Hollywood's Hero Deficit: The Movie Industry No Longer Aspires to Portray Genuine Heroism, Argues James Bowman, Even Though That's Precisely What Audiences Want to See

By Bowman, James | The American (Washington, DC), July-August 2008 | Go to article overview
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Hollywood's Hero Deficit: The Movie Industry No Longer Aspires to Portray Genuine Heroism, Argues James Bowman, Even Though That's Precisely What Audiences Want to See


Bowman, James, The American (Washington, DC)


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A spate of movies about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the war on terror came out last year, all of them hostile to U.S. involvement and all of them box-office flops. At the time there was a certain amount of soul-searching in the media as to why, when most Americans told pollsters they thought the Iraq war, at least, had been a mistake, they didn't seem to want to go and see movies that sought to show them just how great a mistake it had been. The New York Times critic A.O. Scott cited what he called "the economically convenient idea that people go to the movies to escape the problems of the world rather than to confront them," but acknowledged the possibility that America's opposition to the war "finds its truest expression in the wish that the whole thing would just go away, rather than in an appetite for critical films."

Without denying that insight, I would like to propose another explanation: American movies have forgotten how to portray heroism, while a large part of their disappearing audience still wants to see celluloid heroes. I mean real heroes, unqualified heroes, not those who have dominated American cinema over the past 30 years and who can be classified as one of three types: the whistle-blower hero, the victim hero, and the cartoon or superhero. The heroes of most of last year's flopperoos belonged to one of the first two types, although, according to Scott, the only one that made any money, "The Kingdom," starred "a team of superheroes" on the loose in Saudi Arabia. What kind of box office might have been done by a movie that offered up a real hero?

There's no way of telling, because there haven't been any real movie heroes for a generation. This fact has been disguised from us partly because of the popularity of the superhero but also because Hollywood has continued to make war movies and Westerns, the biggest generators of movie heroism, that are superficially similar to those of the past but different in ways that are undetectable to their mostly young audiences, who have no memory of anything else. In an otherwise excellent article in Vanity Fair about "chick-flicks," James Wolcott recently wrote that, like the chick-flick, "the Western is also a genre that's often pronounced dead and buried only to be dug up again and propped against the barn door--witness 2007's '3:10 to Yuma,' 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,' and 'No Country for Old Men.'"

Wolcott is far from being the first to express such an opinion, but neither he nor anyone else appears to have noticed the principal way in which the movies he mentions differ from those of 50 years ago. None of them has anything like a real hero, though all three have charismatic villains, played by Russell Crowe, Brad Pitt, and Javier Bardem, respectively. The title tells us what to think of the would-be hero of "The Assassination of Jesse James," played by Casey Affleck. He's a creep, a stalker, and a traitor, as well as a coward. "No Country" has one really sympathetic character, the aging sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones, who is as helpless against the bad guy as everyone else is. Next to the sexy and invincible serial killer, a kind of inverted superhero played by Bardem, he is reduced to being just another victim hero, maundering on about what a nasty old world it is.

But it is "3:10 to Yuma" that offers the most interesting contrast between the old-fashioned sort of Western and the new breed. It was a remake of a movie first made in 1957, directed by Delmer Dares and starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin. Like so many other Westerns of the period, it was a parable of the heroism of the ordinary people who brought civilization, peace, and prosperity to the Wild West. Heflin's character, Dan Evans, is a simple farmer in danger of losing his farm to drought who, for the $200 it would take to pay the mortgage, accepts the task of escorting Ford's Ben Wade, a dangerous killer, to catch the eponymous train to trial.

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