Monday, August 19, 2019

Now, Voyager (1942) and Bend of the River (1952): A Complex Story Structure 


Nothing is wrong with the standard three-act story structure.  But it is somewhat admirable when a filmmaker succeeds with a more complex story.  A complex story is a story that explores shifting conflicts and shifting objectives before having everything converge perfectly in a clear denouement. 

One film that offers a complex story is Bend of the River (1952).  We have a clear-cut protagonist, Glyn McLyntock (James Stewart).  McLyntock has been hired to guide a wagon train to Oregon.  The first scene establishes McLyntock's friendly relationship with the settlers' leader, Jeremy Baile (Jay C. Flippen), and Baile's daughters Laura (Julie Adams) and Marjie (Lori Nelson).  Bailey is so fond of McLyntock that he is hopeful the man will eventually marry one of his daughters. 

McLyntock has to be careful when he learns that hostile Indians are in the area.  He goes ahead of the wagon train to scout the trail.  He rescues Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy), who is about to be lynched for stealing a horse.  McLyntock and Cole, who are both former border raiders, know each other by reputation.  McLyntock regrets his experiences as a border raider and wants now only to do good.  He admits that he has not told the settlers about his past.  Cole is puzzled by McLyntock's reformation.
Cole: McLyntock of the border, a rancher.  I don't get it.  Who're you running away from?

McLyntock: A man by the name of Glyn McLyntock.

Cole: Well, what happens when he catches up with you?

McLyntock: I don't think he's going to catch up with me. He died on the Missouri border.

Cole: You're wrong.  He'll catch up with ya one of these days.
Baile knows that Cole was once a raider.  He does not trust Cole and does not believe that a man can change.  He is particularly concerned when Laura takes an interest in Cole.

That night, Laura is scrubbing clothing in a basin when she is suddenly struck in the shoulder by an arrow.  It is a party of Shoshone Indians, who persist in their attack as the settlers scramble for cover.  Cole helps McLyntock to fight off the Indians.  At one point, he shoots an Indian about to kill McLyntock.  The fact that Cole has risked his life to protect the wagon train proves to McLyntock that Cole, despite his past, is a good man.

This first act has established a clear dramatic question: Can a bad man become good?  The answer is, by all indication, "yes."  But Baile still has his doubts.  A more important question: Will the wagon train make it to Oregon?

The film has seemingly established the Indians as the story's antagonists, but we never see the Indians again after their failed attack.  This film is something different than Westward the Women (1951), Arrow in the Dust (1954) or The Indian Fighter (1955), which remain focused on the protagonist shepherding a wagon train through hostile Indian territory.

The wagon train arrives in Portland at the start of the second act.  Everyone they meet in Portland is friendly and helpful.  A prominent businessman, Tom Hendricks (Howard Petrie), makes arrangements with Baile to gather together the supplies that the settlers will need to survive the winter.  Baile depletes the settlers' funds to pay Hendricks in advance.  The settlers head into the wilderness to build their community.  Laura, who is convalescing, stays behind in town with Cole. 

Baile becomes distressed when the community is nearly out of food and Hendricks' supplies are several weeks overdue.  He asks McLyntock to ride with him to Portland.  On their arrival, the men find that a gold rush has radically changed the town.  Laura now works for Hendricks and plans to marry Cole.  She has no intention of working on her family's farm.
Hendricks had gotten the settlers' supplies ready for shipment, but he held onto supplies when he found out that he could get a much higher price for the items from the mining camps.  He has no concern with the settlers starving as long as he can make a big profit.

McLyntock argues with Hendricks.  Hendricks is enraged to learn that McLyntock has paid a group of layabouts to load the supplies onto a steamship.  McLyntock and Hendricks get into a gun battle, but neither man is shot.  Other men join the shootout.  Cole backs up McLyntock even though Hendricks is his boss.  Obviously, he feels a far greater loyalty to McLyntock than he feels for Hendricks.  McLyntock and Hendricks escape to the steamship and convince the captain to launch immediately.

Hendricks assembles a group of men to head off the steamship.  Clearly, the story has reset.  The antagonist is now Hendricks.  The inciting incident in first act was the Indian attack (or, specifically, Laura being shot by an arrow).  The second act has its own inciting incident: the shootout between McLyntock and Hendricks.  The question now becomes: Will McLyntock and Baile get the supplies back to settlement?

Hendricks, who commands a sizable collection of gunmen, appears to have a strong advantage over McLyntock.  McLyntock, an extremely determined and resourceful man, never gets discouraged.  He arranges a clever ambush, which leaves Hendricks and many of his men dead.  Our antagonist has been eliminated at the close of the second act.  What now?

The miners approach Baile on the trail to offer him $100,000 for the supplies.  Cole is excited by the offer.  He stages a mutiny with the help of an unsavory group of men who have been half-heartedly assisting McLyntock and Baile in exchange for a grub stake.  So, now, Cole is the story's antagonist and we are back to the question of whether a bad man is able to reform.  Cole shows that a bad man can't be good even if he tries hard to be good.  We have seen several examples of Cole doing the right thing even if it meant risking his life.  He even spares McLyntock though he knows McLyntock will come after him.  But, in the end, he gives in to an abiding evil within himself.  The old Cole has caught up to him.  McLyntock, on the other hand, shows that a bad man can most certainly become good.

Each of the film's three acts has its own inciting incident, its own antagonist, its own climax, and perhaps its own question.

Joe Bunting of The Write Practice identified a similar structure with Homer's "Odysseus."  Bunting believes the dramatic question of "Odysseus" is: “Is Odysseus going to make it home from Troy?"  His answer:
1. No, because there’s a cyclops in the way.

2. Odysseus and his men escaped the cyclops but now the cannibals are after them.

3. They avoided the cannibals but the Sirens are calling to them.
The question never changes throughout Odysseus' series of adventures, yet each adventure puts forth its own foe and tests Odysseus' heroism in a different way.  In the same way, the various adventures of Bend of River are testing McLyntock to see if he will remain loyal to the settlers.  Cole offers to cut him in for a share of the miners' money.  He refuses.  He will not abandon the settlers despite murderous Indians, starvation, thievery, shootouts, a brutal beating, and bribes.

Another complex story can be found in Now, Voyager (1942), which is divided into four distinct parts.  The film starts with its protagonist, Charlotte Valeher (Bette Davis), consulting psychiatrist Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains) about her depression and anxiety.  The doctor believes that the source of Charlotte's emotional problems is Charlotte's domineering mother, Mrs. Vale (Gladys Cooper).  He recommends that Charlotte spend time in his sanitarium, where he can help her to become independent from her mother. The dramatic question: Will Charlotte overcome her depression and anxiety and become a self-reliant woman? It is a question that will seem to be answered at the start of the second act.

The second act deals with a newly confident Charlotte enjoying a romantic affair with debonair Jerry Duvaux (Paul Henreid) during a cruise to Rio de Janeiro.  Jerry admits to being in an unhappy marriage, which he keeps together for the sake of his daughter.  On their return home, Charlotte and Jerry end their relationship so that Jerry will not have to give up his relationship with his daughter.  Charlotte's shipboard romance could stand as its own independent story.

Charlotte reunites with her mother at home.  The second she sees her daughter, Mrs. Vale seeks to reassert her authority.  She tells Charlotte that she disapproves of the way she's dressed and the way that she has her hair fixed.  She informs her daughter that her belongings have been moved to another room so that she could be closer and more available to her.  It is her intention to dismiss her nurse and have her daughter look after her instead.  Most appallingly, she criticizes her daughter for a book that a servant found while her belongings were being moved.  Charlotte listens patiently, although none of this sits well with her.  In the end, she stands up to her mother.  She says, "I don't want to be disagreeable or unkind. I've come home to live with you.  But it can't be in the same way.  I've been living my own life for a long while now.  I won't go back to being treated like a child.  I don't think I'll do anything that will displease you, but from now on you must give me complete freedom.  Including deciding what I wear, where I sleep, what I read."

Mother throws herself down the staircase to injure herself and obligate Charlotte to care for her.  She later threatens to cut off Charlotte's allowance if her daughter doesn't follow her demands.  She says, "I will give a devoted daughter a home and pay expenses, but not if she scorns my authority."  But Charlotte holds up admirably in this rigorous battle of wills.

Charlotte meets Jerry again at a party.  She tells him, "Shall I tell you what you've given me?  On that very first day, a bottle of perfume made me feel important.  You were my first friend.  When you fell in love with me, I was so proud.  When I came home, I needed something to make me proud.  Your camellias arrived and I knew you were thinking about me.  I could've walked into a den of lions.  As a matter of fact I did, and the lions didn't hurt me."

Mrs. Vale is shocked when her daughter announces her intention to leave her and find a job, any job, to support herself.  She suffers a heart attack and dies.  This is a new inciting incident that resets the story. 

Charlotte feels so guilty about her mother's death that she returns to the sanitarium.  At the sanitarium, she meets a troubled girl named Tina, who happens to be Jerry's daughter.  Tina, like her father, has suffered a great deal of abuse from her mother.  Jerry remembered Charlotte mentioning the help she received at the sanitarium.  Charlotte and Tina become close and, eventually, Dr. Jaquith allows Charlotte to take Tina to live with her.  But the doctor has a strict condition: Charlotte and Jerry cannot resume their troubled affair, which could create problems for the child.

Charlotte finds happiness and fulfillment as Tina's guardian.  She tells Jerry, "When Tina said she wanted to stay with me, it was like a miracle happening.  Like having your child.  A part of you.  I even allowed myself to indulge in the fantasy that both of us loving her, doing what was best for her together, would make her seem like our child after a while."

Jerry questions if Charlotte can remain happy under this arrangement.  Charlotte replies, "Oh, Jerry, don't let's ask for the moon.  We have the stars."

Like Odysseus, Charlotte engages in a series of challenges.  Her first challenge is to break away from her mother, her second challenge is to find love with Jerry, her third challenge is to hold onto her power, and her fourth challenge is to cure Tina of her unhappiness.  In the end, the last challenge ties together with the others.  Freeing Tina from her mother's torment relates to Charlotte freeing herself from her own mother's torment.  Finding love with Tina relates to Charlotte finding love with Jerry. 

By succeeding in her challenges, Charlotte like Odysseus finds her way home.

Reference source

Joe Bunting, "The Dramatic Question and Suspense in Fiction," The Write Practice.

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