Joseph Campbell defines the reluctant hero as one who, at first, refuses the call to adventure and has little desire, or belief in their ability, to save the day. This refusal of the call is borne of fear or selfishness, embedded deep within their personality, and from past experiences long before the audience meets them. They become embroiled in the adventure at the hand of external forces beyond their control.
In the 1980s, John Carpenter helped further define the reluctant hero. He created outsiders who led isolated existences, until they were challenged by antagonistic forces and became relied upon by friends and allies they didn’t want to make. Although not all box office hits, Escape From New York, The Thing and Big Trouble In Little China are regarded as cult classics today.
Carpenter places his reluctant heroes in surroundings, which reflect the characteristics that informed their original reasons to refuse the call. In these environments, he confronts them with what they each believe to be the most aggravating circumstances, set in motion by formidable antagonists.
Escape From New York (1981): Snake Plissken
Carpenter’s first and most iconic reluctant hero is Escape From New York’s Snake Plissken – a decorated war hero found guilty of robbing the Federal Reserve Depository. Before being sentenced to life imprisonment in a dystopian Manhattan Island, now a maximum-security prison, he is summoned by Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef).
There was an accident about an hour ago. A small jet went down inside New York City. The President was on board.
President of what?
That’s not funny, Plissken. You go in, find the President and bring him out in 24 hours, and you’re a free man.
As can be seen in the above exchange, Plissken constantly undermines all authority. He treats matters of great peril with levity and refuses to place trust in anyone but himself. In our world, Plissken would be regarded as an anti-hero. But in the bleak world he inhabits, he’s the only hero that could survive.
Call me Snake.
Saving the President would prevent a devastating nuclear war. But Snake doesn’t care about a world he believes is not worth saving. However, his reluctance is overturned when it becomes apparent that Hauk has deviously injected him with two microscopic capsules that will kill him in 22 hours if he fails to retrieve the President. This is the lock-in, where Snake’s misanthropy is now completely understandable to the audience.
There’s no better place to send a misanthrope than humanity’s cesspool, Manhattan Island, which is under the rule of The Duke (Isaac Hayes). Snake’s mode of offense has to be stealthy and evasive, avoiding unnecessary altercations.
His extreme reluctance to save anybody but himself is demonstrated in a scene that shows him indifferently passing a group of men assaulting a woman. Snake’s obligations are to himself and no-one else. Only in these circumstances, and in this volatile environment, could an audience still relate to a character and continue to will him to complete the mission.
The Thing (1982): R.J. MacReady
The Thing’s reluctant hero,helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady, doesn’t want to deal with people. That’s why he’s gone to the Antarctic. He would rather play chess with a computer than with any of the scientists in his team.
The opening sequence sees Norwegian scientists attempting to kill a fleeing Alaskan Malamute, whilst recklessly approaching the team’s base. This encounter ends in death and the team turns to MacReady to fly them out to the Norwegian base so they can investigate what happened there. His disinterest is indicated when he refers to the Norwegians as Swedes. Not only does MacReady avoid people. He avoids responsibility.
I have to talk to you.
I’m tired of talking, Fuchs. I just wanna get up to my shack and get drunk.
It is soon established that a malevolent alien life form, capable of extinguishing the human race, is amongst the team. MacReady begins to witness escalating distrust and hysteria. Yet he still has reservations about leading a team with a number of people seemingly more appropriate to take the mantle.
Now how’s this motherfucker wake up after thousands of years in the ice?
And how could it look like a dog?
I don’t know how. Cause it’s different than us, see? Cause it’s from outer space. What do you want from me? Ask him.
MacReady continues to resist leadership until circumstances discount the other five candidates. His original obligations were only to his pay, his solitude and his whiskey. Unlike Snake, MacReady’s circumstances shift his obligations to the team, when he officially assumes leadership for the sake of humanity.
The two script excerpts above highlight MacReady’s numerous refusals to the call. This is despite the audience identifying him as being the most reassuring, composed presence in the team, to the point of desperately willing him to overcome his reluctance and exercise his attributes to calm the storm.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986): Jack Burton
Whilst Snake and MacReady remain reluctant throughout, begrudging the fact they must play the hero, Big Trouble In Little China’s Jack Burton represents the inverse. Of all the heroes, he has the least skill and the most limited intelligence but reconciles it with an abundance of bravado, charisma and one-liners, on top of his one legitimate skill – his reflexes.
Jack Burton’s only long-term obligation is to his beloved truck, the Pork-Chop Express. When passing through Chinatown – an environment of which he has no knowledge or understanding – he reconvenes with an old friend, the much more competent Wang Chi (Dennis Dun). When a Chinese street gang kidnaps Wang’s fiancée, Jack Burton is more than willing to help rescue her. However, circumstances change, entangling the pair in an ancient feud involving a 2000-year-old Chinese curse, causing Jack Burton to lose his truck in the process.
All plot lines converge when the accursed antagonist, David Lo Pan (James Hong), comes into the possession of both Wang’s fiancée and the Pork-Chop Express. Jack’s Burton’s heart and mind are now fully focused towards action, but preoccupied with his truck. In Lo Pan’s first engagement with the protagonists, Jack Burton has to be reminded that in deciding to be the hero, he’s actually attempting to save Wang’s fiancée, albeit unwittingly.
Shut up, Mr Burton! You are not brought upon this world to “get it”.
Come on! Lo Pan is like-
Nothing you can understand. There are many mysteries, many unanswerable questions, even in a life as short as yours.
Yeah, well, the way I see it, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask. Like, where’s my truck?
You are not looking for a truck. You’re looking for a girl. A girl with green eyes.
Jack Burton’s primary goal lies in the subplot of getting his truck back. His secondary goal lies in the main plot of rescuing Wang’s fiancée. Only by saving the girl first, can he then get the Pork Chop Express back. By deferring his responsibility with the main plot, he is somewhat a reluctant hero and effectively Wang’s sidekick for the duration of the film. But when he stumbles into the main plot and becomes a major player in the outcome of it, Jack Burton is transformed into the accidental hero.
The Carpenter Connection: Kurt Russell
What do the reluctant heroes in all these films have in common? First and foremost, they were played by the inimitable Kurt Russell. Carpenter saw in Russell an actor that could portray an augmented everyman. Neither muscle-bound or dainty. Not pretty but not ugly.
With each character, Russell held an air of individuality, honesty and approachability. This allowed audiences to easily relate to him, especially as the reluctant hero, all the time willing his mind to change and for him to accept the hero’s burden on their behalf.
The reluctance of Snake and MacReady is evident in their dialogue. Their conversations consist mainly of curt responses, questions of vital importance and dismissive reactions. They don’t waste a word.
Snake’s ability to communicate is further suppressed by his eye patch, whilst MacReady’s unkempt beard suggests he is a stone that wishes to be left alone to gather moss. Conversely, Jack Burton talks too much and thinks too little, both of which land him in trouble. And his clean-shaven appearance points to his brazen naiveté.
Carpenter’s three reluctant heroes have reputations that precede them. This allows the audience to immediately identify them as the character to root for. Snake is recognized by everyone that meets him, and MacReady’s team always consult with him before taking action. Yet both remain modest, as exemplified by their understated, subdued entrances, which capture the particular type of reluctance they carry through their films.
Jack Burton’s entrance is overblown. He is lauded as a hero before we even meet him. When we do, he is hyperbolizing about his abilities. This misguided bravado is what initially pushes him onto a rescue mission, and into an environment that he later learns he will be out of his depth in. In this world, all Jack Burton can grasp is that the bad guys have his truck.
Snake, MacReady and Jack Burton stubbornly resist change because they are already content with themselves. Their environments and circumstances temporarily force them to change. If any of the heroes were put in similar environments and situations again, it is possible to imagine they would initially respond in the same reluctant manner.
Their characters’ intrinsic aversion to change is also reflected in their exits. At the end of each film, the hero finds himself almost as alone as when he started. This reminds the audience that they never really wanted to be ensnared in other peoples’ problems. So as the reluctant heroes depart, the supporting characters and audiences are compelled to gratefully say goodbye and thank them for deciding to save the day.
The only way it might work is if you buy a bigger truck. One with a cozy little apartment in back, just big enough for two.
That sounds pretty great. But, you know something, sooner or later I rub everybody the wrong way. Well, let me think about it.
God, aren’t you even gonna kiss her goodbye?
See you around, Burton.
Never can tell.