The Peter Principles: Heroes and villains

By PETER ROFF, United Press International  |  June 5, 2003 at 5:48 PM
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WASHINGTON, June 5 (UPI) -- The United States is the world's lone remaining superpower. Few if any nations or blocs represent a real challenge to its status.

Not since ancient Rome has one nation, one culture, one civilization been so dominant in world affairs as America is today. With that dominance, of course, comes enormous responsibility, something the United States has not always handled with the required care.

In the Roman model, it is about more than the projection of overwhelming military power. It is being the dominant force in worldwide political, economic and cultural affairs. That the United States fits that description is something few would bother to debate.

Particular care should be paid to the cultural aspects. Films and television programs are among the United States' leading exports. For good or bad they are a major influence on people living in other countries in the development of their ideas about the United States.

As part of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the art of film making the American Film Institute asked 1,500 industry leaders to choose the 100 greatest movie heroes and villains from among a list of 400 characters.

The jury included those directors, actors and screenwriters who make films and those, like critics and historians, who evaluate their place in the national culture.

Given the concerns many leading cultural critics have expressed about how the American way of life is portrayed on film, the list is somewhat surprising. To over-simplify that analysis, business leaders, soldiers and politicians are bad. Being a workingman, an underdog or being an anti-establishment rebel is good.

For purposes of putting the lists together, a hero was defined as a character "who prevails in extreme circumstances and dramatizes a sense of morality, courage and purpose. Though they may be ambiguous or flawed, they often sacrifice themselves to show humanity at its best."

Villains, for voting purposes, were those "whose wickedness of mind, selfishness of character and will to power are sometimes masked by beauty and nobility, while other may rage unmasked."

Topping the hero list was Atticus Finch, played in the film version of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Gregory Peck. As a lawyer defending a black man unjustly accused of rape in a racially divided Alabama town during the 1930s, Finch is a paragon of virtue and tolerance.

Atop the list of villains is psychiatrist-come-cannibal Dr. Hannibal Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins in "The Silence of the Lambs." Lecter is not portrayed as a representative of the American medical community so much as he shown as a random maniac.

Of the top 10 heroes, three -- including Will Kane, the sheriff in "High Noon" -- could arguably be called representatives of law enforcement. Another two, Indiana Jones in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and T. E. Lawrence of "Lawrence of Arabia," would best be classified as adventurers.

Others on the hero list, including expatriate Rick Blaine in "Casablanca," Rocky Balboa in "Rocky" and Ellen Ripley of "Aliens" defy easy classification.

The biggest surprise may be the inclusion of a businessman: George Bailey, the Jimmy Stewart character from Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life." In today's Hollywood, business leaders are all too often shown in a negative light, cast as the obvious or implied villain in many situations.

Mr. Potter, the evil banker who tried to ruin Bailey and drive the Bailey Building and Loan out of business is No. 6 on the list of villains. Potter is the anti-Bailey and is much more typical of the way business leaders are shown in today's films.

The tycoon on the villain list is Gordon Gekko. As portrayed by Michael Douglas in "Wall Street," Gekko represents everything Oliver Stone, the left-liberal creative power behind the film, believes was wrong with American business when it was made in the 1980s.

Gekko, with his "Greed is Good" mantra, is the archetypal business leader, selfish and driven to wreck lives and businesses in his pursuit of ever-greater wealth. He is, in real life terms, much more the exception rather than the rule. For those whose views of American business are shaped by such movies, his is a poisonous example.

Also on the list of heroes are two military leaders, one of who, George C. Scott's "Patton," was originally supposed to be presented in a way to generate support for the anti-war position. Also on the list, a priest, "The Ten Commandments"' Moses, a few more cops, superheroes and Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein from "All the President's Men."

Some of the choices, particularly Patton and Dirty Harry's Harry Callahan, are surprising given the general understanding of Hollywood mores gained most recently in the pre-Iraq war period.

The anti-war left is alive and well in Hollywood and frequently peppers its films with anti-war, anti-police messages. Indeed, most of the police and police-like characters on the list are cut form the anti-establishment, fight the system cloth. Clint Eastwood's Harry Callahan, as the film's advertising made clear, had his own code, his own view of what constituted justice that was often brutal and deadly.

Callahan is not the kind of cop one might expect Hollywood-types to describe as heroic, even when the broad definition of the term used by AFI in the voting is considered. There are those who would argue that the inclusion of the Callahan character at No. 17 on the list of top 50 heroes amounts to a tacit endorsement of the example he sets in the film and its many sequels, something the Hollywood liberals would not be expected to do.

Most of the 50 villains are over-the-top, cartoon-like caricatures defy categorization. They are monsters, space aliens, one computer, criminals and Mafiosi and, of course, the unnamed hunter who shot Bambi's mother.

The AFI says the jury was asked to select characters who "have made a mark on American society in matters of style and substance" and who "elicit strong reacts across time, enriching America's film heritage."

No list of 100 characters can supplant the tens of thousands who have appeared on screen over the first 100 years of the U.S. film industry. There are many examples, here unmentioned, who represent gross distortions of the American way of life. To some critics, these distortions may have badly damaged how those living outside the United States view life here. Nevertheless, the heroes on the list generally represent what is best about America while also being good box office.

If there are some people in the world who get their impressions of this country is like based on what they saw in these movies, then, for the most part, it is to the good.

(The Peter Principles is a regular column on politics, culture and the media by Peter Roff, UPI political analyst and 20-year veteran of the Washington scene.)

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