Unmerited Hero Worship
Among the plethora of Warner Bros. Home Video DVD released last fall, the timing of their new and Blu-ray versions of Cool Hand Luke (1967) was ironic given its story: featuring Messiah-like hero worship of its title character, played by the late great Paul Newman. But unearned and irrational praise – especially absent any fundamental substance – inevitably turns to disillusionment. In the movie, it happens when Luke is made to face the reality of his situation by ‘the man’. The moment he succumbs, his ‘followers’ desert and turn on him. Even though a subsequent event brings about some redemption, it ultimately leads to his downfall (and death).
Though IMDb.com voters (who have curiously selected the film version of Steven King’s short story “Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption (1994)” the number one movie of all time) would disagree, it’s my contention that Cool Hand Luke (1967) is undoubtedly the best contemporary prison drama ever. Since I tend to agree with Leonard Maltin’s 2 ½ star assessment of the former, I’ve always wondered whether prisoners with access to the Internet are responsible for its lofty ranking on the popular site. Getting back to the topic at hand, Luke’s director (Stuart Rosenberg), and his cinematographer (Conrad L. Hall), utilized several less-than-subtle shots – incorporating iconic religious symbolism – to cast their protagonist as a Christ-like figure. Newman’s character began to ‘earn’ this distinction by first exposing the hypocrisy of his peers’ leader Dragline (George Kennedy, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar on his only nomination), the big brute that had established his own oppressive rules to keep his fellow prisoners down. After surviving Dragline’s onslaught in a prison-sanctioned bout, and leading the chain gang to complete their dawn-to-dust task well before sundown, Luke had gained the men’s respect. But this respect soon turned to worship after Luke – with assistance from Dragline – won all the jail booty by eating an unprecedented 50 eggs and (later, after receiving word that his Mom had died, and having to spend some nights ‘in the box’) escaping, twice. After his second escape, Luke sent a picture to Dragline that depicted him in a (New Orleans?) bar, partying with two beautiful women. This solidified his legend among his peers until his subsequent capture and capitulation to ‘the man’, which caused one to tear up ‘the picture’. Later still, once Luke appeared to become an obedient puppy of his charges, he escapes yet again. Dragline, who had once been Luke’s primary cheerleader, gets so caught up in the moment – his faith restored – that he joins Luke, forgetting that he had only a short time left on his sentence. Of course, the renewed ‘hero’ has to die and – like Judas to Jesus – Dragline is part of his undoing. While Cool Hand Luke (1967) is not the only movie to explore hero worship, it’s one of the most complete because it contains the entire cycle: from unwarranted praise through disillusionment to ‘falling’ and redemption. The fact that this aimless rebel – Lucas Jackson – incredulously appears at #30 on AFI’s 100 Years 50 Heroes list is only slightly less disconcerting than Gene Hackman’s alcoholic and bigoted police detective “Popeye” Doyle appearing at #44. Hollywood obviously loves flawed (and anti-) heroes.
Other movies which feature misplaced hero worship include:
Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) – The Dead End Kids (later – and better – known as The Bowery Boys) idolize Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney), a street kid that had “made it” out of the boroughs of New York via a life of crime. Fortunately, in the end, with encouragement from his lifelong pal and now Father Connolly (Pat O’Brien), Rocky shatters the boys’ illusions by turning ‘yellow’ (exhibiting cowardice by pleading for mercy) before his execution in the electric chair.
Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) – producer/director/writer Preston Sturges gave hero worship a comic turn: having Eddie Bracken’s character, who’d been discharged for hay fever, return to receive a hero’s welcome after some Marines he’d befriended on the way home set it up and encourage him. Of course, it all gets hilariously out of hand before the truth is learned.
Germania anno zero (1948) – in post World War II Germany, young Edmund idolizes his older brother Karl-Heinz, a former Nazi that’s hiding out in their home for fear of punishment as a war criminal. But without a ration card or a work permit, Karl-Heinz is a drain on the family’s meager means. Edmund defends his brother’s actions and attempts to earn enough food money to support his malnourished invalid father by working in the black market for a former teacher. Unfortunately, Edmund’s altruism ends badly for him in this Roberto Rossellini drama.
The Left Handed Gun (1958) – Newman played another anti-hero – the real life William Bonney aka Billy the Kid – in an earlier biographical drama that was directed by Arthur Penn, and had been adapted from a Gore Vidal play. Hurd Hatfield plays the most dangerous kind of follower that such a truly despicable character can have, a journalist that romanticizes his evil deeds. When members of the free press show hero worship, their objectivity is compromised (and truly frightening things can happen).
All Fall Down (1962) – Brandon De Wilde’s Clinton Willart looks up to another worthless-older-brother character, played by Warren Beatty, in this (John Frankenheimer-directed, John Houseman-produced) drama that also stars Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, and Angela Lansbury. In fact, practically the entire cast worships Beatty’s shiftless womanizer Berry-Berry at some point during the story, though some of the reasons for this phenomenon are never fully explained (it is natural, I suppose, for younger family members to admire their older siblings).
The Man Who Would Be King (1975) – Sean Connery and Michael Caine play British officers looking for their fortune after completing their tour of duty in India. Connery’s finds ill-gotten fame by surviving an arrow – that struck his Masonic key chain instead of into his chest – which causes the ignorant natives to worship him as a deity. With help from a translator (Saeed Jaffrey), Connery’s character is corrupted by his newfound power and milks the phony hero worship for all it’s worth, and ultimately to his tragic end, in this Rudyard Kipling tale that was adapted and directed by John Huston.
Breaking Away (1979) – Dennis Christopher plays an awkward teen who yearns to be a world class cyclist like the Italians he idolizes. Unfortunately, when he gets the chance to compete with them – Team Cinzano from Italy – they cheat him, and he becomes disillusioned.
These are but a few of the many examples which appear on film. Hollywood loves to depict anti-heroes as real heroes and more traditional role models (e.g. police and military officers, religious figures, etc.) as villains. Obviously unfounded hero worship of any kind has its perils.
© 2009 Turner Classic Movies - this article originally appeared on TCM's official blog