Heroes and anti-heroes

The orthodox approach to telling a story on the screen is prot­ag­onist centered. Look at the needs, obstacles and goals of your hero to find your plot, we are constantly being told. Unfor­tu­nately, a conven­tional hero often gives rise to a conven­tional story, anodyne and unmemorable.

While there is no point in denying that we will always be attracted to the hero figure, the archetypal center­piece of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”, our admir­a­tion has its limits. The Hero belongs to the Classic Story (see Intro­du­cing Story Struc­ture ) and is supposedly based on our intrinsic belief that we are all ‘good people’. That may be true but it ignores the fact we are also human and fallible – we want to believe we are good, but we have our doubts.  Are we really worthy? The Anti-Hero reflects those doubts.

The Anti Hero

What is an anti-hero? The bald answer is any prot­ag­onist of a book, film, or play who is lacking in ‘heroic’ qual­ities.  Morally ambiguous, weak-willed, desperate, flawed – these are the traits of an anti-hero.

You may think the anti-hero is a modern phenomenon, a product of exist­en­tial angst and modern man’s sense of alien­a­tion and futility, but in fact, he’s been around for a long time. Classic examples include Cervantes’s Don Quixote and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones.

Don Quixote 1992

Orson Welles, who was a kind of anti-hero himself, struggled to make the films he wanted against odds that would have defeated most people.

Most of his projects took years and were largely financed by the fairly inferior acting work he took on in his later years.

His version of Don Quixote remains unfin­ished at the time of his death and was assembled from existing footage by other hands supposedly according to his wishes.

The result has been heavily criti­cised and is certainly flawed but still has a kind of grandeur – fitting for a director who spent his life tilting at windmills.


Schmuck or rebel?

Anti-heroes can be comic figures, like Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, or tragic like Albert Camus’ L’Etranger. They can be schmucks or intel­li­gent rebels, they can have Byronic good looks or be short and swarthy like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate.

Their essen­tial role is that of the outsider or outcast, those who swim against the tide. They can be angry about the world but their most empath­etic quality is that they tend to be lacking in self-pity.

WithnailThese are flawed char­ac­ters who make no excuses for their flaws. The prerequisite of any anti-hero is self-acceptance and a heroic atti­tude towards life, often in the face of humi­li­ation and defeat. They are unashamed of who they are.

We may like heroic figures but it seems that creating a successful anti-hero is far more likely to guar­antee you fame and cultural influ­ence – even if it’s not always the kind you might welcome (like J.D.Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, a peren­nial favourite of killers and the mentally disturbed).

In the cinema,  some of the most influ­en­tial films in each decade feature anti-heroes of one kind or another. In America films like The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider made a big cultural impact in the ’60s; just as Five Easy Pieces and A Fistful Of Dollars did the same in the ’70s, albeit for very different reasons. Simil­arly, in Britain, With­nail and I in the ’80s and Train­spot­ting in the ’90s became instant cults with audiences.

The Anti-Hero’s Journey by Kal Bashir

Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey describes a supposed proto-story form in terms of the progres­sion of the Hero. It has been tremend­ously influ­en­tial, George Lucas used the sixteen stage template when writing Star Wars. Here is a modi­fied version showing the progress of the Anti-Hero.

Stories involving an anti-hero mirror the Hero’s Journey template. The differ­ence between hero, anti-hero and other vari­ations  lies in situ­ation, motiv­a­tion and result.

Where the hero’s Ordinary World is idyllic (Lord of the Rings, 2003), the anti-hero’s world is uncom­fort­able and riddled with conflict (Raging Bull, 1980).

Where the hero embarks on adven­ture for altru­istic reasons (Willow, 1988), the anti-hero embarks for selfish reasons.

Where the hero has good mentors (Lord of the Rings, 2003), the anti-hero has dark mentors (Raging Bull, 1980).

Where the hero resists dark tempta­tions, the anti-hero gives in to them (Scar­face, 1983).

Where the hero may sacri­fice himself to prevent harm to others (Superman, 1978), the anti-hero will consciously set out to do harm (Good­fellas, 1990).

Where the hero will evolve (at the stage of the Trans­form­a­tion or Road of Trials), the anti-hero will regress.

Where the hero will achieve synergy (at the stage of the Ulti­mate Boon), the anti-hero will achieve alienation.

Where the hero’s allies will come to his aid, the anti-hero’s allies will betray.

Where the hero’s gain is tangible and prized, the anti-hero’s gain is dubious (Scar­face, 1983).

The Swimmer 1968

Based on a short story by John Cheever, the hero (Burt Lancaster) is ostens­ibly a classic hero; hand­some, wealthy, a good husband and father; but gradu­ally this self-deceiving veneer is chipped away.

Lancaster brings nobility to the role and gives the character’s flaws a tragic dimension.

Fort Apache The Bronx 1981

This is a great example of how a classic hero can be made more human and sympath­etic when he is given some attrib­utes of the anti-hero. Paul Newman is an actor who made a career out of playing sympath­etic anti-heroes like this (Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy).

In this genre movie Newman’s char­acter is a maverick, hard-drinking but honest cop – so far, so conven­tional. His will­ing­ness to act the clown, however, demon­strates that ‘standing on your dignity’ is not always neces­sary for a classic hero. It’s a great human­ising device, one that wins our affec­tion and admiration.

Electra Glide in Blue 1973

Robert Blake plays John Winter­green, a dimin­utive motor­cycle cop, (“the same height as Audie Murphy”) who is on a quest to make himself into a hero.

Winter­green is a classic Candide figure, an inno­cent, constantly looking for a role model and failing to find one. In this scene, his hopes are dashed again as his tall, impress­ively ‘cool’ boss is exposed by his girl­friend as not quite living up to his image.

Charlie Bubbles 1967

Albert Finney directed this film about a char­acter who has, in a real sense, come ‘to the end of himself’. His prot­ag­onist is a successful working class novelist (not an actor – though there is prob­ably an element of auto­bi­o­graphy) who has lost connec­tion with his roots and lacks any sense of purpose or direction.

Finney plays a hero whose sense of anomie and alien­a­tion are almost para­lysing, and this scene of a reluctant seduc­tion perfectly encap­su­lates his wear­i­ness with the world.

The Wild One 1953

This iconic film about youthful rebel­lion is diffi­cult to see with fresh eyes but, if you try, the inar­tic­u­late­ness and charisma of Brando’s char­acter somehow tran­scend the movie’s lowly ambi­tions and its many false notes.

The anti-hero, rather like the other char­ac­ters, cannot commu­nicate but then essen­tially he does not need to – what he has is uniquely his own. Film is possibly the only medium that could have turned such a char­acter into a legend.

Making It 1970

Kris­toffer Tabori plays a new kind of 1970’s anti-hero, a teenage kid with a neur­otic mother who is already a hustler and sexual pred­ator. Tabori’s char­acter rejects the hippy-dippy values of the ’60s in favour of money and sex.

Although the film is in many ways a conven­tional morality tale, it has some memor­able scenes. In this sequence, after sleeping with the sexu­ally frus­trated wife of the school sports coach, he spars with his English teacher; attacking the book Catcher In The Rye which had already become some­thing of a sacred cow.

Seven Beau­ties 1975

Lina Wertmuller’s seedy gang­ster is a classic anti-hero, cowardly and unlike­able, but with a gift for survival. Despite the oper­atic touches in this scene, Gian­carlo Gian­nini wrings real pathos from it.

His char­acter is oppor­tun­istic, vain and weak; but undeni­ably human in a world that is depicted as monstrous and insane; and there­fore it enlists our sympathies.

Falling Down 1993

Michael Douglas portrays the journey of a frus­trated pencil pusher from underdog to police suspect. The change is gradual and persuasive so we share his confu­sion when he real­ises he has become “the bad guy”.

The plot tests our credu­lity at times – as when Douglas ‘acci­dent­ally’ finds a bag of weapons left over from a gang fight – but it makes up for it with moments of humour and insight. Who isn’t sympath­etic to an anti-hero who shares our anger with the double stand­ards and callous­ness of corporate America?

Les Valseuses 1974

This portrait of two petty thieves, layabouts and general ‘no-gooders’ wins us over through the sheer energy and youth of its prot­ag­on­ists and their complete lack of any preten­sions. ( The title liter­ally trans­lates as The Dog’s Bollocks, I’ve been told)

Mapant­sula 1988

Oliver Schmitz’s story of a small-time hood (Tsotsi) who becomes politi­cised after he is arrested by the police is one of very few films made in the apartheid era of South Africa that has both integ­rity and subtlety.

Under­stated and natur­al­istic, it is a genuine rarity for the eighties, when so many well-intentioned films about South Africa were weighed down by didacti­cism and bombastic rhetoric.

Conrack 1974

John Voight plays a determ­inedly uncon­ven­tional teacher in this film adapt­a­tion of a best selling book. We’ve seen the story many times before but rarely with such charm and originality.

This is an anti-hero who does fight the estab­lish­ment; a rebel with a positive agenda. On the spec­trum of anti-heroes, the like­able variety is, of course, the most palat­able and popular but that only under­lines the import­ance of the breed to the Holly­wood canon.

The Reck­oning 1969

Nicol Willi­amson plays a working-class lad with a chip on his shoulder, brash, aggressive and unlike­able, but true to himself and his roots. The plot of The Reck­oning resembles Get Carter with a man returning to his home town to avenge the death of a family member.

Working class anti-heroes were very much part of the myth­o­logy of the 60’s: John Osborne’s Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger, Joe Lampton in Room At The Top,  Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night, Sunday Morning. (John Lennon even wrote a song about them).

Essen­tially these heroes are outsiders – char­ac­ters who ‘don’t fit in’ because of their class. Oh, and let’s not forget that Albert Finney, Tom Courtney and Michael Caine, the actors who played these roles, were working class heroes of a kind, actors from the provinces who over­came the class snob­bery that was rife in the ’60s.

Reuben, Reuben 1989

Gowan McGland (Tom Conti) is a minor Scot­tish poet, an alco­holic and woman­iser, who ekes out a living by doing read­ings to cultural groups in small Amer­ican towns.

Although he is a charming and indefatig­able rogue, this comedy is saved from terminal whimsy by a dark streak of melan­choly running through it. McGland knows his own weak­nesses; they trouble him, and the ending of the film has a nicely ironic twist in keeping with its subject matter.

Little Noises 1992

Crispin Glover plays an aspiring writer with no talent, and seem­ingly no aptitude, clinging desper­ately to his preten­sions amongst other New York ‘arty’ aspir­a­tionals in this barbed portrait of an ‘artist as a young man’.

Glover’s char­acter has few redeeming qual­ities except for the kind­ness he shows to an autistic young man whose poetry he even­tu­ally steals and passes off as his own.

This is not another Amer­ican story of redemp­tion, almost the opposite. The merit of the film and his perform­ance is that no excuse is made for him and the cost of his self-betrayal is always made clear.

They Shoot Horses Don’t They 1969

Set in the depres­sion era this was, in one sense, the ‘Hunger Games’ of its day; a film about the gruelling and soul-destroying mara­thon dance contests that were a feature of those times. Jane Fonda’s perform­ance as the spiky, tough-talking, Gloria is perfectly balanced by Michael Sarrazin’s dreamy farm boy.

They are both misfits and, according to the merci­less judge­ment of the Amer­ican canon, ‘losers’ who cannot get a break. They are also young and victims of the cynical manip­u­la­tion of powers beyond their control – some­thing that reson­ated with the 60’s generation.

Nurse Jackie 2009

She cheats, she lies, she uses drugs – but she’s also a gifted and compas­sionate nurse who saves lives and has everyone’s respect. Jackie Peyton, as played by the talented Edie Falco, is a mass of contra­dic­tions but no less fascin­ating because of it.

This is one of the first tv drama series to feature a prot­ag­onist who is self-destructive without all the usual attention-grabbing show­i­ness. In series after series, she tries to change herself and ends up failing. It’s a universal human problem we can all relate to and the main reason for the show’s success.

The Night­comers 1971

Marlon Brando made a career out of playing outcasts and under­stood how to bring his charisma even to roles that were not worthy of it. Here he plays Peter Quint in a prequel to Henry James gothic ghost story A Turn of The Screw.

The film, directed by Michael Winner, was very 70’s in its sensa­tion­alism with scenes of sexual bondage and Brando’s perform­ance may not have been of the finest calibre but there’s some­thing of a neces­sary ‘screw you’ atti­tude in playing anti-heroes which only certain troubled and trouble­some actors do really convincingly.

The Heart is A Lonely Hunter 1968

Adapted from the Carson McCullers novel, the prot­ag­onist of this story John Singer (Alan Arkin), is deaf and mute and tries to help the people around him. He rents a bedroom in a small Southern town and strikes up a friend­ship with the teenage daughter of his landlord.

Singer has some of the attrib­utes of the Holy Fool arche­type in that he is essen­tially a good-hearted man trying to make his way. He is not a schmuck (an aggressive fool) and so that makes him and his atti­tude to life heroic.

The Whisperers 1967

Directed by Bryan Forbes, this is a study of an elderly woman (Edith Evans) living on her own who might be seen as piti­able except that her wilful and eccentric char­acter refuses to be pitied.

She lives in her own little world and mainly copes with it admir­ably, shoring it up with fantasy when it lets her down. An example of how the every day can also become heroic.

Daphne 2017

The prot­ag­onist of Daphne is typical of a new breed of millen­nial anti-heroes and very much cut from the same cloth as the prot­ag­onist of the highly successful tv series Fleabag. Both feature young profes­sional women who are not in steady rela­tion­ships and doing poorly paid jobs that waste their talent.

Both are crit­ical of men and impa­tient with male hypo­crisy and shy away from emotional attach­ment. They are undis­cip­lined and unfocused in their lives and use sex as a form of release along with alcohol and drugs. Despite the modern trap­pings of mobile phones and Tinder hook-ups, these char­ac­ters aren’t that dissim­ilar from Godard’s heroines with their exist­en­tial angst or even the self-destructive hedonist that Diane Keaton plays in Looking for Mr Goodbar (1977). They are in rebel­lion against the values of their parents and looking for a truth of their own but reluctant to settle for whatever is on offer.

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