As a graduate student in English literature, I wrote endless papers dissecting the heroes of assigned works, looking into their behaviors, thoughts, and actions and determining what made them worthy of a reader’s attention. Over the years I’ve developed a list of romantic characters that I return to again and again because something in each of them connects with my deepest instincts about what it means to be a hero. Here are a few heroes I love:
Rick Blaine, (Humphrey Bogart) the owner of the Cafe Americain in Casablanca. Pictured here with his costar, Ingrid Bergman. In love with “Ilsa” , Rick arranges for her to leave Casablanca with her husband, Victor Lazlo, who is active in the resistance because he realizes how vital Ilsa’s presence is to Lazlo. His speech at the end of the movie, when he’s convincing Ilsa to go makes me cry every time: “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) To Kill A Mockingbird. Atticus defends a black man accused of assaulting a white woman in a small Southern town. The man is found guilty and is shot trying to escape his jailers before Atticus can file an appeal. The look of defeat on Atticus’s face when he says “We had a chance. We had a good chance” is one of the most moving scenes ever. His tenderness with his two motherless children only adds to his appeal. He may be my favorite hero of all time.
Denys Finch- Hatton a real life adventurer (portrayed by Robert Redford) in Out of Africa. Denys is a man who knows himself completely and doesn’t conform to the expectations of others, even to those of Karen Blixen, the woman he loves. As in many of his other roles, Redford plays the unattainable hero–the man who can’t quite commit.( See “The Natural” “The Horse Whisperer” and “The Way We Were.”) Some would argue this makes his characters self centered and less than heroic, but it’s his truthfulness that makes him admirable even though he breaks your heart into a million little pieces.
Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities. I first read this book in high school and didn’t particularly like it, because at the tender age of 17 I didn’t believe anyone could be so self sacrificing. But I am older now and having seen real life examples of sacrifice ( though admittedly not at the guillotine) I admire Mr. Carton very much indeed. The book was made into film at least twice. I like the older version with Ronald Coleman as Sydney.
Rhett Butler(Clark Gable. Shown here with his real-life wife, Carole Lombard). Like Redford’s characters, Rhett Butler knows himself and makes no apologies when his views about the Civil War clash with those of the other guests at Twelve Oaks. He has no intention of fighting a war the South can’t possibly win, until he sees the devastation brought on by the Yankees. I love his character arc— as in the scene in which he tells Scarlett he’s off to enlist, albeit too late. When his little girl dies in a fall from a pony he has given her, his utter brokenness is heart wrenching. Here is a man who was a daring blockade runner, a Confederate soldier, a man of great wealth, brought to his knees by the death of a child. Rhett is one of the most complicated men in all of literature. I love him for his faults as well as his virtues.
What about you? Who is on your list of favorite romantic heroes?