The Wizard of Oz
The Wizard of Oz, 1939, was a revolutionary film for its use of Technicolor. It transformed what we understood about cinema and set a foundation for decades of sequels, spin-offs, and reinterpretations. In the scene depicted above, Dorothy and the gang set off for Emerald City after encountering the enchanted field of poppies, their last trial before reaching the city and meeting the Wizard of Oz. The series of trials they faced on their journey parallels the hero’s journey, a narrative template prevalent in classic mythology. The scene as Dorothy and friends make their way down the yellow brick road represents their victory over the trials while their goal waits for them just at the end of the road. By removing the characters from the scene, I am affectively destroying that victory. What was once a scene of accomplishment becomes nothing more than a road to a city.
Rocky, 1976, is a story of a boxer who “goes the distance” to prove himself to himself and the world. It is a classic story of an underdog character who overcomes obstacles to rise to the top. As someone who defied all of the odds against him and came out on top, Rocky became a hero and an inspiration for people all across the country. This scene is one of the most iconic scenes throughout the film and was reproduced by countless others. Rocky has finally completed his training and is ready to face Apollo Creed in the boxing ring. It’s a huge moment for the film, and for the character. By removing Rocky from the scene, his success suddenly doesn’t matter, whatever training he accomplished is now pointless. It becomes a generic moment in Philadelphia.
Dirty Harry, 1971, is a crime thriller about San Fransisco cop Harry Callahan, known as “Dirty Harry,” who works to take down the psychopathic killer called Scorpio. The film is inspired by the real life cases of the Zodiac Killer, an unidentified serial killer who terrorized Northern California from the 1960s to 70s. The film was released during a time when issues with the justice system were abundant. The American people were frustrated with a police body that continually overstepped boundaries, obstructed justice, and abused their authority. While some view the film as a way to celebrate “dirty cops” and a flawed system, others view it as a commentary on the country’s general frustration with executive and judicial laws. Throughout the film, Dirty Harry is constantly working to bring the killer to justice, but somehow everything keeps working out in the killer’s favor. The scene above comes right before Dirty Harry faces off with the Scorpio one last time. He finally takes down the murderer, but he throws his badge into the water – symbolic of America’s (and his own) frustration with a justice system that failed the public and essentially allowed a killer to walk free. By removing Dirty Harry from the scene, it is changed into a plain landscape. As in the example with Rocky, the build up from the entire film no longer matters and it simply becomes a landscape.
Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope)
Star Wars, 1977, later retitled Episode IV: A New Hope, is the first installment in one of the highest grossing franchises of all time. The story follows Luke Skywalker and Han Solo as they travel across the galaxy to rescue Princess Leia, the leader of the Rebellion, and help in the fight against the Empire. This scene occurs after Luke has seen Princess Leia’s message on R2-D2, learns about Obi-Wan Kenobi, and his mysterious connection to Luke’s deceased father, Anakin. This is the very start of Luke’s journey, right before he will set off to find the missing R2-D2 and end up on a much bigger journey. The scene is rather dramatic, but it serves to represent the birth of Luke’s destiny. It takes place while Luke himself doesn’t know who he truly is and prefaces his gradual realization of that. Without Luke in the scene, it is a pretty sunset, but it no longer marks the start of an epic journey to a character’s destiny.
The Godfather, 1972, is a crime drama following the exploits of the Corleone family, a mafia organization in New York. A drug dealer named Sollozzo approaches the head of the Corleone family, Don Vito, to request financing and protection from the Corleone’s. They refuse and it spurs a conflict between them and a rival family, the Tattaglia’s. When the Don is injured in an attempted assassination, power positions shift and the previously structured Corleone family struggles to reinstate the hierarchy that is put into limbo. The film is a gritty look at the mafia families of New York, a large and brutal part of American history. It also explores family duty and loyalty, and what people will do to protect it. This scene features the youngest Corleone son, Michael, as he takes his place in the chair that was once his father’s place of power. Michael was never meant to be part of the “business.” As a decorated war hero, he didn’t want to get sucked into the ruthless world the rest of his family was part of. However, this changes completely and Michael establishes himself as head of the Corleone family. The chair itself is an iconic part of the film. Whoever sits in the chair holds the power, so when Michael finally takes his place there, it represents his acceptance of the role he plays in the Corleone affairs. However, there is no power to an object. The power comes from the person sitting in it. Without Michael in the scene, it’s just a chair. Nothing more.
In each example, the removal of characters from the scene drastically changes the context. It takes away from the storyline, so the scene loses its importance. It becomes a landscape or an object, lacking meaning and purpose.
We are drawn in by stories of characters who overcome challenges, rise to the top, go on epic adventures, and defeat the bad guys. We care about people (even if they suck sometimes).
It is the people in the scenes that make the scene worthwhile. Not the road to the city, or an aesthetic landscape, or a power chair. The characters and their story make the scene worthwhile. It’s why we watch movies in the first place.
Human presence is an essential part of storytelling. Even in films that revolve around animals, they are given humanlike characteristics in order to engage the viewer. People make things interesting. The characters give a movie, or a scene, purpose and intention and life. Without them, it’s really just not worth it.