Tricky business being a hero. On the pedestal one day and under it the next. In 1941 Sergeant York won the Oscar with Gary Cooper playing the, aw shucks hero of World War I. He was a Tennessee mountaineer who gulped his way into the trenches. Ever humble, he killed 32 and captured well over a hundred Germans and received a hero’s welcome as the great American sharpshooter. As a reward he got Joan Leslie and some fertile boTrittom farmland back home.
Seventy odd years later we are presented with another real-life (real-dead) American hero, Chris Kyle, who bagged 160 Iraqis, confirmed. Clint Eastwood has moved the cowboy overseas allegedly protecting us from an invasion of our frozen yogurt shops. Bradley Cooper’s Kyle comes home damaged, a self-described warrior and ends up himself a victim of friendly fire from a PTS buddy. Whether the movie is an anti-war statement or a celebration of it is up for debate. I suspect one leaves the movie reinforced in either direction.
I wonder if the 1918 German and 2007 Sunni Iraqis also had snipers as their heroes. As long as we de-contextualize it, killing is killing. Hardly heroic in my book. Eastwood never questions why we were in Iraq thus perpetuating the lie that our devastation of that country was somehow connected to the 9/11 attack. The real Sergeant Alvin York out-lived his movie by 23 years. In later-life he wondered what his war was all about.
People seem to need their heroes. I had mine growing up. Most were athletes, the idealized self. The notion of the hero comes out of innocence and a reluctance to enter the complex world of flawed human character. There is also an element of self-promotion around those crowned as heroes. Perhaps we are all heroes having survived the vicissitudes of childhood, tedium, infirmities and an ever fractured society.
Certainly there are those in history whose story compels us to take notice. And it doesn’t hurt to see them in totality. Thoreau was a hermit and also the life of the party when he danced the jig. He chose an austere life (for one year) close to Nature. Yet he brought his dirty laundry to his mother and sisters. He was an abolitionist who, heroically and at great risk, escorted slaves to safety. He owned a pencil factory. He went to jail in protest over the Mexican-American war. The closer we look at anyone the more complex his life.
Emerson thought great thoughts on his way to his friend's Walden Pond cabin to chat. His father got rich by ill-gotten gains in the Chinese opium trade, as did FDR’s maternal grandfather, Warren Delano. Alfred Nobel invented dynamite. His two brothers ran oil wells on the Caspian Sea in Baku. By 1900 this city produced 50% of the world’s oil. It was also one of the filthiest cities in the world with impoverished workers dead by age 30 on average. Now we know Nobel by those prizes bestowed in his name as we remember Carnegie by his libraries and Frick by his museum. As Balzac said, Behind every great fortune there is a crime. Their philanthropy feels like compensation or possibly atonement.
Back to movies- The Oscar list pits, among others, the sniper against those afflicted with disease (ALS and Alzheimer's) and the shame of the British for their tragic dim-witted policy that may have shortened the life of a war hero, Alan Turing, who killed no one but himself… against the true American hero, Martin Luther King, who led the Civil Rights march, and was then slain by an American sniper.