The Lost Action Hero

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 3, 2006

Fifty years ago, the reigning American action hero was a onetime college football player with hands the size of ham hocks and the sweetness of a drill sergeant with a hernia. In his greatest role, he shot the eyes out of a dead Indian, scalped another, called his young mentee "Blankethead" and not only didn't get the gal, he didn't get a damned thing. He ended up exiled, alone, to wander between the winds. Our last shot of him shows the door of civilization slamming shut, and he's still on the outside.

That was, of course, John Wayne in John Ford's great "The Searchers" of 1956, and how long ago it seems. There's no one on the scene now who can stand next to the Big Guy, but at the same time, few would want to. Wayne was, in words not invented for him by D.H. Lawrence but so appropriate: "hard, isolate, stoic and a killer." That sort of tendency toward destruction has all but left the screen now, though it had a long run. As late at the '70s, Clint Eastwood could build a major career out of a stoic, lonely killer named Dirty Harry and become iconic for his willingness to shoot to kill.

He had something else as well, and it's the missing ingredient from today's movies: He knew it was all right to be hated. Hollywood historian David Thomson once called Wayne "the crown prince of difficult men." The stars of his generation knew that the price of heroism, of domination, of certitude, of command, was loneliness -- or possibly, since they were so disconnected from their emotions they'd never acknowledge such a thing -- aloneness.

Look at Gregory Peck in, say, "Twelve O'Clock High" or Clark Gable in "Command Decision," two movies of leadership agonistes set against the strategic bombing missions of World War II. In both cases -- you could add dozens more -- they were men who made decisions that cost other men their lives; they were hated, even loathed; they lived and drank alone. Their courage wasn't physical, it was almost metaphysical. They had the strength within themselves to ignore (though not really; underneath it cut bad) the will of the consensus and pleadings for such shady attributes as "compassion" and "humanity." They knew the job came first.

That certitude had vanished from many places, but nowhere more vividly than the top of the guy star pile in Hollywood.

Mel Gibson, who played an action hero, seems to have morphed into director, producer and madman, melting down in a pool of seething angers and resentments. Then there's Tom Cruise, recently dumped by Paramount for (1) personal oddnesses and (2) delivering a movie that may only make $400 million worldwide when everyone knew it should have made $500 million. Down but not out, each actor, you can bet, will hasten to a film highlighting redemption, earnestness, decency and love of fellow man. Don't bet on either guy's next movie to co-star a submachine gun. In short, they're no longer going to be John Ford heroes but Frank Capra heroes. Mel in "Mr. Goldstein Goes to Washington." Cruise in "Meet Tom Doe, Episcopalian Social Worker."

So who's left? Almost nobody. Eastwood is too old to kick you know what, Arnold is too Republican. Harrison Ford is ancient, Sylvester Stallone too kitschy as well as too old.

Let's look at a younger generation: Matt Damon? Folks, folks, I was only joking. Good God, Johnny Depp? Well, possibly his potential as an action hero was summed up when no less an important cultural figure than John Mark Karr revealed he had hoped Depp would play him in the movie. Ben Affleck? Too pretty, really. Leonardo DiCaprio? Again, I joke! Mark Wahlberg? Hmmm, we'll have to wait and see.

Where have all the action heroes gone? They certainly haven't gone to be soldiers; no, they've gone to be sensitive, not so much in the touchy-feely way, but in that way that strikes at their essence.

They no longer dominate.

That's really what the action hero had in spades, and, according to the script, it made other men fear, respect and obey him; and it made women fear, respect and obey him. (You'll note that love had nothing to do with it.)

In one sense, he was abusive. Look at "The Searchers" through a lens of modern revisionism and you see quite a bit of ugliness in Wayne's great Ethan Edwards. He was racist, he was a bully, a tyrant, the father a son could never impress. Quick to anger, slow to forgive, given to spasms of violence. Perhaps Ford's last best message to us was the ferocity by which, through Ethan Edwards, he de-idealized the hero. It was as if, like Wayne, he sailed into a mellower old age parodying and sweetening the rage that had made him so great, yet so distant, but not before he told us: These guys were great. And they were necessary. And they were heroic. But they were also mean sons o'guns, cruel and masterful and dominating, and if you got on their wrong side, they made you pay.


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