Notes on spies, cowboys, and heroes.

I’ve done some car travel recently, and that is my favorite time to listen to audio books.  This time I picked a spy novel by a popular author I hadn’t read before.  I’ll discuss the specifics when I finish the story, but it sparked some new thoughts on a subject that I’ve written about before:  heroes, antiheroes, and how they change with the times.

As a teenager, I loved reading James Bond novels and probably finished all 11 books that Ian Fleming wrote between 1952 and his death in 1964.  In the novels and early movies, 007 was confident and competent in every area of life, including protecting a world in which good and evil were clearly defined.  That wasn’t just the fantasy of an adolescent male; Fleming’s huge popularity suggests that Bond embodied much of the cultural dream of the early cold war era.

Sean Connery and Ursula Andress in "Dr. No," the first Bond movie, 1962

Sean Connery and Ursula Andress in “Dr. No,” the first Bond movie, 1962

Fleming’s first novel, Casino Royale, was published in 1952, just seven years after the end of World War II, a conflict in which the author served as a naval intelligence officer.  There was little moral ambiguity in Fleming’s world or in his novels.  How different that is from the latest Bond movie, Skyfall, 2012, where moral clarity is scarce, and the adversary of British Intelligence is one of their own, gone rogue.


Daniel Craig makes a good Bond but has little time to exhibit all of Sean Connery’s gentlemanly skills.  This 21st century Bond is too busy killing people to worry about whether his drinks are stirred or shaken.

I’ve watched more westerns than spy movies, so that’s where I’ve seen the changing dynamic of heroes with greatest clarity.  Yet I begin to sense a parallel progression in both genres.   Using westerns as examples, I think we can identify three types of protagonists:

The Hero:  He (it’s always “he” in this kind of western) fights for a righteous cause, greater than himself.  In John Ford’s classic Fort Apache, John Wayne may feel for the Apaches, and thrash the corrupt trader who sold them whisky, but they still have to go back to the reservation.  It’s manifest destiny – the American way.

Fort Apache, 1948

Fort Apache, 1948

The Anti-hero:  Though the term dates from the 18th century, Clint Eastwood’ westerns pushed it into the popular lexicon.  There are no grand causes in these movies, just the gritty play of good and evil, but there is still room for the stranger – or in one of my favorites, Pale Rider, 1985, “the Preacher” –  to lend his aid, and especially his skill as a gunfighter, to those he finds deserving.

Clint Eastwood as Preacher in "Pale Rider."

Clint Eastwood as Preacher in “Pale Rider.”

The Non-hero:  This protagonist may be sympathetic, but should not bear the title of “hero,” with its implication of honor.  He’s the winner who gets to write the history, and that may be his only claim to moral high ground.  In Unforgiven, 1992, Clint Eastwood plays William Munny, a widower who has tried to give up killing and drinking.

"Deserving's got nothing to do with it," says  Munny in "Unforgiven

“Deserving’s got nothing to do with it,” says Munny in “Unforgiven”

Unfortunately, he’s failing in his new trade as a pig farmer, so to raise money to support his kids, he takes one more job as a hired killer: to take revenge on two cowboys who disfigured a prostitute.  The body count is a higher than two when the movie ends with an epilogue saying Munny is rumored to be in San Francisco and prospering in the dry goods trade.


So why does this matter?  I’ll have more to say on this in my next post, but for now, a couple of ideas that come to mind are:

– In the movies I’ve highlighted, we see the concern of characters shrinking from the common good to narrow self-interest.  This is a trend we see echoed in headlines every day.

– What do we mean when we call someone a “hero?”  Do we actually bestow the name, or is it most often done for us by various outside agencies, usually of the government or the entertainment industry?

– When is the last time we heard the great story that Joseph Campbell identified as the “monomyth?”   “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

I’ll have other reflections to add to this in the next post.