The 1950’s in film was a time of screen heroes. Most of the male leads were stoic alpha males whose model of how to stand, speak, and act might have been George Washington. The major ones were John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable (no longer dominant but still around), Burt Lancaster, Gregory Peck, and Charlton Heston. Weaknesses in the characters were hinted at, sublimated, overcome. As in “High Noon” or “Gunfight at OK Corral,” ideals of community or order or good came first. It’s not an accident that the procession of heroic movie role models came at a time when America was most confident in its mission and its place in the world.
John F. Kennedy, the young President in 1961, embodied the ideal. He was charismatic and confident, he believed completely in America, and, to boot, was a real war hero. Kennedy was the alpha male who in the 1960 election campaign defeated the quintessential #2/loser in the person of Richard Nixon. Much of the scorn given Nixon in later years was resentment at the fact that Kennedy was dead but Nixon lived; that whatever Nixon’s abilities, he could never live up to the role. The U.S. President is not only head of government but also head of state. The position carries powerful symbolic qualities—which Ronald Reagan for one well understood. You do have to look and act the part.
The 1960’s in America was about the willful destruction of the hero by the so-called counterculture, which now IS the culture. Neurotic or cynical or weak stars like Brando, Pacino, Nicholson, Hoffmann might’ve been fine actors, but no one could’ve put any of them in the role of defending a community or nation against forces of evil. Gregory Peck could successfully take on the toughest western movie bad guys in “The Bravados,” including Stephen Boyd, who a year later would be seen trying to defeat the Charlton Heston character in 1959’s “Ben Hur.” A few years later Boyd’s smirking, narcissistic and willfully bad Messala would become the Hollywood norm.
Attempts in more recent years to recreate the hero—think Stallone and Arnold—have created grunting and sadistic cartoon characters instead. They’re still more Boyd than Heston.
A civilization which has lost its cultural myths and its heroes is one without foundations, a tottery edifice waiting to be toppled, whose symbolic signal sent to the world isn’t confidence, but weakness.