Category Archives: Legendary Heroes

General George Custer and Why Movies are Important

Custer_PortraitBy J. A. Schultz

Movies aren’t history.

That goes almost without saying. Very different skills are needed between recording something for posterity and bringing a rousing tale to the screen. And as such what is shown to an audience should always be taken with a grain of salt. Facts can be altered for the cause of entertainment. Events can change, sometimes beyond recognition, for the sake of the plot.

However, movies should not be dismissed completely out of hand. For while they are not an accurate recording of history they are in fact preserved moments in time. What film and television record are how people (the writers and the audience they were made for) perceived the world around them. What made the hero? What made the villain?

A good example of the intersection of fact and fiction is the life of General George Armstrong Custer.

The Custer of history, the man of flesh and blood, is best known for the worst day of his life: the Battle of Little Big Horn when the 7th Cavalry met the united tribes of Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne. Custer and his regiment would not survive but odd, at times nearly unrecognizable, doppelgangers would be born from that moment of time. Doppelgangers that continue to exist to this day.

The first of those fictional creations actually occurred within a few short years after the battle, though not yet on film. “Buffalo” Bill Cody incorporated thecusterslaststand event in his wild west show, that for a while even starred Custer’s lifetime nemesis, Chief Sitting Bull. The show portrayed what would become the familiar tale of Custer: the noble warrior valiantly fighting a hopeless battle against impossible odds.

It wasn’t long before the story told before a live audience found its way to the burgeoning medium of film. Custer the hero would make his way into films like The Santa Fe Trail (1940), They Died With Their Boots On (1941), 7th Cavalry (1956), and much later in TV series like Cheyenne (Season 4 episodes “Gold, Glory, and Custer”). The man standing on the hill, surrounded by enemies and betrayed by allies, making his last stand. It would become the version of Custer that most people would become familiar with, whether they agreed with it or not.

Yet oddly this wouldn’t be the only doppelganger to come to life in the realm of the screen.

The first embryonic version of a less noble Custer came in the form of Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday in the 1948 film Fort Apache. While not actually playing Custer, actor Henry Fonda portrays a character whose overconfidence and arrogance eventually leads his command into a massacre very much like that of Little Big Horn. But the full iteration of this new Custer would come in later films like Little Big Man (1970), The French/Italian farce Don’t Touch the White Woman! (1974), the alternately-historical The Court Martial of George Armstrong Custer (1977), and A Night at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian (2009). Custer was now a bumbling fool at best or a murderously insane madman at worst. The nadir of this version of Custer came in the 1990s TV series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman where Custer was a brutal sadist who was a threat to friend and enemy alike. Custer the Hero still exists but now he has to share space with Custer the Villain and Custer the Buffoon.

Yet these doppelgangers — the noble hero and the bumbling killer — actually say more about us, the writers and the audience, than the real man. In the time since Little Big Horn society has changed. Attitudes towards Native Americans, tastes in entertainment, and the Custer2tendency to deconstruct heroes rather than build them all conspire to change how we view historical figures. It’s no longer popular to portray a General of an aggressive, expanding power — as the United States was in the 1800s — as a heroic figure (and even that sentence alone could likely cause heated debate).

And this is why movies and television are important when it comes to understanding heroes. They are our collective unconscious where our dreams and fears are given form. Our concepts of morality and nobility are played out. Frozen moments, like insects trapped in amber, that tell us what the world was like when they were made. They tell us what was important to those making them whether we agree with them or not. Modern sensibilities cannot alter them. Films and television may be suppressed, “re-imagined”, or edited but something of the tales will remain. We may not always like what we see in these shadows on screen but it is important that we see them for what they are and learn from them.

And maybe be aware of what we’re leaving behind, for today’s on-screen heroes can become tomorrow’s villains.

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The author, Jesse Schultz, is looking forward to seeing the fictionalized versions of his life.

The Grinch: A Villain Makes a Hero’s Journey

tumblr_lwoa32M1pW1qcyr71By Suzanne Lucero

Around this time of year a person might find his or her thoughts turning to a well-known literary character whose ultimate redemption holds hope for even the most hard-hearted of individuals.

I am speaking, of course, of the Grinch.

In the first sentence of How the Grinch Stole Christmas (by Dr. Seuss), we are introduced to the villain of the piece.

Every Who

Down in Who-ville liked Christmas a lot …

But the Grinch,

Who lived just north of Who-ville,

Did NOT.

That’s terrible, we think. Who doesn’t like Christmas? A few sentences later, though, we are given the probable reason for the Grinch’s dislike. His heart, you see, is two sizes too small. Suddenly, the Grinch is a tiny bit sympathetic, and we sort-of understand when he declares,

“Why, for fifty-three years I’ve put up with it now!

“I MUST stop this Christmas from coming!

… But, HOW?”’

This is the inciting incident. The Grinch thinks Christmas means noisy toys and feasting and singing, so how does he stop all this from happening? The Grinch comes up with a plan, a “great, grinchy trick,” and puts it into action. In other words, his journey begins.

He begins by making a Santa Clause hat and coat. (He foregoes the snowy-white beard, though. Maybe it itches.) Then he decides grinch+with+doghe needs a reindeer to complete his St. Nick impersonation. For this he enlists his tiny dog, Max. The Grinch ties a horn on top of Max’s head, thereby changing the dog from a mere pet to a minion: Max will be aiding the Grinch by pulling his sled.

The plan starts well. The Grinch has Max pull the sled into Who-ville and proceeds to steal everything from the first house he sees. The only obstacle that presents itself to the Grinch comes in the shape of a child who has woken up to get a glass of water. When she asks why he is taking the Christmas tree, he placates her with a lie and sends her back to bed. The Grinch continues to ransack the village until all the presents, all the decorations, and all the food for the feast is packed into bags, loaded precariously on the sled, and pulled:

Three thousand feet up! Up the side of Mt. Crumpet,

He rode with his load to the tiptop to dump it.

(You’ve really got to be feeling sorry for Max at this point.)

The Grinch gloats. He’s won! Christmas can’t come, now. Everything is gone and the Whos will all be crying. He pauses to savor his victory and puts his hand to his ear to listen.

And he did hear a sound rising over the snow.

It started in low. Then it started to grow…

But the sound wasn’t sad!

Why, this sound sounded merry!

It couldn’t be so!

But it WAS merry! VERY!

In the hero’s journey, there comes a point where he or she must “enter the cave.” This is the ultimate low point in the story. The hero is alone, either physically or emotionally. Everything he or she has been working for is crumbling and the antagonist has triumphed; the hero is, actually or metaphorically, dead.

This is the Grinch’s cave. This is where he realizes he’s failed.

 He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming.

IT CAME!

Somehow or other, it came just the same.

But How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a hero’s journey, not a morality tale. For all villains, unless they are true psychopaths (which is a medical condition), the cave offers a final chance to redeem themselves. When their defenses have been beaten and they are no longer fighting but only trying to understand why they failed, their hearts can be touched with a little thing called grace.

Then the Grinch though of something he hadn’t before!

“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.

“Maybe Christmas … perhaps … means a little bit more!”

That was the elixir the Grinch found in his cave, the piece of him that was missing. He realized that material things don’t bring happiness. Simply being together with those we love is reason enough to sing.

the_grinch_cut_the_first_roast_beast_by_rhetoric_of_sushi-d4jyzdfAnd what happened then …?

Well … in Who-ville they say

That the Grinch’s small heart

Grew three sizes that day.

With this new understanding and (we hope) love in his heart, the Grinch completes his hero’s journey by returning everything he has taken from the Whos and sharing in their celebratory feast.

Merry Christmas everyone.

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Suzanne Lucero is a wife, mother, and pre-published author who knows a little about a lot of things and is constantly learning more. She is passionate about writing and is determined to publish her novel-in-progress within 5 years.

 

 

Muhammad Ali: The Odyssey of a Heroic Champion

dont-count-aliBy Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

Declaring oneself a hero doesn’t ordinarily do the trick. But former Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali was an international hero in the eyes of sports fans and ordinary citizens around the world. Ali began calling himself “The Greatest” early in his career, and clearly alienated many. Now people generally realize that his braggadocio was always part of the act, something that enabled him to perform at his best in the ring, and entertain and inspire millions.

His odyssey to heroism was complicated, but by the time of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, there was no question as to which American medal winner would light the torch at that year’s Games. Two years later, it was only a bit of a surprise when corporate America fully endorsed Ali by putting him on a box of Wheaties cereal, The Breakfast of Champions. The citation on the box credited Ali’s impact in sports and beyond: “he was a courageous man who fought for his beliefs” and “became an even larger force outside the ring with his humanitarian efforts.”

When Ali, then Cassius Clay, won the heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston in 1964, large portions of white America were uneasy. Although Liston was widely associated with organized crime, and seemed like something of a thug, rumors also circulated about Clay being associated with “Black Muslims.” Many people found this truly frightening. And although Ali’s wit and boxing skills were extremely entertaining, almost as many were turned off by the talking and bragging of “The Louisville Lip” or “Gaseous Cassius.”

In short order, some of people’s worst fears were confirmed. Clay turned to Islam and took the name Muhammad Ali. He became a vocal critic of the Vietnam War and was arrested for refusing to be inducted into the armed services. Ali’s resistance o-MUHAMMAD-ALI-facebookto the draft on the grounds that he was a Muslim minister struck many as ludicrous. But he fought in court for his deferment from the army and eventually won in a unanimous Supreme Court decision. However, his legal struggles kept him from boxing for three and a half years, costing him precious time at the peak of his career. But he had proved the depth and sincerity of his beliefs. At the same time, more and more people believed that he was correct to defend African American’s rights to their own values and self-respect, and in his opposition to the Vietnamese war.

Eventually Ali got the chance to win back the boxing title he had lost while he was banned from fighting, and that he failed to regain when he met Joe Frazier in 1971. The year was 1974, ten years after he first won the title from Sonny Liston. He fought a classic battle against George Foreman in the African nation of Zaire, now called Congo. That year he was named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated and it was clear that most Americans had come to embrace a talented and dedicated athlete who had both overcome racial and cultural barriers and had the courage to define himself and to help and encourage other black Americans to do the same.

After regaining the title from Foreman, Ali fought for several more years. But the numerous punches he had absorbed during his long career made him the victim of Parkinson’s syndrome, a neurological disorder which makes motor activity, including walking and talking, extremely difficult. During his lifetime, Ali fought outside the ring for those he regards as his people, and he is a hero to most of America. His skill, his struggle, his commitment, his charm and his charisma were inspirational. He was one of the most recognized and admired people in the world. Both he and the nation have come a long way since he burst on the scene as a sassy young fighter who perplexed or repelled much of the country.  For many, he will always remain an important hero.

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Jackie Robinson: The Fearless and Determined Hero

Jackie_Robinson,_Brooklyn_Dodgers,_1954By Jackson Krase

It is hard to believe that the grandson of a slave and the son of a sharecropper would go on to become baseball’s civil rights legend and not only change the way we look at sports but also the way we look at race relations in the United States. Jackie Roosevelt Robinson was ambitious, determined, and fearless on his journey to break through the prevailing race barriers of his time.

Born in a cabin in Cairo, Georgia, on January 31, 1919 and one of four children in the Robinson family, Jackie grew up extremely poor. The Robinsons sharecropped for a white family called the Sassers, where they planted and grew crops in exchange for a place to live. Six months into Jackie’s life, his father deserted the family and soon after, Marlie Robinson, Jackie’s mother, decided to move to Pepper Street in Pasadena, California with the hope of giving her children a better life. Soon, Jackie realized his athletic ability, and the rest was history.

As a teen, Jackie joined a neighborhood gang, but was told by an older friend “that it didn’t take guts to follow the crowd, that courage and intelligence lay in being willing to be different.” Soon Jackie flipped his life around and at UCLA, Robinson was the first person to letter in baseball, football, basketball, and track in the school’s history. However, Jackie’s courage in standing for civil rights really showed itself during his time in the army. g210270_u57210_ip-111After being drafted in 1942, Robinson and boxer Joe Louis created an officer candidate school for African-American soldiers. While serving, he was threatened with court-martial, which he eventually beat, for not getting up to move to the back of a bus.

After his tour of duty, Jackie left the military with the rank of second lieutenant. Later on while playing baseball for the Monarchs of the Negro American Baseball League, Branch Rickey, manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, saw Jackie as the perfect candidate to fulfill his vision of bringing African-Americans in into league. In 1947, his first year with the Dodgers, Robinson earned rookie of the year and even though some people respected Robinson for his abilities and courage, others issued him death threats. During Robinson’s ten year career with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the team won a total of six national league titles, the World Series in 1955 and he personally won the title of most valuable player in the league in 1949. He retired with a .311 batting average and stole home 19 times.

The chronicler of myth, Joseph Campbell, believes that there are three stages in the hero’s journey. The first is departure, followed by initiation and return. In the eyes of Campbell, the hero reluctantly departs on a journey in which he faces the unknown. Jackie crossed 516c891f22417.preview-620the threshold of racial boundaries in the United States, thereby leaving the ordinary and familiar world for the unfamiliar and uncharted one. He learned through his suffering while facing an eclectic bunch of confrontations, even including the possibility of death.

After examining the actions and life of Jackie Robinson it becomes clear that he is both a highly moral individual, as well as highly competent. In the words of Rev. Jesse Jackson, “Jackie Robinson’s impact was greater than just that of baseball. He was a transforming agent and in the face of such hostility and such meanness and violence, he did it with such amazing dignity. He had to set the course for the country,” Robinson was strong, resilient, charismatic, and inspiring, many qualities that make up the great eight of characteristics for a hero.

However, these qualities were not just present during his years playing baseball. After he retired from the sport, he used his unique position and fame as a platform to call for an end to racial injustice. His work with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and with the Southern Christian Leadership Council helped create many new opportunities for african-americans as he spoke on the injustices of racial segregation.

It was in the year 1962, his first year of eligibility, that Robinson was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Jackie Robinson’s actions both on and off the field served as a means of inspiration to a whole generation of minorities who were in desperate need of a hero of their own. His breaking of the baseball color line helped to also break various other color lines all across the United States. His unbending principles and control under this intense and demanding role was equally balanced against his passion for winning. Because of this, Jackie Robinson is a hero for both the sport of baseball and all African-Americans.

Grace Kelly: A Friend Indeed

By Rick Hutchins

Movie stars and royalty are often considered heroes by those who find inspiration in their talent, perseverance, generosity and leadership. In those terms, Grace Patricia Kelly, who won an Academy Award at age twenty-four and became Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco at age twenty-six is twice a hero. However, the true heroism of this remarkable woman is both more personal and more profound.

In 1951, the Stork Club in New York City was a popular haunt of celebrities from both Hollywood and Washington. Grace Kelly, at that time, was a young actress of stage and television about to begin a career in film. As she dined with some friends and colleagues one night, she was witness to what was an all-too-common event in those days — a woman being refused service because of the color of her skin. That woman turned out to be Josephine Baker, an internationally famous singer and exotic dancer (herself a hero of WWII and the Civil Rights Movement), who, at that time, was a far bigger celebrity than Grace Kelly.

With no thought to the possible consequences to her own career, Kelly left her dinner, took Baker by the arm and departed for more welcoming pastures (to their credit, her companions followed suit). She vowed never to return to the Stork Club and she kept that promise. From that night onward, Grace Kelly and Josephine Baker were lifelong friends.

The next several years brought amazing changes for Kelly. She quickly became one of America’s most beloved actresses. In 1955, she headed the U.S. delegation to the Cannes Film Festival and there met Prince Rainier of Monaco. The prince knew a princess when he saw one and a few months later he made a reciprocal trip to the United States where he proposed marriage.

Josephine Baker’s fortunes, unfortunately, did not fare as well. Branded a communist by the HUAC, likely as a consequence of her charges of racism against the Stork Club, whose owner was a friend of J. Edgar Hoover, she was banned from the U.S.  Her luck went downhill from there, but her friend did not forget her. When her difficulties ultimately resulted in bankruptcy, Princess Grace gave her a villa for herself and the twelve multiethnic orphans she had adopted in better times, and offered financial support as well. In fact, Baker’s final show, a glowingly reviewed retrospective performance in Paris, given only days before her death, was financed (and attended by) the princess and her prince.

In 1982, Princess Grace suffered a stroke behind the wheel of her car; she died as a result of injuries suffered in the crash. Throughout her short life, she proved herself a true philanthropist, always using her fame and wealth and status to promote the betterment of mankind, work that still continues today through the Princess Grace Foundation. However, nothing exemplifies her heroic character more than that one selfless act of friendship to a stranger, in the days when that was all she had to offer.

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Rick Hutchins was born in Boston, MA, and has been an avid admirer of heroism since the groovy 60s. In his quest to live up to the heroic ideal of helping people, he has worked in the health care field for the past twenty-five years, in various capacities. He is also the author of Large In Time, a collection of poetry, The RH Factor, a collection of short stories, and is the creator of Trunkards. Links to galleries of his art, photography and animation can be found on http://www.RJDiogenes.com.

This is Hutchins’ sixth guest blog post here.  His first two, on astronaut and scientist Mae Jemison and the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards, will appear in our new book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals.

Johnny Appleseed: The First Hero to Advocate "Going Green"

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

The past two decades have witnessed a burgeoning public interest in protecting our planet and its limited resources.  The phrase going green was coined in the 1990s to describe the mindset and practice of caring for the environment, with green symbolizing a respect for plant life and other gifts of nature.  A growing wave of companies in all sectors of our economy are now embracing environmentally safe practices.  Going green is the right thing to do, and companies find that a green philosophy even saves them money, too.

One of the first individuals to bring the value of preserving nature to the public’s attention was Henry David Thoreau, who recognized the dangerous impact of the industrial age on the environment.  Over 150 years ago, Thoreau said, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.”  He understood the clash between modernization and environmentalism.  “Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind,” he opined.

Thoreau was influenced by one man from the early 19th century whose impact on conservation and naturalism was so great that he became a true American legend.  This icon’s name was John Chapman, although he later became better known as Johnny Appleseed. Chapman was born on a small farm in Massachusetts, and as a child his favorite place to spend time was his father’s apple orchard.  As a young adult, he moved west toward Ohio.  Along the way and in Ohio, he planted apple seeds in fenced orchards, sold them, and became somewhat of a wanderer who preached the value of protecting plant and animal life.

Chapman was described in a magazine article as “a small wiry man, full of restless activity.”  He sported long black hair and “keen black eyes that sparkled with a peculiar brightness.” He referred to himself as merely a “gatherer and planter of apple seeds.”  Chapman played a crucial role in America’s population shift westward during the early 19th century.  His apple orchards provided early pioneers with a self-reliant means of generating income from growing their own apples.  Fresh apples and apple butter were staples in the diets of the early American settlers.  Apple cider could be traded for flour, livestock, sugar, and other staples in cash-poor settlements.  The presence of apple orchards also signified that a piece of land was claimed, serving as the equivalent of a sold sign for all to see.

Chapman enjoyed success with his business model, but he remained a humble man who lived the simplest of lives.  He spent the majority of his adult life living with nature and planting apple nurseries. Chapman clothed himself with the most threadbare garments he received on barter for his apple trees, often giving away the better clothes to the less fortunate.  His generosity and love of nature were legendary, earning him the moniker Johnny Appleseed.  He is remembered today as the patron saint of American horticulture.

In our research on heroes, we’ve found that a certain category of heroes consists of individuals who attain a mythic status.  We call these people transfigured heroes.  Examples of heroes of this type include Amelia Earhart, Robin Hood, Pretty Boy Floyd, St. Patrick, Merlin and Sherlock Holmes.  Transfigured heroes take on a legendary significance.  Their contributions are largely constructed, exaggerated, or glorified into legend.  We need heroes of this type.  They are larger than life.  And as in the case of Johnny Appleseed, they educate and inspire us with their selfless good works.

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Do you have a hero that you would like us to profile?  If so, please contact Scott Allison at sallison@richmond.edu.