Let’s face it — the reality is, the good guys don’t always win (though we who are Christians know that ultimately, the good guys do win). Such as it is, the stories we write won’t always have happy endings (at least, not in the timeframe of the story itself). But before we can charge into writing that tear-jerking ending, it’s always a good thing to keep in mind that there’s a right and a wrong way to do it.
I don’t consider myself to be an expert writer. However, I can think of two great examples that can be examined in order to see how to treat this kind of resolution. Let’s examine Zulu Dawn versus Valkyrie.
Zulu Dawn tells the story of the British invasion of Zululand. The Zulus win in the end.
Valkyrie tells the story of the last Hitler assassination attempt, led by Oberst Claus von Stauffenburg. If you’ve studied history, you already know that the bad guys won — Hitler was never assassinated.
There’s a huge difference between these two films, even though they both have the same kind of resolution. Zulu Dawn was a flop, while Valkyrie was a box-office success. Why?
It’s a fact that audiences want good guys to win. No matter how much “art” is put out by modernists who think bad needs to triumph for a story to be creative, the vast majority of audiences want good to win. When evil triumphs and gets away with it, it’s going against the grain of the way people’s minds work.
Zulu Dawn isn’t a movie I recommend seeing. There’s a reason audiences didn’t like it! In the story, there were two sides: the British, and the Zulus. The plot, of course, was that the British were invading. The problem, however, is that there were mixed messages in the story. The British were sometimes portrayed as the good guys, and at other times as oppressive imperialists. The Zulus were sometimes portrayed as the objects of that oppressive imperialism, and at other times as brutal savages.
In other words, there was never a clearly defined “good guy.” Audiences ended up not liking either side. The British: they are shown as a civilized camp; then mercilessly killing Zulu scouts; then triumphantly setting up in Zululand; then making stupid mistakes; then courageously standing against the massive Zulu forces; then being brutally slaughtered by them; and finally at the end of the film, bravely saving the Union Jack from being captured by Zulus. The Zulus: they’re shown as primitive savages; then as being oppressed by invaders; then mercilessly slaughtering the defeated British without preference, wounded and unwounded alike.
The film leaves the viewer with a bad taste in his mouth, confused, depressed. It’s a sad movie, but in a stomach-wrenching kind of way. Yes, it’s what actually happened, but perhaps this historical event might have been better not being made into a movie.
Valkyrie, on the other hand, clearly defines the good guys and bad guys. World War Two’s Nazi regime is widely known — we didn’t have to be told that they’re the bad guys. von Stauffenburg is quickly set up as the good guy and hero, he having strong feelings against the evil that the Nazis are working — even though he’s one of their own.
From the beginning of the film, the audience knows he’s going to lose. However, the storytelling makes viewers sit on the edge of their seats, fully identifying with the German resistance, hoping that somehow the story will turn out different than how they know it will actually end.
I’ve watched Valkyrie twice, yet the suspense never goes away. The viewer feels the excitement of every assassination plot, the disappointment when the first two fail, the adrenaline of the resistance movement when Operation Walküre is put into place after the bombing of Hitler’s planning session. And when Berlin begins to fall back out of the grasp of von Stauffenburg and his conspirators, the helplessness is felt. The resistance movements are the heros to the very end, literally to their deaths.
Every hero dies in Valkyrie. Unlike Zulu Dawn, however, the viewer comes away with a sense of respect for them, an appreciation of their sacrifice even through the failure.
The lesson that can be learned from these films is:
• Good and evil needs to be clearly defined.
• Heros must be able to be identified with and likable, though flawed.
• When bad guys win, an audience needs to know that the good guys were still the ones who were right, beyond a shadow of a doubt.