No matter which book I pick up, or which movie I watch, it appears that I keep finding the same themes. Heroism and honor, right and wrong, humanity and hope, life and love, tragedy and triumph. This is the power of fiction – to create a captivating tale that conveys universal truths and timeless concepts. This is what makes the pen mightier than the sword. The power of words, of ideas, to change the way we think and therefore what we do. Is there any power greater?
The one theme that I keep coming back to though is heroism. What does it mean to be a hero? This question, and the answers I have found both in fiction and history, have informed everything about who I am as a person. Which is probably why historical fiction, particularly the classics, is my favorite genre. Well, one of my favorites. It’s tied with sci-fi for first place. Sci-fi of course is just historical fiction projected onto what we imagine the future will be. Despite how different they may appear superficially, at their core both are the same. A hero and a villain – the dichotomy of good and evil. This is the key ingredient in forming sterling character.
This is what I believe is lacking from most modern books. Why we have a generation (or two or three) that does not know the difference between right and wrong. Most don’t even believe that there is such a thing as moral wrong. Except for thinking that right and wrong still exists. That’s what sensible people call “an argument that commits suicide.” You’re saying that the only wrong is not believing that nothing is ever wrong or immoral? It doesn’t work that way – it can’t work that way. And if we were still reading great literature, books that deal with right and wrong, black and white, good and evil, heroes and villains, then we might still be on track.
Don’t get me wrong, I have seen my generation do tremendous, unbelievable good. It is my firm opinion that we are the generation of empathy. But I also believe that empathy, carried too far, leads to wrong-doing. Do I want us to abandon our empathy? Not on your life. Nor do I want us to remain rigid in the right-versus-wrong standards of yesterday. I do believe that something that was right 50 years ago may now be wrong and vice versa. Good and evil, however, will never change. They stand immutable upon the laws of nature and nature’s God. If we can bring those standards back and couple them with our modern empathy – my god! What incredible good we could do!
I love old movies. Don’t get me wrong, I love new ones too of course. But the great classics – there’s just something so magical about them. One of my all-time favorites is Captain Blood, starring Errol Flynn. Loosely based on the Rafael Sabatini novel of the same name, Captain Blood was Flynn’s breakout role. His co-star, Olivia de Havilland was also relatively unknown before this picture. Both turned in stellar performances and launched their careers with this 1935 film.
This is the story of Peter Blood – soldier of fortune, doctor of medicine, slave of Jamaica, and captain of pirates. No matter what turn his fortune takes, our hero always maintains both his honor and his chivalry. This is what makes Captain Blood one of the greats. Peter Blood is a true hero. Never broken, never bitter, and always someone we can admire. This is what sets classic films apart from most of today’s movies. There is a clear distinction between right and wrong, good and evil, hero and villain. And yet, the heroes and villains of this picture are not caricatures. They are completely human and there is some gray shading on the scale of good and evil.
Take Arabella Bishop (de Havilland) for example. On the scale of good and evil, she is very clearly all the way on the good side. And yet, for a large portion of the story, she is both wrong and an antagonist to our hero. On the villain side, we have pirate Captain Levasseur (Basil Rathbone). Pure evil, he is nevertheless on Blood’s side for a time. And he is not without a certain code of honor. Then we have Arabella’s uncle, Colonel Bishop (Lionel Atwill). He has no honor or integrity, yet he is not solidly on the side of evil. But he is unequivocally the primary antagonist of Peter Blood – the villain we love to hate. And of course we have our hero, Captain Peter Blood himself. He is truly a hero, yet he has one foot on the wrong side of the line. This is what keeps him human and relatable. This is what makes his heroism accessible, making us believe we can be heroes too. That is why Captain Blood has stood and will continue to stand as one of the greatest pictures ever filmed and one of my all-time personal favorites.
I flipped the TV on today and one of the rerun channels was playing old Roy Rogers movies. My very first celebrity crush, Roy and his movies hold a very special place in my heart. I am the only Roy Rogers fan that I know. (Mama used to watch his movies with me; we were our own little fan club.) I find myself defending him and his movies every time the subject comes up. Seems like no one else appreciates his work.
Roy never played a villain. Or even a morally ambiguous hero. Straight-shooting, straight-talking, thoroughly on the up-and-up, Roy was your cookie-cutter white-hatted hero. And sometimes his movies had lame plots and corny dialogue. Through no fault of his, of course. And, sadly, most of the versions you can find today have been heavily edited. But they are still something incredibly special.
I don’t know if it can be put into words, but Roy Rogers had that indefinable something that set him apart from the rest. If he was anyone else, I’d say it was what’s referred to as “star quality;” but somehow that’s not the right term. In my book, he wasn’t a star. He was quite famous of course, an iconic screen cowboy, but not a star. At least not to me. I guess because he never really seemed like an actor. I don’t think he ever acted a day in his life. I think that every time he got in front of a camera he was just himself. Which is what makes him so incredible – he really was the hero he portrayed on screen. The innocent, boyishly charming, straightforward hero that a whole nation fell in love with.
This is what sets him apart from the crowd. Why his movies are still around when just about every other B-western from that era has been forgotten. The reason a Roy Rogers movie could rise above its low budget and sometimes poorly-written script to become a classic. Because he was a real-life hero. He was an inspiration to a whole country then and he’s still inspiring today. He embodies the best of what it means to be an American and a Christian. From his refusal to remove prayer from his shows to his and Dale’s opening their hearts and home to orphans. Roy Rogers is a real-life American hero – yesterday, today, and tomorrow too.