King's Canyon: Another Incomplete Blacklist Script
Propaganda masquerading as a story.
Once the screenplay for King’s Canyon kicks in, it’s hard to put down. A unique flashback structure builds tension and suspense as it unravels the real-life story of David Steeves—a USAF who mysteriously emerged from the High Sierras months after being lost in 1957. The script culminates in a visually stunning climax that juxtaposes the present with the past and leaves one with a better appreciation of the man.
But it also leaves you wondering what it all meant.
While the intended premise is something along the lines of Stick to your own truth, regardless of the cost, the screenplay does little to effectively argue this point—which is why it’s on the Blacklist and not in production.
The Reason for the Blacklist
The Blacklist is a collection of unproduced screenplays that professional readers deem a cut above the rest. Frustrated with the Hollywood executive’s tendency to overlook greatness, the Blacklisters took matters into their own hands and provided a forum for missed opportunities. The impression one gets from such a venture is that the Blacklist knows better.
Unfortunately, there is a difference between the great and the genuinely outstanding.
Twice now, we have shown through structural analysis that the reason a script lies dormant on the Blacklist is not because of politics or personal taste, but rather a deficiency in the narrative structure of the piece itself.
Everyone possesses the innate instinct for storytelling. Regardless of a person's position or situation of affluence, each and everyone knows how a story works. And they know this with certainty because the same process that drives the narrative of a functioning story drives their every action.
A story is merely a model of the human mind at work. The degree to which a screenplay honors this process reflects the level to which it will connect with an Audience. It can be challenging to communicate with a dysfunctional mind in real life—a story is no different.
Dysfunctional stories exhibit similar personality defects. In both Kings Canyon and our previous analysis Get Home Safe, the tendency towards arguing one’s point-of-view without providing an equally valid counter-argument leads one to disengage from the conversation emotionally. The experience is somewhat similar to encountering propaganda—we know we’re not being told the whole truth, and we begin to distrust the storyteller.
Now, a story can be engaging and well-written and still be dysfunctional—there are plenty of fascinating and charismatic psyches out there that draw attention and a loyal fan base (think Osho from Wild Wild Country fame). But the reason those ventures and the people behind them eventually die out or fall into obscurity is that they failed to engage the totality of the human mind.
King’s Canyon is a marvelous piece of propaganda worthy of the period it is set in. The 1950s found both sides of the planet engaging in the fabrication of heroes to bolster nationalism and further paranoia. Propaganda works because it doesn’t tell the whole story, it manipulates an Audience into filling the blanks on their own. One feels a certain amount of pride in Dave’s story—the same kind of patriotic pride that manipulated him into oblivion.
Propaganda manipulates an Audience into thinking a certain way, a story argues its points in its entirety, then leaves the thinking up to the Audience.
Telling a Complete Story
For an Audience member to assume the mind of a story, the narrative must portray four different perspectives. Working as analogies for our mind’s ability to shift point-of-view, these Throughlines manufacture and support the premise.
- The Objective Story Throughline shows us conflict from an objective perspective, or what They experience
- The Main Character Throughline offers us conflict from a subjective perspective, or what an I experience
- The Influence Character Throughline grants an objective view of the subjective with what You experience
- The Relationship Story Throughline presents a subjective view of the objective with what We experience
Presented together in the single context of a story, these four Throughlines offer a complete account of conflict without equivocation and without an intent towards propaganda.
King’s Canyon successfully fulfills the requirement for the objective perspective with the lost hero returning from the dead. It resolves when that hero returns to the dead—both figuratively and literally.
Objectively speaking, Post columnist Blair is the Protagonist, and Steeves is the Antagonist. The Protagonist pursues and considers; the Antagonist prevents or avoids and reconsiders. Blair pursues a course of action to resolve what happened in those woods, while Steeves avoids it.
This is why Steeves feels like a potential bad guy for most of the story, and why we as the Audience question his integrity. It’s not merely an effect of the clever Storyweaving technique of regressively rolling back through flashbacks, we suspect him because Steve plays the function of the Antagonist—a role commonly performed by a Villain.
Blair fails to rectify Steeve’s account and pulls the story. Steeves loses everything, his job, his wife, and his daughter. His actions are later exonerated when a Boy Scout troop discovers his crashed plane 10 years after his death.
This much, King’s Canyon gets correct. The screenplay masterfully takes advantage of the dynamic between Protagonist and Antagonist by playing against type—we’re rooting for the bad guy, while simultaneously doubting the good guy.
Another thing it gets right is the connection between the ending and the premise. The Objective Story ends in failure, yet Steeves was right to stick to his guns. This combination of Failure and Good forms the foundation for a Personal Triumph story. Stick to your own truth, regardless of the cost is a premise arguing for the appropriateness of a personal triumph.
But how much do we honestly feel this personal aspect of triumph in King’s Canyon?
Drawing the Audience In
Part of what doesn’t work in King's Canyon lies in the portrayal of the Main Character—Steeves himself is unapproachable.
The Main Character Throughline represents our eyes and ears into a story. That “I” perspective suggests that we the Audience know everything that I, the Main Character knows.
This is why Red (Morgan Freeman) is the Main Character of The Shawshank Redemption, and not Andy (Tim Robbins). We couldn’t possibly doubt Andy’s account the night his wife was murdered if we were actually in his shoes. And we couldn’t possibly awake to find Andy gone if we were him. There would be no surprise.
Same thing with King’s Canyon. As an Audience member in Steeve’s shoes, we’re keeping a secret we don’t know, but should know. Truth by its very definition is subjective, and as the holders of that subjectivity, we should know the answer.
The result is a distancing effect—a removal of empathy between us and the story. It’s exciting and fascinating what Steeves went through, but in the end, we really don’t care about him. In fact, it would have been better if King’s Canyon took a cue from Shawshank and made Blair the Main Character. Of course, that presupposes that Blair posses some challenging counter-argument to Steeve’s personal truth.
And he doesn’t.
The Alternate Approach
The Main Character Throughline needs to face a challenging alternate perspective to grow—change does not happen in a vacuum. While there are several candidates for this role in King’s Canyon, no one presents a consistent and compelling reason for Steeves to change his approach.
If sticking to your truth regardless of the costs is his point-of-view, then the challenging perspective would be something along the lines of Tell whatever lie you need to keep those you love close. Better yet, would be someone who has shown that fate is the deciding factor in our lives, not the truth. Someone who perhaps went through similar experiences like Steeves, but lived to tell of them because the wind blew in the right direction.
Someone like Blair.
Undoubtedly Blair, a former WWII pilot, experienced missions where personal integrity was challenged by the chaotic nature of violent conflict. Would it not be fair to show weakness in his situation as an American hero to effectively challenge Steeve’s position? How did he overcome it, what lies did he tell, and what would that mean for Steeve’s sense of personal integrity?
Unfortunately, Blair is a cardboard standee. He performs his function as a Protagonist and exits quietly—leaving us grasping for meaning elsewhere.
Steeve’s wife Rita is the natural go-to for this kind of story, yet she fails to provide anything except hurt for a past betrayal. The military itself could give another challenge with their love of Steeve’s story, but it would be difficult to separate their concerns from that of the Objective Story.
Steeve’s friend Henry is the only one who remotely approaches the kind alternate approach needed:
I’m just supposed to hang out to dry while strangers make up their minds about me?
No. You go back to your job. You keep your head up and your mouth shut. You ignore the press and take care of your family.
Rita will never take me back like this. And Leisa... What’ll she grow up thinking?
I’ll never have this-- what you’ve got here.
Unfortunately, this is one page in almost 120 and besides, Henry never fundamentally changes this point-of-view.
In fact, the most significant deficiency in this screenplay is the lack of a meaningful change of perspective.
The Reason for Change
The most important dynamic in any narrative is the relationship between the two alternate perspectives. One point-of-view must give away to the other to prove a premise. In Star Wars, the value of trusting in something outside of yourself is proven by Luke adopting Ben’s perspective. In The Dark Knight, the value of the ends justifying the means is proven by Batman taking the Joker’s perspective.
One perspective remains Steadfast, the other Changed.
Steeves is most assuredly Steadfast in his approach from beginning to end, leaving the burden of change to another.
Blair doesn’t change. The military doesn’t turn. Neither does Rita. Sure, she packs up and leaves, but the change required here is a meaningful change of approach—how has she somehow adopted Steeve’s perspective?
And here is where we tread into propaganda territory.
By leaving out this Changed perspective, the narrative manipulates us into fulfilling that role. We are coerced into seeing Steeves as nothing else but an American hero. Our chest swells, and we jut our chins out in defiance because now we believe that you must stick to your own truth, regardless of the cost.
We haven’t come to this conclusion on our own by listening to a complete and coherent argument, we’ve been directly manipulated into becoming a part of Steeves story—complete with all the emotional trappings of nationalistic pride.
Going Above and Beyond
King’s Canyon lies in stasis because it fails to tell a complete story. The population is savvy enough nowadays to know when they’re not being told the whole story. They might not directly refer to it as propaganda, but the instinctual response to being told a half-truth remains the same.
To truly stand out from the crowd, a story must honor the psychology of its Audience. The narrative must present a complete argument and allow the receiver to come to the inevitable conclusion of accepting the premise on their own terms. Elevating a story to this level doesn’t require much, but it does call for greater focus and purpose. Getting on the Blacklist is a fantastic achievement—finding a way to move beyond it is the difference between the great and the truly outstanding.