Mythological elements in movies
With this site I hope to show how many of our movies are heavily based on concepts from thousands of years ago. By selecting a small number of movies and a small number of mythological characters I can demonstrate just how simple the and obvious many of the elements are.
| Star Wars | The
Phantom | Flash Gordon | 2001:
A Space Odyssey | Silence of the Lambs |
The Lion King |
| The Magnificent Seven |
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The Star Wars Trilogy
The Star Wars trilogy contains quite a number of borrowings from classical mythology, particularly in the area of its characters.
Luke Skywalker is very much an Orpheus type figure. The mythological Orpheus was incredibly gifted musically, and could use his talents to win people's favor and communicate with animals. Luke is gifted with 'The Force,' an invisible field which binds the world around him together. By controlling this, he is also able to win the favor of others. Like Orpheus, Luke is also very emotionally vulnerable.
Being a young farm boy at the start, and eventually becoming a Jedi, Luke has many parallels with initiation myths. The Theseus and the Minotaur story fits this especially. When Theseus embarks to Knossos, it is to save Athens' youth from continually being sacrificed to the Minotaur, and as it develops, we see him grow from a boy to a man. Luke embarks to the Dagoba System in 'The Empire Strikes Back' a brash and aggressive young man, and is trained by Yoda to become a Jedi Knight. Part of his training involves entering a cave as test. He, however, fails the test due to taking his weapons with him. The two stories do end differently, but there are still many of the same concepts.
Han Solo is the Odysseus figure of the trilogy. Noted for his outwardly rough appearance, Odysseus is actually a great leader and tactician, as well as a cunning thinker. Han Solo dresses roughly and talks tough, yet he proves to be a valuable thinker and, in 'Return of the Jedi,' a good General. If one wishes to stretch the similarities a bit further, Solo's effort of landing inside the belly of a great monster and just flying out before its jaws shut has similarities to Odysseus' stopover in the cave of Polyphemus.
A common figure in mythology is the wise old man, Nestor in particular. Obi-Wan Kenobi is very much this type of figure. Like Nestor, Obi-Wan constantly reminisces a past far greater than the present, when life was much better. People actually even listen to the old codgers. The idea of a 'Golden Age' never to be repeated is a major ongoing theme throughout Homer's Iliad, the work that tells of Achilles' involvement in the Trojan War.
Although it may initially seem that The Phantom does not have a lot in common with characters and elements from classical mythology, this is actually far from the truth.
For a start, The Phantom himself has much in common with mythological figures. By swearing the Skull Oath, he commits his life to fighting piracy. Many characters in mythology swear oaths to the gods that they will perform a certain duty, or live life in a certain way. An example of this is Achilles swearing that he would rather live a short and glorious life than a long life without fame or glory. In fact, The Phantom shares much in common with Achilles. Although Achilles dedicates his life to his own glory, they still have it in common that their lives have been given to fighting a set enemy (The Trojans for Achilles, and pirates for The Phantom). In addition, Achilles has a very close relationship with his mother, the nymph Thetis, whom he consults frequently on both a personal and professional level. In the movie version of 'The Phantom,' the 21st Phantom often consults the ghost of his dead father, the 20th Phantom for very similar reasons.
The Phantom is also a bit of an Orpheus figure. Orpheus was noted for his ability to communicate with animals through his fantastic musical abilities, and although The Phantom was not noted for this, he did have an amazing relationship with the animal kingdom. His companions, Devil (a wolf), and Hero (a horse) are able to understand exactly what he wishes of them. Just like Orpheus descended to Hades, the land of the dead, The Phantom descended under the sea into Krakatan, the home of the Singh Brotherhood, his sworn enemies. Orpheus, however, was unsuccessful in his mission to retrieve his wife, whereas The Phantom did rescue Diana. Another character within 'The Phantom' who has many parallels in mythology is Sala. Being a member of The Skyband, she is a twentieth century Amazon. The Skyband is entirely made up of women (all beautiful thanks to Hollywood) who are banded together outside normal society. In mythology it was just enough to be women warriors independent of men, but now they had to be pirates to prove themselves outside of accepted society.
It is this concept of being outside typical society that also fits in with mythology. The heroes of old were always beyond normal people. Even today, a guy running around in a skin-tight bodysuit could hardly be considered mainstream.
The borrowings from mythology in Flash Gordon are fairly brief, but interesting.
The main similarity is in the concept of the eventual teaming up of all the different breeds of Mongo to fight Ming, when they had previously been disputing. This is in tune with the Trojan War, when all the Greek nations united to fight Troy. The main difference here is that Troy was not a totalitarian state, oppressing all these nations. The other main similarity is in Flash's adventures on the moon of Arboria. Here Flash is lowered into the swamp and has to face a world he is completely unfamiliar with. He is then attacked by a giant spider-like creature form under the surface, and as he is being dragged under is saved by Vultan the Hawkman. This mirrors the Theseus myth, where he must enter the Labyrinth and face the Minotaur. The only thing that saves Theseus is the help he receives from Ariadne.
Flash himself does not have much in common with mythological heroes, because he is the all-American good guy. Classical heroes were not actually very nice people on a personal level, and their deeds were for their own glory more than anything. Flash just wants to save the Earth.
2001 A Space Odyssey
Just as the name implies, this movie is based strongly on mythological themes. Surprisingly, though, is that it is not based so much on The Odyssey of Homer, but on the Prometheus myth. The concept of the pillar sent down from Jupiter is exactly the same as that of Prometheus bring fire to humans. Even the source being Jupiter fits, as Jupiter was the Roman name for Zeus [ext. link], the leader of the Greek pantheon. Like the Prometheus myth, the gift given to humans proves to be beyond their control. This time it is in the form of a computer, Hal. Hal goes out of control and begins to kill humans, and disobeys all orders given to him. He begins to think for himself.
This actually sets the stage for an Odyssey parallel in the form of the visit to the cave of Polyphemus, though this time the roles are reversed. In 2001: 'A Space Odyssey,' the human, Dave, is attempting to get into the ship rather than out of a cave. To do this, he has to use his brute strength versus Hal's genius, a complete reversal of the mythological roles. The similarities, however, are striking.
Silence of the Lambs
There is only one scene in this movie that really relates to mythology, but it is quite a striking one. When Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) enters the house of the serial killer, he cuts the lights, leaving her in total blackness. He then follows her using night vision goggles. This is almost identical to Theseus entering the Labyrinth and having to take on the Minotaur. Both Theseus and Starling must make their way through a maze in total darkness whilst being pursued by a foe who knows his way around perfectly and has complete control. Theseus was successful due to the aid of Ariadne, whilst Starling was successful in her mission due to the aid of Dr. Hannibal Lecter.
The Lion King
The Lion King is another movie that borrows heavily from the Oedipus myth. Although Simba himself does not kill his father, but his uncle Scar instead, it is still a murder within the family that kills Mufasa. When he runs away, Scar takes control and runs Pride Rock into the ground. This could be seen as a curse on the land in exactly the same way as the curse of Oedipus family's curse. Scar is so arrogant he does not care and will not accept that it's his fault everything is dying. Simba returns to find his land is ruined by his uncle, and like a young Oedipus solving the riddle, he reclaims his territory and rebuilds it. The logical step Simba had to make was to kill his uncle Scar, but he does not do so. Instead it is the Hyenas who get the pleasure. This seems to be a way to end the curse of family murder, and allow a new start. The theme of the family blood curse is also prevalent in the story of the house Atreides (Agamemnon and Menelaus)
The Lion King also features a descent into the underworld motif when Simba and Nala go to the elephant graveyard. It features many of the elements of a trip to Hades, especially as it really was a land of the dead. The three hyenas could perhaps represent the three-headed dog Cerberus. They find it harder to leave than to enter, an aspect very much a part of all descent myths.
The Magnificent Seven
Unlike the other movies, which contained elements and themes of mythology. This movie is based on a play from the fifth century BC in Athens called The Seven Against Thebes, by Aeschylus. The characters themselves doe not directly represent any from the play, but the plot has enormous similarities.
The play begins with Eteocles and Polynieces, the sons of Oedipus, fighting over Thebes, their combined inheritance. Eteocles forms an army of allies to attack, while Polynieces has his six best men guard six of the seven gates of Thebes. He guards the seventh himself. It is then that he finds out that his brother is approaching his gate, but he does not swap places with another soldier to avoid continuing the family blood curse. They are both killed. In a play by Sophocles, called Antigone, the body of Polynieces is not buried and a curse falls upon Thebes. This brings us to the movie.
The Magnificent Seven begins with a man attempting to pay for a burial for an Indian. No one in the small country town will allow it on account of who he was, so Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner have to drive the hearse, heavily armed. This is not a part of the main plot, and is a direct reference to myth upon which the movie is based.
The main plot is a bout seven gunmen who feel that their lives are empty and take on the job of protecting a small Mexican village from bandits, for a much smaller fee than usual. In the end, they do save the village, but four of them are killed. Two of the three remaining, McQeen and Brynner, do not feel that their lives are any less empty. This emptiness directly correlates to the curse in the original myth.