Movie Talk: The "Warrior Hero" Genre
The Long Road Of The Warrior Hero
In this article I will compare Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and The Book of Eli , revealing and analyzing the blueprint of the Warrior Hero genre in both. In addition I take a look into the close relationship between Samurai films and Westerns and how their elements are incorporated in both these films.
The 'Warrior Hero' genre has become a favorite amongst men around the world. With its action and inner stories revolving around men overcoming obstacles it plays to the psyche of the male human, but recently women have become interested. The reason for this in my opinion is simple...it's the genre's ability reinvent itself and appeal to both genders while still keeping to the roots that make it what it is. Think about it, how many times have you seen a "man movie" where the warrior hero has to save the women he loves? Or a film where the warrior goes from "zero" to "hero"? In all actuality if you put it into another context I could have just described a "chick flick", or in other words a romance or a makeover movie, just add some action. Both elements are their it just depends on the viewers perception.
When first approached with the task of writing this article I didn't know which two films to choose, but then I received some help in the form of information. After learning that The Magnificent Seven was a remake of Seven Samurai , and finding out how closely related Samurai films and Westerns are, I immediately thought of The Book of Eli , which is a creative combination of both. It seems like I wasn't the only one who noticed. "The Book of Eli is a profound story of faith told against a spaghetti western post-apocalyptic backdrop." (Goodhart). The Book of Eli is a Post apocalypse, Christian, Samurai, Western Quest Story." (Whittington). How could I resist?
The second movie took me awhile to choose. Then I saw the bar scene with Michelle Yeoh from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and that cemented it for me. Here was a "foreign film" with an all Asian cast, director and a female lead as the hero (heroine). In contrast was a American Action movie directed by two African Americans (The Hughes Brothers) and starring an African American male lead as the hero. One film's locale is the desert the other is located where the pastures are greener than envy, but when you dissect both films they have so much in common I fear I may have missed some things.
Warrior Hero films follow a certain blueprint as do all film genres. Three sub-categories of the Warrior Hero genre are Westerns, Samurai, and Kung Fu Movies. As I said in an earlier paragraph two of these sub-categories have such a close relationship that one classic was remade into another (Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven ). The beauty of the two films I chose is the fact that although both films have elements of a Samurai Movie, Western (or more specifically a Spaghetti Western), and a Kung Fu movie, neither of them firmly fit into either category. The Book of Eli is not a Samurai Movie or a Western no more than Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is just a Kung Fu movie. They are both a combination of all three sub-categories and maybe even a whole different one (Romance movie perhaps?) and that just begins the argument of similarities.
Here are a couple of elements that most Samurai and Westerns share; wide open spaces, weapons of choice (sword, gun, nun chucks), style of dress, horses, barroom brawls, a willingness of moral obligation to help people weaker than them, the hero has a sense of honor, and there is usually a mentor and a student. If you search through every single Samurai, Kung Fu, or Western film I challenge you to find one where these elements are not included. This is part of the blueprint. Now comes the fun part. I'm going to dissect scenes from the two films I chose and point out the similarities and differences while explaining what they mean to each film.
In The Book of Eli , the protagonist Eli has what may be the last copy of the King James Bible in an apocalyptic Earth that has been ravished by war. He is on a holy journey to bring the bible west for reasons unknown to him. It is simply his calling to do so. Along the way Eli's journey is interrupted by the antagonist Carnegie, who is on his own journey to find the bible, but his reasons are known. He wants to use the bible to gain power over the younger generation of people in his village who have never heard of it. What happens in between the realization of and fulfillment of the hero's goal introduces us again to the blueprint of the Warrior Hero genre.
This film although not as unique as say Star Wars , does have a creative way of incorporating many different Warrior Hero themes into the movie. Eli has a shoot out at high noon in a smart desert town after getting into a bar room brawl in a saloon, just like your favorite Spaghetti Western. The difference here is Eli wanders around like a samurai and uses his sword with precision to handle his business when his enemies are close. He even speaks like a samurai with much wisdom and answers to a higher calling. He becomes mentor to a young girl named Solara who becomes his student after following him from town. This is also normal protocol for a Samurai or taking a peak into the next paragraph, a "Kung Fu flick."
Eli uses Kung Fu in addition to weapons to defeat his foes. In any movie containing a Kung Fu fight there's always a scene where the enemies surround the hero like vultures to prey. This movie is no exception. This happens twice in the film once outside on the road and once in the saloon. Eli 's mission is to bring the bible west and fulfill his destiny. These are just some examples of things that are always found in the Warrior Hero genre. Now let's look at the other film.
In Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon the character's are a little more complicated as some of them have multiple roles. Still the blueprint remains. The two protagonists Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien are on a mission to find the Green Destiny sword that has been stolen. In addition Li Mu Bai is on a journey to avenge his master's death by killing the antagonist Jade Fox. Again we have a story that revolves around one object (remember the bible in Eli ?) and a hero's motivation to fulfill a goal of a higher calling.
Staying on the character side of things, there is one specific character in this film who makes it difficult to put just one title on all of the rest. Jen, the young girl who has stolen the sword serves as student to both the protagonist and antagonist. She is a student of Jade Fox, but also learns much from Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien during her short time with them. Again we have an older male taking on a younger female as his student. In addition she can also be seen as an antagonist, pitting her against our two heroes for most of the film. Either way, you still have your Warrior Hero character blueprint once again.
Sword fights, Kung Fu, and bar room brawls, again find their way into this film. This time we even get a wide open range with horses and bow and arrows. In fact if you started watching the movie from the horse chase scene you might have thought you were watching Dances with Wolves or something. In addition to those elements we once again get the circling of the hero by the enemies here just like any Kung Fu movie and the swordplay and wisdom of any Samurai flick. Oh, and I forgot to mention in both films the male mentor dies in the end. I could go on forever.
What do these films say about the different cultures? Since one of these is considered a "Foreign Film" and the other "Domestic," there should be a difference right? In The Book of Eli the story moves quickly and we get to the action fast and often. There's a kill in the first scene! This is a great example of how American's like our movies. Most of us are impatient and easily excited and or entertained by violence and sex. We don't usually want much talking, but if we have to sit through it, it better make sense and lead to more, cooler, angry, retaliatory violence later by the hero. In Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon the story moves much slower and action is less frequent, but the scenes last longer. Eli's action scenes are fast with quick cuts whileHidden Dragon's are more patient and continuous. In fact the latter is so much more slow paced that you might think that one film is much longer than the other, but the both clock in around 120 min. This may have to do with the Asian film culture having a slower, calmer approach to action and story.
Other comparisons of the film making aspects can made here as well. While Eli uses a lot of fast paced tracking shots for action and spacious medium shots for conversations, Hidden Dragon uses a lot of wide angle shots for action and tighter framing with over the shoulder shots for conversations. Also the color differs. In Eli most areas are dry and devoid of life and the main color is gray. In Hidden Dragon most areas are vibrant and full of life, making much use of earth tones like green and brown. Hey maybe Easterners think more about life and we Westerners think more about death?
So what did these movies mean to people? The directors, the actors, the audience? The Book of Eli has grossed $94 million in the U.S. while Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon has grossed $125 million. (IMDB). Since the latter only had a budget of $18 million it is easily considered the more successful of the two. But how can a foreign movie with so many similarities do so much better at the box office than it's American buddy? Let's ask one of the best in the game, Roger Ebert.
It's my guess that The Book of Eli is suffering from one main component that Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon had, a love story. "I'm at a loss for words, so let me say this right away: "The Book of Eli" is very watchable. You won't be sorry you went. It grips your attention, and then at the end throws in several WTF! Moments, which are a bonus. They make everything in the entire movie impossible and incomprehensible -- but, hey, WTF." (Ebert). Okay so this movie gave us what we liked. The story had some unexplainable parts to it, but it was intriguing and we loved the action and performances. What is it missing?
I have to use a quote from the expert once again to help me to explain what I mean. "This story, like all martial arts stories, is at some level just plain silly, but Ang Lee and his longtime collaborator James Schamus are unusually successful in bringing out the human elements, especially the unrealized love between the Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh characters. There are times when they're together that you forget about the swords, and are just watching a man and a woman, tenderly cherishing the unspoken bond between them. Zhang Ziyi's character, the governor's daughter, is also intriguing because she chafes at the rules that limit her and realizes a secret fantasy life." (Ebert). In other words, an action movie by itself is good, a love story or "chick flick" by itself is good, but when you put them both together you get great. That's how you get both genders into the theater and make them both leave satisfied, and a satisfied customer will tell all of their friends to buy your product.
I've never been one to watch many foreign films, but I must say that I really liked Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. When I first started this essay I was sure there would be no way in hell I'd like this foreign film more than my usual American action flick. After all, The Book of Eli is an action film. I love action films, and it stars my second favorite actor in the world, Denzel Washington. Too bad I underestimated my guilty pleasure, "The Love Story". Although I'm always attracted to a violent action movie I am a sucker for movies like The Notebook andTitanic and Crouching Tiger gave me a little bit of that feel.
I would not consider the romantic movies mentioned above as films that are just for women, as they are not just cheesy, overly acted, mushy affairs. Movies like Titanic have great stories that are paired up with brilliant performances by male and female leads that have the necessary on screen chemistry to convince you that what you are seeing is real. I'm a thinker, so when I watch a movie I want to be put in a situation where I can connect with other people in the audience. This includes women. Whether we as American's know this or not, this is why we go to the movies. That's why it's still an event to go to the movies. We like to connect with other people. We want to feel like our emotions are real and other people feel the same way as we do sometimes. If you want to make a movie that connects to everyone, mesh physical pain (men) with emotional pain (women), and they will both understand.
Ebert, Roger. "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon". Chicago Sun Times. 22 December 2000. Web. 11 March 2012.
Ebert, Roger. "The Book of Eli". Chicago Sun Times. 12 January 2010. Web. 11 March 2012.
"IMDB". "The Book of Eli". IMDB. 15 January 2010. Web. 11 March 2012.
"IMDB". "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon". IMD. Web. 11 March 2012.Whittington, Mark. "The Book of Eli' - a Post Apocalypse, Christian, Samurai, Western Quest Story". Yahoovoices.com. 16 January 2010. Web. 11 March. 2012.