In this Man of Character column, Man of Many takes a look at some of popular culture’s most notable male protagonists. We discuss the origin of the character and why they have had such an enduring influence on the popular consciousness.
‘Do you know what you get for being a hero? Nothin’. You get shot at. Pat on the back, blah blah blah. ‘Attaboy.’ You get divorced… Your wife can’t remember your last name, kids don’t want to talk to you… You get to eat a lot of meals by yourself. Trust me kid, nobody wants to be that guy.’ – John McClane
In his seminal 1949 book ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’, Joseph Campbell, in explaining the ‘monomyth’ suggests that ‘a good life is one hero journey after another. Over and over again, you are called to the realm of adventure, you are called to new horizons. Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare?’
It’s a concept that has endured throughout recorded history, from Greek mythology to the Brothers Grimm and most famously, Star Wars. Yet, nowhere is it more readily applicable than to the character of John McClane, first played by Bruce Willis in the 1988 classic ‘Die Hard’.
Based on the character Joe Leland from Roderick Thorp’s 1979 novel ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’, McClane is the ultimate everyman hero who repeatedly braves mortal danger armed with little more than his wits. Having also given the world the catchphrase ‘Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker’, he came to symbolise the reluctant hero in an era defined by macho movie stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.
Originally offered to Frank Sinatra (due to a contractual obligation from the 1968 film ‘The Detective’), the role of McClane was then offered to a slew of established 80s action stars before the emerging Willis was brought in for $5 million. He proved a perfect fit as the sardonic, world-weary NYPD officer who has become something of a poster boy for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Despite the action hero antics, McClane is, at his heart, a family man who begins the first film looking to repair the relationship with his estranged wife before she is taken hostage as part of a faked terrorist plot. It’s a theme that’s continued throughout the ‘Die Hard’ franchise, first with McClane’s estranged daughter in 2007’s ‘Live Free or Die Hard’ and later his estranged son-cum-CIA agent in ‘A Good Day to Die Hard’.
Where his peers often served as little more than male power fantasies, McClane portrayed a sense of weary humanity and wounded sensitivity. Despite continually saving the day, he rarely ends up with the girl and the fame and respect his actions generate simply cause him further unhappiness.
The series of increasingly forgettable, but profitable, sequels have done little to dull the impact of the original and McClane remains one of the pre-eminent protagonists in movie history. He was ranked 7th on Empire magazine’s 2015 list of the 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time and paved the way for a new type of cinematic leading man – the world-weary action hero.