“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).
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).
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.
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
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.