When I was young there were heroes. They were on TV, in the comic books, and at the movies. It was the 1950’s, the heyday of the cowboy western. It was the age of the buckaroo.
A man of few words, and often a loner, the buckaroo showed up whenever there was trouble. He always defended the weak in the name of justice and everything that was good. The buckaroo supported the law, but he wasn’t bound by it. He fought outlaws, but he, too, was an outlaw in the sense that he was above it. He was Alan Ladd defending the local farmers against the cattle barons. He was John Wayne when he defended travelers against stage coach bandits. And he was Gary Cooper who had to choose between personal interest and duty. Of course, the buckaroo chose duty over his own welfare every time. In the age of the buckaroo good and evil were clearly defined. They were not the products of ideology or politics, but rather they reflected an enduring morality whose mandates were clear to everyone. In the conflict between good and evil, good always won.
There were many buckaroos who, while appearing in movies of less quality and sophistication than those of Alan Ladd or Gary Cooper, were just as well known to my generation. Some, such as Roy Rodgers and Gene Autry, were crooners. Other well-known buckaroos, though not vocally gifted, were Hopalong Cassidy, Red Ryder, Lash LaRue, Palidin, Zorro, and the Cisco Kid. Perhaps the best known was the somewhat mysterious Lone Ranger along with his Native American sidekick named “Tonto” (which, unfortunately, means “stupid” in Spanish).
In addition there must have been hundreds of lesser known buckaroos who populated the Saturday afternoon matinées attended by youngsters of my generation. I cannot remember their names, but they were very much in the buckaroo mold.
In the 1960’s the buckaroo was eclipsed by a new hero, one more in tune with the advent of the cold war and the simultaneous rise in material prosperity. The new hero prototype was James Bond, Ian Fleming’s debonair, womanizing, cold warrior who was licensed to kill. Bond, like the buckaroo, fought for the good. But for Bond, the good was determined by the state. And whereas the buckaroo would kill if necessary, his killing was sanctioned by morality, by that which was right. Bond, on the other hand, was “licensed” to kill, and his license came from the state, the same institution that gave him his driver’s license and his birth certificate. Determined by the dictates of the cold war, Bond’s motives never really engaged our moral sensibilities. We never got the feeling that Bond’s opponents were truly evil. Instead, they were merely caricatures who belonged to the wrong side.
Bond, himself, was a caricature of an updated American masculinity that could only be imagined by most men who lived and worked in an increasingly bureaucratized corporate society. The buckaroo was similarly a model for masculinity, but the buckaroo’s masculinity required integrity as its foremost component, both with regard to justice and to personal relationships. For example, Shane, (played by Alan Ladd) saves Joe from almost certain death by knocking him out, even though Shane is undoubtedly in love with Marion, Joe’s wife. Here Shane sacrifices his own interests as a matter of personal integrity. It is difficult to imagine James Bond in such a scenario.
The 1970’s saw the almost complete disappearance of the hero. Instead, the American public welcomed the emergence of the anti-hero. Perhaps it was because of the trauma of Vietnam and the realization by an increasingly war weary population that world problems were far more complex than had been experienced in the easy morality of World War II. Or perhaps the hero moved out of sight because of Watergate. Yet while the hero had retired to the shadows, it might be argued that he nonetheless inspired the anti-war culture of the young people who protested the war so vigorously. They had been raised with buckaroos. They understood the need to fight for truth and justice, which they identified with the “American way.” The buckaroo would never napalm villages full of innocent victims or destroy villages in order to save them. And it was inconceivable to think that the buckaroo might be involved in the murder of unarmed civilians such as that which occurred at My Lai. Because the buckaroos of their childhood could not do these things, the protesters decided they could not do them either.
The only buckaroo candidate to emerge during this time was Dirty Harry, the loner cop who was forced to confront corruption and criminality in the police force. Portrayed by Clint Eastwood, Dirty Harry wasn’t dressed as a buckaroo, but he sure acted like one. Like all buckaroos Harry confronted evil alone and outside the restraints of social and legal conventions. But Harry was not a genuine buckaroo. He was flawed. While he was on the side of justice, part of him enjoyed killing bad guys. A genuine buckaroo would never have uttered the phrase, “Make my day,” as he overcame his opponent, thereby daring him to resist further and face certain death. For the real buckaroo violence was a part of life, but it was not something to be enjoyed. Ironically, while we appreciated the virtue of the buckaroo, we truly enjoyed Dirty Harry’s dismissal of it.
In the latter half of the 1970’s the hero that spoke to the American public (at least to American males) was Rocky Balboa, Sylvester Stallone’s underdog boxer who had to transcend his low-life background to become a worthy opponent. Rocky’s transformation struck a nerve with a broad expanse of the American public who, robbed of their heroes and faith in the political process, needed to believe again in the possibility of redemption, but now through individual hard work and perseverance rather than through a collective sense of purpose. Balboa’s struggle continues the individualism so characteristic of American culture, but it is an individualism employed not for the community at large, but rather to overcome Balboa’s own personal demons.
By the 1980’s the hero had disappeared completely. Heroes, by definition, need moral clarity, real or imagined, in order to exist. And a clear distinction between right and wrong became ever more difficult to discern as the moral strictures of an earlier day were challenged by an increasing cultural diversity, including the declining influence of organized religion as it confronted an increasingly secularized society, the gay liberation movement, increasing immigration marked by the influx of Hispanic and Asian populations, and the globalization that brought with it the gradual decline of U.S. living standards as manufacturing jobs were exported to Mexico, China, India, and Bangladesh. Clearly, the heterogeneity of the new social order led to a weakening of the moral clarity embraced by the earlier myth of a homogeneous society.
Another factor that sealed the fate of the hero, hence the buckaroo, was the collapse of the Soviet Union. As long as the U.S. and the U.S.S.R were locked in an ideological struggle backed up by nuclear weapons that could destroy the earth many times over, it was easy to know who was the enemy. Overnight, however, the cold war was was won, and the former “evil empire” was now a tourist destination. An entire industry of cold war spy novels, movies, and television shows was now obsolete. James Bond was now boring.
To be sure, buckaroo movies, of a sort, were still made. Star Wars, for example, was perhaps the best example of a western movie set in outer space. An attempt was made to construct the plot as a morality play, as a conflict between good and evil. Luke Skywalker wore the white hat for good, and Darth Vader wore the black hat (or rather black helmet) for evil. The conflict, however, was not entirely convincing. We even grew to like Darth Vader, who really was not such a bad guy. After all, he was Luke’s father. In the end, the movie is just a “shoot-em-up,” and Luke Skywalker is a pale stand-in for Shane, or even for John Wayne.
Since the 1980’s the heroes have largely disappeared. The American public still yearns for them, however. Hollywood continues to make movies about World War II, the Holocaust, overcoming slavery, and Abraham Lincoln. Tom Brokaw’s book, “The Greatest Generation,” makes heroes out of the entire World War II generation of Americans who, when faced with adversity, met it head-on with determination and moral fortitude. But none of these heroes are today’s heroes. They are for times past, not for the present. Ultimately, try as they might, they fail to satisfy the need that heroes provide to one’s cultural identity.
If the popular media is a reflection of our cultural life, it is apparent that we now live in an age of fantasy and cynicism. Our movies and popular entertainment romanticize organized crime, avoid genuine social problems, present us with political fantasies most suitable for adolescents, and virtually ooze cynicism where politics is the topic. We are inundated with tales about the Mafia, drug dealing by high school teachers, vampires, medieval fantasies with no genuine heroes, and cynical politicians.
In Orwell’s, “1984,” it was the Ministry of Culture that produced entertainment for the masses. The product was largely popular music (produced by the “versificator,” a computer-like machine that automatically cranked out mediocre music with a strong beat) and pornography. We haven’t reached that point yet, but we are close.
Culturally, we exhibit a spiritual malaise. We are a nation without national aspirations. We lack genuine heroes that present us with unifying role models to bolster our national identity and a sense of national purpose. Lacking a meaningful national identity, we identify our nationhood with our military prowess and the unconfirmed, but persistent, belief that we are “number one.” We want our political leaders, especially our president, to be buckaroos.
Our ideal of political leadership is still the classic American hero, the buckaroo portrayed in a few excellent westerns, but also in hundreds of westerns on the B movie circuit in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Yet, we know that the buckaroo and his world were always a fantasy. Life was always more complex that that faced by the buckaroo. The moral clarity needed to create the buckaroo seldom existed in real life. Indeed, the buckaroo ignored the racism, sexism, and the imperialism (both cultural and geographic) of his day. The human frailties of our heroes, however, is no reason to dismiss them entirely. After all, in order to be genuine, heroes must be human. They cannot be comic strip characters.
Can we, or should we, bring back the buckaroo? In today’s world there is little place for the buckaroo of yesteryear. We are not the same society we were then. Too much has happened. Yet we need heroes. To overcome the prevalent cynicism and pessimism about the future we need people of integrity who accomplish great things and inspire the rest of us to be better than we are. A society without heroes, without role models of both civic and personal virtue, is a society without direction, one that has lost its way.
It is unlikely that we will find national heroes among the never ending parade of popular celebrities. Movie stars, athletes, musicians, and other celebrities of the moment may be admirable people, but seldom do they rise to the level of hero. Likewise, our national politicians often disappoint us when we discover that their personal pronouncements of concern for the national welfare are little more than a cynical sham for personal gain.
What we need are new buckaroos suitable for the present age. Parents, schools, and universities should strive to identify the people with the accomplishments and the virtues to fulfill this role, and present them to young people. The entertainment industry should use its imagination and creativity to fashion heroes that are as knowledgeable about the world as their audience. The new buckaroos should reflect the diversity of our nation while displaying the virtues of honesty, integrity, courage, fairness, responsibility, compassion, creativity, and a concern for justice. This is a commitment that should be undertaken for the health of our nation and for our culture.
Bring back the buckaroo. “Shane, Shane, come back!”
5 thoughts on “Bring Back the Buckaroo: Or “Shane, Shane, Come Back!””
Brilliant essay on the decline of the hero in mass culture. Thanks, Charles Cottle.
Thank you David for such a kind comment.
Great summary of cultural shifts, Charles! I agree that all of us still want and need heroes; but in an age that appears to have de-valued the idea of collective responsibility, they seem far off. I’m currently on an FDR kick after watching Ken Burns’ documentary.
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Thank you Susan for your interesting comment and kind words. I’m still thinking about the importance of heroes to society. Several friends have made suggestions. I will now take your note about “collective responsibility” into account. Also, FDR was clearly heroic for many people. Ken Burns’ project, I think, is largely about issues of our national identity.
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