What do private detectives, samurai, and gunslingers have in common?

by William Hohmeister

I don’t need to tell you folks I love myths. But I want to explain something peculiar about myths that make me love them. Each myth has a whole set of historical, religious, and cultural assumptions behind it.

Those things create the myth, which represents the whole set better than a simple list could; it’s why Jesus spoke in parables, why Nietzsche wrote Thus Spake Zarathustra, and why C.S. Lewis replaced Jesus with a much more awesome lion. Myths create stories around the beliefs we already hold and communicate those beliefs to the next generation.

The lone wanderer myth has a strange history in the United States. In Japan he’s called the Samurai. In America he’s the cowboy, the gunslinger, and the private detective. Each character fulfills the mythic role, but in a different way. This leads to a strange series of homages/ripoffs between American and Japanese creators:

Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammet is adapted into Yojimbo, by Akira Kurosawa.

Yojimbo, by Akira Kurosawa is adapted into A Fistful of Dollars, by Sergio Leone.

It’s debatable whether Yojimbo really is an adaptation of Red Harvest, but the stories are strikingly similar. A wanderer comes into a town torn up by rival factions feuding. He tries to make some money by playing each side, and ends up with more trouble than he wanted. While Yojimbo may be only a case of two people with the same idea, A Fistful of Dollars borrowed so much from Yojimbo that Kurosawa sued and won.

Each film is so similar because the lone wanderer myth comes with a set of assumptions that reaches across two different cultures and inspirs similar heroes. The myth is so strong, so ingrained, that any story that uses it generates a list of assumptions in the audience’s mind. Take this example of fan art for The Dark Tower series by Stephen King:


That’s a great image. It’s the quintessential cowboy. It also does not fit the actual story at all, for one simple reason: Roland (pictured above) never wears a duster. But the image of the badass gunslinger is so prevalent in the minds of the audience that everyone (including me) thinks of him as wearing one. Throughout most of the series, however, he wears either a deerskin vest or a blue chambray shirt. We think of him in the duster because of the cowboy myth.

I thought for a long time about what it meant that, outside of the books, almost every image of Roland depicts him with a duster. I felt that it might mean something about myth, but I could not reason my way to why. The reason is fairly simple, actually, and Joseph Campbell got there first. That’s not my fault. He was born earlier.

The idea behind the duster, the cowboy/detective/samurai hero, and the lone wanderer in our collective imagination is called the Monomyth. It’s complex, so I’ll sum up. Every myth ties back to our collective unconscious. By “our,” I mean the entire human race. We dream the same dreams, globally. If we find aliens and they have stories about lone figures wandering empty wastelands and fighting evil, we can take it to the galactic level.

The importance of the duster is not what it signifies about our imagination – maybe we all need to stop watching TV – but what it implies about the myth.

Red Harvest features a Pinkerton agent – the Continental Op – as the main character. Yojimbo uses a samurai. A Fistful of Dollars brings us back to the gunslinger. Each story is about the main character entering an unfamiliar, corrupt town and fighting the corruption he finds.

What does it mean that these stories share a core, a character, and in this case the duster? One of Campbell’s main points in The Hero’s Journey is that myths are about renewal. The hero sacrifices a part of himself or herself to give the world (or their community) a better life.

The cowboy myth (and the samurai, the private detective, and others) propel unlikely protagonists – men and women who would not be heroes – into stories. Although Roland never wears a duster, he acts as a force of good and renewal, so we associate him with other heroes who have worn dusters.

For a modern day(-ish) take on the myth, watch Die Hard (NSFW):

Gunslinger image via WeGotThisCovered


5 thoughts on “What do private detectives, samurai, and gunslingers have in common?

  1. I kind of think of the loner’s duster as a cape or little kids blanket. It is like a tiny bit of solace for someone feeling isolated and alienated from his world.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Is there a marketing component here? That is, choose to put your character in the expected familiar costume and people’s embedded archetypes will do the rest.
    Which begs the question, is marketing the modern version of myth-making?


    • I think myths are a form of marketing, though to sell the “brand” of the society that made them. The cowboy myth won in America because it more closely matched the overall myth of the West than the Samurai.

      Placing a character in familiar lands and dress can help sell the character as a mythic hero to the audience, but I don’t think it’s all that matters. The character has to fill the role as well.


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