Hearts on Fire: Tests, Allies, and Enemies

Christopher Vogler defines Tests, Allies, and Enemies, the next stage in the monomyth, as “The hero is tested and sorts out allegiances in the Special World.” It’s parameters are rather vague, so many authors and screenwriters interpret the Tests, Allies, and Enemies stage differently. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, JK Rowling spends the majority of Harry’s first year at Hogwarts in this stage, testing Harry in small ways and sorting whether fellow students at the School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are friend or foe.

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Stepping into the superhero genre, 2002’s Spider-Man film with Tobey Maguire also follows The Hero’s Journey. During our present stage, Peter Parker is becoming Spider-Man and taking pictures for the Daily Planet. By displaying and developing his powers across New York City, he finds who is inspired by his help and who finds him a menace.


My favorite example of this stage comes from the Hero’s Journey-esque storyline found in Sylvester Stalone’s Rocky IV where Rocky, the Italian Stallion, takes on Mother Russia’s Finest, Ivan Drago. In Rocky IV the master became the apprentice as Apollo Creed, twice Rocky’s opponent and once Rocky’s trainer, asks Rocky to become his trainer in an upcoming exhibition match (meaning no real stakes) against a Russian fighter, born, bred, and pumped full of steroids for the purpose of boxing and…showing off Russia’s superiority to the rest of the world.


During the fight, Apollo, an older fighter coming out of retirement for this sparring match between East and West, gets pummeled by Drago, who does not care what kind of match it is. He’s in it to win it. When Apollo hits the mat one last time in a relentless fighting sequence, Drago’s bone-chilling response leaves the audience cold and solidifies his place on the list of most heartless villains ever. In a machine-like autonomous voice, he says, “If he dies, he dies.”

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“If he dies, he dies.”

Apollo’s death is the catalyst for Rocky to get into the ring again and avenge Creed’s death. He challenges Drago to a fight which will take place in Russia. In a heartfelt scene between Rock and his wife Adrian, Adrian tests Rocky’s confidence in preparing for the fight. Worried for her husband and for the father of their child, Adrian, who has developed much confidence since the first film, eventually shouts at Rocky and says, “You can’t win!”

Rocky’s response shows his will and determination, “No maybe I can’t win. Maybe the only thing I can do is just take everything he’s got. But to beat me he’s gonna have to kill me, and to kill me he’s gotta have the guts to stand in front of me, and to do that he’s gotta be willin’ to die himself. I don’t know if he’s ready to do that. I don’t know. I don’t know.” But Rocky is; he’s ready to die for love. And there stands the internal difference between the two fighters.

Externally, the movie showcases their differences in what I believe to be one of the greatest training montages of all time!  Rocky, who goes to Russia to train, without his beloved Adrian, prepares for the fight using nature and the bare essentials. He lifts and throws heavy logs, chops down trees, and pulls Paulie, his overweight brother-in-law, on a sleigh through the snow. Juxtaposed to this, Drago’s training consists of the most state-of-the-art training facility, steroids, and a team of doctors. So, no longer is the fight solely about man vs man or even man vs society (Russia), but it also becomes a duel between man and machine. Drago shows no signs of humanity during the montage. Yet, humanity is turned up to 11 for Rocky when halfway through, Adrian unexpectedly arrives at the cabin to show her love and support for Rocky. On the next jogging trip, at the pinnacle of the montage, Rocky’s confidence restored,  the song “Hearts on Fire” raging, 80’s synthesizers at the height of their powers, a bearded Rocky literally climbs to the peak of the largest icy mountain and shouts a hearty yell of “DRAGO!” across the frozen Russian landscape.

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With all of his allies now at his side, Rocky withstands the tests of fear and of the elements, ready to face his enemy. When I was a kid watching that montage, I’d be running around the room shadow boxing and beating up the throw pillows. Okay, I still do that when I watch this movie.

That’s the sort of energy and head-space I need to inhabit while pursuing my goals. Can I identify my allies and my enemies? Or, to frame it differently, my strengths and my weaknesses? What if I could turn a weakness into a strength, like Adrian’s turn from fear for Rocky to support for him?

As evident by the nature of this blog, movies are a big deal to me. And watching those movies takes time. So, how can I turn the inherent weakness of sitting and watching a movie, which takes time away from working on my goals? What if I placed a TV in front of my treadmill? Boom! Done. So now I can watch a movie and jog. I will want to keep jogging because I’ll want to keep watching. I’ve turned an enemy into an ally, a weakness into a strength.

What about the big weakness? The impetus of my journey? Food. How can I turn food into an ally? Well I have been eating healthier with the juice and all. But can’t I indulge? Whens it gonna be my time? I shall turn that pineapple cake upside down, so to speak, and employ a cheat meal. Keeping my weekly foods to juice and small meals at supper, I will allow myself one meal on the weekends where I can eat anything I want. I will delay gratification until the weekend and set my sights on that glazed donut burger with two strips of bacon, barbecue sauce, a fried egg, and cheese with a side of seasoned waffle fries, or, ya know, whatever my stomach yearns for that day. Of course, this is all under the condition that I continue to make progress while pursing these goals. If I were to fall back or just become stagnant, I will take away that privilege from myself until I can get back on course.

And, as always, I hope you, dear reader, will continue to be my ally as I go forward facing these tests and tackling the enemies that may come my way. Then, when I have achieved my goals and reached the end of this journey, I can write to you something similar to what Rocky told the Russian people and the entire world watching on their television sets after he defeated Drago. In spite of the incessant beating, Rocky persevered. The Russians began actually rooting for Rocky. In his determination, his weakness became that last bit of strength that helped him win the fight. Microphone in his bloodied face, American flag wrapped across his shoulders, Rocky proclaimed, “If I can change and you can change, everybody can change!”

Of course his was motivated politically due to the Cold War, but I think it’s applicable to us too. Social Learning Theory says that we learn best through observation. So thank you for being a witness on my journey, and I hope it may inspire you, like the song says, set your “heart on fire/ strong desire/ rages deep within”, dear reader, to take that first step into whatever journey it is on which you have yet to set out. Let me know, and I will surely be your ally in return.



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