Red Dead Redemption 2: Arthur Morgan’s Main Inspiration Isn’t From A Western

Red Dead Redemption 2 is packed full of moments inspired by famous Western movies. There's a train robbery which is almost a one-for-one recreations of the train robbery in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The main character's grim diagnosis midway through the story bares a strong resemblance to the fate of real-life gunfighter Doc Holliday, immortalized in movies like Tombstone and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Dutch's references to Tahiti are drawn from Butch Cassidy's obsession with Bolivia – they both even have the same back-up plan, escaping to Australia. A scene where Dutch and Arthur escape the army by jumping off a cliff into a river is taken from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Roger Clark's award-winning performance as Arthur Morgan was inspired by many different Western leading men, but one of the main inspirations for the character isn't from a Western at all. Although Arthur comes across as an archetypical Old West protagonist in Red Dead Redemption 2, some of the most important parts of his character within the context of the player's control over Arthur's actions rely on inspiration from an actor from a different cinematic tradition.

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What Makes Arthur Morgan Work in Red Dead Redemption 2

As obvious as it might sound, Red Dead Redemption 2 isn't just a Western, it's a video game. Although the story has plenty of cinematic shots, sound-tracked moments, and often makes the player feel like they're immersed in a great Western movie, the interactive element completely transforms some of the vital components of Arthur Morgan's character.

Early Westerns usually starred lawmen, fighting to "civilize" the frontier against outlaw forces, Apache raiders, and other archetypes framed through a black-and-white moral lens. It wasn't until later developments in movies like the works of Sergio Leone that the Western began frequently exploring morally ambiguous characters like Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name. Suddenly there was a slew of outlaw and criminal characters who would go on to become the archetypical Western anti-hero while the supposedly noble Sheriff was left behind or returned only as an antagonist.

Arthur Morgan inherits that tradition, but there's an important twist. Although many events in the main story are predetermined, the player has a huge amount of control over just where Arthur falls on the morality scale. Although there are always occasional flashes of sociopathy — most notably when Arthur returns to shake down the family of the late Thomas Downes — Red Dead Redemption 2's Honor system gives players the chance to direct Arthur towards true redemption or implied damnation across the final year of his life.

The challenge was, however, that no matter what the player's Honor rating was, many of the main story beats and Arthur's lines remained the same. This required Rockstar and Roger Clark's performance to create a version of Arthur who was believable as both a sadistic murderer and an outlaw with a heart of gold in the moments when Arthur wasn't making moral decisions.

Across much of the game Arthur is stoic, but through his stoicism sometimes reveals moments of sensitive introspection, such as his journal-writing. He can be cruel, but beneath his rough exterior it's also clear that Arthur is often a fun guy to be around as long as people don't get on his bad side — the saloon scene with Lenny Summers providing a great example of Arthur's fluctuation between a stoic and more humorous persona.

It is in scenes like those, where Arthur's morality isn't being tested, that both the low and high Honor versions of Arthur don't just feel plausible, but equally represented. While there are plenty of Western characters who influenced Arthur Morgan, it is this aspect of the character which largely comes not from the Old West, but from Japan.

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The Gunslinger And The Samurai

The Western and Samurai genres are famously linked. The Magnificent Seven is a remake of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. A Fistful of Dollars' release was delayed in the United States due to fears that it would attract legal action from Kurosawa as an unlicensed remake of his movie Yojimbo.

The influence of Samurai movies on Westerns makes a lot of sense. Like Feudal Japan, the Wild West was seen as a lawless place dominated by roving bands of dangerous men taking advantage of ever-changing borders, whether they were warriors in the service of a local lord or outlaws in service of themselves. The archetypical character of the lone gunslinger is almost instantly recognizable as a version of the Samurai genre's Ronin, a samurai without a master. Even combat with a katana and a pistol bare an interesting resemblance in both genres — despite being very different weapons, both rely on the quick-draw, at least in film.

It is this tradition, and specifically the characters played by Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, that is vital to Arthur Morgan's success as Red Dead's lead. Mifune's roles as Kuwabatake Sanjuro in Yojimbo and Sanjuro Tsubaki in Sanjuro, both Kurosawa films, helped create the core of Arthur Morgan's character. These fundamentals became particularly useful in an interactive medium where the main character's personality had to account for a wide variety of possible player decisions.

Mifune Men

Mifune's characters were, like Arthur Morgan, often stoic, but with a fondness for sometimes mean-spirited wisecracks and a tendency to commit violent actions which begged one major question — when it comes down to the crunch, to the movie's major moral decision, will this man reveal himself as a hero or a villain? This helped create tension throughout Mifune's films as well as making his characters both likeable and intimidating, but in Red Dead Redemption this archetype plays an additional role. The question of the character's ultimate morality isn't one that the climax of the movie answers, but one that is answered by the player.

Mifune isn't the only performer whose characters inspired Arthur Morgan, though many of the other Western leads he inherits his personality from were themselves based on Kurosawa characters. Although the Western and Samurai genres have been intertwined for decades, the particular utility of the Mifune archetype in a medium where players control the main character's actors could see his legacy live on in video games as much as movies.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is available now on PC, PS4, Stadia, and Xbox One.

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