Not Bad, Just Drawn That Way

Shortly after it came out I read a review of Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, in which Orlando Bloom plays a young medieval blacksmith who joins one of the Crusades in The Holy Land.  The reviewer concluded that the movie was flawed because ‘Bloom cannot carry an action picture’.  Well, the movie was flawed, yes, but it wasn’t Bloom’s fault.  No actor could have made the part of the hero work, because of the way it was written.

It’s a truism – or cliché perhaps – of movie drama that ‘action is character’.  In other words, the audience judges a character by what they do, not what they say.  Yes, sometimes saying is doing, but not very often; while dialogue is a good way to convey information in small quantities, it’s nothing like as effective as action when portraying character.

Kingdom of Heaven opens with a body being buried at a crossroads.  We learn that the body is that of the blacksmith’s wife; she committed suicide and therefore cannot be buried in sanctified ground.  We follow a traveller to the nearest village where we meet the blacksmith at work – Orlando Bloom.  He is very upset about his wife topping herself, we gather.  He has a bit of a tiff with the local priest about it.

Except… surely he didn’t give a damn about his wife?  If he did, he would have gone to her funeral.  His action in this case was to stay at home: i.e. to take no action at all. Which means the first impression we get of our hero is (a) either he didn’t like or even respect his wife, or (b) he does not have the strength or self-confidence to defy his community and insist that she be buried in hallowed ground (or at least that someone – preferably himself – leave some flowers on her grave) or indeed (c) both. And though we are curious to know why his wife killed herself, that’s never clearly explained either.  We can only suppose she got fed up of being married to a wuss.

It goes on.  The blacksmith meets a knight returning from the Crusades (Liam Neeson), by reputation a famous and brilliant warrior, who it transpires is our hero’s father.  The great knight has barely introduced himself to his son before he and all his men are ambushed in their forest encampment and wiped out. Hmm, the audience thinks: what sort of famous military genius gets himself and all his faithful hardened veteran followers bumped off by a few local bandits with bows and arrows?  (I don’t think we ever find out why that happened, either.)

The skills this knight had – though by now they don’t seem that impressive – have apparently been passed down to his son the blacksmith by the magic of genetics, because before long Orlando Bloom heads out to the Holy Land to take his father’s place, where he turns out to have an amazing aptitude for strategy, invention, ballistics, etc., and sees off the Saracens (who, much like today’s Middle Easterners, don’t seem to appreciate the difference between being liberated and being massacred.)  We can only infer that our hero acquired these skills genetically, because we never saw him learn or demonstrate any of them back in England.  There he was merely a bloke too busy hammering horseshoes to go to his wife’s funeral.

I think the hero got the (exotic local) girl eventually; but by then, like most of the audience, I’d stopped caring.

Action is character.  A character who never becomes aware of the challenge he or she faces, and/or does not act to address the challenge, and/or makes poor decisions at vital moments, will lose the respect of the audience.  We will start feeling indifferent towards him or her, then start to despise them.  We certainly won’t root for your hero, which is the one thing you want from your audience. We the audience don’t have to approve of what a character does, we just have to care about what they do, and what comes of that, and what they do next. And if your hero fumbles about for too long, ignorant of what’s going on, or is indecisive, or suddenly demonstrates skills they cannot feasibly have, then we the audience give up trying to care and trying to believe and will start looking at our watches.

‘What if I am not writing a Hollywood movie?’ you might ask.  ‘What if I want to portray people who are authentic, in situations that are true-to-life, not some square-jawed beefcake taking down helicopters with a slingshot?’  In that case, the same rules apply.  If you want your character to be weak, and put upon, and be a victim of their own bad decisions – as most of us are in real life, at one time or another – then by all means do.  Simply dilute the ‘qualities’ of the conventional action hero accordingly.

Joss Whedon in his sci-fi TV series Firefly* depicted a band of space-vagabonds scratching a living from one planet to the next by trading in salvage and stolen goods.  For most of the pilot episode they are insulted, ripped-off, bullied and ambushed, and take it all with a smile and a wisecrack.  In the final reel, one rip-off merchant pushes them too far, and our heroes kick ass.  The episode works brilliantly to establish our heroes in the pecking order; in this universe they are a few rungs up from rock bottom, sticking together to stay alive.

My point: understand what makes a character strong and what makes them weak, and use those techniques knowingly.  And if you do create a weak hero whom we have no reason or inclination to follow, and everyone hates your movie, be sure to blame the lead actor.  That way you’ll be able to find backers to let you do it all over again.  (See Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood – or rather, don’t…)

*Cancelled by network hacks before it even got going properly. If it can happen to a storyteller of Joss Whedon’s calibre, nobody’s safe.

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