Friday, April 14, 2017


I've been thinking about American National Character a lot lately. Specifically, I've been thinking about stories we tell about large-scale conflict. This sort of thing has been on my mind for a while now, ever since I was teaching a myth course when the movie Troy came out. Some students in this myth class liked the film, particularly the parts in which Achilles talks about how the Greeks weren't portrayed in the best light. Their sympathies lay with Hector and Troy.

Now, I think lots of people today have the same sympathy. This is interesting because the Greeks of Homer's time probably didn't share it.

Back to stories of large-scale conflict. I'm referring to alien invasions and the like. Independence Day, Star Wars, Avengers, all that. Stories of underdogs. Overwhelming odds being beaten by a small group of heroes.

Here's where you've got to follow me: America's fascination for underdog stories stems from the perception of the country's origin as the result of the actions of just such a team of underdogs, often referred to as The Founding Fathers.

Take this premise through time, and we see that our most popular stories have at their core the same themes already present in our myth of national origin. So of course people see in Star Wars a version of US-England conflict--never mind its references to Vietnam.

Here's where history becomes important. The US had no chance to defeat England, or rather would have had no chance if England hadn't been embroiled across the globe in conflicts with France and Spain. England didn't have the opportunity to employ its full military might to stop the colonial uprising. Yes, France gave aid to the colonial rebellion, but myth has downplayed that. I remember seeing that movie The Patriot when it came out, with Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger. There's maybe one French guy in it (or more; honestly, I don't remember much about that movie).

Yet our national myth has erased that very detail of history, that England had lots of things going on. The Empire in Star Wars didn't also have to battle The Other Empire while facing the Rebellion. Or the Other Other Empire. I haven't seen the Independence Day sequel, so maybe that one's about the aliens conquering earth because they finally defeated the competing conquistadors from the Crab Nebula. Yeah, my astronomy knowledge is pretty thin.

There's a book to be written about this topic, I think. Drawing mostly on movies as the texts of the myth, but also on children's school books on history,

These movies have one thing in common: once something small about the enemy is destroyed, the whole Empire falls. More or less. I mean, Iron Man blows up that thing in the space hole in Avengers and the whole alien army falls down dead. Luke shoots the exhaust vent in the Death Star and the movie's done (yeah yeah yeah sequels and stuff, but even at the end of Jedi they win by the same sort of move, only with Lando and Nien Nunb and Wedge taking the shots; and sure, the expanded universe stuff expanded the defeat of the Empire, but still...). Even the movie of Starship Troopers does pretty much this same thing. Essentially, if you want to defeat an apparently unstoppable enemy empire or civilization, all you've got to do is find the weak spot.

So, what was the British Empire's weak spot? I mean, we all realize that it's not very realistic for the plucky underdogs to really beat the evil empire by finding their way inside to learn about the exhaust port vulnerability, or uploading a computer virus to the mother ship, or teaching Hugh about individuality, or tossing the ring into the cracks of doom. And do we consider it more realistic when Jon Snow's rag taggers are saved only by the arrival of Little Finger and a new army? How about how Katniss and her buddies finally overthrew Panem? Does that one fit? (haven't seen those movies, and though I read the books I don't really remember how they won--did they win? they must have won, right?)

I've sort of lost my train of thought. Let's recap: as Americans, we're predisposed to like stories about the triumph of underdogs because our national myth presents our origins in those terms. This elides several key factors of actual history that are ignored by reimaginings of those myths, such as hugely popular movies. The British Empire's weak spot wasn't an exhaust port or vulnerability to infiltration. It was that it had too many enemies.

What movies complicate this reading of myth and history? Probably every movie about actual wars fought in the twentieth century, especially the two world wars. I don't really know.

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