Updated Cowboy Movies

Jane Tompkins analyzes the classic cowboy movie in her book West of Everything. [Oxford University Press, 1992.] She shows that a half century of westerns, of the John Wayne variety, had a story line that extolled the virtues of the industrial workplace. The cowboy, like his blue-collar factory worker counterpart, endured difficult conditions with somber determination and self-generated fortitude. The worker had to deal with authoritarian bosses, strenuous labor, and an inhuman time clock. The cowboy, on the other hand, had relentless Nature to struggle with, and bad guys whose evil was evident from their opposition to the rule of law.

Today, we have a new kind of movie with a different story line, one that extols the virtues of the modern-day white-collar hero in America. I have picked three of the top-grossing action-adventure films of the summer of 1993 as examples: The Fugitive, Line of Fire, and The Firm.

The contemporary hero of each of these movies is a loyal corporate salaried employee whose productivity depends on cooperation with his or her peers and and an acceptance of workplace values. In each movie, the hero has a profession that he loves: in one he is a doctor, in another a secret service man, and in the third a lawyer. We are always shown his house or apartment to make us aware of his high income level and professional status.

The story line of each film is concerned with the protagonist's ostracism from the work he loves and his heroic attempts to return to the refuge of his profession.

The causes of his ostracism arise from situations that are outside his control&emdash;the murder of his wife, or the murder of a president of the US, or deceit: being hired by a corrupt law firm that was concealing its corruption. Each movie focuses on the heroic acts the hero must perform in order to return to the good graces of his peer group.

Each hero moves through a contemporary terrain filled with danger and violence, but he never kills anyone and always acts to uphold the ethics of his profession. The doctor practices medicine, the secret service man goes to the front line, and the lawyer invents a brilliant legal tactic.

The ultimate battle of each film is fought out in a hotel, the contemporary center of public life. The scenes include the top of the hotel (the aerie of the eagle) and the basement of the hotel (the pit of hell).

Both evil and good have the same roots in these movies. The bad guys are products of the same kind of institutional environment as the hero, although, unlike him, have failed an ethical test: one is a research doctor who sold out to a pharmaceutical company, another a CIA-trained killer who turned mercenary, and partners in the law firm who soliticited a Mafia client.

In the end, his heroic actions and ethical purity returns each film's unfortunate outcast to the warm womb of peer admiration and professional respect.

There are other elements of the contemporary movie of this specific genre that could be subject to the same kind of analysis Tompkins develops so well in her book on cowboy heroes. But this brief sketch is enough to suggest that the white-collar worker is our newest adventure hero.

Of course, our work force has moved from industrial production line to white collar semi-professional.

Michael Phillips, 1993 (revised 2000)


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