Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
In his earliest days, little Charles Kane is a playful boy who wants nothing more from life than to ride his sled. He has a great imagination, as we can see from the way he pretends he's fighting in the civil war. But we can also tell that his home life isn't all that great to him, especially when you look at his father—who probably beats him fairly often.
Call To Adventure
Charles Kane's world gets thrown for a loop when Mr. Thatcher shows up at his home to take him away from his parents. Apparently, Charles' mom has become very rich and she wants Charles to grow up away from home so he can become a truly cultured and educated gentleman. His dad disagrees, but he has no real say in the whole thing because Mrs. Kane is the one with all the money.
Refusal Of The Call
When he finds out about the plan to put him on a train with Mr. Thatcher, Charles rebels and yells that he doesn't want to leave home. He uses his sled Rosebud as a shield and tries to push Thatcher away. But no matter how he struggles, Charles can't avoid the destiny that his parents have laid out for him. They have decided that he's going to grow up away from them and their home, and that's that.
Meeting The Mentor
After he leaves home forever, Charles falls into the legal custody of Walter Parks Thatcher, a man who works for a bank in New England. Thatcher thinks that Charles' parents have made the right choice and that the bank will provide Charles with the best shot at becoming a great man.
But as a mentor, Thatcher only really cares about molding Charles into another one of America's greedy rich men. But then again, no one ever said that all mentors had to be good mentors.
Later on, Jed Leland serves as a kind of mentor, too. Unlike Thatcher, he's got some good ideas on how Kane can become a better person. But Kane makes the mistakes of kicking his only good mentor to the curb and never speaking to him again.
Crossing The Threshold
On his twenty-fifth birthday, Charles Kane comes into full possession of his huge fortune and also leaves the legal custody of Walter Parks Thatcher. At this point, Thatcher plans on sending him off to manage all of his mining operations. But Kane tells Thatcher he isn't interested in any of that stuff. He's way more interested in going out on his own and managing a small newspaper that he owns called The Inquirer.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
One of the first things Kane does with his newspaper is attack the wealthy and corrupt people of America. As you can probably tell, this strategy tells him who his friends and enemies are quite quickly.
His former mentor Thatcher, for example, warns him several times about the dangers of taking on the rich. But Kane shrugs him off and continues on a one-man crusade against corruption and inequality in his country.
Over time though, his crusade becomes more about him and less about his principles. One by one, close friends and allies (like his buddy Leland and wife Emily) walk out of his life. But Kane never seems to learn from these tests. If anything, he just gets more self-absorbed.
Approach To The Inmost Cave
After a failed bid for governor, the dissolution of his first marriage, and the overall flop of his second wife's singing career, Kane retreats to Florida to live in isolation inside his giant mansion, Xanadu.
His second wife Susan moves there with him, but she has already come to see that Charles Kane cares only about Charles Kane. All of his former attempts to "help the working man" were just his way of trying to make people like him. Unfortunately, it looks like Kane is too old or stubborn to change his ways.
Things in Kane's life blow up once and for all when his second wife Susan tells him she's leaving him. Kane begs her to stay and tells her that she can have everything on her terms if she just doesn't leave.
It almost works, but Kane makes the mistake of ending his speech with, "You can't do this to me," which tells Susan that he's every bit as selfish as he's always been.
Reward (Seizing The Sword)
Normally, it would be the hero of our story who "seizes the sword" and triumphs at the end of a story. But in this case then, Susan is our real hero, since she's the one who finds the courage to leave her rich husband in search of a better life.
As you can imagine, Kane doesn't react so well to this because he's used to controlling the people around him—or at least he's used to thinking he does.
The Road Back
When Susan leaves him, Kane goes on a destructive rampage and smashes everything that's smash-able in Susan's bedroom. The scene is really intense at first, but it quickly becomes pathetic as the old and bloated Kane runs out of energy.
He still smashes stuff, but we can see the all the fight and vitality has left him. All that's left is just this old husk of a man who probably isn't long for this world.
Unfortunately, there's no resurrection for Charles Kane. Instead of overcoming his ego and becoming a good man, he dies in bed with the word "Rosebud" on his lips. No one knows what it means, but we have to figure that maybe it's Kane's way of recognizing how far he's fallen in his life.
Return With The Elixir
In the final scene of this movie, we finally find out that Rosebud is actually Charles Kane's sled from when he was a little boy. In a sense, Rosebud is the elusive elixir that Kane was never able to recover. It represents all the innocence and goodness of his childhood, but Kane never recovers the sled… just like he never recovers his innocence.
It's too late for him to change, but not to late for us. Where Kane fails, every one of the movie's audience members can choose a different path.
Or is this just Orson Welles' way of trying to make us love him…?