Odds are you are familiar with the 3D sci-fi film Avatar, written and directed by James Cameron. You are also probably aware of the beautiful and exotic land of Pandora, and the paraplegic, ex-Marine protagonist — Jake Sully — that helped make the film the award-winning blockbuster it is. What you may not know, however, is that local Santa Barbara resident W Mitchell and his life story may have been part of the motivations behind the creation of Sully and Avatar’s plotline.

Mitchell, himself a former Marine, has a plethora of connections to the on-screen character including his paralysis and valiant efforts to protect the land he loves. Mitchell served as mayor of Crested Butte, Colorado between 1977 and 1981, and during that time he led a figurative fight against mining companies that were trying to harvest a precious metal known as “molybdenum” from mountains that overlook the town; there is a clear parallel between this mineral and the “unobtainium” introduced in Avatar. The townspeople worked together, in conjunction with then-mayor Mitchell, in order to stop mining companies from destroying their beloved mountain.

Considering that James Cameron reportedly spent a significant amount of time in a Crested Butte cabin with his former wife (who owns the cottage), there is the chance he was aware of the battle between Crested Butte and the large mining corporations.

W Mitchell

The Independent had the opportunity to speak with W Mitchell about his possible role as a silent muse in the formation of the revolutionary film. When asked whether or not he believes that he and the town of Crested Butte were inspirations for James Cameron, he said, “I have no idea. My ego, I’m sure, loves to believe the idea, and I certainly am aware that there are lots of theories about how James Cameron came up with the idea for Avatar. However, if you take a look at the facts, there’s obviously quite a few similarities, like the fact that I was a mayor who saved a mountain; that I’m paralyzed in a wheelchair; I’m a former Marine; the film takes place in an exotic location where people have a special existence, similar to the citizens of Crested Butte.”

As a public speaker and philanthropist, Mitchell — who was nearly burned alive in a motorcycle accident and then years later paralyzed in an airplane accident — now travels around on speaking tours giving people advice such as “spend less time looking backward.” “Life is not always easy,” he says, “It’s not supposed to be. I think we spend way too much time in our lives feeling sorry for what hasn’t come our way instead of focusing on the possibilities…” Mitchell inspires more than just film plots with his encouraging words as he gives motivational talks to audiences worldwide.

We can never be completely certain whether or not the heroic W Mitchell and the lovely town of Crested Butte were true inspirations for Cameron’s Avatar, but what we can conclude is that the similarities between Jake Sully and Mitchell – and between Crested Butte and Pandora – seem too large to ignore.


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