Monday, February 16, 2009

the American hero

I watched the movie Die Hard for the nth time over the weekend. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that John McClane is like a modern John Wayne, and John Wayne is the quintessential American hero of our stories.

What defines the American hero?


First, there's rugged individualism, which is probably the most American trait. I feel the need to point out that rugged individualism is not the same as the selfish libertine attitude that modern Hollywood writers like to give protagonists. It's not individualism without a care for others, or doing things differently just to be different. Rugged individualism means stubborn self-sufficiency and a willingness to fight against any odds.

Most of John Wayne most memorable characters are polite and soft-spoken, but also no-nonsense persons who don't let law or manners get in the way of justice (if they were D&D characters, their alignment would be Neutral Good). Wayne usually ends up punching somebody. McClane isn't so polite -- definitely rough around the edges -- but he's similarly decisive in response to problems and quick to give jerks their due.


The American hero doesn't want to be heroic. He wants a quiet, ordered life; but he accepts a personal duty to protect the weak against evil and injustice. Incidentally, the American hero is in this sense very similar to the farmer-soldier of ancient Rome -- he does his duty, then returns to a quiet, humble life.

The American hero is humble (which is definitely harder to see in McClane). In the film McClintock, Wayne's character owns most of the land around town and is a sort of unofficial mayor, yet most of the townsfolk admire him because he's fair and respects the lowliest people. He's gives money to the town bum, despite knowing the money will be spent on liquor, and jokes around with the bum as a friend. He's friends with the same indians who put arrows in him years ago, and even represents them against his own government. The American hero is usually uneducated, relying on street smarts and a poor man's wisdom.

Which, perhaps, is another characteristic of the American hero: an open heart. He's friends with unlikely people... people who are very different from him. He might not even understand them, but he still travels with them, jokes with them, and fights for them. You see this with McClane, too, in the way he befriends a young, aloof limo driver or an eccentric airport groundskeeper. The American hero isn't multicultural. Wayne and McClane aren't worldly. They are proud of their own culture and not too interested in learning others, but they are accepting of people from any origin.

What else might be a characteristic of the archetypal American hero?

And can you think of any game characters that come close? I think the Master Chief in Halo and Marcus Fenix in Gears of War might.

I've asked my English friend, David, to describe who he thinks is the quintessential British/English hero from film and literature. His gut reaction was Sean Connery as James Bond. I'll be interested to see how American heroes compare to heroes of other cultures. My guess is that heroes cross-culturally are basically the same, but there are a number of significant nuances. Humility, for example, is not a virtue in all cultures.

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