Thursday, July 10, 2008

"Can I do less?"

James Bowman on Hollywood's failure to provide audiences with the films they would really like to see:
...American movies have forgotten how to portray heroism, while a large part of their disappearing audience still wants to see celluloid heroes. I mean real heroes, unqualified heroes, not those who have dominated American cinema over the past 30 years and who can be classified as one of three types: the whistle-blower hero, the victim hero, and the cartoon or superhero. The heroes of most of last year’s flopperoos belonged to one of the first two types, although, according to Scott, the only one that made any money, “The Kingdom,” starred “a team of superheroes” on the loose in Saudi Arabia. What kind of box office might have been done by a movie that offered up a real hero?
There’s no way of telling, because there haven’t been any real movie heroes for a generation. This fact has been disguised from us partly because of the popularity of the superhero but also because Hollywood has continued to make war movies and Westerns, the biggest generators of movie heroism, that are superficially similar to those of the past but different in ways that are undetectable to their mostly young audiences, who have no memory of anything else. ....

[I]t is “3:10 to Yuma” that offers the most interesting contrast between the old-fashioned sort of Western and the new breed. It was a remake of a movie first made in 1957, directed by Delmer Daves and starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin. Like so many other Westerns of the period, it was a parable of the heroism of the ordinary people who brought civilization, peace, and prosperity to the Wild West. Heflin’s character, Dan Evans, is a simple farmer in danger of losing his farm to drought who, for the $200 it would take to pay the mortgage, accepts the task of escorting Ford’s Ben Wade, a dangerous killer, to catch the eponymous train to trial. At a moment when it looks as if he is sure to die in the attempt, Evans explains to his wife that he is no longer escorting the prisoner for the money but as a civic duty. “The town drunk gave his life because he thought people should be able to live in peace and decency together,” he said. “Can I do less?”

Needless to say, there is no comparable line in the remake. The Dan Evans of 2007, played by Christian Bale, is an almost helpless victim, a Civil War veteran who lost his leg in a friendly-fire incident and whose motivation would remain merely mercenary but for the fact that, like us, he is meant to become rather fond of Crowe’s fascinating Wade—and vice versa. James Mangold, the director of the remake, has turned it into a meet-cute buddy picture. In the original, Evans stands four-square for due process and saves Wade from a vigilante. Ford’s Wade, having the rough sense of frontier honor of old-fashioned Western villains, repays the favor, even at the cost of having to make the train. He doesn’t like owing anything to anyone, he says. The remake ends with a general shootout in which it is unclear why anyone, especially Wade, does what he does. Poor Evans remains only a victim. ....

...[T]he American movie hero—who once so impressed the world that he personified heroism for people far beyond our borders—has been missing in action for decades. From the days of Tom Mix and other silent-screen cowboys up until the 1970s, America’s heroes were the world’s heroes. During and after World War II, real-life heroes themselves often looked to the likes of John Wayne or Gary Cooper to see what a hero was supposed to look and act like. Such men hardly exist anymore, except in old movies. .... [more]

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