When I was writing my last post about George Lucas’s digital fiddling with the iconic character of Han Solo, I started think about about the role of the anti-hero in American film. Why is it that so many of our cinematic “heroes” are anything but?
An anti-hero is usually defined as a protagonist who exhibits non-heroic traits, such as selfishness and amorality. Han Solo surely qualifies as a classic American anti-hero in that he firmly avows his own self-interest, only to later commit himself to a cause larger than himself. But when I think of an anti-hero, I usually think of Humphrey Bogart. Bogart’s Rick Blaine is perhaps the pinnacle of the American anti-hero, embodying as he does the core of American isolationism in the face of the Second World War. “I stick my neck out for no one,” Blaine says to his friend, the even more corrupt Captain Renault. Blaine seems to epitomize those very American qualities of pragmatism and an apolitical business sense (he runs the the most profitable bar in Casablanca, after all). But of course, he comes around, in the end, finding himself inextricably bound to humanity in the form of Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa.
Blaine might be the ultimate American anti-hero, but he is by no means the first. If you ask me, the American anti-hero has deep roots in the wild west, with our cultural fixation on cowboys, gunfighters, and the men who tamed them. Wyatt Earp might well be our first, best anti-hero, the saloon keeper, gambler, and occasional pimp who became the most famous lawman in history. America is a nation, after all, of exiles, people always seeking the frontier, and the values of the frontiersman are deeply intertwined with our own.
It’s no accident that the greatest Western ever to come out of Hollywood is John Ford’s The Searchers—a movie in which the “hero”, Ethan Edwards, is a borderline psychopath. Ethan (which means “strong” in Hebrew) exudes physical strength and a cold, practical wisdom. (He takes time to rest his horses even when pursuing the Indians who killed his brother.) Only Ethan has the strength to pursue the renegade Comanches and finally kill their leader, Scar, but Ethan comes perilously close to murdering his own niece in the process. Even in our greatest myths, the dark side of the American anti-hero seems to lurk just beneath the surface.
William Holden played not one but two famous anti-heroes in World War II dramas. Both were POWs: the cold-hearted, viciously entrepreneurial Sefton in Stalag 17, and then the resourceful Commander Shears in Bridge Over the River Kwai. Both films seem to acknowledge a kind of philosophical transition that took place in the post-war environment, a shift in values from the resolute, romantic heroism of the British Empire in favor of the more ambiguous, morally flexible version that Americans seemed to espouse. (It was we, after all, who dropped the atomic bomb and thus finished the war that the Old World started.)
All through the 1960s and 1970s, this new, darker, and perhaps more realistic vision of heroism seemed to thrive in counter-cultural films like Easy Rider, Billy Jack, and Cool Hand Luke. Perhaps the greatest actor to inhabit the anti-heroic mold since Bogie was Jack Nicholson, who in 1974’s Chinatown played the world-weary Jake Gittes, a private detective who specializes in taking compromising photos of cheating spouses, and who confesses to his lover that, when he was a cop, he did “as little as possible.” And yet Gittes is a bona fide American hero. Despite his better judgment, he finds himself unable to condone the corruption and evil that surrounds him.
Perhaps the darkest version of the anti-hero can be found in Francis Coppola’s flawed 1979 masterpiece, Apocalypse Now. Martin Sheen plays the American Army assassin Captain Willard, who is dispatched on a journey through Cambodia to find (and kill) the renegade Colonel Kurz. The movie represents the intersection between our darkest war (Vietnam) and our darkest novel (Conrad’s Heart of Darkness), the result being a kind of cinematic descent into hell
Even the greatest anti-heroes of science fiction like Mad Max and Snake Plissken have their roots in the post-war characters of Holden and Bogart. When Mad Max paces menacingly across the post-nuclear Outback, he seems like the reincarnation of Ethan Edwards, haunting our depopulated future even as John Wayne haunts our sun-scorched past.
Which brings me to my main point about the American anti-hero. For all their faults, there is one quality that Han Solo and Rick Blaine never come up short on: courage. Characters like Sefton and Gittes may profess to be cowards, but they aren’t. Not really. As Americans, we like to believe that we have no Old World illusions of grandeur, but we also want to believe in our own basic decency and moral integrity (despite all evidence to the contrary). Like Jake Gittes, the American anti-hero often fails—and sometimes fails miserably—but by the very act of attempting to do the right thing, he finds a kind of redemption. Americans pride themselves on not being suckers, but in the end, we want to think we are good.
Otherwise, what was all the fighting about, anyway?