“A Man at Arms” as a Western

We’ve been talking in the past few posts about the evolution of A Man at Arms from its shaky, unclear inception—and how one narrative element led to another until we had a fully-formed, living and breathing story.

We started with a potential hook (the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthians), identified this as the McGuffin (the item that the villain wants), added a villain (the Romans in first-century Judea) and a hero (the solitary mercenary, Telamon of Arcadia).

What’s next?

How about genre?

This one was easy. I sensed immediately that A Man at Arms was a Western (even though it is set in the ancient world). 

I consider “Seven Samurai” a Western.

Before we address the question, “Why is A Man at Arms a Western?” let’s identify the elements of a Western, with emphasis on the Western hero. Think John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson in Mad Max or Robert Redford in Jeremiah Johnson, or any samurai in any samurai movie. 

The Western hero is almost always a loner. 

He is a man of violence—a gunslinger, a master swordsman, a formidable fighter with any weapon  (I include the character of John Wick in this roster and would classify John Wick movies as Westerns). 

The Western hero is a man with a past. Almost always this is a past that has scarred him and driven him to become the solitary, wary individual he is when we encounter him. In many classic American Westerns, the death and destruction of the Civil War is the past that haunts the hero.  I would call Bogey in Casablanca a Western hero. The past that has wounded him is Paris and, before that, his experiences in the Spanish Civil War.

A Western hero is almost always a man with a code. Though the Western hero is typically a master of weaponry, he is not a beast or a savage. He has a personal conception of honor, often eccentric but deeply-felt nonetheless.

The Western hero exists in a landscape beyond the law. The American West, post-apocalyptic Australia, ronin-era Japan. When the nearest marshal is two days’ ride away, the inhabitants of this “world of the story” must themselves decide what is right and what is wrong. The Western hero, because of his fighting skills, is often the central figure (think Shane, The Searchers, The Book of Eli, Unforgiven) in this drama.

Denzel Washington. “The Book of Eli” is a Western.

When I laid this Western template over the embryonic bones of A Man at Arms, I said to myself, “Check, check, check, check and check.”

The wilderness of Sinai, across which the action-chase will take place, would fit perfectly as the Land Beyond the Law. We have Romans and Arabs and bandit tribes to serve as the Bad Establishment, the Outlaws, etc. And we have Telamon, who could easily stand beside Clint Eastwood, Gary Cooper or Toshiro Mifune.

Westerns, like all other genres, have conventions and obligatory scenes. Reckoning, then, that A Man at Arms is a Western, I can pretty safely speculate that the story will need  

An initial “shootout” to establish our hero’s formidability

Some kind of chase across a wilderness

A series of set-piece clashes, escalating as the story progresses

and

 An ultimate mano-a-mano “gunfight” between the hero and the villain.

I can also conjecture (see Stagecoach, Shane, Unforgiven, Seven Samurai, The Road Warrior, The Wild Bunch) that I’ll need a colorful and wildly-diverse troupe of supporting characters who will participate with Telamon in this adventure.

Lastly, we’ll need at least one character (and possibly more) whose dilemma and vulnerability will force our Western hero, Telamon, to choose in the climax between his own selfish ends and the needs of the greater community. See Casablanca, True Grit, The Wild Bunch, Logan, Shane, High Noon, The Searchers, Seven Samurai, News of the World.

Genre, to me, is like the master key to a story, particularly at the very beginning when we’re trying to figure out what we’ve got and how it might be made to work. 

If I can identity what type of story I have … many, many unknowns and imponderables fall effortlessly into place.

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34 Comments

  1. Joe Jansen on April 21, 2021 at 3:05 am

    I’m glad “News of the World” is mentioned here. I was thinking of that film while I was reading A Man at Arms. A warrior with a past, who already has his foot forward into a different way of being; a young girl with whom there’s a language barrier, who is initially a type of “burden,” but becomes an equal and a resourceful ally; a distant destination on the other side of dangerous terrain, the objective of delivering “a package” in the form of a person.

    I convinced my wife to go see “The Seven Samurai” a couple years ago when it was playing at an art-house type theater. “How long is it?” said she.

    “Three hours and twenty-seven minutes,” said I.

    “Can we watch ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ instead?”

    “That one is three hours and forty-eight minutes.”

    “. . . Never mind.”

    • Brian Nelson on April 21, 2021 at 7:25 am

      Joe,
      I literally laughed out loud at your last sentence. More of a guttural ‘Ha!’

      I can see her eyes saying, “I’m only doing this because I love you…remember that the next time I ask you to help out with Christmas shopping on Black Friday.”
      bsn

      • Peter Brockwell on April 21, 2021 at 11:09 am

        Hilarious! Love it.

        And Joe, you saved your wife a full minute. That’s a minute she owes you.

    • Joseph Badal on April 21, 2021 at 8:46 am

      Joe, after reading your comment, I concluded that you are a Western Hero, a loner trying to benefit his community, but unappreciated. Hang in there. Maybe your wife will eventually come around.

    • Jonathan Berman on April 21, 2021 at 11:15 am

      Ditto what Brian said.

      That was truly funny.

    • Joe on April 21, 2021 at 11:23 am

      Y’all… I can guarantee if I volunteered to sit with her on a “Sex and the City” movie marathon (run time 2:25 for the first one and 2:26 for the second one, for a total butts-in-seats time of four hours and fifty-one minutes), there would be no complaints. She would even offer to make the popcorn.

      After sitting through the second one of those (in 2010, Carrie and the girls frolicking around Abu Dhabi), I told her, “You owe me. I’m thinking one Terminator movie and three episodes of ‘Band of Brothers.'”

      As the lights came up, I heard the guy behind me say to his wife/girlfriend, “Well… I guess that was better than ‘Les Mis.'”

  2. Brian Nelson on April 21, 2021 at 7:45 am

    Steve,
    Years ago, way before I joined the military–and probably a deep-seeded reason I needed the military–I would have dismissed your reliance on structure/genre as confining, restrictive, and unnecessary. What’s even more distressing is that in my own head I would have also thought of this reliance on genre as weak and unoriginal.

    Thankfully, we hairless apes are capable of learning…

    I had a decidedly non-Western experience of medicine this past weekend, and it flipped some old held beliefs on their heads. A significant part of this experience was the structure of a ceremony, and it is ancient. Millenia ancient. But there was a reverence, respect, and honor to the structure, the symbolism, and the craft. I’m guessing it wouldn’t have worked if it went out of order.

    In the past few years I’ve come to understand that narrative is our delivery system of knowledge, and knowledge is the most important adaptive advantage we have.

    Today as I was reading this blog, in my head I thought of writers and artists as ‘Shamans of the Arts’, following ancient protocols with reverence, respect, and honor…all to deliver the essential medicine of knowledge.

    Still reeling a bit from this weekend, but I approached “Writing Wednesdays” with a bit more humility this morning–and was seeing it from the perspective of delivering much needed soul medicine to the world.

    This story needed to be told. You were the only person on the planet capable of telling this particular narrative at this particular time, and it requires(ed) the story itself to be nested inside this particular ‘recipe’ for its impact to work. The cake wouldn’t have risen in a different genre.

    I guess my point is that I have newfound respect and understanding of ancient practices in all domains, but since knowledge is what gives our oversized brains the competitive advantage–the honoring of structure/genre/the practice is even more important for the writer. Orders of magnitude of people can read “A Man At Arms” more than can sit in a Yurt over a weekend.
    bsn

    • Mike on April 21, 2021 at 9:38 am

      I believe it was Orson Welles who said, “the enemy of art is the absence of limitations.”

      • Peter Brockwell on April 21, 2021 at 10:56 am

        Mike, that’s so true. When I start a project and discover (or impose upon myself) the limitations, it’s a liberating moment. Suddenly there’s a channel to work inside.

        But let’s also remember Goethe, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

    • Peter Brockwell on April 21, 2021 at 11:08 am

      Brian, I’m thinking of Professor David Deutsch’s argument that unless something is forbidden by the laws of physics, then it is possible. Which means that the only thing preventing you from doing it is a lack of the knowledge of how to accomplish it. So therefore there are three resources in the universe: matter, energy, and knowledge. And we utilise matter and energy through knowledge. My cat has the same access to matter and energy that I have, more or less, but she lacks knowledge.

      What an amazing multiplicity of threads of knowledge had to come from the past and join together in Steve, in his mind, his experience and tendencies, interests and obsessions, to lead to the creation of ‘A Man At Arms’.

      Another perspective: truly interesting work and creativity takes place at the limn between order and chaos. ‘Order’ in this context is the framework: the Western, and the structure of a novel, expressed perhaps as Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid structure, for example. And ‘chaos’ here is the novelty, the ocean of possibility. Most of that ‘chaos’ would yield little that could even mean anything. But adding just a dash of novelty to the framework leads to something novel enough to yield insight, meaning and entertainment, or both, but without confusion. Hmm, I’ll have to think further on this.

      • Brian Nelson on April 21, 2021 at 5:32 pm

        Peter,
        Well said! Just a dash of chaos! In the Army, we’d call that dash initiative. No one has been awarded medals for valor by following the Operations Order to a ‘T’. It is why ‘commander’s intent’ is so important, that when the unforeseen happens, we are able to grab a pinch of chaos to meet the strategic intent.

        Again, very well said. The order is the cadence, the dosing to continue the medical metaphor. Great stuff. I’ll be thinking further about this as well.
        bsn

    • Renita on April 21, 2021 at 11:41 am

      In the past few years I’ve come to understand that narrative is our delivery system of knowledge, and knowledge is the most important adaptive advantage we have.

      That’s so powerful, Brian.

      • Brian Nelson on April 21, 2021 at 5:33 pm

        Thanks Renita! What a pleasurable thing to read this afternoon! I’m smiling!
        bsn

    • Joe on April 21, 2021 at 1:50 pm

      Good stuff, Brian. Sounds like a powerful experience. Agreed on “narrative” as a system. Yuval Noah Harari has a great TED Talk where he discusses narrative as ‘those fictions we all agree to agree to.’ What’s the legal system but a set of stories around which we have consensus. Nation-states are a fiction — no objective reality other than that on which we collectively agree. https://youtu.be/nzj7Wg4DAbs

      • Brian Nelson on April 21, 2021 at 5:35 pm

        Joe,
        I think you should paste your favorites on YouTube for all of us!Instead of a reading list, you need to produce a watching list!
        Thanks–Yuval is simply brilliant.
        bsn

        • Joe on April 22, 2021 at 5:31 am

          Shhh… if I do that, my wife will know I’m in here watching YouTube videos instead of working.

  3. Sam Luna on April 21, 2021 at 7:59 am

    “Genre, to me, is like the master key to a story, particularly at the very beginning when we’re trying to figure out what we’ve got and how it might be made to work.”

    (forehead slap)

    I need to write that down somewhere …

  4. Mike on April 21, 2021 at 9:44 am

    I love how you define the western as a type of story – independent of setting.

    A little curious why you compare Telamon to Toshiro Mifune’s character in The Seven Samurai; while Kikuchiyo is the protagonist, I see him more as David in A Man At Arms. Kyuzo seems to be much more similar to Telamon.

    • Steven Pressfield on April 21, 2021 at 11:41 am

      I agree completely, Mike. In fact in my mind the model I had for Telamon was Kyuzo. I love the guy! But for purposes of this post, I figured no one would know the actor’s name or even be able to recall the specific character. So I went with Toshiro Mifune not just for Seven Samurai but for all the other “gunfighter” roles in played in other samurai movies.

      • Mike on April 21, 2021 at 8:50 pm

        Steven,

        Fair enough, and I love that you interact with your fans in this way.

        On a different note, early in the book I notice that you introduce the term “loess,” and then make the effort to define it for the reader. I wonder why you do this, as I see other options: You could use the term and expect the audience to either know the term or look it up, you could use a more common (though less accurate) term like dust or grit, or you could have ignored such a mundane detail entirely. I’m not saying you should have done anything differently, I’m just curious why you played it the way you did.

        Of the few friends I have that have actually read Moby Dick, the ones who hate it all cite the boring explanations of the whaling trade. Obviously, a single-sentence definition is not on the same scale, but I’m curious as to why you chose to include it.

        • Peter Brockwell on April 23, 2021 at 9:02 am

          Hey Mike,
          That’s an interesting question. I always like to learn a few new words when reading a great novel – words that illuminate that world for me. I guess the same for everyone on Writing Wednesdays?

          Uncommon words I’ve gained from A Man At Arms, and enjoyed, include: eminence, impedimenta, careened, pelf, tumpline, and others. Which words were new to you, if any?

          My speculation for what it’s worth: Steve has written this novel for himself in the first instance. But each fictional world needs a few words/terms that lend a certain kind of tone particular to that milieu, just as the sentences of C19th novels often have a mesmeric, melodic quality. Steve found those words, they fit, they are beautiful, and, as my Spanish gf says, whenever she reads Trollope in English or Stendhal in French, ‘The thing is to get the gist, and keep going!’

          Just my t’pennies worth.

  5. Allyson West Lewis on April 21, 2021 at 9:48 am

    LOL!
    I just did write it down!
    “Genre, to me, is like the master key to a story, particularly at the very beginning when we’re trying to figure out what we’ve got and how it might be made to work.”

  6. Andrew lubin on April 21, 2021 at 10:41 am

    Does it have to be a ‘Shane’ or Wild Bunch’ type of western? While Bogie in ‘Casablanca’ seems to be the group’s choice for acnon-western loner, let me throw Brad Pitt and ‘Legends of the Fall’ into the discussion. Pitt certainly fits as the out-of-touch loner, and rural Montana is as stark and unyielding as any desert. It’s equal to Corinth or a Tex-Mex border town as a location for Pitt to fights against those who don’t meet his idea of ‘code.’ And to go out while fighting a bear? A most honourable fight against overwhelming odds! Location vs Story/Story vs Location; or do the two need each other to succeed? Thoughts?

    • Peter Brockwell on April 21, 2021 at 11:12 am

      I’m put in mind of Mal in Firefly, if you know that Joss Whedon cancelled SF series. A Western in space, essentially.

      Perhaps also Leon (Jean Reno) in Luc Besson’s ‘Leon, The Professional’. Matilda (Nathalie Portman) would be Ruth.

      • Mike on April 21, 2021 at 8:58 pm

        A great piece of television, and the greatest of all of Joss Whedon’s work – and the most damning of all of Fox’s horrible decisions in the 90s.

        I don’t think either Whedon or Nathan Fillion have any military experience, but that role captures what a small unit leader should be in a manner I’ve never seen in any other popular medium.

  7. Renita on April 21, 2021 at 11:44 am

    Steve,
    I love that you’re developing a men’s circle of higher intelligence here.
    Beautiful to see.
    Renita

    • grace on April 22, 2021 at 3:54 am

      Love your comment.

    • Joe on April 22, 2021 at 5:48 am

      I, too, am digging this sense of community, Renita. As much as I look forward to reading Steve’s weekly essays, I look forward to seeing how people respond and what they have to say. Not just the guys, either. You, Kati, Mary, Yvonne, Mia, Susan, Bonnie, Gigi, Maureen, Linda, Barbara, Lynn, and many others. Agreed… beautiful to see.

      • Maureen Anderson on April 22, 2021 at 8:59 am

        I’ll always remember (though don’t have at my fingertips) the first time I noticed one of your comments, Joe — how Steven had replied to it by telling you to keep them coming. Or how Mary dropped off the radar for a while and found out how much she mattered. Or how Seth pipes in once in a while! It’s like scoring the best section of the class you most wanted to take with the professor you most wanted to take it from.

        I take breaks from work to scroll through Twitter, play Tetris, or read blogs. And this is one of maybe five sites I’m not embarrassed to have on the screen when my husband walks by on a break from his own work!

        • Joe on April 22, 2021 at 9:56 am

          Glad to be in the conversation with you all, Maureen.

  8. Joe on April 22, 2021 at 7:54 am

    I’m going to follow on to Renita and Brian here (hopefully in brief) on the topic of ‘the function and purpose of narrative.’ One of my morning reads is a mailer from the Aeons site. This morning I found this one titled “Works of art compel our attention, but do they change us?”: https://aeon.co/essays/works-of-art-compel-our-attention-but-can-they-change-us.

    It’s relatively long (3600 words), but if I were to excerpt a couple things that apply to why stories of heroes (or villains or other worlds or other eras or other people’s lives) draw us in the way they do, it might be these excerpts:

    “We might think of escape as a cop-out, but it plays an important role in wellbeing. When art allows us to escape, it takes us out of our day-to-day world to another reality. This is why so many of us can’t go to sleep without entering a fictional world – whether in a novel or a television series.”

    “The sadness from … films, as people projected themselves into the worlds of others, resulted in pure sadness, untinged with the aversive feeling of [personal] anxiety….Because we know we’re experiencing art, which is a form of make-believe, we distance ourselves from these emotions and remain in control of them. Art invites us in to embrace negative emotions because these occur in a safe space – with no practical consequences for our own lives.”

    “The general claim is that reading literature and watching films and theatre productions cause us to practise empathy: we put ourselves into the shoes of another – often of others very different from ourselves – and this transport humanises the other. It is said that when Beecher Stowe met President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, he said to her: ‘So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.’ Whether or not this story is actually true, and it’s disputed, it nicely captures the belief that literature can change minds and change behaviours.”

    “A recently completed study (unpublished) … provides some support for the claim that narratives about suffering can increase rather than deplete empathy.”

    and lastly…

    “I argue that we’re drawn to works of art because they connect us quite directly to the imagined mind of the artist.”

    ***
    The narratives in stories are way more important than just “entertainment” or “escape.” If in these lives, we’re engaging in elaborate narratives (as Yuval Noah Harari talks about), and then we immerse ourselves in the “fictional” narratives of the hero; the villain; of love, tragedy, triumph, redemption, loss, grief, joy, awe; of drama or horror or fantasy or Western, aren’t we learning something about how to exist here in these dimensions into which we’re temporarily locked? We don’t have to live just one life. By engaging in the narratives presented us through novels and film and paintings and pottery and sculpture and all the other forms of art we’re capable of producing, we get to live many lives (or at least live this one more fully).

    And at a certain level, do our brains even know the difference between “real” and “imagined”?

    • Joe on April 22, 2021 at 8:31 am

      And as usual, something else presented itself in short order, on-theme. In another mailer (James Clear’s “3-2-1 Thursday”… and don’t all the greats stake out a day of the week), this, from Ann Lamott:

      “Books are paper ships, to all the worlds, to ancient Egypt, outer space, eternity, into the childhood of your favorite musician, and — the most precious stunning journey of all — into your own heart, your own family, your own history and future and body.

      “Out of these flat almost two-dimensional boxes of paper will spring mountains, lions, concerts, galaxies, heroes. You will meet people who have been all but destroyed, who have risen up and will bring you with them. Books and stories are medicine, plaster casts for broken lives and hearts, slings for weakened spirits. And in reading, you will laugh harder than you ever imagined laughing, and this will be magic, heaven, and salvation. I promise.”

      — Ann Lamott, A Velocity of Being: Letters to A Young Reader

  9. Spelling Bee on April 23, 2021 at 10:30 am

    The letter set is displayed in a hexagon, and you must use the central letter in every word. nytimes spellingbee puzzles online.
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  10. Jurgen Strack on April 24, 2021 at 4:46 am

    Brilliant, as ever, Herr Pressfield!
    Love it!

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