If there’s one thing you can say about Americans it’s that we love a good success story. It’s wrapped up in who we are. From Andrew Carnegie to Barack Obama, our biggest heroes and greatest villains (often, the same thing) are people who’ve overcome adversity to achieve more than ever could have been expected from them.
But where does this narrative come from? Something so innate to the American experience has to have roots somewhere in our history, right?
Horatio Alger. You’ve heard the name, maybe you even know the background behind. Alger was a 19th-century American author who penned Ragged Dick, the story of a poor shoeshine boy who rises “from rags to riches” based on the merit of his hard work and determination. Alger, much like every good entertainer in American history, then realized the third verse could be the same as the first and no one would notice, so he wrote dozens of books using the same structure, character archetypes, and themes. From this emerged the “Alger myth,” a story of poor young men who pulled themselves out of poverty through blind determination and belief in a better life. The stories proved so popular that they eventually helped to shape discourse in this country by becoming the campaign narrative of every major political party of the last hundred years.
…except that our understanding of that narrative is at least partially wrong, and our misrepresentation of that narrative helped to create a new kind of hero in the mid-to-latter portion of the 20th century. More on that second part in a second.
The problem with the Alger myth is that it neglects the reality of Alger’s stories. First, characters in his books, such as the titular “hero” of Ragged Dick, didn’t actually become wealthy. By story’s end Ragged Dick has moved upward, yes, but to a middle-class lifestyle as a clerk earning ten dollars a week at a mercantile firm. Second, this isn’t something Dick, or Richard Hunter, Esq., as he chooses to rename himself at story’s end, earned through his physical labor. It’s something he lucked into by chance, the result of a good deed he did to help a wealthy stranger, but not something he himself was able to accomplish of his own merits. The reality of Alger’s stories is that Americans succeed only through chance and the benevolence of the wealthy, not through the “blood, sweat and tears” we associate with such stories.
What does this have to do with cinema, you ask? Well, the narrative we typically associate with Alger has shaped much of American fiction, constantly being adapted and altered to reimagine characters in pursuit of their vision of the American Dream. This is important in film because of a shift in perspective that takes place in the 1960s and 1970s.
Prior to this era our heroes were always public figures: police, the military, doctors and scientists, the establishment. But with the rise of the counter-culture in the 1960s and films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) we began to see a shift in national sympathy. Instead of identifying with authority figures attempting to maintain order, we began to empathize with the criminals they pursued. Never was this more apparent than in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), a film about the rise of a young man in a Sicilian crime family. Soon, the figures in these films overtook the heroes of previous generations and captured the imaginations of young and old, to the point that films about police and the military became about how corrupt and criminal they were.
Why is this? The intense distrust and enmity citizens developed toward government during the late ‘60s over civil rights, police corruption, and Vietnam is partially to blame, but a large part is how we began to regard criminals. Using Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather as examples, the criminals in these films began to be framed as Americans or individuals trying to become American through that familiar old Alger myth. Some have identified this as a subversion of the trope, applying positive attributes to a negative condition, but in fact, it’s the logical conclusion of the idea. Michael Corleone is only a criminal because we regard his means as being bad, and that itself is questionable given our own history, but we never question his tenacity or work ethic – he applies those principles in the same way a blue-collar factory worker would have done to rise up to shop foreman, or a junior account executive would have to become CEO. We began to identify with these characters because they became the ultimate confirmation of the Alger myth in action.
Occasionally these men had to be punished for their crimes, as in Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983) or Mario Van Peebles’ New Jack City (1991), but instead of dying ingloriously or surrendering as had happened during the Hays Code, these figures were given a hero’s death. Tony Montana goes does in a hail of gunfire like a war hero fighting off a foreign menace; Nino Brown is martyred during a speech in which he’s viewed as an almost messianic figure; but no one is ever actually punished, because they exemplify the aggressive obsession with wealth accumulation that has become the hallmark of being American. Their “greed is good” because it connects to a higher purpose, that Alger perspective in which they pull themselves from poverty into obscene fantasy because of their obsessive behavior.
Who cares if this isn’t what Alger was actually saying, that gets in the way of a good story. Who cares if these are men we shouldn’t be lionizing, they have the characteristics we expect of good leaders. The criminal became the true American hero because he (a disconnect from female crime, which is most often presented as unjustified) existed and still exists as the raging id untouched by conscience or self-doubt, a figure with a unblinking faith that his hard work will carry him to a better life, an idea of the American Dream that won’t be compromised.