“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)
I’m not religious, but this line always resonated with me as a child. I had learned of Scott’s Antarctic expedition and the sacrifice of Captain Oates – “I’m just going outside; I may be some time” – so immediately I was struck by how relevant in real life this passage can be. I was also filled with sorrow at the thought Oates’ heroism was in vain and even more so when I read this amazing letter from Scott, “To My Widow” (of course, some variations of the Bible say “no one” rather than “man”, but for the purposes of this post the King James version works).
Creatively, we are obsessed with representations of heroism, duty and sacrifice – which are frequently represented as a significantly “male” trait. We’ve even conceived of the notion of the SUPER hero: a man for whom “ordinary” heroism does not suffice; he goes beyond what is possible and plausible, the ultimate in saviours.
So it’s no secret that physical strength and fighting prowess score highly on deciding what type of “hero” we’re dealing with. Skin colour too is important (our heroes are mostly white); as is gender (though female heroes exist, they more frequently what I call “hardcore hotties” or “men with boobs”). In addition, our heroes are single-minded, doing whatever it takes (even at great cost to themselves). They are frequently, bad-tempered, Mavericks and are always, always sexually attractive – I blogged about it HERE.
But this is not a post about Great White Hopes like John McClane, but what I call “Expendable Heroes”.
No, not Stallone in his mates. Stay with me. Remember John 15:13 again. I’m not referring to our protagonist heroes with this quote: after all, our heroes very infrequently die saving us. If they did, we wouldn’t have all the film franchises we do.
Instead, there will a secondary character who will sacrifice himself – and it’s nearly always a male character who does this – to save the main characters. The Expendable Hero will frequently be part of the Hollywood blockbuster and generally, he will be likable in some way – making us feel the pain of his sacrifice all the more.
Also, perhaps most strikingly, The Expendable Hero is frequently an African American. Yes, really! Check some of these examples out:
Why do we like him? Father Figure to Jimmy.
How does he die: Flung into a precipice by Kong.
Whilst KONG was far too long and to be honest I was bored as hell for the set up and most of the resolution, I really enjoyed the scenes on the island, especially between Miss Screamypants, the dinosaur and the giant gorilla. C’mon, who doesn’t want to watch a woman in a white nighty swing back on forth on a vine while screaming as two giant monsters battle it out?
But other than that, one character that stood out for me was Hayes. His philosophical look at life and guidance of Jimmy made him a sympathetic character, but we know he’s hardcore because of his background as a WW1 veteran. This means we are not surprised when he takes on Kong at the cave, but even when Kong picks Hayes up, we think he will put him back down again … which of course Kong does, only he lets him fall to his death. Harsh. And surprising.
2. Christie in ALIEN: RESURRECTION (1997)
Why do we like him? He’s effortlessly cool/helps the disabled Vriess.
How does he die? Drops himself into the pool of aliens.
Christie is the epitome of cool with *those* guns of his and a lesser screenwriter than Whedon would have had him play out as a Maverick. Instead, Christie is somewhat of an enigma, threatening people who get in his way without a second’s thought, yet carrying Vriess on his back in their bid for safety. When they’re attacked at the pool by the aliens then, we *think* we know how this will play out: Vriess will die, as the “weakest” member of the team, or Christie will go out with him, trying to intervene. Yet Christie’s suicide is brilliantly done, with Vriess’ impassioned “Noooooo Christie! Nooooooo!” for what seems like AGES as he undoes all the belt buckles. We’re not sure what we’re seeing at this juncture and whether Christie is actually going to drop Vriess, so when Christie himself falls … Again: it’s a genuine surprise.
3. Eddie in JURASSIC PARK: THE LOST WORLD
Why do we like him? He’s affable and everybody’s friend.
How does he die: Scoffed by not one, but two T-Rexes.
Eddie dies at one of the most epic set pieces of this brilliant sequel: the caravan. If you recall, Malcolm, Sarah and Nick have gone over the edge of the cliff and are literally hanging by a rope after saving the baby T-Rex from the poachers. Eddie, up in the hide with Malcolm’s daughter Kelly, is forced to return to the caravan and save them by using the truck. However, in doing so, the revving of the engine draws the two adult T-Rexes who eat him. What’s particularly moving about Eddie’s sacrifice is he NEVER FALTERS from trying to save his friends, even though he’s effectively looking at certain death himself. As a result, we’re yelling at the screen ourselves, “Noooooooo!” The inevitability is horrific and because Eddie is such a nice guy – the epitome of the “nice guy Eddie”, in fact – his loss is EXCRUCIATING.
4. Carlos in RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION (2007)
Why do we like him? He’s Alice’s love interest/ saves lots of children.
How does he die: He blows himself, a truck & a fuckton of zombies up.
We met Carlos in the second instalment of the franchise, RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE but I found him a completely forgettable character TBH, which was why it’s really interesting he makes such a splash in this one.
Carlos is helping Claire with the convoy (which includes all those kids) in making their bid for Alaska and it’s only when they’re attacked by the zombie crows Alice turns up again to help (cheers). As with many zombie movies, one of their number LJ gets bitten but doesn’t tell anyone (again: cheers) and it’s when LJ attacks the teenage K-Mart that Carlos is forced to intervene and dispatch him, though not before LJ bites him.
Alice of course loves Carlos (though I can’t really remember why) and wants to break him into the compound and get him the antidote, but Carlos is very stoic and tells her it’s far too late. So they kiss and we all sob, boo hoo, life is so unfair, etc etc.
So anyway, Carlos drives that big truck into the compound and blows up loads of zombies, enabling Alice to get the children and Claire to the helicopter inside the compound. They go off, leaving Alice behind to kick some ass for some unfathomable reason when she could have just escaped. W0000t! I love the RESIDENT EVIL movies (I really do – don’t forget Betty also sacrifices herself for the children, as does Otto; plus peripheral female characters are just as likely to get killed and feasted upon by zombies as male peripheral characters … unusual, when Hollywood usually insists it’s only men who are “expendable” in this type of movie).
Why do we like him? He’s a genius and doesn’t give a shit.
How does he die: He gets blasted by heat.
And now here is Hollywood’s ultimate fave notion behind the Expendable Hero: “the greater good” … ie. saving not just the other characters, but THE ENTIRE WORLD.
Occasionally we see the protagonist do this, as we do with Stamper in ARMAGEDDON back in 1998 (which finishes off the movie, in fact), but THE CORE obviously doesn’t want to do the same five years later, so kills off Braz shortly before the resolution.
If you recall, the Virgil – that big drilling ship they’re drilling to the core in – is damaged at this point. They will all die if they cannot jettison the damaged part; if the crew dies, the world dies. They are the last hope.
Braz is not your “average” scientist; he is not smug and entitled like Zimsky, or full of self doubt like Keyes, either. Braz does however have an inflated sense of responsibility like many expendable heroes: he designed The Virgil and feels personally responsible for not having the foresight to create a way of jettisoning the damaged part. This is why it is unsurprising he VOLUNTEERS to go down into the corridor where the safety valve is, even though it means certain death for him.
Like Eddie, Braz’s death is inevitable, thus his agonized struggles to reach the valve are actually PAINFUL for the audience, too.
Surprise … Or be inevitable. Whatever you chose, be EXCRUCIATING. Make the audience wish that Expendable Hero could have lived and you will have done your job. It all comes down to this:
Duty + sacrifice = hero.
Your heroes then, as the writer? Can be anything you want.
BIO: Lucy V Hay is a script editor, novelist and blogger who helps writers via her Bang2write consultancy. Lucy is one of the organisers of London Screenwriters’ Festival and her book, WRITING AND SELLING THRILLER SCREENPLAYS (Creative Essentials) is out now.