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[whitespace] Hero Zero

Author-historian Jeff Shaara looks at heroism, racial slurs--and 'Battlefield Earth'

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Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it's a freewheeling, tangential discussion of art, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

"America," suggests writer-historian Jeff Shaara, "is suffering from a hero deficiency. Ever since the Vietnam war we've lost faith in our government. We've become suspicious of our own national history. So we've deconstructed all our old heroes--Patton, Custer, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington--tearing down the same types of people we once looked to for inspiration.

"This explains why people are now flocking to see a film like Gladiator," he surmises. "We're fairly starving for heroes."

To press the metaphor further, Shaara is feeling particularly hero-hungry today after seeing Battlefield Earth, the futuristic shoot-em-up based on L. Ron Hubbard's classic science fiction novel. He found it overdone, hard-to-swallow, and frequently tasteless.

In short, he couldn't stomach it.

Put another way, says Shaara, "It could be the worst film I've ever seen in my life."

Set in the year 3000, it's the tale of plucky, cave-dwelling humans, led by a one-dimensional wild-eyed hunter named Goodboy (Barry Pepper), who somehow take arms against the Psychlos, an evil race of colonizing, strip-mining aliens, (including a sneering John Travolta) heck-bent on the elimination of mankind--and the systematic exploitation of Earth's few remaining natural resources. Space ships hover. People blow up. Things die.

"Yet by the end," bemoans Shaara, "who really cares? The problem with Battlefield Earth is that the hero just isn't someone we want to rally behind. He doesn't make us proud to be human."

Currently residing in Missoula, Montana, Shaara is the author of two best-selling Civil War novels. Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure are the prequel and sequel, respectively, to The Killer Angels, the Pulitzer-winning epic written by Shaara's late father Michael Shaara. That esteemed novel was the basis of the 1993 film Gettysberg. Jeff Shaara's newest book is another prequel, of sorts: Gone For Soldiers (Ballantine), a novel of the Mexican War, features colorful glimpses at the youthful Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, learning the rules of war in a conflict that preceded the Civil War by 13 years.

The author is currently working on a novel about America's founding fathers. Taken as a whole, Shaaras' oeuvre plays like a veritable parade of multi-layered, complicated manliness. These flagrantly flawed heroes are, above all, men of conviction, often equally worthy of respect and reproach.

To hear Shaara explain it, our rekindled desire for believable symbols of strength and character may signal a new chapter in the story that began with the simplistic, white-hatted heroes of our old westerns and war movies and histories.

"In most old movies," says Shaara, "you had the good guys and the bad guys, the John Waynes against all those guys in the black hats, John Wayne against the 'godless Indians,' John Wayne against the 'inhuman Japanese.'"

John Wayne vs. the Psychlos.

"There was no confusion about who the heroes were and who we were supposed to root for," he says. "War is essentially barbaric. No matter what army you're in, no matter what part of the world or what time in history, it's extremely important that you convince your troops that those people over there, the enemy, need to be killed. It's necessary to dehumanize the enemy in order to be willing to slaughter them."

Of course. In Battlefield Earth, the Psychlos always referred to their captors by dehumanizing slurs: Man-animals. Rat brains. That, says Shaara, is one of the most basic tools of war.

"It was the Japs and the Krauts and the Nips during World War II," he says, "and the Gooks and the Slopes during Vietnam. They were Commies during the Cold War. All those derogatory terms serve only one purpose: to dehumanize the guy over there so it's easier to kill him without feeling bad."

Shaara mentions Confederate General James Longstreet, a veteran of the Mexican War who, at the battle of Gettysberg, told General Lee, "'You know, I never saw those Union boys as the enemy.' This because Longstreet had fought side by side with those same soldiers in the Mexican War.

"Historically, the more enlightened you are, the less likely you are to commit these acts of barbarism on your fellow human," Shaar continues. "Traditionally, the average foot soldier has always been poor and under-educated. Then, in the 1960s, you had so many soldiers who were college educated, people who'd been watching the Civil Rights movement, and that was the downfall of the old doctrine, 'Those people over there aren't really human.' Because the soldiers in Vietnam had enough awareness about the world, they didn't buy that anymore."

With the growing cynicism of the '60s and early '70s, that hero was all but erased, suddenly deemed a non-existent figment of our childish imaginations.

"Suddenly we were taking delight in saying things like, 'Hey. Thomas Jefferson was no saint,'" says Shaara. "We point to his failures and say, 'See? He fathered illegitimate children with his own slave. He was no good.' But Thomas Jefferson still wrote the Declaration of Independence. He still helped design our system of democracy. He may not have been all good, but he is still worthy of some respect."

Judging by the success of Shaara's novels, and the public's willingness to embrace films like Gladiator--and to fly from the anemic histrionics of Battlefield Earth--one could make a case that our culture is ready for a new breed of hero, without the white hat, but still ready and willing to perform admirable acts.

"I'm convinced that we are all looking for heroes," insists Shaara. "We desperately want to root for the good guy, we need to root for somebody who does something worth doing.

"Because we long to have worthwhile lives ourselves."

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From the June 15-21, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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