The Mission is a very instructive film. It’s got excellent cinematography, beautiful pictures, excellent acting, and yet it’s one of the most disappointing pictures I’ve seen in a long time. In fact, I think structurally it was a mess.
Author’s Predicament: Somebody is trying to do a very ambitious piece of writing, and right away I’ve got to tip my hat to that. I love to see that kind of ambition and desire to really tell as encompassing a story as possible. The risk with trying advanced structures is they fail most of the time, because they’re hard to do.
The predicament of this writer is the predicament of all advanced structure writers: how do you present individual action as it is affected by the larger social and political forces. This is an advanced structure picture that uses a socio-political model. You try to compress the entire world down to one character’s situation and experience and hopefully have an effect on the entire world.
The first thing we need to do is to look at the end point, the self-revelation, of the story to see how the story path works. The self-revelation should come to the storyteller, who is the archbishop. He says a couple of things: “Thus have we made the world, thus have I made it.” Classic self-revelation: I am responsible. And he says at the very end the spirit of the Indians lives on in death.
The storyteller has taken responsibility for what has happened, but it’s been expressed in Western and Christian concepts. Their spirit lives on even in death. This whole story should turn on that idea, the idea of bringing Christian concepts, and the social forces that come with them, to these Indians. So that’s the end point. But I would suggest there may be a contradiction in that person’s thinking, and in fact, in the entire movie.
Let’s look at the storyteller. The storyteller should always be the main character. This is also a third-person storyteller, probably the most complicated storyteller form. As the writer, we must ask ourselves this key question at the beginning of the script: who is going to affect this storyteller and how? Is it going to be the Jesuit priest, played by Jeremy Irons? Is it going to be the Robert De Niro character? Is it going to be the Indians? Is it going to be all of them? Exactly how will they affect the storyteller and cause him to change?
Context: Let’s go back to the beginning, the context. Immediately, we need to focus on the larger social forces. There are agents from Europe acting on this new world, and particularly a group of Christians trying to bring the “Word” to the Indians. There are also Christians in conflict with the secular power. So right away there’s a very complicated context here. It’s going to have to be done really well.
As often happens, the script is made or broken with the choice of the main character. Who is the main character in this story? The hero should be the storyteller; the act of telling his own story should make him change. And in fact, he’s the one who has the comments at the end.
But is the storyteller the main character? Not really. The Jeremy Irons character seems to start off as the main character. But he doesn’t stay that way. We know the Robert De Niro character is in there quite a bit and seems to take over at some point. But is he the main character? Not really.
Stated simply, there is no main character in this film and that is one of the biggest mistakes you can make.
Problem/Need: Let’s look at the sequence of how these guys are introduced, and what happens to the line of this story because of it. We start off with the storyteller, but he’s rarely there. So we lose him right away as the hero. Next up is the Jeremy Irons’ Jesuit priest, but he has no apparent moral need. He is presented in a very positive light. He’s going to the natives to bring the “Word”, he brings the musical instrument, wins them over, and this conversion process, this missionary process, is shown very positively.
Desire: His desire is clear. He wants to convert the Indians and build a mission. It’s a clear desire line. There’s one big problem with that. It gets accomplished pretty quickly. Which is exactly why we go to another main character, because there was no opposition to the first desire line.
Opponent: The first opponent seems to be the De Niro character. He’s a slave trader and he’s grabbing Indians. But his values are not expressed in any way, so we don’t really know what he’s about. And pretty soon he becomes the third hero. He does have a moral need because his initial desire is to catch Indians. But then he kills his brother, and now he’s got tremendous guilt.
So the story continues with him dealing in some very weird way with his guilt. Here is a very interesting and real element of Christianity. But what is the author’s attitude towards it? I don’t know. His guilt seems to be presented as a little weird, but certainly heroic. He is doing penance, dragging the armor up those damn waterfalls. But you get the feeling that this is all very heroic.
Then he becomes a priest. Which makes the story flip back to the first hero because now who has the central problem? The bishop. The bishop has to decide: are we going to keep the missions or not? He’s got to decide between the Jesuits and the secular power provided by the slavers.
With the return to the first hero, we also move to the second opponent, the slave traders. We’re jumping all over the place here. The slave traders are clearly opponents, first because they are presented in a very heavy-handed way. These are big fat guys. Awful people. But we learn very little about their values. And they are not the true opponents of the bishop. The bishop is actually there to decide between two lesser fighters, the Jesuits and the secular forces.
There is a suggestion of what the entire film should have been about when the slavers say “You Jesuits are the real enslavers, because you threaten the Indians with hell.” That is a powerful idea. To what degree is what these Christians doing positive, and in what way is it an enslavement?
But that is nowhere near explored here because no main character was chosen. Therefore, we have no sense of a desire line, no sense of a moral need, no sense of a main opponent, nothing. This fundamental question would have provided a system of values that could have come into conflict with another set of values. But that set of values can’t exist because the structural elements that would provide it aren’t there.
The film does have an interesting use of special worlds. Between the plan and the battle in many advanced structure stories you often show a subworld that’s a heaven or hell. Here the archbishop goes into the missions and sees how wonderful they are. And this is right out of the singing-happy-people type of world. It’s perfect. This is heaven on Earth. But again, the idea of how the Jesuits themselves might be harming these people is not explored in any way.
Whenever you show a utopian world, you have to show specifics. Why is this such a good world for these people? What are they learning from the Christians that is so wonderful, that’s making their lives so much better than it was before when they were just Indians? We don’t know that either.
So this idea that the Indians might have been better off if the Westerners, Christians and slavers had never come is not explored. The moral decision step comes before the battle in this film. The bishop decides to lose the missions. He’s forced to do that because of larger forces.
But because those forces have not really been portrayed in detail and shown in clear opposition between a main character and an opponent, it’s very muddled. We don’t really know the basis of his decision. It just happens. You think after seeing all this wonderfulness how could he possibly make a decision like that? But he does.
Battle: The battle is between the Jesuits, in particular the De Niro character, and the slavers and the soldiers. Notice we have two approaches: the violent opposition and the nonviolent opposition. Very interesting possibility. That could have been a nice story right there, the story between the De Niro character and the Jeremy Irons character. But again, that is not the opposition we get.
The main problem with the battle is the fact that it’s not the right one. It’s not between the hero and the opponent. Both approaches are shown to be heroic in this story: the fighters and the people who walk out in the face of the people with guns.
I would contend that neither of them is heroic. They’re both intensely stupid. This is the kind of false heroism I find very offensive in this kind of movie, because who gets killed? The Indians get killed. The idea of how these Jesuits, using both violent and non-violent methods, might have caused the death of all these people is not portrayed as an incredibly stupid, wasteful act, but as inspiring. Wasn’t that heroic how they walked out there and really gave it their all in spite of the huge odds. The difference between nobility and stupidity is subtle but important.
Self-Revelation: And so we get back to that self-revelation step. What’s the quality of the self-revelation, based not only on the actions of the story but on this battle in particular? The statement that the Indians’ spirit lives on in death comes out incredibly hollow, because who’s living on here? Nobody is living on. The Indians are dead. The guy spewing this silly platitude is still alive.
This concept of the spirit living on, a classic of old Hollywood, is simply replayed here. It’s the old Gunga Din approach: “Good ole Gunga Din is dead, but boy we really have fond memories of him.” To me the hero strikes a very poor chord here.
What I would have liked to see in this story is how the values of the Jesuits and the secular forces are really the same. How is the Western system in opposition to the values of these Indians and the life that they have? The deepest truth here is that you don’t get one without the other: you don’t get the Jesuits without the boys with the guns. Both of them say “I know what’s best for you.” And that’s really the moral need here.
But none of the Jesuits in this story, including the bishop, the first priest or the De Niro character, ever have any sense of this. Since every story, no matter when it’s set, is a present-tense story, this is still the problem that Indians in that part of the world are dealing with today. They’re still dealing with “how are you guys going to tell me how to live my life, and somehow it always ends up that I’m dead.”
This is an example of the difficulty of using an advanced structure and finding a clean line. The key point is this: in spite of all the fancy stuff that you might want to use – the storyteller, the socio-political forces, the special worlds – you’ve got to make the main line work. You’ve got to find the right hero and the right opponent. You’ve got to find the basic values in opposition, and you’ve got to get down to the core values, not just the superficial differences.
Another lesson of this film is: use the storyteller for the right reason. Often a storyteller is not part of the original construction. It’s as if the writers are saying, “People aren’t going to understand this thing, so we better give them a storyteller.” That is the absolute worst reason for using a storyteller.
There are good advanced structure stories. There are great uses of the storyteller. But just because somebody has a big name and they’ve won some Academy Awards, doesn’t mean they did it right. I don’t care how many Oscars they give him, this is not a good script.