If you want to blame George Lucas for the rise of the summer blockbuster and the downfall of modern cinema, then I suppose you need to pillory Joseph Campbell too, since his book “Hero With a Thousand Faces” was a major influence on the development of “Star Wars.” Without Campbell, who knows: perhaps Lucas would have made a really crappy movie and flushed his fledgling career down the tubes, relegating himself to a “What the Hell Happened to These People?” article on Film Threat’s web site. (And our editor, Mark Bell, would have needed someone other than Darth Vader to officiate at his wedding.)
The key word in the previous paragraph is, of course, “if,” because I sure don’t feel that way about Lucas. He was smart enough to know that he needed more than Flash Gordon and Akira Kurosawa for his cinematic broth: he needed something primeval to spice it up, and who better than Campbell? The unlikely hero, the old mentor, the trickster, the dragon in the cave: it’s all there, in one form or another. Campbell provided the template that took “Star Wars” far beyond the old Flash Gordon serials that inspired it.
Which brings me to this two-disc release by Athena Learning. It compiles Bill Moyers’ interviews with Campbell, which were conducted not long before the latter’s passing in 1987. All six “Power of Myth” episodes, which originally aired on PBS, are included here, along with new introductions by Moyers, who reflects on his time spent with Campbell, recites quotes from Campbell’s writings, and notes the bittersweet serendipity of the interviews’ timing: if they had been scheduled just a little later, Campbell might have not had the opportunity to wrap his keen insights in a tidy package.
Even though the interviews were conducted at Skywalker Ranch, “Star Wars” is only a tiny part of the Moyers-Campbell conversations. The pair start with the hero’s journey and move on to deeper subjects: what myths tell us about ourselves; the origins of the first storytellers; the timeless concept of sacrifice and rebirth; the role of women in the form of earth or mother goddesses throughout history; and the use of masks as metaphors in mythology.
This isn’t the first release of “The Power of Myth” on DVD, but it offers more bonus content than the previous one. The extra features in this two-disc set include: a 15-minute excerpt from Moyers’ interview with George Lucas around the time “The Phantom Menace” was released (sadly, we don’t learn what Jar Jar teaches us about ourselves (yes, I’m being sarcastic)); a 10-minute excerpt from Campbell’s “Sukhavati,” which has been described as “an extra-credit master class”; a 24-minute Moyers-Campbell interview from 1981, which has never been released on home video before; a pair of galleries of images from the show; and text screens discussing Campbell’s influences. An included 12-page booklet functions as a kind of Cliff Notes for what you’ve just watched.
Unfortunately, the “Power of Myth” video hasn’t been remastered: the opening sequences in particular are marred, and the “Star Wars” clips are in less-then-desirable condition, but I doubt Athena Learning had much money to put into these episodes, so I’m just glad they’ve been preserved. Whether you’re a “Star Wars” fan wanting to learn more about what influenced Lucas, you’re a creative type who wants to dig deeper into archetypal storytelling, or you’re simply curious about what makes humanity tick, you’ll satisfy your desires, and more.