The Outlaw Josey Wales, Gran Torino, True Romance, Die Hard, Braveheart, Star Wars, and the Godfather all have something in common, and we rarely talk about it. Stop, think about what it is. Sure, these are all hero stories. So let’s look at that.
Our Heroes Have a Lot in Common
The hero’s journey is so familiar—so satisfying in its familiarity. In ancient Greece, Odysseus goes off to war, proves himself fearless and clever, wins, brings back Helen, restores order, tries to go home, but as luck would have it, he blinds a one-eyed cyclops, the beloved bastard son of the god of the seas, Poseidon. Does he give up? Does he cry? No, he fights violent seas and formidable obstructions (a beautiful goddess named Circe, for one) for ten years to return home to his wife and son.
Risking the unthinkable, he travels to the underworld for answers. He learns stuff. He gets wilier and wiser, testing his wife’s fidelity while researching the villains he is up against, the squatters at his own palace. After a grueling journey, many bloody battles with men and demons, he restores order in the world and his home, and he is a hero.
Luke Skywalker has to learn to be a jet fighter jedi, face daunting enemies, engage in an inner struggle, and ask the right questions. This is the hero’s journey. It is a formula everyone knows, so we can sit back and not think too much. It’s as satisfying as all timeless rites of passage stories. Add interesting weapons, special effects, high speed, badass technology, good vs. bad, fantasy, sci-fi, and you have a revamped Iliad and Odyssey. But that’s not all that’s there.
Homer and Lucas went past great adventure, coming of age stories, and formulaic hero journeys to parallel portrayals of coming home—to family. The sequels and prequels are about family history, with its concomitant struggles. Star Wars has families navigating perilous adversity on the outside and inside—father and son battles, sibling love and rivalry, and strained relationships. Lucas himself admitted the stories are more about families than evil starships. Because what is older than family conflict? Nothing. Then again, what’s more thrilling than dueling lightsabers? Speaking of the family (and never going against it) . . .
Never Go Against the Family—At Least in an Epic Film
The Godfather is, in part, about killing, power, and hierarchy. Lightsabers be damned, the duels are fist fights and shootouts, maybe a face slap or too. The lure is power and powerful men. These were the golden days of men and business as a kind of club—being vengeful, honorable, cruel, and vulnerable. The appeal for us may be partly an ingrained attraction to power but also to the ladder to power, insight on how to rise to the top or, in the film’s parlance, to be the boss of all bosses.
The Godfather is also a self-conscious discussion of manhood. It portrays what we understand to be a man in a certain bygone era—brave, yet restrained, with no frills or femininity. In many ways, it’s a man’s film. The central characters are each representations of a certain kind of masculinity: The king—Don Vito Corleone, is an atypical mob leader of one of New York’s most active and aggressive gangs. In fact, the first impression of him is as a loving father to his daughter at her wedding, a black-tie affair that reveals the Don as a classy, soft-spoken dad, who doesn’t believe in gratuitous sex and adultery.
Arguably, he’s a bit of an old-fashioned prude. He has his own moral code: murder is okay, sex and drugs, not so much. His organization does not deal in prostitution and hard drugs, a rarity among the mobs. Murder is acceptable (albeit not wholesale slaughter), because the rite of passage to manhood in the Godfather is not a war hero’s record or an education. It’s murder for the family. All men in the movie measure up to this one defining role—killing in the family business.
The sacrifice is close relationships with women, who are not trusted to know what’s really going on. Men are protectors of women and children, going out to do men’s work, returning to a warm meal and the children. Wives do not need to know what they do. Safety and protection of the insular world of the family is sacrosanct. Reflecting that downside: women don’t play memorable roles in these films, as they do in the Mad Men series. We get good women, and women who are good to look at, but no real opportunity for the full experience. It’s not Stepford Wives, but that full connection to the other gender is set aside in order to shield them from violence, even if it doesn’t actually work.
As it is, the men only have each other—like in war. It’s like the battlefield in the twentieth century in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. The gear is just a reflection of what they rely on—each other, their stories, fears, injuries, deaths, and camaraderie. They needed each other to BE men. That’s rings out, powerfully.
The Godfather set in the 40s is also a window into the post-World War II transformation of soldiers to men dilemma. Now what? They were forced to be men in the military. Now, in civilian life, men each act out of their own brand of masculinity, like Vito the calculated cool, Sonny the rash hothead, and Michael the combo of both.
While everything about Vito is understated, the way he moves and talks or gently pets a kitten, his affronts are cold, his code strict. He is the opposite of his hyper masculine, venal son, Sonny. He tells Michael that he spends his life not being careless. Ironically, he dies as retired grandpa, horsing around with his grandson, far from the calculating reserve he displays as the Don. It seems he was made to be that error-free calculator, not the care-free, tender family man.
Michael is the middle guy, calculating like his father, not blowing up over every adversity like Sonny, but decisive when he must. He’s willing to kill. He can get his hands dirty, not like his father, but he is also calculating, like his father. He watches his brother-in-law’s murder, even after assuring him that he wouldn’t leave his sister a widow. Avenging his brother’s death trumps his promise. What’s rewarded, earning the title “Don,” is the right balance: calculating and ruthless, yet immune to violence.
The Godfather’s masculinity is, ultimately, however, being a good family member—family first. Don Vito Corleone says this clearly to Johnny Fontaine: “…A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.” He protects and provides for the family—that’s the code of honor.
Ultimately, what makes The Godfather movies great is the same as what does it for Star Wars—great heroes and superb storytelling. Each is an unending story, backward and forward. But famiglia, with the mafia metaphor of the crime family amplifying it, is probably the most notable commitment of those heroes. It shapes the movie, and all the movies in that trilogy/quadrilogy throughout.
Young Frankenstein: What hump? What knockers!
The strange resilience of our love for Young Frankenstein (that’s Fronkensteen!) might be partly what made the Lon Chaney versions of the original Frankenstein, or the Bride of Frankenstein, so good. We all have a past we’re running from, even if it’s nothing terrible or exciting. We want to outgrow what we’ve been, and we want to do better than those who created us, whether it’s our parents, society, or a mad scientist.
But the Mel Brooks version of the classic creation gone wild movie teases out some of the subtler, variable human characteristics of the main characters in the flick, like the madcap sidekick, Igor (pronounced Eye-gor), whose indecisive hump in his humpback moves left and right. Or the blind hermit, a seemingly vulnerable beggar who manages to fumble hot soup and burn the crotch of the creation, a large, stitched together Peter Boyle of a monster.
Or the doctor himself, creator, with emotions expressed through long, beautiful eyelashes, a kind of mish mash like his own creation. He has the powerful urge to create life (mother envy?), to defy the odds like no other, and yet, his greatest and mind boggling achievement ends up tap dancing to an Irving Berlin tune.
Not only is that classic tragicomedy, but it piques the more pedestrian point of how humans feel like the freakish monsters, distorted by fear, curiosity, and confusion about who they are, where they came from and where they belong. So, why not forget the gurgling from below, the sniveling underlayer, and have a few laughs…Frau Blucher!! And the horses neigh and rear.
Who hasn’t felt like their brain was transplanted from a guy named Abby Normal? The film takes each joke to its ultimate, the farthest possible, like a tap-dancing monster whose scene was almost cut from the movie. Mel Brooks thought it was too much, a joke too far. He doubted, but manned up and let it go, at Dr. Fronkensteen’s (Gene Wilder’s) insistence.
Family is still a prominent theme, even when the hero is monstrous. Arguably, this is a story in which a man (not a woman) finally gives birth, and the immediate and dominant question is how to live with one’s creation. That idea appears in Alien, as well.
Alien(s): The best man for this job is a woman.
She’s buff, brave, smart, and ultimately, human. She’s Ripley (and ripped in Aliens).
Alien is a huge thriller with a great story and lead female role. No, she’s not just a man with a flame thrower blasting inimitable acid-spewing aliens into space. She isn’t Rambo or even Rocky. She’s maternal (her kitty surrogate child), natural, fearful, shrill, but steely. She figures shit out and doesn’t take anyone’s word as the last word. And yet, she’s not overtly a hard ass, just firm and convinced. She’s the man for the job of getting the alien off the ship and flying back home.
Aliens, the sequel, goes twenty steps further with non-stop action and baby-alien pumping horror. We meet the mater major, and it’s a showdown between badass and creepy-ass. This one’s all about motherhood. Good vs. evil, and Ripley is even braver, more buff, the second time. She faces insurmountable challenges as a warrior inspired by protecting the weak, the orphan child. It’s family, love, and defending the downtrodden. Heroic is too feeble a word.
And then, again, there’s an awful lot of that uncomfortable sexuality (rape) seething beneath seemingly innocent actions, like flame throwing guys, psycho rolled up newspaper wielding killers who spew white liquid when they die, and, of course, the man giving birth as a result of a sort of rape by the face-sucking alien. Sex as violence is another way to keep the audience off balance and seized in terror.
Ripley cuts a sharp androgynous figure, not just in her make-up less face but in her personality that is both man enough when she needs to be and woman enough too--balanced. She’s the last man standing. That ballsy crossing of boundaries is missing in an otherwise fearless piece of repeatable cinema from Quentin Tarantino.
Pulp Fiction: “Zed’s dead, baby. Zed’s dead.”
Pulp Fiction gives us a three-point geometry of moral order, or disorder. Jules, Vincent and Butch are gamblers at heart, taking chances with the control they have over life, whether that means leaving their life to chance or taking control.
Jules steps out and chooses a life more suitable to his philosophy by getting out of the kill for pay business and letting the bank robbers, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, go free. Vincent, on the other hand, never heeds Jules’s advice to get out, takes his chances, and ends up dead on Butch’s toilet seat. Butch lives by his own creed or PTSD or memory, and almost gets killed for it but ends up riding off into the sunset with his girlfriend after making the choice to save his would-be murderer, the mobster he double crossed.
Life, death, chance, honor, and grace are the big themes of the movie, and how each character chooses is the lure. And yet, plenty of movies have these themes. Pulp Fiction is a repeater because of trophy girlfriends who can actually dance and shady characters that are fully developed, not just flat playing card villains—besides the jokes, philosophy, and humanity of the film.
Humans are chaotic. In the chaos of the disjointed narrative, we see moral disorder. The briefcase thieves get killed, and rightly so, but so does the informant, Marvin, albeit by accident. The movie makes us question our own moral choices in our own disorderly lives.
Not for these three cool and confident bad-asses living outside the legal norm. For them, life is not fair but makes a sordid sense: the dumb, careless but human Vincent dies, the decisive philosopher Jules lives, and the double-crossing redemptive man who saved a ruthless mobster rides off to freedom, in spit of or perhaps because of his moral choice to rescue his enemy rather than leave him to death or imprisonment.
Good guys? Bad guys? None, really. That’s true to life. No one is genuinely good or bad, but they are the heroes of their own stories, vignette by vignette.
There is some wuss-ness to this flick, if we’re paying close attention. The obvious homophobia for one thing (Vincent’s question to Jules about giving another man a foot massage, Butch’s father’s watch that was smuggled up a POW’s ass, and then, of course, the mobster Marcellus’s rape and the gimp are flagrant homosexual references). And there’s a recurring theme of fighting or fearing the feminine (Subservient, non-essential female roles, ornamental arm-candy, a naggy woman likely to be upset over towels, flaky drug-addled women)—there are no girls in the club. For all the cool and swagger, there is some servile lack of courage throughout. Winston Wolf (as one might expect) and his girlfriend, Raquel (Julia Sweeney), daughter of Joe (Monster Joe’s Truck and Tow), are notable exceptions, though mostly in the deleted scenes.
The right people with the right qualities for the moment is what all these movies have in common: those with enough bravery, commitment, and heart seem most able to cope with a world that doesn’t make sense. These movies tap into the universal angst of living in a chaotic world not knowing where we fit. The heroes or anti-heroes know how to navigate an arbitrary world with a code of honor relevant to what they face, using what they have, sometimes humor, sometimes cruelty, and other times moral righteousness and love. No matter the setting or the actors, these are stories of every(hu)man.