By Ken Hall.

The journey undertaken by Captain Kidd (Tom Hanks)…through Texas causes him to pass through ‘alien territory’ in a double sense. He is not closely acquainted with some of the locales which he encounters nor with the routes to those locales. Perhaps more important is the underlying strangeness of the general environment he once knew in Texas.” 

The award-winning film News of the World (Paul Greengrass, 2020), set in 1870 Texas, follows the journey of former Confederate Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) as he attempts to take former Kiowa captive Johanna Leonberger (Helena Zengel) to her German relatives and then to return to San Antonio, where he lived with his wife before the Civil War. The journey features elements of anabasis, the classical motif of the journey of return exemplified by the Anabasis (The Persian Expedition) of Xenophon, and more prominently of katabasis, the trope of the journey to the underworld, featured in the Aeneid of Virgil and in the Middle Ages in the Divine Comedy by Dante.

The underworld journey, whether literal as in Virgil or allegorical as in News of the World, is often associated with spiritual enlightenment. An especially powerful instance of such enlightenment is the descent to the underworld and the ascent to Paradise in Dante’s Divine Comedy. A less literal example, as Judith Fletcher argues, is to be found in the Coen brothers’ remake of the John Wayne classic True Grit (Henry Hathaway, 1969). Here, the journey through trackless and menacing Indian Territory is an extended metonymy – an allegory – for a physical descent into Hades. A similar mechanism functions in The Searchers, in which Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) leads an extended search through a metonymic wilderness for the captive Debbie – echoing Orpheus’s katabasis to rescue Eurydice, or perhaps more precisely, as Kirsten Day observes, mirroring Odysseus: “Like Ethan, Odysseus initially left home in order to retrieve a woman, Helen, who had been captured by a foreign people” (Day 21n28).[1]

In the film News of the World, based on the eponymous novel by Paulette Jiles, Civil War Confederate veteran Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, an itinerant reader of the news for audiences, working small towns in Texas, is tasked[2] with the responsibility of returning released Kiowa captive Johanna Leonberger to her surviving German-Texan relatives in the Castroville area, near San Antonio.[3] The narrative follows his route, and his travails, as he gradually changes from a reluctant escort for a challenging ward to a protective surrogate parent.

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As a prelude to his discussion of the katabasis motif in The Searchers, James J. Clauss provides a series of instances of the underworld journey (Clauss 4), based on the Thompson folktale motif volumes (Thompson). John R. Harris also provides a useful summary of the katabasis motif:

The broadest possible contours of the katabasis are as follows: 1) The hero embarks upon a journey; 2) The transit takes him to an alien territory (if he inhabits fertile country, the new realm may be a desert: if he inhabits a desert, the new realm may be an oasis); 3) his conduct in the strange realm is essentially passive, perhaps marked by enchantment or loss of memory; 4) the hero returns home at least as hearty as ever, and often improved[4] (Harris 133).

The journey undertaken by Captain Kidd can be categorized as a katabasis. His travel through Texas causes him to pass through “alien territory” in a double sense. He is not closely acquainted with some of the locales which he encounters nor with the routes to those locales. Perhaps more important is the underlying strangeness of the general environment he once knew in Texas. The Civil War and Reconstruction have altered its social and, in some cases, its physical attributes, particularly with regard to race relations and political arrangements. Kidd finds himself repeatedly in unexpected and confusing situations, for example when he and Johanna enter Erath County (a wild “border” between ethnic groups – whites and Kiowa and Mexicans, as Greengrass comments [Greengrass, “Commentary”]) and are confronted by a violent town boss, Benjamin Farley (Gabriel Ebert), a dictatorial Confederate veteran who fits the pattern of a former raider perhaps associated with Quantrill or Bloody Bill Anderson.[5] Farley requires Kidd to read the news in his little fiefdom and soon demands that the Captain read about his own exploits as the local leader for the audience, becoming vengeful when Kidd refuses. Although the Captain escapes from this denizen of a local underworld, the viewer (and likely, too, the Captain) must perceive that the war has transformed a formerly difficult but still promising environment (at least for the white overlords) into a Dantean circle of division, envy, and resentment. As in Dante’s vision of the corrupted cities of Italy – particularly Florence, his native city – and the wider degeneracy of the Holy See,[6] the ambiance of postwar Texas features treachery, greed, and fear of the unknown, set in a virtual wasteland. 

Exceptions to this bleak picture of Texas dwellers nonetheless present themselves to the two travelers. One of the most important is Mrs. Gannett (Elizabeth Marvel), a longtime friend of the Captain. Implied but not clarified explicitly is a prior relationship between the Captain and the sympathetically portrayed woman, who insists that for his own peace of mind the Captain must continue to San Antonio after returning Johanna to her relatives near Castroville. His loyal Penelope in San Antonio, the film suggests at this point, may have awaited his return from the long war.

Unlike Odysseus returning to Ithaca from Troy, the Captain is a reluctant traveller.[7] He does not wish to be reminded of his wife Maria Luisa and his former life in San Antonio. The director of the film, Paul Greengrass, speaks of this difficulty for Kidd as he and Johanna look at a picture of his wife among his belongings:

We know, just in that moment, there’s a broken heart there, an unresolved grief. A mystery. Something that he’s got to do that he hasn’t done. Something undone.” (Greengrass, “Commentary”)

He also has itinerant work, news reading, upon which he needs to concentrate. His journey with Johanna is challenging because of these factors, as well as all the difficulties involved in working with a teenaged girl from two cultures, both of which are foreign to the Captain. Johanna, who insists at first upon the name Cicada (Jiles 46), her Kiowa designation, has “gone native,” in the parlance of the time, and has little memory either of her former life circumstances or even of her original language, German.[8] The Captain is understandably concerned about her ability to fit into the majority white society. Such concerns pervade the primary and secondary literature on Indian captivity. Gary L. Ebersole comments on the dilemma faced by families of captives and by their putative rescuers beginning with the Puritan era:

The historical reality of Indian captivity on the American frontiers raised in an immediate and pressing fashion an important set of existential questions that had long haunted the human imagination: Could one lose one’s identity? Or, to pose the question positively, was it possible to transform one’s self fundamentally and thus escape from the bounded nature of a given sociohistorical identity? . . . Could a person really go native and thereby revert to a state of savagery or, alternatively, return to a primordial paradisiacal state? (Ebersole 190)

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The concern of the Captain for Johanna’s viability in his culture is clearly that she may have already “revert[ed] to a state of savagery.” Fortunately, however, after her return by the Kiowa,[9] Johanna gradually shows signs of some assimilation to the majority culture. One of the early signs of this process is her increasing recall of German, accompanied by, or occasioned by, her growing trust in the Captain. Johanna also begins to acquire some command of English, and she demonstrates an aptitude for improvisation in difficult circumstances.

One of the cultures to which Johanna is exposed, the German-American, specifically the German Texan community, represents not only a linguistic but a cultural and political challenge for the Captain. When the two travelers eventually arrive in the Castroville area, they find that the two relatives are less than happy about receiving Johanna, whom they view as a burden rather than an emotional asset. After a time Johanna tries to escape, is restrained by the relatives, and is reunited with the Captain with the assent of the relatives. This episode is darker in the original novel, in which Johanna is actually beaten by the male relative (Jiles 196–98), although the Captain and Johanna do receive some sympathetic support from Adolph, a member of the local German community (Jiles 190–92).[10]

If the Captain is not literally dead, he is ‘dead’ at least to some extent spiritually—a status more pronounced in the novel—and Johanna brings him back to life in this respect, in addition to her help in such critical situations as his gun battle with renegade former Confederates, in an unforgiving landscape of rocky cliffs and caves reminiscent of settings in Boetticher and Mann westerns.”

By the time the two travelers reach Castroville, the Captain has begun to undergo one of the changes associated with katabasis, moral regeneration (see the Harris quotation above).[11] This change in his spirit is sharper in the novel, where the Captain is older and more cynically world-weary than the film character. The film adaptation emphasizes the psychological stress caused by the recent Civil War and the difficulties of the Reconstruction period. Still, the film’s Captain arrives at the realization that he cannot leave Johanna with her relatives, and furthermore that he does not want to leave her behind because he has come to care for her as a father would.[12] His brief sojourn in San Antonio, now a place of sadness for him, differs from the classical return of the wanderer as depicted in The Odyssey, in which Odysseus returns to Ithaca to reclaim his kingdom and to reunite with his wife and son.[13]

See the source image
“By the time the two travelers reach Castroville, the Captain has begun to undergo one of the changes associated with katabasis, moral regeneration.”

Both Odysseus and the Captain endure katabatic travails during their journeys of return. The difficulties of Odysseus include the encounter with Circe and the passage of Scylla and Charybdis. The Captain and Johanna must pass through unfamiliar towns, cross dangerous bodies of water, and negotiate canyons and other hilly country. They face attacks by former soldiers, including an attempt in such dangerous hill country to waylay them early in their journey. In both narratives, the journey passages qualify as “alien territory” as quoted earlier in the characteristics of katabasis. Johanna crucially assists the Captain in these “alien” surroundings, filling the role of the guide or “psychopomp” played by the god Hermes in Greek mythology. Hermes “became the spirit who led the souls of the dead down to Hades, psychopompos” (Guthrie 89). If the Captain is not literally dead, he is “dead” at least to some extent spiritually – a status more pronounced in the novel – and Johanna brings him back to life in this respect, in addition to her help in such critical situations as his gun battle with renegade former Confederates, in an unforgiving landscape of rocky cliffs and caves reminiscent of settings in Boetticher and Mann westerns.[14] Here she turns the tide of the gun battle with her inspiration that the dimes earned by the Captain in his readings can replace the ineffective bird shot in the shells for his shotgun. Without carrying the analogy too far, the transformation of the dimes from inert metal – money, perhaps culturally unimportant to Johanna – into a powerful element of weaponry might qualify as the kind of transformational or alchemical magic sometimes associated with the guide god Hermes.[15] Her cumulative function as guide, ward, and companion is to lead the Captain into a state of spiritual regeneration which includes an awareness of the value of intercultural cooperation.

Works Cited

Abele, Elizabeth Joan. “The Healing Promise of Adoption: Revisiting a Foundational American Myth through News of the World.” Journal of American Studies of Turkey 55 (2021): 3–26.

Alighieri, Dante. The Portable Dante. Ed. and trans. Mark Musa. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

Bishop, J. G. “The Hero’s Descent to the Underworld.” The Journey to the Other World. Ed. H. R. Ellis Davidson. Totowa: Rowman and Littlefield, 1975. 109–29.

Brooks, James F. “‘That Don’t Make You Kin!’: Borderlands History and Culture in The Searchers.” The Searchers: Essays and Reflections on John Ford’s Classic Western. Ed. And introd. Arthur M. Eckstein, Ed. Peter Lehman. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2004. 265–87.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1973.

—. The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976.

Chou, David. “Dearest to Be Man’s Companion: Hermes, Divine Aid and Agency.” Berkeley Undergraduate Journal of Classics 4.2 (2016).

Clauss, James J. “Descent into Hell: Mythic Paradigms in The Searchers.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 27.3 (Fall 1999): 2–17.

Coen, Joel and Ethan Coen, dirs. True Grit. Digital Blu-ray disc. With Jeff B ridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, and Haylee Steinfeld. Paramount-Skydance, 2010.

Day, Kirsten. “‘What Makes a Man to Wander?’: The Searchers as a Western Odyssey.” Celluloid Classics: New Perpectives on Classical Antiquity in Modern Cinema. Arethusa 41.1 (Winter 2008): 11–49. Https://

Ebersole, Gary L. Captured by Texts: Puritan to Postmodern Images of Indian Captivity. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1995.

Emlyn-Jones, Chris. “The Reunion of Penelope and Odysseus.” Greece and Rome 31.1 (Apr 1984): 1–18. Https://  Accessed 5/25/22.

Epictetus. The Discourses of Epictetus with the Encheiridion and Fragments. New York: A. L. Burt Publisher, 1900.

Fletcher, Judith. “The Catabasis of Mattie Ross in the Coens’ True Grit.” Classical World 107.2 (2013): 237–54.

Ford, John, dir. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. 1962. Digital Videodisc. With James Stewart, John Wayne, and Edmond O’Brien. Paramount Pictures, 2001.

—, dir. The Searchers. 1956. Digital Blu-ray Videodisc. With John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Natalie Wood, Ward Bond, and Henry Brandon. Warner Brothers, 2006.

Frost, Warwick and Jennifer Laing. Imagining the American West through Film and Television. Abingdon, Oxon, England: Routledge, 2015.

Greengrass, Paul, dir. “Commentary.” By Paul Greengrass. News of the World. Digital Blu-ray Videodisc. With Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, and Elizabeth Marvel. Universal, 2020.

—, dir. News of the World. Digital Blu-ray Videodisc. With Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, and Elizabeth Marvel. Universal, 2020.

Guthrie, W. K. C. The Greeks and Their Gods. 1955. Boston: Beacon Press, 1966.

Hacker, Margaret Schmidt. Cynthia Ann Parker: The Life and the Legend. El Paso: The University of Texas at El Paso, 1990.

Harris, John R. “The Katabasis and the Cowboy Film: A Study in Clashing Myths.” Yearbook of Comparative Literature 41 (1993): 132–48.

Hathaway, Henry, dir. True Grit. 1969. Digital Videodisc. With John Wayne, Kim Darby, Glen Campbell, and Jeff Corey. Paramount, 2007.

Holtsmark, Erling B. “The Katabasis Theme in Modern Cinema.” Classical Myth and Culture in the Cinema. Ed. Martin M. Winkler. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001. 23–50.

Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Robert Fagles, Introd. by Bernard Knox. New York: Penguin Classics, 1990.

Jiles, Paulette. News of the World: A Novel. New York: William Morrow-HarperCollins, 2016.

Kamphoefner, Walter D. “New Perspectives on Texas Germans and the Confederacy.” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 102.4 (Apr 1999): 440–55. Https://  Accessed 4/21/22.

Lich, Glen E. The German Texans. San Antonio: The University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures at San Antonio, 1981.

Mann, Anthony, dir. Winchester ‘73. 1950. Digital Videodisc. With James Stewart, Millard Mitchell, Stephen McNally, Shelley Winters, Dan Duryea, and Will Geer. Universal, 2003.

Mayhall, Mildred P. The Kiowas. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1962.

Miller, Stephen. “Dante: Florence and the Politics of Rome.” Italian Quarterly 12.47–48 (Winter-Spring 1969): 201–21.

Nunn, W. C. Texas Under the Carpetbaggers. Austin: The U of Texas P, 1962.

Place, J. A. The Western Films of John Ford. Citadel Press, 1974.

Rawson, Eric. “To Hell with Ya: Katabasis in Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction.” The Journal of Popular Culture 42.2 (2009): 291–303.

Rister, Carl Coke. Border Captives: The Traffic in Prisoners by Southern Plains Indians, 1835–1875. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1940.

Segal, Charles Paul. “The Phaeacians and the Symbolism of Odysseus’ Return.” Arion 1.4 (Winter 1962): 17–64. Http://

Thompson, Stith. Motif-Index of Folk-Literature: A Classification of Narrative Elements in Folktales, Ballads, Myths, Fables, Mediaeval Romances, Exempla, Fabliaux, Jest-Books, and Local Legends. Revised and enlarged ed. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1955–58.

Vickery, Olga W. “The Inferno of the Moderns.” The Shaken Realist: Essays in Modern Literature in Honor of Frederick J. Hoffman. Ed. Melvin J. Friedman and John B. Vickery. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1970. 147–64.

Virgil.  The Aeneid: A New Prose Translation. Trans. David West. London: Penguin Classics. 1991.

Walker, Janet. “Captive Images in the Traumatic Western: The Searchers, Pursued, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Lone Star.” Westerns: Films through History. Ed. Janet Walker. New York: Routledge, 2001.  219-51

Winkler, Martin M. “Classical Mythology and the Western Film.” Comparative Literature Studies 22 (1985): 516–40.

Xenophon.  The Persian Expedition. Trans. Rex Warner, Introd. by George Cawkwell. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics. 1975..


[1]An extended application of katabasis elements in The Searchers can also be found in the article “Descent into Hell: Mythic Paradigms in The Searchers,” by James J. Clauss (Clauss). Clauss cites the study of Ford’s Stagecoach by J. A. Place, in which she connects the katabasis motif to that classic Western journey film (Clauss 4) (Place).      

[2]This set of circumstances, clarifying for Kidd his duty regarding Johanna, “initiates” the journey: “As Joseph Campbell understands it, a ‘call to action’ initiates the traditional katabasis (40-58)” (Rawson 291). The citation by Rawson is taken from The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). The second edition of the Campbell work refers to “the call to adventure” (Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces 49–58).

[3]The history of whites in Indian captivity is discussed in many sources.  The famous story of Cynthia Ann Parker, a captive among the Comanches, is the focus of Margaret Schmidt Hacker, Cynthia Ann Parker: The Life and the Legend (El Paso: The University of Texas at El Paso), 1990 (Hacker). For information on Texas captivity, see Rister 60–102.

[4]For a survey of the wider application of katabasis imagery to a selection of films, see Holtsmark. Frost and Laing, noting that “The katabatic narrative also involves a sacrificial victim,” comment on Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) in this role in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Frost and Laing 39–40). Also note their inclusion of The Searchers and Winchester 73 (Mann) as examples of katabasis (Frost, et al. 20, 232). Marvin M. Winkler provides a thorough discussion of mythology in Western films (Winkler). A survey of some examples of modern literary adaptations of the Inferno trope is provided by Vickery.  J. G. Bishop presents a diverse set of motives for underworld visits, as well as varying cultural configurations of the underworld.

[5]The postwar political and social environment is more fully elaborated in the source novel. One important instance of the effects of the war and of Reconstruction is the poisonous division not only between the defenders of Reconstruction and its enemies, but also by a schism in one political party in Texas, concerning the gubernatorial position:

The fighting was between two factions within the Republicans. The one led by Davis was extreme in its demand for dictatorial powers. The one led by Hamilton, not so much.  Both were robbing the state blind. (Jiles 88)

For Reconstruction Texas, including information on the historical Governors Hamilton and Davis, see Nunn.

[6]See, for example, Miller.

[7]As Segal observes of the Homeric presentation of the journey of Odysseus, “. . . on the whole a grimness, determination, suffering, a sense of inevitability underlie the imaginative elaborateness of the narrative, and throughout persists the unquenchable desire of the long-absent warrior and wanderer to return” (Segal 17).

[8]The traumatic experience of captivity, and of return to the original culture, are hallmarks of the captivity story.  See the excellent discussion of trauma and captivity in Walker.

[9]A character in the novel, Britt Johnson, explains to Kidd that the Kiowa returned Johanna because “‘They finally woke up to the fact that having a white captive gets you run down by the cav[alry]’” (Jiles 9). For historical instances of kinship formation between captives and their Indian captors, including the Kiowa, see Brooks. For information on the Kiowa, including their role in raids against settlers, see Mayhall.

[10]For German Texan business and religion in Castroville during the general time of the novel and film, see Lich 105, 125. Kamphoefner provides a balanced study of the divisions among Civil War era German Texans regarding slavery and secession (Kamphoefner).

[11]“Given that the katabasis involves a passage to the underworld and back, the hero undergoes a figurative death of the old self and rebirth into a new role” (Clauss 4).

[12]For a study of adoption in the context of Indian captivity, see Abele.

[13]For a presentation of the “‘Return of the absent husband’ theme” in Homer and a comparison of its characteristics to its presence “in a variety of poetic traditions,” see Emlyn-Jones 7.

[14]Rawson provides a motif from another genre which may serve as parallel to the guide function in News of the World: “Despite his typical position as a lone actor, the detective occasionally recruits a ‘psychopomp’ to help him find his way through topography” (Rawson 301).

[15]Joseph Campbell cites a statement about the magical Hermes from Epictetus’s Discourses (Campbell, The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology 251–52). The statement, partially quoted here from the complete Discourses, sounds alchemical:

This is the rod of Hermes: touch with it what you please, as the saying is, and it will be of gold.  I say not so: but bring what you please, and I will make it good. . . .  Bring disease, bring death, bring poverty, bring abuse, bring trial on capital charges: all these things through the rod of Hermes shall be made profitable. (Epictetus 3:270–71)

Homer provides a striking example of the magic wielded by Hermes in the episode of Priam’s visit to the camp of the Achaeans to try to recover the body of Hector: “In addition to driving the chariot [for Priam’s trip] and giving the horses and mules ‘great strength,’ Hermes magically puts the sentries of the Achaean camp to sleep” (Chou 3).  The reference from The Iliad follows:

            And the god of luck [Hermes],

leaping onto the chariot right behind the team,

quickly grasped the whip and reins in his hands

and breathed fresh spirit into the mules and horses.

As they reached the trench and rampart round the fleet,

the sentries had just begun to set out supper there

but the giant-killer [Hermes] plunged them all in sleep . . . (Homer 603: 24.519–25)

Ken Hall (Ph.D., University of Arizona, 1986; MA, University of NC-Chapel Hill, 1978) is professor emeritus of Spanish at ETSU, where he had taught since 1999, and a regular contributor to Film International and Retreats from Oblivion: The Journal of NoirCon. His publications include Professionals in Western Film and Fiction (McFarland, 2019), John Woo: The Films (McFarland, [1999] 2012), John Woo’s The Killer (Hong Kong University Press, 2009), Stonewall Jackson and Religious Faith in Military Command (McFarland, 2005) and Guillermo Cabrera Infante and the Cinema (Juan de la Cuesta Hispanic Monographs, 1989).

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