leads to rebirth, so redemption stories should be classified as a branch of the rebirth family tree. Other rebirth stories that aren’t motivated by redemption include Ron Howard’s Cocoon (1985), where the rebirth of old folks choosing a stellar journey has nothing to do with their merits; My Fair Lady, discussed in a previous column, where Henry Higgins’ rebirth comes from willfully taking on an impossible challenge; or even Rocky (1976), where Rocky Balboa is reborn as a winner through the strength of his inner vision backed by sheer determination.
Among Atchity’s other films in development, John Scott Shepherd’s Henry’s List of Wrongs (New Line Pictures), is based on the redemption myth.