Yesterday afternoon, Beth and I indulged our taste for action movies and went to see Lockout, Guy Pearce’s near-future star vehicle about a breakout on an orbital prison. Yes, we enjoyed it quite a bit, though perhaps for different reasons.

Pearce’s character Snow is the archetype of the American hero of yesteryear: masculine, cool, fearless, unbending, and ready with a wisecrack for any occasion. He takes quite a bit of abuse — though competent, Snow is neither indefeasible nor invulnerable — but prevails in the end, in part due to a complete unwillingness to surrender to events. Indeed, in one critical scene, he embraces the probability of his own fiery death because it appears that there’s no other way to fulfill his core mission: rescuing the daughter of the president.

I can’t overemphasize how refreshing it was to see a movie built around such a character. Such figures, if not completely absent from recent entertainment, have definitely become an endangered species.

I write heroes, both male and female. I sculpt my stories around them because it’s the sort of fiction I love best, the sort I prefer to read. Being an older guy, it’s the sort I did read in my so-called formative years…which, if God is good, and He is, aren’t over yet.

A long time ago, I proclaimed a definition of a hero that I continue to maintain: A hero is one who puts himself at risk for someone or something else.

An adventurer, who embraces risk in a quest for gain, is not a hero. One who fights in defense of his own life or property is not a hero. The sports figures paraded before us daily, some of whom are undeniably magnificent specimens of athletic prowess, are not heroes. Many of these might have admirable qualities, but until they thrust themselves into danger for someone else’s sake, or in defense of some important principle, they remain merely specimens of Mankind interesting for specific reasons and in specific contexts.

A significant part of the reason for the gradual enervation of the American man’s will and character has been the entertainment world’s assault on America’s traditional conception of a hero. Who in recent popular fiction qualifies as a hero? Who in recent popular cinema would qualify? Harry Potter? Katniss Everdeen?

Today’s offerings are more likely to focus on antiheroes: men portrayed as victims of forces beyond their power to oppose. The archetypal antihero, Winston Smith of George Orwell’s 1984, is ground to characterological powder by a State that will tolerate not even the thought of defiance and has the means both to smoke it out and to destroy it. We can sympathize with Winston’s agonies; we can feel horror at the torments employed to break him; we cannot aspire to be him.

A society’s hero figures are critically important to that society’s spirit — to its conception of its virtues, its strengths, and its destiny. Consider: America became the world’s savior, defeating totalitarian powers in three successive world wars, because we stepped up. We weren’t fighting for advantages for ourselves, or for our nation; we were fighting for freedom and justice. To the extent that they’ve served as the world’s policemen, our fighting men have been willing to do so largely for the same reason: because we regarded freedom and justice as too important not to be defended, even at great national cost and great individual risk.

Apropos of the above, the rise of a careerist ethic in the ranks of our senior officers tracks strongly with the entertainment world’s promotion of cynicism about heroes, and by extension, about our national character. It’s not yet pandemic, but even a hint of it should be viewed with great alarm: a nation whose military commanders think more of their prospects of winning high rank than of the nation and the ideals for which it stands is a nation in danger of being abandoned by its own defenders.

A nation is more than a demarcated territory. It’s more than a Constitutional tradition. It’s certainly more than a common language and culture. If it is not more than these things, singly or in aggregate, it has little chance to sustain itself against the assaults and villainies of those who would profit from its diminution or demise.

A nation that will endure, that will leave its mark upon the ages, must express, through the characters and deeds of its men, a set of moral principles.

Men acquire their principles and aspirations from their culture’s myths and traditions, and most particularly from the heroes at the center of its greatest stories. Even the heroes of the purest fiction play a part…perhaps, given how few of us are ever put to a significant test in this time of great comfort, the largest part of all.