The other day, my wife asked me a dead-simple question: "What's your favorite book or story of all time?"
Of course, I couldn't pick just one. But after thinking a while, I did manage to narrow the list down to only three. My favorite story of all time is Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game." If I'm forced to pick something novel length, then it's a toss-up between David Morrell's First Blood and Glendon Swarthout's The Shootist.
What's telling, especially for a guy with "SF/Fantasy Writer" in his bio, is that none of my answers is even tangentially SF or Fantasy.
That's because—as I realized somewhat recently—I don't actually like SF or Fantasy all that much. What I really like is Action/Adventure. I just don't mind if my Action/Adventure has magic or ray guns in it.
That said, I don't want to hammer on my growing disillusionment with SF and Fantasy (even the supposedly "pulpy" classics). What I want to talk about today is something else I realized about my answer, particularly the two novels.
Of my three favorite stories of all time, two are directly related to a pop culture transition that happened in America in the 1980s, one more obvious in retrospect than it was in real-time.
I'm talking about the complete shift from Cowboys to Commandos as our "default" pop cultural heroes.
Backyard Bradleys and Saturday Morning SEALs
Maybe it's tough to remember with the rise of superhero media and the resurgence of Star Wars. But once upon a time, kids in America were obsessed with all things G.I. Joe. Toy shelves were absolutely crammed with Hasbro's pint-sized, plastic commandos and their intricately designed vehicles. The cartoon played on a practically endless loop in syndication, spawning an animated movie. Real life celebrities like Sgt. Slaughter and Joe "the Refrigerator" Perry joined the franchise with figures modeled on their likenesses. Slaughter even voiced himself in the cartoon.
And of course, let's not forget the comics. Marvel's G.I.Joe actually ran longer than the toy line did, owing mostly to writer and Vietnam vet Larry Hama's rather sophisticated treatment of the subject. To this day, it's rightly regarded as one of the best tie-in comics ever produced.
G.I. Joe mania was a surprisingly long-lasting and robust trend, driving other toy companies to cash in with their own military-themed figures. Mattel put out GUTS, beefed up, cooler versions of the traditional plastic army men. Galoob made figures based on The A-Team, both in 3.75 and 6-inch scales. Coleco put out toys for Rambo: The Force of Freedom, a kids' cartoon (lol) spun off from one of the most successful R-Rated action franchises in history.
What, you didn't know there was a Rambo cartoon?
Ruby-Spears' Rambo was clearly an attempt to cash in on the success of G.I. Joe. Aimed at the same audience (and with the same goal of selling toys), it featured a similar set-up and premise: an elite, secret counter-terror organization, called on to fight a group of evil militants with a catchy name (S.A.V.A.G.E. instead of Cobra).
Needless to say, this pop-cultural saturation colored the actual-cultural landscape.
There was barely a TV in my old neighborhood that wasn't tuned in to the Joes or Rambo on any given afternoon. Our connected back yards were turned into one massive, constantly-evolving plastic battlefield. Whenever we played in the woods or at the local playground, we invariably fell into some variation of "war" with sticks as guns, pretending to be G.I. Joe characters, A-Team members, or characters from the various action movies we'd caught on cable.
And yes, folks, we saw a LOT of those.
Bottom line, if you were a typical kid in the 80's, there's a good chance the relatively new (but so very old) archetype of the Invincible Super-Commando ruled your imagination.
It was different for my father's generation.
My dad, my uncles, and everyone in their generation grew up with John Wayne, the Lone Ranger, and Hopalong Cassidy. The western gunfighter was the hero of the day, and though "war" was an ever-present game, kids were just as likely to play variations of Cowboys and Indians. There was a pop-cultural mythology to draw from with the Gunfighter, and with public boogeymen like Geronimo and the Dalton Gang.
By contrast, there were few, if any, named soldier-heroes in their fiction. Certainly not characters as towering as the ones found in Westerns. That might be because WWII was still fresh in the public consciousness. Sure, John Wayne played in war movies, notably The Sands of Iwo Jima and The Longest Day. But while his characters were always square-jawed and tough, none were as invincible as his cowboy heroes.
If you think about it, that's only natural. My dad's generation knew men who'd fought at Iwo and Normandy. And while they certainly looked up to and respected these men, seeing them up close—and so soon after the action—reduced them to human scale in the popular imagination. The mythology of the war hadn't had a chance to grow up around them, and it wouldn't for another decade or so. They weren't Brokaw's "Greatest Generation" yet. They were just immediate family, friends, and neighbors.
This extended even to the bonafide heroes of the war.
Never mind that Audie Murphy did more in real life than most fictional commandos ever will. The fact he was still a living, flesh and blood man made him appear less mythical than other folk heroes like Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp.
Ironic, because First Blood author David Morrell has stated in interviews that he partly based his original conception of Rambo on Murphy. The idea of a troubled war veteran at home was one of the pieces that took hold of his imagination, and inspired him write one of the greatest thriller novels of all time.
From Printed Page to Silver Screen
Note: this section contains mild spoilers for the books and films discussed.
First Blood was published in 1972, and introduced the world to Rambo. If you're familiar with the 1982 film of the same name, then you're familiar with the plot. Drifting Vietnam vet and Green Beret Rambo is hassled and hustled out of town by a local sheriff. He bristles at this treatment, and begins pushing back, until it escalates into an explosive moment of violence at the jailhouse. Escaping into the woods, Rambo must evade the largest manhunt in state history, led by the same sheriff.
Much like Tarzan and Conan the Barbarian, if you're only familiar with the Hollywood treatment of the character, then you don't really know him. The novel's Rambo is much more of a sympathetic villain than a hero, and the movie's villain, Sheriff Teasle, is far more heroic and admirable in Morrell's book.
Naturally, the Stallone film made significant changes. The script turned a morally complex struggle into a more straightforward story of an underdog being harassed by the authorities. The movie's body count is much lower (just one, and it's an accident; a fact most people forget in the wake of the uber-violent sequels).
The biggest change, of course, is that Rambo survives the movie's climax, whereas Morrell's book gives him a tragically fitting end.
Along with Kurt Russell's performance as Snake Plissken in 1981's Escape from New York, Stallone's version of Rambo helped usher in the 80's era of Action Movies. While both Escape and First Blood are somewhat sedate, cerebral films, the decade's box office would come to be dominated by an archetype that blended Russell's rough, cool, demeanor and Stallone's raw physicality.
The Action Movie tough guy, typified by Stallone's performance in the First Blood sequels, Schwarzenegger's Commando, and anything starring Chuck Norris, was usually a military or ex-military badass.
Whereas traditional, John Wayne-type war movies emphasized the camaraderie of the platoon, the Action Movie commando was usually alone, fighting hordes of disposable enemies with nothing but his rippling muscles, a machine gun, and maybe a little karate. If he was lucky, he had a team, but they usually didn't survive through the third act, necessitating the Action Hero squaring off against the villain mano-a-mano (or tank to helicopter, in the case of Rambo III).
The Shootist was published in 1975, and it deals with the death of the last great gunfighter of the American West, J. B. Brooks.
In the novel's opening, we learn that Brooks, a larger-than-life figure in his youth, and a man who always lived life on his own terms, is dying of prostate cancer. He decides he doesn't want to go out in bed, wracked with pain and too feeble to stand. So he looks for an opportunity to die the way he lived: on his feet, facing life head-on, with his guns in hand. In the process, he befriends a middle-aged boarding house proprietor named Bond Rogers, and her young son Gillom.
It's a deeply moving story, one dealing with themes of modernization, violence, and facing death with dignity. It's as much about the death of the West itself as it is about the death of Brooks.
The Shootist was made into a movie in 1976, the last to star legendary actor John Wayne. Criminally underrated, and sticking close to the source material, the film was a fitting swan song to Wayne's career, one he spent playing the type of characters J. B. Brooks used to be before sickness and old age caught up to him.
In addition an aging Wayne, the film features performances by classic Western film stalwarts like Jimmy Stewart, John Carradine, and Harry Morgan. The movie also opens with a montage of scenes from Wayne's earlier Westerns, under Gillom Rogers' narration describing J.B. Brooks' life and career.
Simply put, this film—arguably even more than the novel—unfolds as if it knows it's saying goodbye to an era of mythic storytelling, one that dominated the American psyche since the age of the dime novel. Like Brooks himself, it's trying to be the last of the "heroic" Westerns, going out on its feet, on its own terms, with guns in hand.
From Six Shooters to Uzis
Looking back, you can't readily blame the influence of blockbuster action films for trickling down to inspire G.I. Joe. The "classic" G.I. Joe toy line debuted in 1982, the same year as First Blood's cinematic adaptation, and the 80's Action Movie as a defined genre wouldn't really get going for another couple of years. Direct inspiration simply wouldn't have been possible.
Rather, there was just something in the social zeitgeist of the time. The Miracle on Ice gave everyone a proxy for victory in the Cold War. Reagan was in the process of re-building our military, creating a budgetary arms race that eventually spent the Russians into submission. The economy was good. Americans felt good about being Americans again.
It was this overall zeitgeist that fueled the creation of both the 80's G.I. Joe line, and the 80's Action Hero.
It's hardly surprising. If the "Tough Cop who Doesn't Play by the Rules" is the hero we can associate most with the 70's (via Dirty Harry), then it's easy to see why America was eager for a change. There's a gritty, grimy realism to those old 70's cop thrillers. And while the "Rogue Cop" archetype may be good for audience catharsis, he also serves as a stark reminder of an overall corrupt and lethargic system. After all, Dirty Harry was at least partly a response to public anxiety about the police being unable to catch the Zodiac Killer.
The 80's Action hero, with all the flash and boom of special effects behind him, is another animal entirely. Even when he's nominally a cop (or, as in the case of Mel Gibson's Martin Riggs, a commando turned cop), the Action Movie hero took on the bad guys with guns, explosions, and a macho swagger his nihilistic 70's counterparts couldn't match.
These weren't stories of lone men doing the right thing against an uncaring system. They were stories of men at war against the Bad Guys.
And they were winning.
That said, the mano-a-mano fight at the end of a typical 80's Action Movie has far more in common with the classic Western's high noon showdown than it does anything in a traditional war movie.
Whereas classic war movies give us stories of valor in the face of uncertainty, the 80's Action Movie gives us stories of strength and courage against easily identifiable villains. Faceless Japanese soldiers aren't enough here. The evil Russian officers in Rambo III and the corrupt ex-soldiers in Commando are Black Hats, just as surely as the outlaw Liberty Valence was. The audience jeers at them the same way a wrestling crowd jeers at a heel, and they're paying good money to see them shot down in the climax.
The 80's Action Hero is, in effect, an updated gunslinger, transported from the dusty streets of Dodge City to the jungles of the South America, the deserts of the Middle East, or the high-rises of Los Angeles.
In a way, Regan was the most fitting President we could have had at the time. In a decade where an updated gunslinger dominated our pop culture, who better to serve as leader of the free world than a former Western movie star?
Riding off into that Saigon Sunset: Commandos to Capes
The disillusionment of Vietnam is arguably what killed the "heroic" Western. The movie most often given credit for ending the genre is Pekinpah's The Wild Bunch, with its gritty, graphic violence. Pekinpah himself wanted the climactic massacre to feel more like a firefight on a hot LZ than a showdown, and few would argue that he missed the mark.
Westerns after The Wild Bunch just weren't the same. Any filmmaker trying make a Western had to rely on grit, deconstruction, and revisionism to be taken seriously. From 1969 on, the bright, hopeful Western was largely a thing of the past.
Similarly, the Post 9/11 era killed the Cinematic Super Commando. While "straight" Action Movies had already declined somewhat in popularity by the late 1990's, the fall of the Twin Towers and the wars in the Middle East made it impossible to take a John Rambo or a John Matrix seriously anymore.
After all, it's hard to buy into Invincible Super-Soldiers mowing down waves of terrorists when simple, roadside bombs are sending planeloads of real soldiers home in flag-draped coffins. The IED and the insurgent have reduced the larger-than-life, cinematic Super-Soldier to human scale. With the war in Afghanistan entering its 20th year this fall, it's doubtful the old archetype will return to popular consciousness any time soon.
If the Cowboy Gunslinger was my dad's generational hero, and the Invincible Super-Commando was mine, then the current one is undoubtedly the Comic Book Superhero. He provides the same kind of escapism that Westerns and Action Movies used to, complete with the easily identifiable Black Hats and the mano-a-mano showdown.
Time has marched on, and our default heroes have traded in their Uzis and camo for superpowers and spandex, just as surely as they traded in their six-shooters.
Which brings me, in a roundabout way, back to that question my wife asked me a few days ago, and my answer.
I find it fascinating that two of my all-time favorite books are a Western about the death of the last Gunslinger, and a thriller about the first modern Super-Commando (even if he is arguably the bad guy). I didn't read either of them until later in life, well after I'd already been immersed in the existing archetypes of both genres.
When I first read Morrell's book as a teen, I was shocked by its departure from what I—and everyone else in my generation—thought the Rambo character was. The Shootist I only read last year. Like Morrell's book, it's grittier than the film it spawned, refusing to flinch from the ugliness and the regrets carried by a man who has outlived the bad times. It takes the mythical Gunslinger typified by Jack Schaefer's Shane, and reduces him to human scale.
Two books. One that explores the passing of the archetypal hero from my dad's generation. The other, inadvertently, giving birth to the archetypal hero for mine.
I suppose it just means I'm a product of my generation, in one way or another. And that while each generation will have its larger-than-life heroes, sometimes the most memorable stories are the ones that take those titans, and simply examine them as men.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.