The Return of the Quiet Hero

For most great and memorable film protagonists dialogue is key. It’s a crucial vehicle for character development, a sign-post for the progression of the films’ narrative and a humanising window into the character’s feelings. Screenwriters and actors make their livings on the back of good dialogue, but great exceptions to the ‘dialogue is King’ rule continue to make cinema history, despite being belittled and stereotyped as over simplistic. Quiet heroes have found a special place in cinema and here’s why…

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Clint Eastwood’s ‘man with no name’ (his character in For a Few Dollars More, The Good the Bad and the Ugly and A Fist Full of Dollars,) is perhaps the ultimate example of the potency of the silent hero, the role went on to ignite his career but its appeal was in its simplicity. Sergio Leone, the director of Eastwood’s formative trilogy, described his films as ‘basically silent films,’ adding that ‘the dialogue just adds some wit’. This is very much the case, Eastwood’s characters lines are infrequent and never aim to shed light on the characters emotions- this state of simplicity is embodied perfectly in the absence of a conventional name for the character. But, given that these films and Eastwood himself became so iconic we have to ask, what gives a hero the power to resound with audiences without dialogue?

Similarly quiet roles have been undertaken by Charles Bronson as ‘Harmonica’ in Once Upon a Time in the West, Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator and most recently by Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass in the multi-award winning The Revenant

Mad Max: Fury Road offered us a more modern example of the near-silent protagonist. Max’s lines are all entirely utilitarian- he speaks to survive and for little else. One scene even sees him outline his own plan of action briefly, but as soon as his compatriots realise his train of thought they verbally fill in the gaps and his speech is cut short. Both characters share an interesting function within their films: as others talk around them their facial expressions constantly outline what their speech would, were they part of the conversation. This being the case the viewer does not feel at a loss or in the dark as such. Another interesting angle to approach this phenomena from is that, given that protagonists like these are often most at home as the macho focal points of action films, their extremely violent situations are entirely un-relatable to most viewers. That being the case, near silence allows the viewer to project whatever beliefs and justifications for violent action they want onto the hero. (‘Hero’ here is a term used loosely as any fan of Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns will know.)

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Similarly quiet roles have been undertaken by Charles Bronson as ‘Harmonica’ in Once Upon a Time in the West, Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator and most recently by Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass in the multi-award winning The Revenant. In many ways it’s easy to argue that these stoic heroes seem increasingly out-dated. They are found almost solely in action films because their violent natures are often used as sub-texts for their lack of enthusiasm when it comes to vocalising opinions or feelings. They are painted as animalistic, simplistic heroes, and given the rafts of forgotten action hero actors and wannabes of yesteryear the role of the quiet hero is often underestimated. These latest portrayals of memorable quiet heroes by Hardy and DiCaprio remind us that the device is not an idiotic one reserved for B-movies. It has its place and is worth remembering and developing. Between them, Tom Hardy and Oscar winner, Leonardo DiCaprio may have breathed new life into the device.

By George Storr

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