Thursday, June 7, 2018

Reviews from the Greenwood: Michael R. Evans on Rebecca A. Umland's Outlaw Heroes as Liminal Figures of Film and Television (2016)

Rebecca A. Umland, Outlaw Heroes as Liminal Figures of Film and Television. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2016. ISBN 978-0-7864-7988-7. Pbk, $35. 296 pp.

Review by Michael R. Evans
Delta College

Curiously, Rebecca Umland’s Outlaw Heroes has very little to say about perhaps the most famous outlaw hero in Anglophone culture, but will still be of interest to Robin Hood scholars. Umland, a professor of English at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, traces what she terms “liminal outlaw” figures through U.S. film and television, rooting these outlaws in Western European medieval archetypes. She argues that the liminal “outlaw hero”―standing on the edges of society, on the boundary between the law and lawlessness, between the civilized and the untamed―represents an alternative to the “official hero” figure. The “official hero” represents the law or expected codes of civilized behavior (and is often a lawman himself) but is unwilling or unable to enforce justice, whereas the outlaw hero pursues justice even if it means breaking the letter of the law. 

Umland roots the distinction between the “official” and “outlaw” hero in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, where the official hero is Arthur, but the outlaw hero is Lancelot, who places his love for Guinevere ahead of his loyalty to his king and the conventions of the court, but still maintains the ideals of chivalry. Drawing on the terminology proposed by Beverly Kennedy, Umland argues that Arthur and the more obedient Round Table knights represent the figure of the “worshipful knight,” whereas Lancelot represents the “true knight”―the knight errant―the type for Umland’s liminal outlaw hero. She argues that Lancelot is a better medieval archetype of the “outlaw hero” than Robin Hood in that the former―like the heroes of American film and TV―is a loner, whose actions set him apart from the court, and who ultimately has to part from Guinevere, whereas Robin is at the center of a stable group of loyal fellow outlaws making him part of a community even if he is separated from society by his outlaw status.

Umland traces the evolution of the “Outlaw Hero” from classic Hollywood (Rick in Casablanca; Shane) via the heyday of film and TV westerns (the Lone Ranger, Paladin in Have Gun-Will Travel) to the loner vigilantes of the 1970s and ’80s (Dirty Harry, and Paul Kersey of the Death Wish franchise) to late-twentieth and early twenty-first century action films (the Rambo series and the Christopher Nolan-helmed Batman trilogy). Many of these TV shows and films make direct reference to medieval knighthood, such Paladin’s moniker and use of a chess knight motif on his holster, and Batman’s designation as a “Dark Knight.” Umland also shows how the Western helped form the figure of the outlaw hero in American culture, and how even after that genre’s decline many thrillers or action films were “urban westerns” that followed the genre’s conventions. While the outlaw hero evolved alongside changes in U.S. politics and society (from the clean-cut Lone Ranger to troubled, violent vigilantes), Umland identifies some common features that define the figure: he (all the figures under discussion are male) is set apart from the rest of society; he is often a wanderer; he has no long-term female love interest (for example, Rick Blaine famously does the right thing and helps Ilsa escape with the “official hero,” the freedom-fighter Victor Laszlo); he places justice above the letter of the law, defying the appointed legal authorities who are too corrupt or powerless to bring about justice, and often has an ambiguous relationship with the “official heroes” of law enforcement; and he has special weapons (like Arthur’s Excalibur) that signal his “election” as a hero (the Lone Ranger’s silver bullets, Harry Callahan’s Magnum .44, Batman’s gadgets, etc.).

Umland’s thesis is a useful one for analyzing outlaw figures, but I would dispute the extent to which Lancelot, rather than Robin Hood, is the medieval archetype for the outlaw hero. The trajectory of Lancelot’s story, and that of the fall of Camelot, is defined by his adulterous love for Guinevere, making it hard to see him as the model for the brooding, unattached male heroes of late-twentieth century action films (in Death Wish women are merely a plot device to be cruelly murdered or raped in order to motivate Kersey’s vigilante actions). Conversely, while Robin may be at the center of a homosocial network of loyal outlaw companions, he is very much a liminal figure; he is literally an outlaw, but was formerly a member of the establishment (at least in most Hollywood versions of the legend), and he frequently crosses the margins between the forest and settled society, as when he enters Nottingham to take part in the sheriff’s archery competition. Like Umland’s “outlaw hero,” he fights for justice even if it means breaking the law and defying the corrupt representatives of that law. Hollywood Robin Hood has his Maid Marian, but the Robin of the early ballads comes closer to the “outlaw hero” in lacking a female companion, and is even betrayed and killed by a woman. He has an ambivalent relationship with the “official hero,” the king whose deer he hunts, and dislikes court life to the extent of returning to the greenwood.  

While it would clearly be impossible for Umland to cover every TV series or film with an “outlaw hero” protagonist, it would have been interesting (given her focus on recent Batman movies) to see more treatment of adaptations of comic book superhero stories; is Superman a “liminal outlaw,” for example? And what about adaptations of comic books that question or subvert the “outlaw hero” figure, such as V for Vendetta, Watchmen, Deadpool, or the Robin-Hood-like Green Arrow? Likewise, the question of whether the “outlaw hero” is peculiar to Anglo-American culture, or whether it is a universal motif, could be explored with reference to non-western TV and film cultures. Umland points out how Death Wish 4’s plot, where Kersey sets two gangs against one another in order to destroy them both, is based on that of A Fistful of Dollars, but makes no mention of the latter film’s debt to Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Some of the detailed plot summaries in the book slow the argument, as do some unnecessary details, such as Michael Winner’s exact date of birth, or the distance between Bangkok and Peshawar. There are also errors which may not detract from Umland’s arguments, but are disconcerting for the reader nonetheless (Korea and Afghanistan are not in South East Asia, and there is no such language as “Moroccan”).

Umland’s work may not be at the top of a Robin Hood scholar’s reading list, given her focus on Lancelot rather than Robin as the archetypal “outlaw hero.” It is, nonetheless, a useful addition to the scholarly literature on the outlaw figure in western popular culture.

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