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”).
Indeed, the genius of Peckinpah was that he ended the Wild Bunch in a redemptive moment. His anti-heroes almost became tragic heroes, by whose violent sacrificial deaths the federales were decimated and the revolutionaries, now helped by the reborn Deke Thornton, have a fighting chance.
Perhaps the most moving tragic hero in recent cinema was Denzel Washington’s brilliant portrayal of the bodyguard Creasy in Man on Fire. He alone possessed the skills to save his ward, Pita, but thereby, Shane-like, he acknowledged that his mission would nullify his own brief return to civilization, for which he was utterly unsuited.
Remember the lines of Christopher Walken, speaking of Creasy’s revenge: “A man can be an artist . . . in anything, food, whatever. It depends on how good he is at it. Creasy’s art is death. He’s about to paint his masterpiece.” The tragic hero carries around his own world and its codes wherever he goes. It is irrelevant that Creasy is in Mexico or that Shane ends up in Wyoming; their skills trump landscape and culture and make even the most bizarre new landscape bend to their protocol — sort of like Horace’s wandering man who is integer vitae scelerisque purus, and who is oblivious to his always-changing surroundings.
The greatest generals are tragic heroes. Take again George S. Patton — the man who was needed to instill a 19th-century martial audacity in an untrained army of conscripts reliant on superior logistics and material supply. Yet Patton was singularly inept in adjusting to the necessary politics of an allied effort, and indeed to the cultural parameters of modernism itself — thus his crackpot talk of reincarnation and manly essence.
In contrast, Omar Bradley, reminiscent of the Civil War general Henry Halleck, best typified the sort of sober and judicious bureaucratic figure necessary for a new American military with global responsibilities — but his battlefield aptitude and leadership were mediocre in comparison with Patton’s. Patton may not have consciously sought to destroy his own career, but he almost welcomed the fact that his flamboyance, foul speech, and dash would do just that as the price of convincing the Third Army that they were not just people mechanically obeying orders, but fighters who could go toe to toe with the dreaded Waffen SS.
We wanted the brilliant, unapologetic, and uncouth Curtis LeMay, cigar and all, to come to the fore in the Pacific theater, when the billion-dollar B-29 program was in shambles and a horrendous invasion of Japan loomed on the horizon. But 20 years later, in Vietnam, he was considered not just eccentric but culpable for urging that we really had to napalm the cities of North Vietnam as we had firebombed those of Japan to win the war. Please go away, Mr. LeMay.
When Ethan Edwards walks out the door at the end of The Searchers, we assume not just that there is nothing left for him to do, but that he wants nothing more to do with us. “Live nobly or nobly die,” sighs doomed Ajax, suggesting that most of us live ignobly and so live on.
Can we have tragically heroic leaders? Lincoln excelled as a tragic hero — to the point of his strange premonitions about his early and violent death. He grasped that the Unionist cause, and with it eventual abolition, could be advanced only by a man of the border — in his case a native Kentuckian and a transplanted son of Illinois, who would confuse Southerners, given his affinities with the South, while remaining a pragmatic Midwestern man of the people and yet almost satisfying the New England abolitionists.
Yet he put his majestic prose to the cause of militarily ruining the Confederacy. Without his soaring rhetoric, there would not have been much transcendence to mask the horrors of Little Round Top or the decimation of Grant’s forces at Cold Harbor. It was to be the wage of the great emancipator and peacemaker to preside over the near-destruction of the American people. “Now he belongs to the ages,” Stanton sighs as Lincoln expires, perhaps with the implication that he might not have, had he lived through the mess still looming on the horizon.
Churchill was a tragic hero. I would guess that, without him, there was a 40/60 chance that Britain would have settled for a negotiated peace with Hitler after June 1940. All his supposed flaws — unrepentant imperialist, monarchist, aristocrat, colonialist — were part of the larger menu of polymath, veteran, stylist, orator, and political genius, with an iron will that towered over the wills of his contemporaries.
In Churchill’s case, the public did not even wait until the end of World War II to depose him. After all, the man who rallied the nearly defeated with “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat” was soon, when danger passed, perceived as opposed to the socialization of a new modernist United Kingdom.
We cannot live in a world of tragic heroes, at least too many of them. The Achaeans could handle only one Achilles, but hundreds of Menelauses and Agamemnons. Churchill sucked the oxygen out of every room he entered. Even Lincoln’s friends were bewildered by him. It was easy to mock Patton’s vanity and childishness, impossible not to acknowledge his superior genius.
Yet in those rare times of existential crisis, civil or global, the tragic hero is our only salvation. Take away Shane, and the sodbusters are through; without Yul Brynner the Mexican villagers of The Magnificent Seven remain Caldera’s sheep to be sheared.
Could there be a tragic hero in the 21st century? Might a candidate reform the tax code, balance the budget, recalibrate entitlements, return the U.S. to a meritocratic and self-reliant society, and understand that he had to be hated for doing what might save us? “I shall end agricultural subsidies entirely and cut Food Stamps back to 2009 levels,” a heroic president might thunder as he welcomes a single term as the price for that defiance.
In theory, this tragic hero would require the oratorical gifts of Reagan, the wit and verve of JFK, the political savvy of Clinton, the steadiness of Truman, the decency of the George Bushes — and something far more. There would have to be some acceptance that our president was different from the rest of us, that he did not welcome, but expected nonetheless, disdain from us, the fickle turba.
A tragic president would not be ruined during his presidency, but only after it and by transcending it. He would not cash in like the Clintons but would walk away from it like Truman.
Petulance is not part of the tragic hero: He ignores both insults and praise, and expects to be hated more than loved, as Aristotle so brilliantly describes the megalopsuchos, the magnanimous soul, of the Nicomachean Ethics.
In these times we need a president who will accept, even welcome a single term, who expects to be broke after he leaves office, to be offered $5,000 a lecture at most, who embarrasses us by our own ingratitude.
Again, are there tragic heroes on the horizon?
Few, I fear. Mitch Daniels has the standoffishness, and a sense that what has to be done would be near politically intolerable for the most of the public. But does he have the spirit, over familial objections, to turn the buckboard around back to Hadleyville before High Noon?
Chris Christie is the antithesis of the current metrosexual president, as unconcerned with his appearance as Obama is prissy and compulsive in his manners and grooming. But while Christie’s bluster shows signs of tragic unconcern, is it matched by a spiritual unconcern for what the presidency might do to him if he were to try to save the country?
Perhaps things must become even worse to cause a tragic hero to emerge — for someone to speak the truth, offend the majority, and, when the successful effort is over, to lose.
At the end of The Magnificent Seven, Chris sighs of both his victory and the near-destruction entailed in achieving it, “The Old Man was right. Only the farmers won. We lost. We always lose.”