I got the idea for this post from a piece on Andrew Breitbart’s Big Hollywood entitled “Bond Forever, Bourne Forgotten” where John Scott Lewinski reports on Entertainment Weekly’s “All Time Coolest Heroes in Pop Culture.”
The list is a triumph for conservative values - with some notable exceptions. Placing Harry Potter at #4 was probably a sop to the success of the franchise but the “kids as heroes” theme is more suited to Saturday morning TV than iconic film making. True, Harry fights evil but the last couple of films he has demonstrated a debilitating introspection bordering on narcissism where he wonders whether he is, in fact, as evil as the dark lord who wants to kill him. As Potter reaches adolescence, he is cursed with the doubts and confusion that roil the psyche of most teenager’s and cause all kinds of trouble including bad decision making and an attraction to “the forbidden.” While this makes for excellent filmaking (the movies are an example of pop culture at its best), I question whether Potter should be included on such a heroic list.
Heroes do not question their motivations. By definition, moral clarity is is at the center of their heroic nature and is why the life lessons their deeds impart are so important. There are no tragic heroes in EW’s list which is probably as it should be. Hollywood’s Dream Machine has had our heroes living happily ever after for 100 years and any break with that tradition has been usually met with audience resistance.There are exceptions, of course, but few producers wish to back a project where a nearly pure hero meets their end.
There a few others on the list that should raise eyebrows including Nancy Drew (#17), Bufffy the Vampire Slayer from the TV series (#8), Roxy Brown, Pam Greir’s Blaxploitation film character (#13) and Sydney Bristow from Alias (#20). Not coincidentally, they are all women which, I believe, cheapens Ellen Ripley (Alien) high ranking (#5). Out of that bunch, I might have put Greir’s character in the bottom 5 and tossed the rest. It appears that an ubiquitous form of political correctness infected this list to some degree but not so much as to totally delegitimize it.
Others on the list are mis-ranked in my opinion. Jack Bauer at #16? Superman (Christopher Reeves) at a lofty #3? Christian Bale’s Batman at #18? And perhaps the most egregious mis-ranking of all - Gary Cooper’s Will Kane from High Noon at a lowly #14. By contrast, aside from the aforementioned Superman at a much too high #3, there is Han Solo at #7, Mad Max at #11 and Captain Kirk at #12. I would have crowded all of those selections somewhere near the bottom with the exception of Solo who I would place somewhere between 10-15.
Of course, it’s all in fun and we shouldn’t get too exercised over a few additions made for politically correct reasons or a few mis-rankings due, no doubt, to the personal preferences of EW editors.A few months ago I took a stab at a “heroes list” by developing my “10 Favorite Mythic Heroes of all Time.” The list was almost entirely made up of literary and legendary heroes with a couple of exceptions including John Wayne who appears nowhere on the EW list and featured the pulp fiction icon, Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter of Mars as my #1 mythic hero.
I didn’t consciously seek out mythic heroes who reflected my conservative values but my choices could hardly have been otherwise. Running down the EW list, I was amazed to find that to one degree or another, most of the icons on that list held to the best of conservative values to see them through their ordeals. Aside from having no trouble identifying which side they should be on in the struggle of good versus evil, most of the heroes on that list demonstrated core beliefs that are usually ascribed to conservatism.
Perhaps the most obvious trait in most of these heroes is their desire to bring order to chaos by battling the agents of evil. A related theme is their desire to preserve traditional society (or the status quo) as recognizable evil seeks to alter society (or community) for the worse. It bears mentioning here that conservatives are not against change as long as it is firmly rooted in values and traditions of the past. The change being sought by most of these heroe’s antagonists would be achieved after tearing down tradition and fomenting an alien way of life that would be demonstrably inferior to what it was replacing.
The “lone hero” motif is also prevalent among the chosen. This has been a staple of Hollywood for as long as the film industry has existed and hearkens to an American past where icons like Daniel Boone, Davey Crockett, Kit Carson, and the lone Mountain Man battled Mother Nature and native Americans in order to bring white civilization and justice to the frontier. One can argue how heroic in real life those men truly were but their mythic status, sealed by eastern writers in the cheap dime novels of the time (the “Hollywood” of the 19th century) who fictionalized their exploits to a public eager for American heroes, gave us larger than life figures to look up to and admire.
This kind of rugged individualism - in many cases on the list, man against “the system” or a pitiless bureaucracy - is perhaps the most celebrated conservative trait in American history. So it is not surprising that so many heroes in the EW rankings would be of that mold.
Our heroes on the list also celebrate a belief that human nature is a constant and that a just moral order is necessary for a society to survive. Evil exists because unless his passions are governed by enduring moral precepts, man gives into the temptation to try and dominate his fellows. This is what historian Page Smith referred to as a “Classical Christian Consciousness” that has been at the heart of conservatism since the founding of the republic. John McClane may be a foul mouthed lout, but his fight with terrorists is as much a battle against nihilism - a concept alien to his strong identity as a New York City cop - as it is to save his wife. Jack Bauer may be a thuggish brute but his sense of duty is eternally connected to his belief that society must be protected from the Visigoths that seek to sack and burn America.
This is not to say there are no heroic liberals in pop culture who probably should have been on that list. I would have included Neo from the Matrix franchise whose selflessness and desire to sacrifice himself for the greater good represents the best values that a classically liberal hero should aspire. Another liberal icon not on the list would be Jason Bourne (actually a totally made up character having little in common with the literary figure created by Robert Ludlum). But Bourne exhibits a brave and compelling sense of self sacrifice and personal morality even if he is wildly conflicted about the moral ambiguity of being an assassin.
And that brings me to the #1 hero on the EW list. James Bond is the anti-Bourne - at least as far as how the two characters have been transferred to celluloid. In his Big Hollywood piece, Lewinsky makes some salient points about the two heroes:
Damon or Greengrass seem obsessed with attacking the James Bond films and the character himself every chance they get. Mixing up a bitter soup of professional envy at Bond’s legacy and success, personal insecurity at producing movies beholden to Bond and (of course) self-righteous political arrogance, both artists froth at every opportunity to brand Ian Fleming’s creation a soulless killer. Ignoring Bond’s efforts to battle terrorism and global crime, they stamp him a militarist imperialist misogynist.
That’s a lot of “ist”s to heap on a fictional character, and the Damon/Greengrass vitriol festival seems unwilling to turn the same critical eye toward their own non-corporeal screen creation. While Robert Ludlum’s character is an impressive and skilled killing machine, the movie Bourne is gloomy, bitter, self-absorbed and motivated only by personal revenge and the desire to be left alone (a trait of questionable heroic value).
But Bourne fights predominantly middle-aged white men in suits who are part of the military and intelligence establishments. Combine that with the character’s inherent narcissism, and he’s the perfect screen hero for the hard left.
But EW left him out of their Top 20 — a decision that could indicate Bourne is already fading into also-ran spy status as Daniel Craig and the Bond franchise flourish
Ian Fleming and Robert Ludlum crafted the personaes of their two heroes in very different times. Ludlum especially would have been horrifically disappointed in the way Hollywood brought his brooding, conflicted, and yet gentle and compassionate David Webb/Jason Bourne to the screen.
The most egregious sin was making Bourne a real assassin and not the CIA cutout who was created to smoke out the world’s #1 terrorist - Carlos the Jackal. Ludlum, an actor and producer, had little or no knowledge of real CIA operations which is why his villains always worked for rogue elements in the government and intelligence services usually manipulated by some faceless corporation. But the cutout Bourne (who never assassinated anyone, only taking credit for the killings by others through a complex gaming of the terrorist underworld), battled inner demons caused by his amnesia more than any regret at the lives he was forced to take when he went on the run with his beloved Marie. It was she (who he ended up marrying and not leaving at the bottom of some river in India) who never stopped believing that at bottom, he was a good man and not a cold killer. (See the miniseries The Bourne Identity from 1988 which is more faithful to the literary Bourne in many respects but which suffers by featuring the rather tepid performance of Richard Chamberlain in the title role.)
By contrast, the last two actors to play James Bond have nearly gotten the character right (and the early Sean Connery efforts also reflected an identity closer to Fleming’s vision than the clowns who played him subsequently). Both Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig have a certain coldness about them that Fleming would have accepted. Brosnan was a little more playful than the literary Bond but had a much more pronounced sense of fatalism than any other actor who has portrayed the icon. Craig, on the other hand, obviously read and absorbed the literary Bond better than all of them; The sense of danger when he enters the room (that was an aphrodisiac to women), the smoldering violence that exists just below the surface, and a Jack Bauer-like sense of duty all combine to make Craig’s portrayal ring truer than other Bond portrayals on screen.
But the movie icons Bourne and Bond also reflect differences in the cultural touchstones each uses to exhibit their heroic qualities. Early incarnations of the screen bond fought the criminal enterprise SPECTRE which exceeded even the KGB in evil intent. Only later did Bond join the cold war and battle communists which is not inherently a conservative motif but given the times, certainly represented the thinking of most conservatives as opposed to most liberals. Bond was battling the evil of communism and, like Jack Bauer, had a clear moral mandate to kill while fighting that war.
Bourne, on the other hand, kills solely in self defense and not for any greater good - unless you believe exposing CIA operations a “greater good” as most on the left clearly do. There is also no moral certitude in what he does unless you consider his personal desire for revenge against those who “turned him into an assassin” after he had volunteered to be one a moral justification for going after Treadstone and Blackbriar. Bourne becomes the epitome of liberal angst and uncertainty by first, wanting to apologize to the families of his victims and on top of that, refusing to take personal responsibility for his own life choices in volunteering to “save American lives” by becoming a killer. It’s not his fault he’s an assassin. It’s Treadstone’s. And while this loopy logic might sit well with many on the left, it weakens his moral arguments to take down the rogue operations while negating any claim Bourne might have to the kind of moral superiority over his enemies that Bond clearly demonstrates.
Bond does not lose sleep over killing his targets although his internal conflicts are paralyzing at times. I think that Judi Dench’s “M” is the perfect foil for Craig’s Bond in that she appears to program Bond to carry out his missions by expertly pushing his psychological buttons. In the end, Bond performs and succeeds due to his own innate abilities and trust that his cause is just. It is anachronistic in these times but that’s what makes him so effective. Inevitably, his belief in himself is his greatest weapon.
Admittedly, Bond is #1 more because of enduring popularity of the films and legendary status of the character, not because his actions are animated by conservative principles. But for all the complaining we conservatives do about Hollywood not making movies with conservative themes, the “coolest heroes” on the Entertainment Weekly’s list remind us that such is not always the case.