The Power of Death and Rebirth in American Film

March 27, 2015
Greg Bowdish


Reincarnation is not a word readily associated with modern day American culture, but in a mythological sense, we are obsessed with it. The story of a hero dying, then returning to life in another form, hopefully transformed for the better, may not at first glance seem like a familiar plot line in modern movie making, but when you start thinking more about some of your favorite films, you may be surprised that this story appears in practically every one.

In Episode 3 of The Power Of Myth, Joseph Campbell talks about how myths were a way of helping people accept death as rebirth. In many cultures, rites of passage also play a large role in this as they often involved the initiate facing death and mortality. He explains that myths and rites of passage were a way of bringing harmony between the mind and both the body and the natural world. In his own words:

“The mind can ramble off in strange ways and want things that the body does not want. The myths and rites were means to put the mind in accord with the body, and the way of life in accord with the way that nature dictates.”

This statement describes a storyline that is present in practically every American film.

Think about any of your favorite films. In the beginning the hero’s life seems incomplete or troubled. He or she wants something (or needs something) he or she can’t have in his or her present state. And quite often, because of this want or need, the hero doesn’t fit in with the society around him or her. Out of the blue, a new challenge sparks a mental or physical journey of hardship and dangers. Things get so bad that at some point it seems like all is lost – sometimes it even seems that the hero has physically died. But then a transformation occurs. The hero has learned something about him or herself that gives him or her a new perspective. And a new chance at life. The hero rallies and defeats the enemy or solves the problem. The hero then returns home to find acceptance and peace.

Let’s take a look at two very popular (yet very different) films and see how they explore the myth of death and rebirth.

Spoiler alert!

Star WarsFarmboy Luke is restless and feels like he doesn’t fit in. A mysterious message from a princess and the murder of his family sends him on a perilous journey. At several points in the story it seems as though all is lost as Luke is mentally and physically pushed to the edge as he learns to make peace with the “Force” that is within him. At one point we assume he has died as he is attacked by an unseen creature and disappears beneath the water in the trash compactor on the Death Star. All seems lost and we are on the edge of our seats. Luke miraculously survives and in the end learns to trust the Force. This is most clearly expressed when he chooses to turn off his computer guidance before he fires his torpedoes into the Death Star exhaust port. He has learned to trust what is inside of him.  He returns a hero and at one with the Force.

Notting Hill Yes, even romantic comedies explore the myth of death and rebirth – only it is the death and rebirth of the relationship as two lovers must learn to deal with their individual misconceptions about who they are and the world around them. Only then can the relationship be reborn into a healthy and happy one. In this romcom, Will, a bookseller in Notting Hill, faces failures in both business and romance. It is not long before he meets Anna Scott, a famous American movie star who is having trouble making peace with her stardom and also has a troubled romantic life. As the two come together, there is chemistry, but also complication as their individual misconceptions get in the way. At one point, it seems Anna has finally come to an understanding about her stardom and romantic identity, and approaches Will with the iconic line, “I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.” Will, who has not dealt with his misconceptions refuses her request and it seems as though all is lost – the relationship has died. Later, with the help of his friends, Will realizes his mistake and is finally transformed. He pursues Anna and the two finally come together as a couple reborn, at peace with their identities and perfectly fitting into their new, assimilated world.

The work of Joseph Campbell has had a profound effect on Hollywood and screenwriting in general, but what is important to note is that his genius was in identifying the similarities in human thought and belief from seemingly disparate eras and cultures. These myths are part of who we are and how we identify with each other, and were present in film long before Joseph Campbell wrote The Power of Myth. Hollywood classics such as The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, and It’s A Wonderful Life clearly express the myth of death and rebirth. The resurrection myth is at the core of who we are and how we communicate as a culture. It’s no wonder that it should be such a big part of storytelling in film.