As a child of the 1960’s, it is easy to list the heroic actors on television and in film. Those were many of the role models kids had in those days. You saw them at the movie theater, bigger than life, your literally looked up to them; or on TV, week after week, like a visitor to your home.
Those screen heroes: cowboys, soldiers, private detectives, police officers, were action figures. This usually meant fighting or gun play, good guys verses bad guys. These heroes usually fought with their fists or guns. Justice eventually prevailed. These stories were fiction but they tapped into the American story of struggle, overcoming conflict and standing against evil and injustice.
What would John Wayne do? Or Steve McQueen, Chuck Connors, Joe Mannix or James Arness? You saw how they faced trouble, usually head-on. It didn’t matter if they were outnumbered or they were forced to fight. That’s what television and film heroes did. The scripts said so and it made for great drama. America believes in heroes, it’s in our culture, all the way back to our founding.
On television, characters like Daniel Boone, Ben Cartwright, The Virginian or Paladin were more likely to try and reason with their opponents, violence was not their first option, these were men of principle and fairness. Brett Maverick would try and avoid conflict altogether, a hero he was not, but even he stood against wrong.
There were many examples of bravery and fine moral conduct for young minds to be impressed with. You might be thinking, these shows and films were very violent, and you’d be right. Violence was not glorified, but there was a lot of it. The times were different then, but stories of good overcoming evil always makes good drama. Clint Eastwood and an outlaw settling their problem over a game of chess and a bit of philosophy would get the series cancelled.
These television heroes were usually loners or mostly around other adults. Occasionally, there were families involved, but not often. They were married to their mission. Lucas McCann, The Rifleman, raised his son Marc, and often taught or reinforced values to Marc by his actions. Daniel Boone had a family, including his son Israel, who usually learned some lessons about life from the actions of his dad. Both Lucas and Daniel were portrayed as fair, reasonable fathers, who could be tough at times, but usually for a purpose.
You don’t think of Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry as heroic but he was a man of principle and someone the town depended on to enforce the law. The relationship between Andy and Opie was probably the best father-son relationship on television.
What you did not see much of was the relationship between these heroes (all men) and women. These men had relationships with women but they were girlfriends or friends or employees. The relationships were not complicated or deeper than a few scenes together. The exception was Matt Dillion and Miss Kitty. In a film, the female role might be a saloon girl, the school teacher, a teenager coming into womanhood, or a widow. There was not much career opportunity for women in Westerns.
When our heroes did interacted with a woman, she was usually a damsel in distress, or a woman with a troubled past. Daniel Boone was the exception, he had a frontier wife, strong willed but she fit into the concept that he wore the buckskin in the family.
What you didn’t get was much dramatic character interaction between men and woman. These shows usually just reinforced the gender roles of the time.
On Gunsmoke, Kitty was a saloon owner, a tough and capable businesswoman, a bit of an anomaly for the time, but the relationship between her and the Marshall did not advance beyond their mutual admiration. There’s nothing wrong with a strong platonic relationship, but the main characters of these shows had only formulaic relationships with women. What you didn’t see were the hero traits on display as part of fully rounded characters.
Heroes aren’t just successful fighters or solvers mysteries. Heroes are more than just the exciting elements on the screen. They are people. Ben Cartwright wasn’t portrayed as a hero, just a man who often found himself in that role. Lucas McCain was just a rancher trying to raise his son, but he usually found himself helping the sheriff or lending a hand.
Today’s films often follow the same formula as the old days, but filmmakers know that audiences are hipper and there’s value in three-dimensional characters. In the 1970’s, heroes began to show significant character flaws. Today’s heroes are written to appeal to fans who often see other things like tragedy or mystery or vengeance channeled into heroic action. Good verses evil is still at the core of a good story, but audiences want more. I say, give’em what they want.
My heroes were simpler, but more limited. When he was done whooping an outlaw, he couldn’t love a woman, but he could love his horse.