The Death of the Noble Hero

The 70’s was…the “Golden Age” of disaster movies

All through that decade, Hollywood churned out these movies like clockwork. Disasters, natural or man-made, were central to the story. Big budgets were accompanied by aging superstars and cheesy special effects (these were pre-CGI days). Here’s a list:

  • Airport (1970, with Dean Martin, Burt Lancaster), followed by:
    • Airport ’75 (released, curiously, in 1974, with Charlton Heston)
    • Airport ’77 (with Jack Lemmon, James Stewart, Christopher Lee)
    • Airport ’79 (with Alain Delon, Robert Wagner and the Concorde)
  • The Poseidon Adventure (1972, with Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine)
  • The Towering Inferno (1974, with Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Fred Astaire, Robert Vaughn), arguably one of the best of these films, nominated for 8 Oscars
  • Earthquake (1974, with Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner)
  • The Cassandra Crossing (1976, with Richard Harris, Sophia Loren, Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner)
  • Rollercoaster (1977, with George Segal)
  • Meteor (1979, with Sean Connery, Natalie Wood, Henry Fonda)
  • There were a few more like Avalanche (1978), City On Fire (1979) and Hurricane (1979), disasters themselves, rounding off the types of disasters

[A mention here of our own Bollywood’s very creditable tribute to the disaster genre, at the end of that decade, was Ravi Chopra’s well-made The Burning Train (1980), starring Dharmendra, Vinod Khanna, Jeetendra, Hema Malini, Parveen Babi and Neetu Singh]

These films were part of my initiation into the magical realm of cinema. Whether good or bad, I have fondly nostalgic memories of them. The 70’s were my childhood, and back then only big-star, big-budget films like these made it to theaters in India (no VHS tapes, DVDs or video streaming back then). My parents were big fans of Hollywood and we enjoyed going out to watch these movies when they released on the big screen.

The “Noble” Hero is…just doing his job

Hero: any common person, placed in uncommonly difficult circumstances, who displays uncommonly noble character.

– Anonymous

All these movies above had one thing in common – A noble hero. This was the main protagonist, an ordinary man an airport manager (Burt Lancaster in Airport), an architect (Paul Newman in The Towering Inferno), a priest (Gene Hackman in The Poseidon Adventure), an ex-footballer turned corporate guy (Charlton Heston in Earthquake), a neurologist (Richard Harris in The Cassandra Crossing), a scientist/engineer (Sean Connery in Meteor), and so on. As the disaster happened the noble hero rose to the occasion to save many people, occasionally family or love interests, but more often complete strangers. Sometimes he even sacrificed himself to save others.

Why do I call him “noble“? A disaster happens. An ordinary man finds himself in the middle of things. Sometimes he voluntarily throws himself into it. He has no special military, survival or medical skills, but he does it anyway. He feels it’s his job, his moral duty to step up.  He does it because he is there and because it because it needs to be done.

A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson (American poet, 1803-1882)

The 90’s: Heroes, not so ordinary men, still doing their jobs

As the 90’s began, disaster movies introduced a different breed of heroes. Speed (1994) had Keanu Reeves and Jeff Daniels as daredevil SWAT policemen, Outbreak (1995) where Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo and Kevin Spacey are selfless military doctors fighting a dangerous, highly infectious epidemic, Independence Day (1996) with Will Smith, fighter pilot, and Bill Pullman, POTUS and ex-fighter pilot, dog-fighting alien crafts, Daylight (1996) in which Sylvester Stallone is an ex-EMS chief and jumps into a collapsed tunnel to save trapped citizens. An earlier movie was Die Hard (1988) – while not a disaster movie, it had Bruce Willis’ NY cop on holiday in LA getting stuck in a skyscraper fighting the bad guys, with his wife as one of the hostages. There were family or love interests, but they were not central to the plot.

This was the first, smaller change we saw in the 90’s – the hero was often no longer an ordinary man (pilot, architect, doctor). He was now a hardened professional action guy (cop, military doctor, air force pilot) who finds himself in a disaster scenario, and then uses his special training, skills and experience to save the day. Its as if Hollywood decided that ordinary men could no longer be counted on to be heroes!

Later in the 90’s, we saw the second, larger shift. This was the change in the primary motivation for the hero’s heroic actions. Now the stories started introducing situations in which the his loved ones were in danger. This trend started softly – consider Volcano (1997, which has Tommy Lee Jones saving his daughter from the situations she lands herself in, as lava bursts out everywhere in LA) or Armageddon (1998, in which Bruce Willis takes up an asteroid-busting assignment arguably to save his daughter, and later her fiancée). Of course, there were other factors like the hero’s innate nobility and/or his sense of duty. But the primary motivation shifted towards saving his loved ones. These scenarios started becoming became central to the plot. Makes one wonder – if their daughters hadn’t been in danger, what would these fathers have been doing?

2000 and after: the reason to be a hero

In our age, self-indulgence and self-destruction, rather than self-sacrifice, are the foundations for new heroic myths.

– Dean Koontz (American author, b.1945, in “Brother Odd”, 2006)

In this millennium, the second shift has become more pronounced. Ironically in post-9/11 America, the plot focus of disaster films shifted from the disaster to the family rescue. The disaster itself became almost irrelevant, providing context for the CGI special effects that would decorate the movie, the backdrop of the hero’s quest to save his family. The Day After Tomorrow (2004) had Dennis Quaid trekking across ice and snow after massive storms have ravaged Earth to rescue his son. 2005’s War of The Worlds had Spielberg reinterpreting the H G Wells classic into an odyssey about Tom Cruise and his kids. 28 Weeks Later (2007), the sequel to the superb and graphic 28 Days Later (2002, by Danny Boyle), succumbed and became about the kids. Even the Ice Age franchise couldn’t hold out – after Ice Age (2002) and Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006), 2009’s Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs became about Manny’s (the woolly mammoth voiced by Ray Romano) efforts to make things safer for his pregnant wife, Ellie (voiced by Queen Latifah).

In recent years, this theme has become even more repetitive:

  • 2012 (2009): global geological disaster, John Cusack saving his son
  • Knowing (2009): global disaster, Nicolas Cage & Rose Byrne saving the kids
  • Into The Storm (2014): biggest storm systems ever, Richard Armitage has to find and save his elder son who’s trapped in building wrecked by a tornado
  • Interstellar (2014): global agri-disaster had even Chris Nolan turning this film into one about familial love across space, time & dimensions
  • San Andreas (2015): California super-quake, Dwayne Johnson’s efforts to rescue his daughter
  • The Fifth Wave (2016): world being destroyed by aliens, older sister and her boyfriend search for younger brother
  • Beyond Skyline (2017): world being destroyed by aliens, Frank Grillo inserts himself into an alien spaceship to rescue his son (this sequel’s plot degraded substantially from Skyline (2010), in which a group of stranded strangers come together to fight aliens to survive)
  • Skyscraper (2018): world’s tallest building on fire, Dwayne Johnson saving his family trapped inside

Heroes available…but the noble hero is dead

Extreme heroism springs from something that no scientific theory can fully explain; it’s an illogical impulse that flies in the face of biology, psychology, actuarial statistics, and basic common sense.

– Christopher McDougall (American author and journalist, b.1962)

A noble heroic act is an irrational act. It is selfless, voluntary, done for someone else in need, involves substantial risk and provides no material gain or compensation. An ordinary man performing a noble heroic act is, first and foremost, selfless.

But if the hero’s family is in danger then are his actions selfless? No so much. Scientists have a term for this – its called kin selection, which Wikipedia explains as an “evolutionary strategy that favours the reproductive success of an organism’s relatives, even at a cost to the organism’s own survival and reproduction”. So, while the disaster itself may be improbable, Hollywood needs to provide the audience with a believable explanation for the the hero’s actions. The question arises: Why?

In today’s society, selfishness is expected behavior. We understand this, we expect this. On the other hand, selflessness surprises us. In our minds we ask the question: “Why is he doing this? What’s in it for him?”. We’re unable to comprehend or accept noble heroic acts. We’re unable to believe actions that provide no benefit to a selfless hero.

Big-budget commerce always exploits current social thinking and mindsets. This is also true for Hollywood disaster movies, which reflect our subliminal cynicism about the noble hero. In order to sell, these movies need to put the hero’s loved ones in danger to explain his actions and make him believable.

So ultimately its our cynicism that killed the noble hero. I miss him.

~ ~ ~

PS: Heroes are women and men. I’ve used the male gender above for ease of prose only. As Maya Angelou famously said, “How important it is for us to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes“.

Edit, 08-Jan-2019:

Saw this in the Economist Espresso, and it fits here!

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