Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Fictional Rebels

The most heroic characteristic a human being can have, I believe, is the complete unwillingness to submit his/her will to anyone or anything. My heroes in fiction and film tend to be the ones who don't do what they're told, who kick constantly against the pricks and refuse to bow. Is this slightly infantile of me? Yeah, probably. But I don't care. It's what I respond to.

In real life, all of us submit in one way or another. We sorta have to, sorry to say. Whether it’s to an employer, a relationship, a personal god, the government, whatever. Partial submission is part of that social contract we have with the world. And that’s probably why some of us balk and fidget when we feel constrained by other things, things that we feel we can actually control.

Even in the movies and in literature, the heroes who don’t back down usually meet tragic ends. They die, or even worse, become part of the machine. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, but I choose to think that the lesson is this: death is the trade-off. The hero lived life free.

It’s why I like that Tom Petty song “I Won’t Back Down”, or even John Mellancamp’s “Authority Song”. It’s why I was drawn to punk when I was a kid.

Here are some of my heroes who refused to submit:

Cool Hand Luke. 

What drove our boy Luke to struggle against his restraints when everyone else gave up? What made him attempt escape over and over again, when he knew it would eventually end in tragedy? He was the very embodiment of the slogan, “Give me liberty or give me death.”

Huck Finn. 

Huck wasn’t even aware that he was kicking against authority. He wasn’t a conscious rebel. And his mind was still enslaved, in some ways, by the bigotry of his time. But in his gut, Huck knew that THEY were wrong and HE was right.

Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape”. 

Another prisoner, like Cool Hand Luke, who valued his freedom above all else, even life. He attempted escape from the concentration camp so many times, and was re-captured and sent to solitary confinement that he became known as The Cooler King.

Tom Horn.
McQueen again, playing the real life role of a man who valued personal freedom and integrity so much that he was willing to go to his death for it.

Marlon Brando in “The Wild One”. 

What are you rebelling against? What do you got?


Don Diego de la Vega dons a disguise to fight the oppression of the peasants by cruel Spanish rulers in colonial era California.

And then, of course, there’s the “real people fictionalized” category—historical rebels like Pancho Villa, Spartacus, William Wallace.

I’m sure there are tons more I’m not thinking of, iconoclasts and fighters who value independence and free will more than life itself. Who are some of your favorite rebels?


  1. Said so perfectly. Here you have 5 of my most loved heartthrobs. I still swoon as I see their picture or hear and see words such as these. Great post.

  2. Thank you so much for including Steve McQueen. I have been thinking of him since we were talking about Paul Newman this morning. These were great rebels.

    1. Newman and McQueen always played the best rebel characters, didn't they?

  3. Of course, the brave defenders of the Alamo come immediately to mind.

    Also, I would offer another Newman character, Fast Eddie Felson (in THE HUSTLER, not THE COLOR OF MONEY). Fast Eddie was willing to dump his entire pool career, his passion, his devotion, what he had worked for his entire life, in order to avoid caving in to "the establishment", as personified by George C Scott.

    And then there are the six men of THE WILD BUNCH, played by William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Edmond O'Brien, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, and Jaime Sanchez. These guys (or five of them, anyway) marched to their deaths rather than submit to the demands of society.

  4. Nice post. One of my favs (perhaps because I'm English) is Malcolm McDowell in If.
    Most of Dennis Hoppers' films too.
    Then folk like Sherlock Holmes, Capt. Nemo and The Invisible Man.

  5. Replies
    1. K.A., I really neglected the female rebels, didn't I? Nice call on Jane Eyre.

  6. Emiliano Zapata. Thelma and Louise. Ned Kelly, bushrangers in general. Crazy Horse.

  7. Another good post Heath...You seem to have anarchist sentiments like my own!! All forms of power and authority should be made to prove they are legitimate, if they are not, and most are not, then they should be done away with. Just seems like common sense too me!!

  8. Thomas Paine. Not only a rebel in that he took part in the American Revolution, but in his wonderful dissection of the idiocy of the bible.

    1. D.A., Thomas Paine is, without a doubt, one of the greatest Americans to ever live. I adore him and his work and everything he stood for. He's a man who paid a hell of a cost for his beliefs, but he never backed down.

  9. And if we're including real people here, I nominate John Brown. Even today, he's sometimes painted in a villainous light, but as far as I'm concerned, he's a hero.

  10. Oh man, what a line-up. Love the fact you included Zorro (did I ever tell you he's the reason I put a "Z" at the end of "AndreZ"?
    Plus Steve McQueen's Cooler King, Newman's Cool Hand Luke, and Brando in his early days.
    Another fine addition would be Sefton (William Holden) in 'Stalag 17'. Plus Bogart in pretty much everything.

  11. How about Ed.ward Sn0wden

  12. "Make my day!?! Where's "Dirty" Harry Callahan?