When life gets you down, you need a hero to save the day – and there’s no better place to look than the silver screen. With great films from the 30s to present day showing on Sky Movies this March and April, we examine the changing face of the Hollywood hero.
As surely as the sun rises and sets, we need movie heroes. Where would we be without them? If there was no Robin Hood, the Sheriff Of Nottingham would have got away with pillaging to his heart’s content. Without the Mark II version of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s catchphrase-happy cyborg, those machines would have carried on hating and hounding the human race to extinction. No John Wayne, and the Wild West would be an even more lawless wasteland of rapacious cattle barons, corrupt sheriffs and bank-robbing desperados.
Without heroes and all they represent – courage, sacrifice, moral good – the dark side wins. And, like Luke Skywalker, nobody wants that.
According to one dictionary definition, a hero is “a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities”. And for much of Hollywood’s reign, heroes have far outnumbered heroines, although women have begun redressing the balance in the on-screen heroism stakes.
But whether a he or a she, heroes are sometimes mythic, occasionally fantastical, mostly ordinary people who use morality, courage and purpose to prevail in the face of adversity for the greater good. They might be flawed or ambiguous, but they’re on the side of right and justice, and frequently sacrifice themselves for the good of humanity. They’re also like fashions – they change with the times...
The gunslingers, swashbucklers, soldiers and FBI agents of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s existed in a climate of greater moral certainties, when the world was wracked by global conflict, when America was fortifying and exporting its own powerful mythologies, and when the lines between black and white, good and evil, were more firmly drawn in the sand.
It’s fitting that Hollywood’s most enduringly iconic heroes were born in this era: Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda, Clark Gable, James Cagney, Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn. No-nonsense macho toughs, independent of spirit, full of rugged courage and fighting the good fight – even wearing green tights as Flynn did playing the forest-bound English bandit in The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938).
Even in simpler times, heroes could be slippery. Bogart’s most iconic roles came playing the tough-talking hardboiled gumshoes of The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, but as hard-crusted, morally dubious cynic Rick Blaine in Casablanca, he gives up the woman he loves for her – and the world’s – greater good.
But the star who most defined Hollywood heroism in those days was John Wayne, aka The Duke. Whether blazing his way through patriotic WW2 fare or brawling, sprawling Westerns like Rio Bravo, Red River and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Wayne was a towering icon of masculinity and the ultimate incarnation of the American hero, a stoic man of few words who was typically viewed with mistrust by the onscreen Powers That Be but was always beloved by the average citizen.
But even as Wayne was reigning, alongside other rough, tough, unforgiving forces of nature like Kirk Douglas in Spartacus and Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur, movie heroes were gaining new complexity with the appearance of sensitive, almost wounded souls such as Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and James Dean.
Even Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, as played by tall, noble, square-jawed Gregory Peck, broached new terrain in the early ’60s, defending a black man wrongly accused of rape and teaching his children a few moral lessons about prejudice. Being heroic was taking on new dimensions, and it’s not surprising that in a 2003 poll by the American Film Institute, Finch topped the list as the greatest movie hero of all time.
REBELS WITH A CAUSE
The ’60s had its bruisers too. Steve McQueen was virtually a throwback, a last hurrah for unabashed masculinity, but he also came with a streak of defiant rebellion that put him firmly in step with the times. As a San Francisco cop who tracks down the bad guys after they’ve slain his court witness in Bullitt, McQueen epitomised gutsy, bad-ass cool.
It was also the decade when an anti-establishment chain-gang prisoner could be a hero for the new authority-flaunting generation, as Paul Newman proved in Cool Hand Luke, while still co-existing alongside a certain British secret service agent with a licence to kill and a penchant for women, martinis and Cold War death-dealing. Sean Connery’s 007 was suave and sophisticated but also ruthless and brutal, before giving way in the ’70s to the more flippant, insouciant Roger Moore.
Robert Redford and Paul Newman were also cracking wise at the turn of the decade in Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, while Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) offered a measured but firm response to turbulent times in In The Heat Of The Night. Vietnam, civil rights, women’s rights, Watergate...
In a decade gripped by upheaval and protest, even Clint Eastwood’s trigger-happy law enforcer joined the fight. When Dirty Harry squinted and snarled his gravel-voiced threat, “Go ahead, make my day...”, he was protesting a lenient American justice system as much as he was attempting to find a baby-faced serial killer. Joining him were Al Pacino’s righteous copper, Serpico, Nixon topplers Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) in All The President's Men and Sally Field’s Norma Rae, the Southern textile worker who leads a strike against intolerable working conditions.
The late ’70s saw the arrival of a new breed of space hero too, in Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) in Star Wars, and Sigourney Weaver forging new ground as Alien’s deep-space combatant, Ripley.
THE HARD MAN COMETH
As the tumultuous ’70s gave way to the reactionary ’80s, the notion of screen heroism was turned on its head, with the Reagan-era mood of belligerent anti-communism mirrored in musclebound action behemoths like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who put their almost cartoonish bulks to freedom-fighting use in the likes of Rambo: First Blood Part II, Cobra, Raw Deal and The Running Man.
Meanwhile, high-concept thrill-seekers like Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), Mad Max (Mel Gibson) and gung-ho Top Gun pilot Maverick (Tom Cruise) were taking the sword to Nazis, post-apocalyptic freaks and hostile Russians respectively, Linda Hamilton (The Terminator) and Weaver again (Aliens) were blazing the trail for female action heroes, and Bruce Willis’ John McClane saw out the decade in a hail of wisecracks and 9mm bullets as he took down a gang of fey Euro-terrorists in Die Hard.
Cut to the ’90s and, with the Berlin Wall being parcelled off to tourists, Hollywood began valuing brains over brawn in its movie heroes, with Cruise proving a bright spark as Mission: Impossible’s hunted secret agent, Morgan Freeman using his zen stoicism to outthink a fiendish maniac in Se7en and Tim Robbins outwitting an entire penal system in The Shawshank Redemption (even if it did take him a few decades).
Personal sacrifice, often yanked from the pages of history, also proved to be a defining trait for ’90s heroes, as Liam Neeson became an unlikely rescuer of Jews in Schindler's List, Mel Gibson fought for Scottish freedom in Braveheart, Tom Hanks led his brave platoon in Saving Private Ryan and Leonardo DiCaprio died for love in both Titanic and Romeo + Juliet.
Women were pulling the carpet out from under their male counterparts in Fargo, Thelma & Louise and The Silence Of The Lambs, before Neo (Keanu Reeves), aka ‘The One’, became humanity’s cyberpunk saviour in The Matrix.
Hard to fathom now but at the start of the noughties, a Roman gladiator epic was seen as a tough sell to a generation raised on Indiana Jones and John McClane, but audiences instead embraced a rousing, old-fashioned battler whose bravery was driven by righteous personal fury – a faithful husband and loyal servant out to avenge his family and restore Rome’s honour.
And in Russell Crowe, Ridley Scott’s splashy sword-and-sandals epic Gladiator found its bruising hero, a throwback to the beefy stars of yore. Side by side with Crowe’s Spanish avenger came the noughties’ most substantial offering to the hero canon: the inexorable rise and eventual dominance of the angst-ridden front man, from comic-book crime-fighters like Spider-Man, Iron Man and a rejuvenated, de-campified Batman (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight) to boy wizards (Harry Potter), Ring-carriers (The Lord Of The Rings trilogy), ancient Greeks who look like Chippendales (300) and now US marshals with more than their fair share of demons (Shutter Island).
Chalk it up to living in the age of uncertainty, when it’s not always clear who the bad guys are and witnessing superheroics on screen helps trump insecurities off screen.
GEEKS INHERIT THE EARTH
And talk about insecurity... Yesterday’s 98-pound weakling is today’s heroic titan. Michael Cera in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, Jesse Eisenberg in Zombieland and Aaron Johnson in Kick-Ass are the fanboy fantasies come to fruition. It’s not surprising that, in a time when internet billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are the new global rock stars, geeky, stringbean heroes are inheriting the screen.
In Kick-Ass, Johnson’s high-school geek orders a green wetsuit off the internet and becomes a viral crime-fighting sensation, largely through trial, error and foolhardy embarrassment and without the benefit of actual superpowers; matching him blow for blow is pint-sized baddie-decimator Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz), a fearless, foul-mouthed 11 year old who has set a new template for whacked-out screen heroism. There’s no stopping anyone being a movie hero now.
But Gladiator’s influence remains strong, and even though the realms they roam get ever more fantastical, there’s still space for a good, old-fashioned action hero within them, someone who uses sharp wits and flashy weaponry to battle dastardly foes, men like Prince Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time and Robin Hood (Crowe again) in Ridley Scott’s reinvention of the legend.
They’re sword-swinging, muscle-ripped action stars who fight with might for right. Hollywood will never get enough of them.
WORDS Matt Mueller. This article first appeared in the Sky Movies Magazine, March 2011.
Kick-Ass is showing from Friday 18 March at 8pm on SM Premiere / HD
Robin Hood is showing from Friday 25 March at 8pm on SM Premiere / HD
Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time is showing from Friday 22 April at 8pm on SM Premiere / HD