So I was hanging out at my friend Dennis’s and we were watching some old movie on TCM, something about the Boxer Rebellion in China I think, one of those crappy movies from before the era of political correctness (or even common sense) full of white people playing fake Asians. Yellowface. Ugh, that’s the worst. So we were talking about Asian themed films and Dennis asked us, “Did you see THE LAST SAMURAI?”
Yes, we’ve seen it (my husband and I, not the royal we here). It was a beautiful movie — every scene was perfectly composed and gorgeous. “But,” I said, “it was that same old story, the civilized white man goes and lives with the native people and absorbs their simple native wisdom and becomes their hero. DANCES WITH SAMURAI. God, why do we keep telling that story? The ancient Romans probably had stories about centurions going over the wall and becoming one with the Gauls. That story is decrepit! Why do we keep telling it?”
Well, I think I’ve figured it out. Maybe this was obvious to everyone and I was just being monumentally obtuse, but I think I figured it out, on Saturday night when I was watching another movie: EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS.
Yeah, Moses. Moses is the archetype of this story.
You know the story I’m talking about. It has shown up endlessly in big-budget Hollywood films in the last couple decades — most notably, DANCES WITH WOLVES and AVATAR, but also THE LAST SAMURAI and a horde of lesser imitators. I haven’t seen it, but people tell me Disney’s POCAHONTAS is the same story.
A disenchanted white man leaves civilization and goes into the wilderness, hoping to find .. something — peace or surcease or a way to forget his troubles. Sam Worthington in AVATAR is literally trying to leave his crippled body behind with a Na’vi avatar. Same idea though.
And in the wilderness, he discovers the native people, and becomes enamored of them. He lives among them and studies their ways, which are so much more authentic and meaningful than those of his own decadent civilization. He falls in love with a native woman – usually the chief’s daughter, of course. He becomes one of them, these noble savages. But more than that, the becomes the best of them, their leader, their prophet, because of the synthesis of his civilized sensibility with the humble wisdom of the natives. Toruk Makto. The chosen one. (Can you tell how fucking sick I am of this storyline?)
So, Moses. Think about it. Moses was a prince of Egypt, the most civilized, the greatest nation on earth at that time (and for thousands of years.) But he renounced his princedom and went to live with the desert nomads, the Hebrews, the slaves. The noble primitives. He lives as one of them, takes a wife from among them, has children that he raises as Hebrew. But, with this “Mighty Whitey” trope as they call it on TV Tropes, he is, as described, the best of them, the very Prophet of God.
And he leads his people against impossible odds into battle with their enemies, the Egyptians, who hold the Hebrews in slavery. This time it’s mostly a spiritual battle, with the plagues and all, but it’s still a battle. And wonder of wonders, he wins, and leads his people to the Promised Land.
Do you see it? It’s so obvious to me now, I can’t believe I never noticed it before.
So clearly, this is one of the root stories in Western civilization. No wonder we keep retelling it.
But in the modern telling, we have subverted this trope, and not necessarily in a good way. In the Moses story, the tale is really about the Hebrews; it is their origin story. Moses comes to deliver them. The slaves are freed from Egypt and given the Law and the covenant at Mount Sinai.
But in the modern American versions of this story, the people come to save the hero. The civilized man is purified and uplifted by his adoption by the natives. Kevin Costner escapes the trauma of the Civil War among the Lakota. Sam Worthington’s consciousness is actually transferred into a Na’vi body in AVATAR. The story is about his salvation, not the people’s. Kevin Costner can’t save the Lakota in DANCES WITH WOLVES. No one can. But they save him. Tom Cruise resolves his alcoholism and his PTSD while living with Japanese samurai — it”s he who is the Last Samurai, not Ken Watanabe or any, you know, actual Japanese person.
The protagonists of these movies undertake the Hero’s Journey into the “special world” of the native people, and they do the usual Hero’s Journey things, overcoming challenges, acquiring allies, facing their great ordeal. But at the end, they don’t go back to their “ordinary world” (Western culture) with the wisdom and the skills they have learned. No, instead they stay chilling with the native people and their required native honey in the Special World, having abandoned their home, and thus failing in the whole basic task of the Hero’s Journey.
It’s the same story as the Moses narrative, but the emphasis is changed. The emphasis is on the individual, not the people, on his personal salvation, not the benefit of the community.
So it becomes a tale of self-indulgence and white privilege, not heroic sacrifice, and that is probably why I dislike it so much. That people in Hollywood feel the need to compulsively retell this bastardized version of this story is not a good thing. I suppose you could just attribute it to laziness and sloppy storytelling, but I think it’s deeper than that. Obviously we feel the need to purge ourselves of the corruptions of modern, Western, industrialized society. And rightly so. But we’re doing it in these stories by co-opting the lifeways of indigenous, often oppressed people — even if they are imaginary ones, like the Na’vi in AVATAR. That is wrong, and it won’t give us what we need. No hero lives forever in his private Idaho. The hero has to come back, else the quest has failed.
I guess modern culture is what you get when the hero fails in his quest. That would explain a lot.
One thought on ““Dances with Noble Savages” and the Origin of this Hoary Old Meme.”
You got all that from Dennis? He’s way deeper than I thought. Think about the Matrix fot a nano second.