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Wellspring presents
Joseph Campbell: The Hero's Journey (1987)

"God is a metaphor for a mystery that absolutely transcends all human categories of thought."
- Joseph Campbell

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: March 21, 2002

Stars: Joseph Campbell
Other Stars: Richard Adams, George Lucas, Jean Erdman, Peter Donat
Director: Janelle Balnicke, David Kennard

Manufacturer: Audio Plus Video International
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 00h:56m:27s
Release Date: March 26, 2002
UPC: 790658999107
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Okay, here's the best thing about this DVD—and it's not very charitable on my part, but come on, you know it's true: there's no Bill Moyers. A series of interviews conducted by Moyers with Joseph Campbell appeared on PBS in the late 1980s, just after Campbell's death, and Moyers became the high priest of everything Campbell. Campbell was a deeply knowledgeable and fascinating man, but Moyers, to my mind, is a self-promoting blowhard, and much of the Campbell legacy is tainted by its association with public television's answer to Bill O'Reilly.

So, this hour-long documentary is most welcome, even if it can only provide the most basic overview to the man and his work. It looks at Campbell's life—his childhood in New Rochelle and his "boyhood passion for American Indians," discontent with his Catholic upbringing, especially during his days as an altar boy—and gives a useful summary of his career, which is more or less a synthesis of all the world's mythologies. This is grotesquely reductive, but here is Campbell's overarching premise in a few words: there is one great mythology for all of humanity, and every religion and most stories are part of the retelling of that mythology, filtered through the particulars of the time and place of the storyteller and his or her audience. And the purpose of these stories is to help us understand our world; it's on this point that Campbell is especially dismissive of the Judeo-Christian heritage and its unquestioning fealty to a historically-bound set of stories. (He's withering, for instance, discussing "the image of the Promised Land, which has nothing to do with real estate.") The same principles underlie all stories, be they the tale of Odysseus, or King Arthur, or Luke Skywalker. Yanking the film together is footage from a dinner at the National Arts Club, at which Campbell receives a Medal of Honor; singing his praises there is George Lucas, who openly acknowledges the debt his own work owes to Campbell. (Less than five minutes into this documentary, there's a clip from Star Wars.)

Campbell himself is charmingly self-effacing, talking about his measly $250 advance from his publisher for his profoundly influential book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the synthesis of years of work; he's also merrily oblivious to his disheveled appearance, highlighted by enormous sweat stains on the armpits of his shirt during much of the interviewing. But he got the right idea, even about his own life: He and his wife gave up life in the Northeast and moved to Hawaii.

Perhaps we're too close to Campbell's own life, but it seems a little overblown to list him with Freud and Jung, Thomas Mann and Lévi-Strauss, as is done at the testimonial dinner documented here. (Then again, if Freud were alive today, would he do a series of sitdowns with the likes of Charlie Rose? Yeah, probably he would.) And while the Star Wars movies are probably the most overt instance of Campbell's influence on contemporary popular culture, it seems a bit simplistic to take the tale of Luke Skywalker as the paradigmatic myth, as is done in the latter portion of the documentary, given that Campbell's work scans millennia and civilizations, with a particular emphasis on Hinduism and Buddhism. (The flip side of this is an extended comparison of Hitler with Mephistopheles, which is most apt, especially given the times in which Campbell lived; but no one person or character embodies all aspects of the myth. That's why the "hero" has a thousand faces, not just one.) The vocabulary will be familiar to students of Campbell—the call to adventure, the threshold guardian, the mentor and the region of the unknown—and it all comes at you pretty quickly here. But as with much in Campbell's work, the idea isn't to learn about newly-invented storytelling methods; the idea is to recognize the patterns at work in stories we already know and treasure.

The biographical bits on Campbell are interwoven with interviews with the man and footage of him at seminars in his last years; the biography is most successful situating him in his time and place, and suggesting the influence of his world on his thinking. (He returned to New York from his European postgraduate fellowship just two weeks before the 1929 stock market crash, for instance, and spent the next five years in the woods, pretty much just reading. It sounds a little Ted Kaczynski, but Joe Campbell came out okay.) I especially appreciated Campbell's tales of finding myths at work in the art being created around him, in James Joyce's Ulysses, or in the paintings of Picasso and Miró, Matisse and Brancusi. What's less successful in the documentary are the occasional suggestions that Campbell's own life is itself a hero journey (there are more than a few dollops of Campbell as Parsifal). Our lives aren't neatly packaged into stories or myths—in fact, one of Campbell's principal points is that myths help us make sense of our world, to understand our lives, that the lives themselves aren't mythical. He puts it better than I can: "The function of myth is to put man in accord with nature."

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The film bears many pockmarks, scratches and imperfections; the picture isn't the main event here, but still, the video presentation could have been far superior. The archival footage from the Scopes trial, a public discussion of faith and morality during Campbell's childhood, is the most visually beautiful thing here, with its sepiatones holding true for this glimpse at history.

Image Transfer Grade: C


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Campbell is miked well enough, though the occasionally overwrought narration is sometimes piped in overpoweringly loudly; like the rest of what's here, things sound best when Campbell is let alone to speak for himself.

Audio Transfer Grade: C


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 14 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Joseph Campbell bibliography
  2. weblinks to the Joseph Campbell Foundation and Wellspring Media
  3. advertisements for Joseph Campbell: Mythos and Joseph Campbell: The Power of Myth
Extras Review: Both the biography and bibliography for Campbell are reasonably extensive, though the former, perhaps inevitably, covers much of the same ground as the feature. The ads for the other Campbell titles are for pricey VHS versions.

Extras Grade: C-


Final Comments

This is a fine, Moyers-free introduction to Campbell and his work, and goes down easier than a first read of his The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Star Wars fans will especially enjoy seeing from where much of Lucas's saga was inspired, but even if the Force isn't with you, there's much to admire about Campbell, the man and the thinker.


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