Is there no room for heroes?

John Wayne

Just look at this man.  Has there ever been a movie star more iconic?  But what does that icon stand for?  Depends on your age, to some extent.

For Americans of a certain generation, John Wayne was the ultimate male role model—a perfect father figure.  But then American society started to question just how “perfect” such father figures were.  The characteristics John Wayne represented stayed the same, but their cultural meaning started to shift under his feet like a sociological earthquake.  You say confident, I say arrogant.  You say taciturn, I say aloof.  In the late 1960s and 1970s, it became fashionable for men to be sensitive to a fault.  Men like Wayne started to look like unreconstructed cavemen.

John Wayne

 

This is a blog about movies, so let me keep this focused on movies—specifically, Westerns.  John Wayne was the exemplar of classical Westerns—once the most popular genre in all moviedom.  And then, in the mid 1960s, along came foreign upstarts like Sergio Leone to co-opt and redefine the American Western.  This new spaghetti-flavored Western was morally ambiguous in ways classical Westerns had never tried.  Instead of celebrating and reinforcing American moral values, these new-style Westerns cynically mocked those values.

OK, time to make this personal:

The fact is, long before I first encountered Sergio Leone, I had spent a fair bit of my formative years immersed in old-timey Westerns.  In Raleigh, NC, where I grew up, there was a film society that I remember as being called the Western Film Preservation Society.  I tried Googling it to confirm the name and found their current incarnation: http://westernfilmfair.tripod.com/id1.html.

This was back in the 1980s, and even then it was an anachronism.  Once a month, this bunch of crusty middle-aged dudes would gather in a meeting hall with their 16mm projectors and screen some crusty old Westerns—lots of singing cowboys, cliffhanger serials, bad guys in black hats.  You get the idea.  If not, here’s a sample:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezDaYxq4IPc]

Nowadays I attend Slapsticon annually and it’s much the same idea—a society so devoted to an arcane specialty that its members have no time for the obvious entry-level films.  You won’t find THE GOLD RUSH or THE GENERAL screened at Slapsticon—they go for the most obscure treasures of silent comedy.  And so too did the Western Film Preservation Society skip over the likes of THE SEARCHERS or HIGH NOON to dig deep into the big box of B-movies instead.

I was a newbie in their midst—more drawn to the 16mm projectors than the content of the movies screened with them.  It wasn’t my nostalgia being stroked—I was a witness to their nostalgia, a nostalgia by proxy.  Perhaps they could rightfully assume that they themselves already knew the highlights of classical Western film, and thereby justify their focus on obscurata, but for me the side-effect was to turn me off classical Westerns altogether.  Month after month I would sit and watch these primitive productions with such ephemeral entertainment value, so simplistic in their storytelling, so naïve in their morality, and I just assumed they were typical of their genre.

You’ve got your good guy—and everything he does is good.  And you’ve got your bad guy—everything he does is bad.  You may wonder just how the hero will triumph in the end, but at no point could you genuinely question that he would triumph.  The Three Stooges giddily trompled all over this kind of Western with OUT WEST and PUNCHY COWPUNCHERS.  Frankly, once the Three Stooges have made a better movie than yours, you need to call it quits.

Three Stooges

No offense, mind you.  I love the Three Stooges.  I love the Three Stooges more than you do.  I’m just sayin’, is all.

And so we come to the likes of FISTFUL OF DOLLARS.  It’s 1964, which means the American audience coming to this picture has survived WWII and witnessed the Holocaust, it has dropped atomic bombs on Japan and started to stockpile more weapons to threaten Russian with total annihilation, and just two years earlier watched its President assassinated.  So much for good guys versus bad guys.  Clint Eastwood’s unnamed character is clearly our protagonist, and a sympathetic trickster he is too.  He’s wandered into a town where there two opposing sides locked in endless war.  Both sides want his expertise and gunsmanship.  So he sells his services to both sides, playing each one against the other to his own advantage.

You don’t need me to elaborate.  Surely you’ve seen it yourself.  If not, it’s on DVD and you can correct your oversight at your leisure.

Fistful of Dollars

In 1965 Leone released its more intricate follow-up, A FEW DOLLARS MORE.  1966 brought THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY, which whipped the antiheroic escapades up into an epic flurry (Have you ever had an epic flurry?  It’s soft-serve ice cream mixed with your favorite mythological toppings.  A well-made epic flurry can be turned upside down and the myths won’t fall out).  Leone had conquered the Western by now.  Legions of Italian filmmakers took to copying his lead, Clint Eastwood returned to Hollywood to continue the tradition on his own.  Westerns were now about antagonisms between opposing sides, but in which clearly drawn lines of good and evil were no longer possible.

In 1966, THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY faced a competitor from the past—Howard Hawks’ EL DORADO.  Hawks was a master of the old form, John Wayne the most renowned practitioner of the classical Western mode.  They were reluctant to cede the field to Leone’s amoral revisions.  EL DORADO would be a deliberate counter-argument, a defiant insistence on the old ways.

There are two aspects to EL DORADO worth paying close attention to in this regard.  First, it is a remake of Hawk’s RIO BRAVO.  There is almost no reason to remake RIO BRAVO at all—it is a nearly perfect movie.  Had I seen it back in the early 1980s when my mind was still soft and squishy, maybe my persistent prejudices against classical Westerns could have been nipped in the bud before they ever took root.  RIO BRAVO rocks.

So why remake it at all—and just 7 years after the original?  Well, because Hawks and Wayne have a point to make with it, that’s why.  And to do that, they’ve added something to RIO BRAVO that makes EL DORADO more than just a remake.

The addition occupies the first half of the movie—it’s only in the second half that EL DORADO gets around to recycling script pages from RIO BRAVO.  In the newly added prologue, John Wayne arrives in a town that is locked in endless war between two opposing ranchers.  Wayne is a hired gun brought in by one side to intimidate the other—and kill the pesky sheriff if need be.  But when he arrives, he realizes that the sheriff is his old friend Robert Mitchum, and the ranchers he’s supposed to intimidate are actually the good guys.  So Wayne rides back to confront his employer, Ed Asner, and patiently explain to him why he’s changing sides and refusing Asner’s money.

John Wayne returns...

...Ed Asner's money.

Yup, it’s the set-up from FISTFUL OF DOLLARS but reconfigured to re-insert the moral certitude missing from Leone’s version.

Clint Eastwood

Ka-blam!

Hawks has plunked John Wayne into the middle of FISTFUL OF DOLLARS just so John Wayne can do the exact opposite of Clint Eastwood, and then gleefully build a monument to RIO BRAVO on the wreckage of the spaghetti Western.  Nevermind that this was a failed attempt to reclaim the territory, and Leone’s version was the version that would survive.  Just enjoy the moment:

Instead of two equally loathsome opponents and a hired gun who manipulates them both, we have good guys versus bad guys and a hired gun with a conscience who not only chooses up sides but makes sure everybody knows his choice, and the reasons behind it.  Howard Hawks’ EL DORADO is a defiant celebration of heroism in a popular culture increasingly nervous about such things.

I grew up with moral ambiguity and anti-heroism in my movies, and I never questioned it.  Clint Eastwood as the Man Without a Name, Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein, Kurt Russell in THE THING… and Batman.  I chose Batman over Superman because the impossible goodness of Superman seemed, well, impossible.  It was easier for me to get behind a superhero who is an emotionally traumatized bastard, a self-righteous vigilante whose violence he sees as both above and outside the law.  Much of the dramatic power of TV shows like BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and THE WIRE is in their depiction of antagonisms between opposing forces that cannot be easily identified as good or evil.  There are sympathetic aspects to both sides, and horrors to go around.  Just like real life.  I like morally ambiguity in my movies and TV–I admire it, I am drawn to it.  But I also was unaccustomed to questioning it–and it wasn’t until I had my embarrassingly late encounter with John Wayne that I caught a glimpse of what I’d been missing.

It was only recently that I saw RIO BRAVO and EL DORADO.  Not back to back, but close.  What struck me most about these films was John Wayne’s confident heroism.  He’s not an unambiguously perfect character in either film, as I had once assumed.  He has flaws.  But those flaws do not extend to his unwavering sense of right and wrong.  The dramatic question isn’t whether he will do the right thing, but what doing the right thing will cost him.

We don’t have heroic role models like that in our culture anymore.  Cynical antiheroes killed them all off.  It’s a shame.  I don’t doubt that the world we live in is more likely to produce a Batman than a Superman, but it’s a shame we’ve stopped trying to pretend otherwise.  There’s something truly inspirational about John Wayne in these two movies—something aspirational.  We’d be a better country if we still believed in this kind of heroism.

32 Responses Is there no room for heroes?
Posted By ianthecool : November 13, 2010 11:43 am

This is a great article. I’m not all to familiar with Wayne’s work, I’ll be honest. Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading this.

Posted By ianthecool : November 13, 2010 11:43 am

This is a great article. I’m not all to familiar with Wayne’s work, I’ll be honest. Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading this.

Posted By Wendy T. Merckel : November 13, 2010 11:46 am

Your article was wonderful. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about it at first, but you won me over.

I have become a great fan of Wayne in the last few years, something I thought would never happen to me. The late Wayne westerns were uncomfortable for me as a kid. His politics, which have receded a bit lately, put me off. His strength seemed like bullying, his moral rectitude seemed superhuman and preachy.

Then, recently, thanks to some friends here at TCM message boards, I saw the great actor he was in his younger days, and how tender and emotional he could be. He created roles with chinks in the armor, and this is what drew me to Wayne, finally and lastingly. His hero really started to connect with me, a man who has his faults, but makes up for it when the time comes to choose sides.

Thanks for allowing me to see a side of the older Wayne that I had not really looked at before. I agree, we would be better off nowadays with heroes who know the difference between right and wrong, and who actually choose the right in the end.

Posted By Wendy T. Merckel : November 13, 2010 11:46 am

Your article was wonderful. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about it at first, but you won me over.

I have become a great fan of Wayne in the last few years, something I thought would never happen to me. The late Wayne westerns were uncomfortable for me as a kid. His politics, which have receded a bit lately, put me off. His strength seemed like bullying, his moral rectitude seemed superhuman and preachy.

Then, recently, thanks to some friends here at TCM message boards, I saw the great actor he was in his younger days, and how tender and emotional he could be. He created roles with chinks in the armor, and this is what drew me to Wayne, finally and lastingly. His hero really started to connect with me, a man who has his faults, but makes up for it when the time comes to choose sides.

Thanks for allowing me to see a side of the older Wayne that I had not really looked at before. I agree, we would be better off nowadays with heroes who know the difference between right and wrong, and who actually choose the right in the end.

Posted By Tom S : November 13, 2010 12:24 pm

It’s hard to see Wayne as having an absolute and correct sense of right and wrong in the Searchers- shooting out the dead Indian’s eyes doesn’t seem to be represented as a moral action within the movie, and it certainly doesn’t come off that way. While Wayne eventually finds a morality (as Eastwood often would) he spends most of the movie on a quest to murder the only survivor of his family- it seems as though his moral compass was broadly not well calibrated.

Of course, that’s the exception rather than the rule, and one of the things that makes the Searchers noteworthy. More broadly, I think the problem with having a hero with an absolute sense of right and wrong is that, unlike a Batman, a Superman has to have viewers agree pretty exactly with the creators of what right and wrong comprise- if Batman does something nasty, breaks a man’s legs to get information, the viewer doesn’t necessarily need to assume the creators think that is a moral act, nor that they want the audience to be comfortable with it. If Superman does something like that, the viewer has to accept that the creators think torture is part of Truth, Justice, and the American Way.

Of course, the whole idea that the hero would torture someone for information is largely borne of the age of the cynical anti-hero, so it might be better still to have a class of heroes who don’t _need_ to do horrible things in pursuit of their goals. But I’d rather the heroes look like Humphrey Bogart than John Wayne- the later Bogart, from Casablanca onwards, who never wanted to look like a hero, never felt like one, and behaved heroically anyway. It’s easier to buy, and easier to sympathize with, because Bogart had actual crises of conscience. For most of his features, Wayne did the right thing, because what Wayne did was defined as right. When Bogart did the right thing, it was painful, and earned.

Posted By Tom S : November 13, 2010 12:24 pm

It’s hard to see Wayne as having an absolute and correct sense of right and wrong in the Searchers- shooting out the dead Indian’s eyes doesn’t seem to be represented as a moral action within the movie, and it certainly doesn’t come off that way. While Wayne eventually finds a morality (as Eastwood often would) he spends most of the movie on a quest to murder the only survivor of his family- it seems as though his moral compass was broadly not well calibrated.

Of course, that’s the exception rather than the rule, and one of the things that makes the Searchers noteworthy. More broadly, I think the problem with having a hero with an absolute sense of right and wrong is that, unlike a Batman, a Superman has to have viewers agree pretty exactly with the creators of what right and wrong comprise- if Batman does something nasty, breaks a man’s legs to get information, the viewer doesn’t necessarily need to assume the creators think that is a moral act, nor that they want the audience to be comfortable with it. If Superman does something like that, the viewer has to accept that the creators think torture is part of Truth, Justice, and the American Way.

Of course, the whole idea that the hero would torture someone for information is largely borne of the age of the cynical anti-hero, so it might be better still to have a class of heroes who don’t _need_ to do horrible things in pursuit of their goals. But I’d rather the heroes look like Humphrey Bogart than John Wayne- the later Bogart, from Casablanca onwards, who never wanted to look like a hero, never felt like one, and behaved heroically anyway. It’s easier to buy, and easier to sympathize with, because Bogart had actual crises of conscience. For most of his features, Wayne did the right thing, because what Wayne did was defined as right. When Bogart did the right thing, it was painful, and earned.

Posted By Neville A. Ross : November 13, 2010 3:26 pm

Right on, Tom S! I’d also like to say further that the heroes davidkalat loves so much are still on the screen-they’re the basis of most of the main characters of most of the action movies seen for the past 30 years or more. Plus, Michael Cera as Scott Pilgrim in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World was the kind of hero that davidkalat might like as well, even though he’s a little goofy. Brandon Routh in Superman Returns was like that also, yet he got pilloried for it and called ‘gay’ on account of his costume being not as macho as most people wanted.

To sum it up-’Good guys win even in the 2000′s’.

Posted By Neville A. Ross : November 13, 2010 3:26 pm

Right on, Tom S! I’d also like to say further that the heroes davidkalat loves so much are still on the screen-they’re the basis of most of the main characters of most of the action movies seen for the past 30 years or more. Plus, Michael Cera as Scott Pilgrim in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World was the kind of hero that davidkalat might like as well, even though he’s a little goofy. Brandon Routh in Superman Returns was like that also, yet he got pilloried for it and called ‘gay’ on account of his costume being not as macho as most people wanted.

To sum it up-’Good guys win even in the 2000′s’.

Posted By Sarah : November 13, 2010 4:44 pm

I just would like to express my gratitude for this article. I grew up watching John Wayne & have many of his movies in my collection as “go-to” movies when I’m bored of TV, which is quite often. I never tire of watching them.

Maybe I’m naive or romanticizing…but they don’t make movies like they used to…

Posted By Sarah : November 13, 2010 4:44 pm

I just would like to express my gratitude for this article. I grew up watching John Wayne & have many of his movies in my collection as “go-to” movies when I’m bored of TV, which is quite often. I never tire of watching them.

Maybe I’m naive or romanticizing…but they don’t make movies like they used to…

Posted By Jenni : November 13, 2010 9:43 pm

I also grew up watching John Wayne’s movies and do appreciate his characters’ strength and portrayal of the hero. I too remember watching the westerns on many Sat. nights with my dad, who usually had the tv tuned to NBC, since they were the network often showing these films.
There are a few pictures Wayne starred in where his character was conflicted, not portraying a hero dealing with black and white issues, but lots of gray. The Searchers, mentioned already, is one such character, and so is his rancher moving cattle in The Red River. But one film I recently saw was sad in its ending;to me it was jarring that the main conflict of the film couldn’t be resolved in a neat black and white kind of way. The Wings of Eagles, paired Wayne with his beautiful co-star Maureen O’Hara, and the flick was a biopic of Frank “Spig” Wead, a former air force pilot/commander who became a screenwriter after an accident in his home injured his spine severely. What I found so tragic, was that due to Wead’s(Wayne)absences from home because of air force duties, wars, etc. was that he and his wife(O’Hara) grew so far apart emotionally from one another. They made a few attempts to reconcile and heal their marriage, but even after the serious injury Wead suffered, the marriage couldn’t be saved, and the movie ends with it obvious that the couple so in love at the movie’s beginning won’t be together again. I found this a very unusual ending for a John Wayne picture. At the end of The Searchers, Wayne’s character realizes his error of hatred against his niece who had adapted to the culture and life of the Native Americans who had kidnapped her as a child, and he takes her home to the living relatives who can care for her and bring her back to her original culture and way of life. At the end of Red River, Wayne’s character doesn’t kill his adopted son, Montgomery Clift, and they successfully reach their goal of hauling cattle across the country. But in The Wings of Eagles, the happy ending isn’t there, and I feel it’s a good example of Wayne playing a character with flaws, who doesn’t wind up doing the heroic thing in the end.

Posted By Jenni : November 13, 2010 9:43 pm

I also grew up watching John Wayne’s movies and do appreciate his characters’ strength and portrayal of the hero. I too remember watching the westerns on many Sat. nights with my dad, who usually had the tv tuned to NBC, since they were the network often showing these films.
There are a few pictures Wayne starred in where his character was conflicted, not portraying a hero dealing with black and white issues, but lots of gray. The Searchers, mentioned already, is one such character, and so is his rancher moving cattle in The Red River. But one film I recently saw was sad in its ending;to me it was jarring that the main conflict of the film couldn’t be resolved in a neat black and white kind of way. The Wings of Eagles, paired Wayne with his beautiful co-star Maureen O’Hara, and the flick was a biopic of Frank “Spig” Wead, a former air force pilot/commander who became a screenwriter after an accident in his home injured his spine severely. What I found so tragic, was that due to Wead’s(Wayne)absences from home because of air force duties, wars, etc. was that he and his wife(O’Hara) grew so far apart emotionally from one another. They made a few attempts to reconcile and heal their marriage, but even after the serious injury Wead suffered, the marriage couldn’t be saved, and the movie ends with it obvious that the couple so in love at the movie’s beginning won’t be together again. I found this a very unusual ending for a John Wayne picture. At the end of The Searchers, Wayne’s character realizes his error of hatred against his niece who had adapted to the culture and life of the Native Americans who had kidnapped her as a child, and he takes her home to the living relatives who can care for her and bring her back to her original culture and way of life. At the end of Red River, Wayne’s character doesn’t kill his adopted son, Montgomery Clift, and they successfully reach their goal of hauling cattle across the country. But in The Wings of Eagles, the happy ending isn’t there, and I feel it’s a good example of Wayne playing a character with flaws, who doesn’t wind up doing the heroic thing in the end.

Posted By dukeroberts : November 14, 2010 1:27 am

Thank you for your article on my favorite actor. My dad would always watch the Poverty Row westerns when I was growing up. I wasn’t as interested in them as I was in the A pictures, the later ones starring John Wayne and the like. So, I guess I raised myself on iconic John Wayne. From Stagecoach onward Duke didn’t always play a straight up, morally perfect man. Usually in the films of John Ford he was a flawed man in some way. The Ringo Kid was an anti-hero before that phrase was made popular. I believe these imperfections came from the insistence of Ford’s style. Ford was a big time liberal. Duke was a big conservative. It was their meeting in the middle onscreen that produced sublime westerns for 20 years, culminating in the masterpiece, The Searchers. Kurosawa was influenced by the films of John Ford and Howard Hawks, but skewed the characterizations a bit. Leone was obviously influenced by Kurosawa and popularized the anti-hero in the western, but the seeds had been planted long ago by Ford and Hawks. And the anti-hero in film probably began with the 30′s gangster films, which also influenced Kurosawa and Leone. I’m rambling now. I appreciate the fact that you have come to appreciate John Wayne after so many years of not doing so. It would be great if more people could open their eyes to the greatness of the Duke instead of basing their prejudice on his political ideals.

Posted By dukeroberts : November 14, 2010 1:27 am

Thank you for your article on my favorite actor. My dad would always watch the Poverty Row westerns when I was growing up. I wasn’t as interested in them as I was in the A pictures, the later ones starring John Wayne and the like. So, I guess I raised myself on iconic John Wayne. From Stagecoach onward Duke didn’t always play a straight up, morally perfect man. Usually in the films of John Ford he was a flawed man in some way. The Ringo Kid was an anti-hero before that phrase was made popular. I believe these imperfections came from the insistence of Ford’s style. Ford was a big time liberal. Duke was a big conservative. It was their meeting in the middle onscreen that produced sublime westerns for 20 years, culminating in the masterpiece, The Searchers. Kurosawa was influenced by the films of John Ford and Howard Hawks, but skewed the characterizations a bit. Leone was obviously influenced by Kurosawa and popularized the anti-hero in the western, but the seeds had been planted long ago by Ford and Hawks. And the anti-hero in film probably began with the 30′s gangster films, which also influenced Kurosawa and Leone. I’m rambling now. I appreciate the fact that you have come to appreciate John Wayne after so many years of not doing so. It would be great if more people could open their eyes to the greatness of the Duke instead of basing their prejudice on his political ideals.

Posted By Tom S : November 14, 2010 2:32 am

Feeling torn between delight in Wayne’s characters and discomfort/disgust in his politics goes back a long way- Jean-Luc Godard, in the fifties, wondered “How can I hate John Wayne upholding Goldwater and yet love him tenderly when abruptly he takes Natalie Wood into his arms in the last reel of The Searchers?”

It’s a reasonable question, but God knows you’d wind up missing out on a lot of good art if you avoided all the movies and things from people who said or did things you didn’t like outside their work- for one thing, you’d never be able to watch Chinatown again.

Posted By Tom S : November 14, 2010 2:32 am

Feeling torn between delight in Wayne’s characters and discomfort/disgust in his politics goes back a long way- Jean-Luc Godard, in the fifties, wondered “How can I hate John Wayne upholding Goldwater and yet love him tenderly when abruptly he takes Natalie Wood into his arms in the last reel of The Searchers?”

It’s a reasonable question, but God knows you’d wind up missing out on a lot of good art if you avoided all the movies and things from people who said or did things you didn’t like outside their work- for one thing, you’d never be able to watch Chinatown again.

Posted By dukeroberts : November 14, 2010 2:42 am

Very good point, Tom S. I only have a ban on Jane Fonda movies. I’m fine with not seeing another one of her movies. Anyone else’s movies are open for viewing.

Posted By dukeroberts : November 14, 2010 2:42 am

Very good point, Tom S. I only have a ban on Jane Fonda movies. I’m fine with not seeing another one of her movies. Anyone else’s movies are open for viewing.

Posted By Jerry Kovar : November 14, 2010 8:33 am

I never appreciated EL DORADO and saw it as a poor man’s RIO BRAVO. But I do appreciate your essay on the reasoning for it. Just as the great RIO BRAVO was Duke/Hawk’s response to HIGH NOON which they supposedly despised. Hell, if a sheriff needs help battling the bad guys, he doesn’t fret or rely on Grace Kelly, he gets a drunk, a kid and a broken down old man.

Posted By Jerry Kovar : November 14, 2010 8:33 am

I never appreciated EL DORADO and saw it as a poor man’s RIO BRAVO. But I do appreciate your essay on the reasoning for it. Just as the great RIO BRAVO was Duke/Hawk’s response to HIGH NOON which they supposedly despised. Hell, if a sheriff needs help battling the bad guys, he doesn’t fret or rely on Grace Kelly, he gets a drunk, a kid and a broken down old man.

Posted By Suzi : November 14, 2010 6:50 pm

Excellent post on an issue I struggle with in teaching film history to 20-year-olds who have grown up watching movies in which the protagonist is most often anti-heroic–not to mention playing video games in which violent revenge has replaced justice and morality.

I was heartened when I showed Bad Day at Black Rock in which the Spencer Tracy character frustrates his antagonists by backing down from macho posturing and is not pushed to violence until his life is in danger. It was something that impressed the students, who brought it up repeatedly.

The drive to push movies and characters closer to realism that began in the 1950s with method actors and proliferated in the 1960s with the anti-heroes of the Film School Generation altered the function of the protagonist. In storytelling of John Wayne’s era, movie stars and the characters they played were not intended to be real people you could relate to; instead they were representative of ideals and values you aspired to. There is meaning in finding solace in a heroic protagonist who makes a sacrifice for the greater good and represents a value you believe in–whether it’s the moral certitude of John Wayne or the everyman conscience of Jimmy Stewart and his lost causes.

However, with the drive to greater “realism,” protagonists became real-life characters you could relate to because they made mistakes, were emotionally traumatized, or didn’t always win the goal in the end. Relating to protagonists became more desirable than aspiring to an impossible ideal a character might represent. While that fit the culture of a society that was disillusioned by the politics of the era, it was the beginning of the end for romanticizing heroism in pop culture. I love films from this era and the performances of actors who excelled at playing anti-heroes, but I don’t think those are the only type of characters that should be on the screen. It shouldn’t be a question of either/or. Plus, the legacy of those characters for today’s movies is not good.

Now, superhero protagonists in commercial Hollywood features are fantasy figures that enact revenge or fulfill immature desires of the young audiences who populate the theaters. With some notable exceptions, heroism is cynically dismissed as an old-fashioned idea from “old movies.” And, contrary to what a reader notes above, the protagonists of action films of the last 30 years are generally not heroic in the classic sense of the concept; they are way too smug, violent, insincere, self-serving, and cynical.

What’s troubling about this issue is that the values and ideals the “old-fashioned” heroes embody are dismissed along with the characters, while the cynicism, immature posturing, and other negative characteristics of today’s protagonists are accepted as norms. And, if you don’t think this has much of a cultural impact because “it’s only the movies,” then you aren’t a teacher who sees it.

Posted By Suzi : November 14, 2010 6:50 pm

Excellent post on an issue I struggle with in teaching film history to 20-year-olds who have grown up watching movies in which the protagonist is most often anti-heroic–not to mention playing video games in which violent revenge has replaced justice and morality.

I was heartened when I showed Bad Day at Black Rock in which the Spencer Tracy character frustrates his antagonists by backing down from macho posturing and is not pushed to violence until his life is in danger. It was something that impressed the students, who brought it up repeatedly.

The drive to push movies and characters closer to realism that began in the 1950s with method actors and proliferated in the 1960s with the anti-heroes of the Film School Generation altered the function of the protagonist. In storytelling of John Wayne’s era, movie stars and the characters they played were not intended to be real people you could relate to; instead they were representative of ideals and values you aspired to. There is meaning in finding solace in a heroic protagonist who makes a sacrifice for the greater good and represents a value you believe in–whether it’s the moral certitude of John Wayne or the everyman conscience of Jimmy Stewart and his lost causes.

However, with the drive to greater “realism,” protagonists became real-life characters you could relate to because they made mistakes, were emotionally traumatized, or didn’t always win the goal in the end. Relating to protagonists became more desirable than aspiring to an impossible ideal a character might represent. While that fit the culture of a society that was disillusioned by the politics of the era, it was the beginning of the end for romanticizing heroism in pop culture. I love films from this era and the performances of actors who excelled at playing anti-heroes, but I don’t think those are the only type of characters that should be on the screen. It shouldn’t be a question of either/or. Plus, the legacy of those characters for today’s movies is not good.

Now, superhero protagonists in commercial Hollywood features are fantasy figures that enact revenge or fulfill immature desires of the young audiences who populate the theaters. With some notable exceptions, heroism is cynically dismissed as an old-fashioned idea from “old movies.” And, contrary to what a reader notes above, the protagonists of action films of the last 30 years are generally not heroic in the classic sense of the concept; they are way too smug, violent, insincere, self-serving, and cynical.

What’s troubling about this issue is that the values and ideals the “old-fashioned” heroes embody are dismissed along with the characters, while the cynicism, immature posturing, and other negative characteristics of today’s protagonists are accepted as norms. And, if you don’t think this has much of a cultural impact because “it’s only the movies,” then you aren’t a teacher who sees it.

Posted By dukeroberts : November 15, 2010 12:30 am

The great thing about the first two Spider-Man movies was that Spider-Man lived up to the classic heroic ideals. Unfortunately, since The Dark Knight (which I also loved), I think even the films about superheroes that would normally be classically heroic may end up being darkened as well because TDK was such a phenomenal success. I am holding out hope that next year’s Captain America, set during World War II, will do well focusing on a classically heroic character doing unquestionably heroic things.

Posted By dukeroberts : November 15, 2010 12:30 am

The great thing about the first two Spider-Man movies was that Spider-Man lived up to the classic heroic ideals. Unfortunately, since The Dark Knight (which I also loved), I think even the films about superheroes that would normally be classically heroic may end up being darkened as well because TDK was such a phenomenal success. I am holding out hope that next year’s Captain America, set during World War II, will do well focusing on a classically heroic character doing unquestionably heroic things.

Posted By chris : November 15, 2010 5:27 pm

El Dorado, Fistful of Dollars, loved them both. I enjoyed how you linked the two. However, since John Wayne’s character in El Dorado is a hired gunman it leaves the question, what would he had done if Mitchem’s friend/sheriff hadn’t been around to set him right about Ed Asner’s gang?

Posted By chris : November 15, 2010 5:27 pm

El Dorado, Fistful of Dollars, loved them both. I enjoyed how you linked the two. However, since John Wayne’s character in El Dorado is a hired gunman it leaves the question, what would he had done if Mitchem’s friend/sheriff hadn’t been around to set him right about Ed Asner’s gang?

Posted By Juana Maria : November 23, 2010 4:43 pm

I watch Westerns daily, if I can. When I can’t I get withdrawl.
No seriously. I have seen about 115 John Wayne movies, most of which are Westerns. I have pretty much seen all Clint Eastwood’s Westerns and most of his other movies too. I have seen into the hundreds Westerms from the last 100 yrs. Many TV shows and books too. I have read almost every history book on the Old West my local library carries. I can lasso and speak Spanish and I love Tex-Mex food. It my staple diet.

Posted By Juana Maria : November 23, 2010 4:43 pm

I watch Westerns daily, if I can. When I can’t I get withdrawl.
No seriously. I have seen about 115 John Wayne movies, most of which are Westerns. I have pretty much seen all Clint Eastwood’s Westerns and most of his other movies too. I have seen into the hundreds Westerms from the last 100 yrs. Many TV shows and books too. I have read almost every history book on the Old West my local library carries. I can lasso and speak Spanish and I love Tex-Mex food. It my staple diet.

Posted By TCM's Classic Movie Blog : November 29, 2010 4:56 pm

[...] are truly heroic. They make a sacrifice for the greater good because it is the right thing to do. A recent post by fellow Morlock davidkalat lamented the loss of the movie hero, who has been replaced by cynical [...]

Posted By TCM's Classic Movie Blog : November 29, 2010 4:56 pm

[...] are truly heroic. They make a sacrifice for the greater good because it is the right thing to do. A recent post by fellow Morlock davidkalat lamented the loss of the movie hero, who has been replaced by cynical [...]

Posted By Juana Maria : December 19, 2010 7:28 pm

I want to add after reading this article, “Rio Bravo” was Hawks’ answer to “High Noon”. He felt a sheriff wouldn’t have to take on the bad guys by himself. Have you seen the bad guys in “High Noon”? I wouldn’t fight them no matter how much money I was offered. By the way, Gary Cooper tries to get deputies for free.That might have something to do with it. The hotel clerk makes a point to say how they’ve lost business since the town got cleaned up. Maybe there are less heroes in stories because they are afraid of what it will cost them. Their lives or just their precious money.

Posted By Juana Maria : December 19, 2010 7:28 pm

I want to add after reading this article, “Rio Bravo” was Hawks’ answer to “High Noon”. He felt a sheriff wouldn’t have to take on the bad guys by himself. Have you seen the bad guys in “High Noon”? I wouldn’t fight them no matter how much money I was offered. By the way, Gary Cooper tries to get deputies for free.That might have something to do with it. The hotel clerk makes a point to say how they’ve lost business since the town got cleaned up. Maybe there are less heroes in stories because they are afraid of what it will cost them. Their lives or just their precious money.

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