The slow erosion of masculine ideals has been occurring for the better part of four decades, spanning film, television, and fiction. Currently, men are often only presented as bumbling oafs or as malevolent figures upholding the supposed “patriarchy.” When they are rarely presented in a positive light, it’s only often done in a limited or disqualifying manner. Rather than presenting masculinity as a complex set of principles ranging from fortitude and grit to compassion and humility, it’s reduced to brute and simple overtures.
With suicide and addiction rates skyrocketing among men, it’s more important than ever before that true masculinity is celebrated in our storytelling. Here are nine examples in film and fiction that emphasize manliness and masculine ideals.
Frodo Baggins in “The Lord of The Rings” Trilogy
J.R.R. Tolkien’s timeless tale of courage and perseverance was written under the specter of both World War I and World War II. What makes Frodo Baggins so compelling as the hero of the tale is his decidedly “unheroic” physical stature. He’s a diminutive hobbit with no obvious physical gifts that one often associates with heroes. What he has though — far beyond anyone else in the story — is a moral compass, unrelenting courage, and a willingness to sacrifice himself for the sake of others.
While Tolkien was a devout Catholic and lifelong friend of C.S. Lewis, the inherently religious nature of his work is too often cast aside. Tolkien himself described “The Lord of The Rings” as a “fundamentally religious and Catholic work.”
In “Moments of Grace and Spiritual Warfare in The Lord of The Rings,” Anne Marie Gazzalo explores the decidedly religious and Christian dimension of Frodo’s heroism in Tolkien’s work:
“His body seems too small for all that he endures but not so his heart. Fear, fatigue, cold, hunger, and thirst torment him, but he continues out of love. Frodo’s struggle shows that there are, in fact, two quests going on: his to destroy the Ring and the Ring’s to dominate and destroy him. Despite the despair that it causes, which both fills and empties him, the Ring-bearer remains as intent upon saving everyone as Denethor is not. Frodo’s torn heart still beats, and it pushes past terror and hopelessness because of Sam’s blessed aid and his own battered and bleeding will to do so. Both hobbits teach us the great value of redemptive suffering.”
Dutch in “Predator”
While easily one of the greatest action films ever made, what makes “Predator” — and so many other films in that genre from the 1980s — so compelling is that the heroes live by clear moral codes. There’s no nervous handwringing. Instead, decisive thinking and strength of will are valued and rewarded.
The hero of the film, Major Alan “Dutch” Schafer, embodies classic masculine archetypes including courage, fortitude, and an intrepid spirit often at a premium these days in much of film and fiction.
It’s easy to dismiss such classic action films as simple when, in fact, they embody timeless moral themes like many of the very best tales and fables throughout history. And all the campy dialogue is just icing on the cake to boot.
Andy Dufresne in “The Shawshank Redemption”
Frank Darabont’s screenplay adaption of Stephen King’s story is a rare instance where a great story is made even better on the screen. Falsely accused of murdering his adulterous wife, Andy Dufresne is sentenced to life imprisonment. Like McMurphy in “Cuckoo’s Nest,” he’s given a choice echoed by Dufresne’s close friend in prison, Ellis Boy “Redd” Redding: “Get busy living or get busy dying.”
What Dufresne represents to so many is a sense of resilience and hope against the worst of odds. This is not the Polly Anna optimism of, say, some silly New Age trope. It’s the hope one finds in Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search For Meaning.” The hope that Dufresne holds onto is precarious and demands much of his own volition. Only when we finally witness all that he has endured and suffered do his words ring with truth and not pretense: “Hope is a good thing, may be the best of the things. And a good thing never dies.”
Randle McMurphy in “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”
Randle McMurphy is not a man of high virtue in either Ken Kesey’s novel or Miloš Forman’s fantastic film adaptation. He’s actually a bit of a rascal and a con man trying to save his own skin at the outset of the story. However, he emerges as a defiant, laughing soul and a hero of sorts in the story and film by standing up against the unending cruelties that infest the asylum.
It’s McMurphy’s unwillingness to accept the procedural oppression at the hands of Nurse Ratched that finally sets him apart as the protagonist, though she seeks to quell it:
“She saw that McMurphy was growing bigger than ever while he was upstairs where the guys couldn’t see the dent she was making on him, growing almost into a legend. A man out of sight can’t be made to look weak, she decided, and started making plans to bring him back down to our ward.”
McMurphy — and the story in a broader sense — represents the overarching need and desire in men, especially, to challenge all that seeks to crush us into diminutive and effete beings, not only with indignation but — more importantly — with levity and grace:
“He knows that you have to laugh at the things that hurt you just to keep yourself in balance, just to keep the world from running you plumb crazy.”
Doc Holliday in “Tombstone”
Val Kilmer’s portrayal of the fabled gunslinger is certainly one for the ages. Even with Death constantly tapping on his shoulder in the form of tuberculosis, Doc Holliday refuses to concede to grief or mortality. His wisecracks betray his wan complexion throughout the Western. He remains as cool as ever and is easily the most compelling character in the film.
“But honestly, a lot of us are really watching because of Val Kilmer’s performance as Doc Holliday,” Decider argues, “Wyatt’s hard-drinking, hard-gambling gunfighter best friend. Doc is a fascinating character, part comic relief and part Greek chorus for the film, who’s as ready with a quick pistol shot as he is with a quick verbal harpoon.”
Boss Spearman in “Open Range”
Played masterfully by Robert Duvall, Boss Spearman exemplifies a grizzled sense of wisdom and character found in men of certain age and experience. Though the film is very much a classic Western, it often delves deeper than most. Spearman is tasked with finding the delicate moral balance between violence and fighting while upholding a sense of righteousness and virtue.
Based on Lauran Pain’s 1990 novel, “The Open Range Men,” screenwriter Craig Storper stated, “These characters don’t seek violence…But the notion that it’s sometimes necessary… is the Western’s most fundamental ideal,” according to the AMC Blog.
Spearman recognizes this grim necessity in protecting those in need when he tells the corrupt Marshall, “Man’s got a right to protect his property and his life, and we ain’t lettin’ no rancher or his lawman take either.”
Alyosha in “Brothers Karamazov”
Though the cynical Ivan Karamazov often receives the most attention and praise for his dark insights in literary circles, Alyosha serves as the moral and religious compass in Dostoevsky’s masterpiece. His strength resides in his compassion, humility, and understanding even as his siblings fall apart. In many respects, Alyosha and his mentor in the novel, Father Zosima, represent Christianity as Dostoevsky had finally come to know it.
Alyosha’s hope resides in “the secret of renewal for all, the power that will finally establish the truth on earth, and all will be holy and will love one another, and there will be neither rich nor poor, neither exalted nor humiliated, but all will be the like the children of God, and the true kingdom of Christ will come.”
Unlike so many of Dostoevsky’s religious characters that are hamstrung by their sense of piety and virtue (such as in “The Idiot”), Alyosha’s Christianity in “Brothers Karamazov” becomes a source of liberation, freeing him from the earthly travails of of existence.
Ethan Hawley in Steinbeck’s “The Winter of Our Discontent”
While Steinbeck doesn’t have the lyrical deftness of Fitzgerald or the intellectual acuity of Faulkner, he was an expert at expressing sentiment without cliché and at exploring the many complexities that hound men. Ethan Hawley in “The Winter of Our Discontent” is no exception and may be his most relevant character today.
In many respects, Ethan Hawley faces the same struggles so many men face. A former soldier who is now a grocery store clerk, financial ruin lurks around the corner and his home life is in disarray. Hawley does his best to maintain a brave disposition even as wounds open up inside of him. Inevitably, like countless men today, suicide becomes the sad, seductive choice as his failures inside and outside of himself mount.
The loss Hawley feels is all the more pronounced because of the mercurial nature of hope. Near the end, Hawley bleakly states, “It’s so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.”
It’s when Hawley steps into the turbulent waters of the Atlantic Ocean to end his life that he’s reminded again of his sense of purpose as a man and as a father. Defiance and courage swell inside of him higher than the tides he seeks to embrace as he struggles back to shore:
“A surge of wave pushed me against the very back of the Place. And the tempo of the sea speeded up. I had to fight the water to get out. I rolled and scrambled and splashed chest deep in the surf and the brisking waves pushed me against the old sea wall…I had to get back…Else another light might go out.”
Philip Marlowe in any Raymond Chandler Novel
His crass charm and quick wit have made Philip Marlowe the blueprint of the hard-boiled detective for more than a century. The appeal of Chandler’s iconic character continues to reside in both an ability to quarter no bull while also drawing from a depth of genuine character hidden beneath his rough exterior.
Marlowe’s endless sarcastic quips almost act as a smokescreen to his high character. “The Big Sleep” provides just one of many examples: “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.”
Mike Schuster of NPR describes Marlowe as “cool, smart, world weary, even droll. He dressed in dark gray suits, lived in lonely rooms, worked in empty offices.” The settings of Chandler’s character were “filled with dangerous men and fickle women.” However, “Marlowe was tough, sure, but not cold.”
Marlowe is very much a “modern-day knight” who “despite his misanthropic streak, [is] just an honest detective trying his best to survive in a dishonest society,” according to Shmoop.
“So in ‘knightly’ terms, we could say that Marlowe is on a quest for justice, dedicated to serving his lord with honor and loyalty, despite any sexual or financial temptations and threats of physical harm that come his way. Plus, since he’s got a strong sense of morals, we might also say that Marlowe is deeply invested in a personal code of chivalry.”
Evan Hamilton in Raymond Carver’s “Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarets”
While “Cathedral” is Carver’s best known short story and is fantastic in its own right, “Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarets” perfectly captures the love of a father for his son and the importance of standing up for one’s own friends and family.
Evan Hamilton’s son, Roger, is accused of stealing a friend’s bike with two other boys, Gilbert and Kip. Fair-minded as ever, Evan insists that his son own up to his part and pay back a third of the cost for the missing bike. Mr. Berman, Gilbert’s father, shows up, refuses to shake Evan’s hand, and blames the whole fiasco on Roger.
An old-fashioned fistfight ensues between the two grown men after Mr. Berman digs his shoulder into Evan on his way out. Roger quickly gets the best of the other father:
“They rolled on the lawn, Hamilton wrestling Berman onto his back and coming down hard with his knees on the man’s biceps. He had Berman by the collar now and began to pound his head against the lawn.”
Later, Evan reflects on witnessing his own father in a scrap: “But now he recalled his father’s own fistfight as if it were all there was to the man.”
However, it’s not the fleeting pride of winning a fight that makes the story and Evan Hamilton so compelling. It’s the love and devotion for his son and unwillingness to cede to any bullying even if fighting may not have been the best choice in the matter. That love is reflected in Roger’s words as his father tucks him in for the night:
“Dad? You’ll think I’m pretty crazy, but I wish I’d known you when you were little. I mean, about as old as I am right now. I don’t know how to say it, but I’m lonesome about it. It’s like — it’s like I miss you already if I think about it now.”
Guido Orefice in “Life is Beautiful”
“Life is Beautiful” is a film of staggering proportions filled with a rare combination of levity, charm, and depth rarely done well in film. Roberto Benigni’s portrayal of Guido Orefice drives the film. It was “the role he was born to play,” according to the late Roger Ebert.
Forced to endure the horrors of a concentration camp, Orefice refuses to allow his 5-year-old son to bear witness to the atrocities. Instead, “Guido constructs an elaborate fiction to comfort and protect his son.”
Orefice embodies love and sacrifice and it reaches transcendent levels in the 1997 film.
“But ‘Life Is Beautiful’ is not about Nazis and Fascists,” Ebert continues, “but about the human spirit. It is about rescuing whatever is good and hopeful from the wreckage of dreams. About hope for the future. About the necessary human conviction, or delusion, that things will be better for our children than they are right now.”
Men — young men, in particular — no longer have examples in storytelling to serve as guideposts in character and wellbeing except in rare instances. Instead, most current examples in film and fiction tend to vilify men or reduce masculinity to an effete husk. Still, others reinforce a virulent form of cynicism in the form of “incels” or “red pill” aficionados. Increasingly, one must reach into the past for compelling, overtly masculine characters in film and fiction. Perhaps, that is where change for many can and will be found. Who are your favorite examples?
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.
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