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In the beginning of cinema heroes and heroines tended to stay within the mythic structure of heroes using binary pairs of opposite terms to simplify the complexity of events and reducing the players down to good guys and bad guys or more cinematic, white hats and black hats. That changed radically in the late 1960’s and early ’70’s when a series of films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather, Midnight Cowboy and One flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, literally turned mythic structure on its head and presented the cinematic anti-hero.
Before this golden age of film an audience could rely on the belief that no matter how complicated events got for the hero in the end the hero would prevail and the villain would be brought to justice. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid asks its audience to redefine justice in order to root for our heroes who are in fact the villains and hiss the villains who are in fact the good guys.
Bonnie and Clyde does the same, the Godfather does it so well that films influence is noticeable in prevailing attitudes about justice today. Midnight Cowboy and One flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest don’t necessarily offer up villains as heroes, but our heroes are so flawed, so aimless in their pursuit that even if in the end they are brought down by their own hubris they are still weaker, less competent versions of the mythic hero who rather than ask there audience to be inspired by greatness they ask their audience to celebrate rebelliousness for the sake of rebellion and immorality as an acceptable form of happiness.
The radical changes that took place in the films of the seventies still has heavy influence in film making and particularly in film criticism today. There are still and will always be plenty of films made that remain true to classical mythic structure where white hats prevail and black hats do not. Current examples of such mythic structure can be found in films such as Live Free Die Hard, Casino Royale, Mission Impossible, and almost any Harrison Ford film. In these films, no matter how complicated things get the white hats always prevail the black hats lose.
These films do not do well with the film critics that find employment in the media. It’s not that critics don’t like action films as most heaped plenty of praise on such films as Children of Men, Pans Labyrinth, 3:10 to Yuma and I am Legend. The difference between these movies and the action films such as Live Free Die Hard or any Harrison Ford Film is that Harrison Fords heroes always live and in the films praised by critics the heroes always died.
I am skeptical that Braveheart would have actually won the Oscar for best picture if William Wallace lived. This is the primary and perhaps the most important change in the depiction of heroes and heroines over the years in film. The abandonment of classical mythic structure in exchange for “realism” where “rational ideas” become notions that heroes aren’t heroes unless they die fighting the good fight and villains aren’t so bad once you really get to know them.
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