Needed: A Tragic Hero
In good times, the larger-than-life figure is an affront; in crisis, he is necessary.

John Wayne as Ethan Edwards in "The Searchers"


Victor Davis Hanson

Tragic heroes — from Sophocles’ Ajax and Antigone to the Western films’ Shane and Woodrow Call — can be defined in a variety of ways. But the common archetype is a larger-than-life figure. He is endowed with extraordinary gifts and sometimes even more monumental flaws. Fate decrees that even his departure or self-destruction will be memorable.

Sometimes the tragic hero suffers from hubris, like know-it-all Oedipus. The goddess Nemesis waits until just the proper moment to tap his arrogance, blind him to the reality around him, and thereby lead him to his own destruction.

But note: What separates the tragic hero from the arrogant fool who suffers the same fate is the sheer magnitude of his gifts, and thus the depth of the abyss into which he falls, and the spirit with which he accepts larger cosmic forces at work.

At other times, the tragic hero is simultaneously irreplaceable and unfit for the changing world about him. That paradox is a common theme of classic Westerns like High Noon, Lonesome Dove, The Magnificent Seven, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ride the High Country, The Searchers, and Shane. Tragic heroes are throwbacks to a prior, perhaps pre-civilized age (hence the Old West is our version of the pre-Athenian city-state, so fertile for the mythological nature of Greek tragedy).

They hold a Manichean notion of good and evil, and in unapologetic fashion. There is little nuance in General Grant’s “lick ’em tomorrow” or “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.” (Imagine if President Obama said that about his health-care plan’s employer mandate!)

Tragic heroes possess the requisite primeval physical and mental assets to welcome the challenge at hand, and they exude a certain sort of self-destructiveness — or is it self-sacrifice? — that puts the welfare of the people they’re protecting above their own. In Ride the High Country, an aging Steve Judd, with all his talk about “sand,” doesn’t much care whether he lives, but he very much cares that the job is finished.

When there are ruthless outlaws, gangs of thieves, unapologetic gunslingers, renegades, or lawless cattle barons who are not likely to fall in line with the law of the so-called civilized world, then the weird Tom Doniphons step forth from the twilight to deal with the Liberty Valances.

They are out of place as saviors. Yet these defiant ones apparently gain a sense of Schadenfreude at the fact that their benefactors, the civilized Ransom Stoddards, in extremis need the very skills that they profess should be superfluous.

We are a society of lawyers, not cowboys — 99 percent of the time. But it is that 1 percent that can become fatal to a sophisticated society without the cowboys prepared to step out of the shadows. Do we need now and then the half-civilized — a slapping Patton; an Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, who is a temper tantrum away from who knows what?; a Sherman raging about making plantationist Georgia “howl”? If so, tough luck — there are few of these dinosaurs around. The France of May 1940 needed the old cry of the Verdun of 1916 — “Ils ne passeront pas” — but then, Verdun had ensured that there would be no more “Ils ne passeront pas,” and not a Clemenceau (“The Tiger”) to be found.

From Sophocles to John Ford, we are reminded that tragic heroes accept — or is it that they enjoy? — the idea that their own triumph will eliminate the evil of their era and thus the very reasons for them to exist as uncouth warriors against that evil.

Breaker Morant agrees that a middle-aged superb horseman and unapologetic warrior is not exactly what the politically minded British Empire of the early 20th century needs any more — most of the time. Tragic heroes welcome the idea that action is necessary to deal with violence, while conceding that it becomes anachronistic and antithetical to the pretensions of the new society they help to save.

Note that tragic heroes are not anti-heroes, who, of course, share this acceptance that they no longer fit and who would rather die than change. Still, Shane is not the Wild Bunch, who rob banks and kill the innocent in their crossfire. The thieves in Heat have a certain nobility and code of conduct, but ultimately they are cold-blooded killers. Creepy Tony Montana in Scarface has some chivalry in his code, and is unapologetic about being the thug he is — but his talents are solely destructive, and as a psychopath he pollutes all in his sphere.

But the tragic hero?

He somehow marries his rugged savagery with civilization, if only for a moment. True, like Sam Peckinpah’s anti-hero Pike Bishop, he can be a noble sort of relic who fights the uniformity and monotony of the modern world, and would not just rather die than change but welcomes death (“Why not?”) given what the world has become (“I wouldn’t have it any other way”).