Research Page

Main research includes:
  • Spanish California (setting, colors, history)
  • Spaghetti Western (common themes, motifs)
  • Hero's Journey (Joseph Campbell's thesis)
  • Zorro (character types, themes)

A Brief History of Spanish California

The earliest Spanish recording of the Californias was in 1533 on La Concepcion, a voyage organized by Hernan Cortes. Colonization took place between 1600 - 1821, and the western coast was divided into Baja California and Alta California. There was little order and government in Alta California until Russian and British influence started coming from the north. To help enforce Spanish power, Roman Catholic Franciscans built 21 Missions along the coast of Alta California, modeled after the Missions built by Jesuits in Baja California.
After Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, Las Californias became territories of Mexico. Alta Californians felt distanced and excluded from Mexican rule. General Vallejo governed the Presidio of Sonoma and tie barracks to watch the Russian Fort Ross nearby. Tired of Mexican rule, rebels jailed Vallejo, gathered in the Sonoma Plaza on 14 June 1846 with a homemade flag, and declared Alta California an independent country during the Bear Flag Revolt. It lasted for 25 days with William Ide as its only president, before the Mexican-US war ended and Alta California became US territory. The Bear Flag created during that time is used as California's flag today.
California became a US state in 1850. The state was almost divided between north and south (with southern California to be called Colorado), because many southern Californians were slave owners and didn't want California to become a free state, but the Civil War stalled the voting for separation. Today, California is the third-largest state with the biggest state population of over 37 million. Spanish and Mexican influences are still strong in cuisine, culture, and architecture.

Spanish Californian Architecture

The most prominent colors in Spanish California architecture and nature are white, cream, brown, red, orange, pink, and a strong green in the plants. The colors in the buildings are generally bold with rough textures, while the sun sets most of the shades. This will make a simple but pleasing style in the backgrounds. The pictures below are from Sonoma, showing the restored Sonoma Mission, an alleyway, and old adobe brick showing through white plaster. Adobe is widely used in the southwestern states and Mexico because it is very durable - but unfortunately weak to earthquakes! You can see nails in the brick in the right picture, showing that it's been reinforced to withstand earthquakes. White plaster covers the grainy adobe, but it is brittle and must be replaced frequently.

Spaghetti Westerns

The name ‘spaghetti western’ was coined due to the director usually being Italian. While westerns were becoming a bore for Hollywood in the 1960s, Europeans loved them, and many Italian, Spanish, and German producers made their own. Films like the Dollars Trilogy, which include The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) revolutionized the genre with its dramatic scenes, painterly cinematography, and edgy storytelling, which made spaghetti western films quite popular for the next few years.

  • More action-oriented than dialogue-driven, with an emphasis on dramatic music to push the narrative (much like operas)
  • Quite violent for the time, which caused many censorship problems when the films came to the US
  • Settings around the US-Mexican border in desert towns, often after the Civil War
  • Vengeance and revenge, but the good guy always wins!
  • Politics added extra depth to the stories, usually involving the Mexican government
Many films were shot with the actors all speaking their native languages, which they redubbed after the film was finished. This was common in Italy at the time, but frequent script changes often made it frustrating for the actors. Despite language barriers, director Sergio Leone made his Dollars Trilogy successful by telling the story through music and the actors' expressions in unusual close-ups. Many audiences first saw The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in the original Italian, but they still understood what was going on.

The Hero's Journey

Joseph Campbell was a writer and lecturer on mythology and religion, and published many works on how so many old stories have common themes, morals, and journeys the character go through. He outlined the typical hero’s journey found in many epic tales, such as Odysseus, in 17 steps, and argued that nearly every culture has stories that follow this model, because all humans share the same basic beliefs and universal truths. The following images are different charts that depict what journeys and trials a hero goes through.
Campbell's thesis has influenced much work in popular culture, from Indiana Jones to Batman. George Lucas began reading Campbell's books when he was first working on Star Wars, and realized that his story was following this model. It helped him shape out the rest of the original Star Wars trilogy as a result:

"I came to the conclusion after American Graffiti that what's valuable for me is to set standards, not to show people the world the way it is...around the period of this came to me that there really was no modern use of mythology...The Western was possibly the last generically American fairy tale, telling us about our values. And once the Western disappeared, nothing has ever taken its place. In literature we were going off into science that's when I started doing more strenuous research on fairy tales, folklore, and mythology, and I started reading Joe's books. Before that I hadn't read any of Joe's books...It was very eerie because in reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces I began to realize that my first draft of Star Wars was following classic I modified my next draft [of Star Wars] according to what I'd been learning about classical motifs and made it a little bit more consistent."
Stephen and Robin Larsen, Joseph Campbell: A Fire in the Mind. 2002, p. 541, text from Campbell's Wikipedia page.


The character Zorro first appeared in Johnston McCulley’s story The Curse of Capristano in 1919. It was set during
Spain’s colonial era in the pueblo of Los Angeles (1781-1821). Zorro fought mainly against corrupt government officials, defending the helpless man against injustice. The new studio United Artists made The Mark of Zorro in 1920 as its first film, which created the half-masked Zorro we know today. Its popularity caused McCulley to write 60 more Zorro stories until his death in 1958. Disney’s 1957 Zorro television series was hugely successful and ran until 1959. Zorro is very cunning and enjoys taunting his enemies, but understands that his work is critical in keeping justice in the pueblo. Like many heroes, he goes through trials and sacrifices to maintain anonymity and keep as much peace as possible. Many Zorro films have been made to this date.