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January 13, 2006

Where have all the heroes gone? The decline of the heroic in contemporary films

Posted by Jon Davies

Traditional heroism seems to have disappeared from the cinema. Jon Davies - recently retired as Head of Religious Studies at Newcastle University and the author of The Christian Warrior in the Twentieth Century - asks, where have all the heroes gone? And do we not need heroes now as much as we ever did?

As Kenneth Minogue has already told us, The Constant Gardener is a very silly film. Amongst its sillinesses is its depiction of the "hero", the "Constant Gardener" of the film title. Ralph Fiennes plays a British diplomat whose wife, on the track of the evil pharmaceutical company, and in the cause of frustrating Big Pharma's wicked ways, gets herself killed.

After her death, Justin Quayle, the aptly-named diplomat, comes to life (more or less), having been a kind of semi-comatose incompetent innocent up till then and sets off to see what she was up to. He discovers she is engaged in a noble cause. He is a most diffident "hero". He is in a state of bewilderment most of the time, simperingly missing his wife. While she goes off on dangerous missions, he stays at home pottering about in his greenhouse. After her death, he realises that it is now his job to go off on dangerous missions: he becomes heroic.

However, his heroism is demonstrated by deliberately and rather feebly getting himself shot, something he accomplishes by sitting around on the shores of Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya where he would have died any way (I've been there - It is very hot). He makes no attempt to take on the Baddies when they arrive, even though he was carrying a firearm. He just sits there, and gets killed, which is what, I think, the film makers want us to regard as proof of his constancy and commitment to his wife's crusade: gardeners do not kill.

The "heroism" of this character is very far removed from traditional (British) heroism, a vanishing commodity in contemporary film.

In the last few years, the "heroes" of films have been children (Narnia, Harry Potter), fish (Finding Nemo), semi-human animals (Lord of the Rings) or cartoon creations (Shrek). In The Constant Gardener, what heroism there is, is more that of Mrs Quayle than Mr Quayle, although she is too much of a Guardian caricature to carry much conviction. Her (black) co-hero is gay.

On May 16th 1811, 7,000 English troops were caught out in the open by 30,000 French cavalry. Of the 57th Regiment of Fusiliers, initially 570 strong, 430 men died along with their commander, Colonel Inglis. The Colonel said as he fell wounded:

Die Hard, my men, Die Hard.
"Die Hard" is, from then on, what heroes are meant to do. The scene is well described by Napier, the historian of the Peninsular War:
No sudden burst of undisciplined valour, no nervous enthusiasm weakened the stability of their order; their flashing eyes were fixed on the dark columns in front; their measured tread shook the ground; their dreadful volleys swept away the head of every formation; their deafening shouts overpowered the dissonant cries that broke forth from all parts of the tumultuous crowd as, slowly and with a horrid carnage, it was driven by the incessant vigour of the attack to the farthest edge of the hill . . The rain flowed after, in streams discoloured by blood, and 1,800 unwounded men, the remnant of 7,000 unconquerable British soldiers, stood triumphant on that fatal hill.
Justin Quayle is simply not in this tradition. For a decade or so after World War Two, British film treatment of heroism followed that described by Napier in his depiction of the battle at Albuera: heroes died hard. The post-war films such as The Dam Busters or The Battle of the River Plate - and many, many more - maintained this tradition.

The rot set in with the Bond films, when the moral stature of the protagonist begins to take second place to the technology at his disposal and when, most discomfiting of all, the violence he displays is depicted as earning him the sexual favours of a whole scrum of semi-naked females. This, in itself, was a radical inversion of "the tradition" of heroism, when violence was seen as tragic in that it separated male from female virtue often enough, of course, by the sacrificial death of the male. Bond never dies, he never loses, he always gets the girl, lots of girls. He is as far removed from the realities of war as is any pacifist.

The logic of the Bond films runs through into The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter films. The heroes are week and feeble children or small furry animals: and win (always) because of some magic weapon and magic power. The fish in Finding Nemo is another logical extension of this de-heroising of heroism, as is the "animal", or whatever it is, in Shrek. The mirror image of this infantilisation is, of course, the mindless violence of innumerable American and British films, in which it is precisely the a-moral nature of the violence (usually extreme violence) which denies any common pedigree with the earlier films and the tradition they both represent and portray.

This of course could all be very, very trivial indeed, the mere chatter of Guardian-reading cineastes were we not, somewhat unexpectedly perhaps, in need of some serious appreciation of the military and heroic virtues. Our army is currently deployed in Iraq, and its nominal master, the House of Commons, is almost totally devoid of men with military experience. The electorate is similarly innocent of the experience of arms.

The Armed Forces are small and professional more like the 19th Century armies of the Empire than those of the citizen-armies of the 20th Century. The military virtues sit very uncomfortably indeed with the values and behaviour of contemporary pop culture, with its obsession with the instant gratifications of sex, dancing, cooking, drinking all self, all selfish.

In a world of such "celebrities", the choice of Clement Attlee as the most "popular" or widely appreciated Prime Minister was one of the more peculiar expressions of this culture, though close analysis of the result would no doubt reveal significant age differences in the vote. Attlee, of course, served through World War One, and many of his parliamentary colleagues had similar direct experience of military life. This could not be said of either Mr Blair's Labour Party nor Mr Cameron's Conservative Party: the House of Commons is fundamentally civilian, unheroic to man and woman. As we speak, an attempt is made to confer some heroic stature on Mr Menzies Campbell by showing footage of his running prowess. In the main, though, political leaders such as Blair, Cameron and a clutch of Liberal contenders are much closer to Justin Quayle than they are to Clement Attlee, never mind to Colonel Inglis of the 57th Regiment of Fusiliers. It is a serious matter indeed for our Armed Services to be in the hands of the politicians we have. This is the first time in our history that the political class has been so totally divorced from military experience.

Jon Davies recently retired as Head of Religious Studies at Newcastle University. He is the author of The Christian Warrior in the Twentieth Century and is currently working on a book on the patterns of enmities surrounding the West.


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The transition of John LeCarre to a hard left anti-American sentiment in recent novels is distressing. George Smiley, his hero 20 years ago, was diffident in manner but strong in determination. The culmination of his quest for Karla, the scene in Berne when he interrogates the Russian diplomat, shows trade craft, as it was called, but also stern forceful resolution. No one was ever shot in his novels but the undercurrent was serious and violence was always a possibility. This last seems to be a parable for the emasculation of Europe. I hope they do not have occasion to regret it.

Posted by: Mike_K at January 17, 2006 10:14 PM
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