America is founded on myths. Many of our dreams and legends are the stuff of great ambition, of great hope and of great heroes. However, they don’t always fit the type, and sometimes the American hero is the myth itself.
by Elijah Siegler
I’m writing this on the day that they released Oscar nominations for the best films of 2015. The eight nominations include a post-apocalyptic action thriller (Mad Max: Fury Road), a hard sci-fi drama (The Martian), four films based on true stories (Bridge of Spies, The Revenant, Spotlight and The Big Short) and two arthouse films with strong female leads (Brooklyn and Room).
My favorite of the bunch? The one where the protagonist leaves his/her comfort zone, enters a strange new world and gains self-knowledge and new abilities – and eventually ends the story full circle.
Oh, sorry, I’ve just about described all the best picture nominees.
If you’ve noticed an underlying sameness to most American movies, you are not alone. Academy members like and expect movies to be heroic journeys of redemption. Audiences, even more so. Take a look at the top five highest-grossing movies of 2015: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Inside Out and Furious 7.
All 13 of the films I’ve mentioned above are about people we care about becoming individuals by leaving their family and their known environments and moving ever outward, toward the unknown, while discovering something about themselves. Many of these films are violent – and, though the heroes try to avoid violence, they will use it unapologetically in the face of evil. Most American movies tell this same story because this is the story America tells itself: the myth of the American hero.
I use the word myth here deliberately, following its accepted definition in my particular field of religious studies as a culturally transmitted story that gives that culture a sense of identity and meaning. In ordinary usage, myth refers to a tale of ancient gods and heroes (e.g., the myth of Orpheus) or to a commonly accepted but incorrect assumption (e.g., the myth of drinking eight glasses of water a day). In both cases, a myth is untrue. For scholars of religion, on the other hand, all myths are true, in the sense of revealing important cultural realities, whether they are factually and historically accurate or not.
So the myth of the American hero reveals American values, and, as Americans, we live in and through this myth, often without realizing that such a myth exists in the first place – in the same way fish don’t know what water is, as the story goes. As a teacher at a liberal arts and sciences school like the College of Charleston, I feel it is my job to tell my students about the water they are swimming in.
So last fall, I taught a class called, The Myth of the American Hero. In the first week, I introduced students to the ideas of Joseph Campbell (1904–1987), a writer and speaker who did more to popularize the “the Adventure of the Hero” (as he called it) than anyone else. Campbell analyzed myths from all corners of the globe and all periods of history, seeing them as all telling the same story, the “monomyth” consisting of three major segments: departure, initiation and return (which he further divided into stages).
Campbell has been criticized for ignoring myths that didn’t fit the template of his “hero’s journey,” for rewriting myths to fit his preconceived notions and for focusing on the psychological function of myths, instead of their political and social dimensions.
But I don’t spend that much time in my class on those important criticisms – instead I let my students discover for themselves how Hollywood films are often purposefully crafted to follow mythic patterns by the screenwriters who have read either Campbell or the screenwriting guides that use him. Students brought in clips of their favorite films, ranging from The Patriot to Finding Nemo, that each dramatized a particular stage in the hero’s journey: the refusal of the call, meeting with the mentor, crossing the threshold. Campbell’s mythic patterns, whether they take place in ancient Greece, or “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” demonstrate all-American values of redemption through violence, of individualism and so on. Campbell thought he was seeing a universal myth, when in fact he was seeing his own American identity reflected.
So each Monday night, my students were treated to variations on the American hero myth via classic films of different genres, including the Western, the war film and science fiction. (The films this time were High Noon, Platoon and Star Wars, but these can be, and are, switched out.)
But then for the second half of the class I turned to a series of important American films that didn’t replicate that myth, but actively questioned it. These films also represented many different genres – comedy, gangster, crime thriller – but were all written and directed by the same artists: a pair of super-talented brothers, Joel and Ethan Coen.
The heroes in Coen brothers’ films are not brave adventurers, but ordinary Americans buffeted by forces beyond their control. For example, Police Chief Marge Gunderson in Fargo and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in No Country for Old Men are heroic precisely because they know their own limitations and possess the moral imagination to see others’ capacity for self-delusion and vanity (and both movies won major awards at the Oscars, showing the Academy doesn’t only reward films that follow the same mythic pattern). Both the chief and the sheriff seem happiest at home, as does with another well-known Coen brothers hero, Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, who really just wants the return of his rug, which really tied the room together.
So, hopefully my students got to better understand the mythic waters we are all swimming in, and then got to know some mythic alternatives. And I got to show them some of my favorite films of all time.
Elijah Siegler is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Religious Studies. He is also the editor of a new book about religion in the films of the Coen brothers, Coen: Framing Religion in Amoral Order.
Illustration by Tim Banks