I started wondering about that when I posted my recent interview with Michael Katz about his book “Shalom on the Range” – a Western with a Jewish hero.
Actually, I also wondered about it a few months ago after reading an interview with Michael Chabon regarding his (really good) novel “Gentlemen of the Road,” which concerns a pair of Jewish adventurers around 950 A.D.
For a while, Chabon’s book had the working title “Jews With Swords.” When he’d mention that to people, their reaction was frequently to laugh at the incongruity of the concept.
And yet, there’s nothing incongruous about the concept. For better or worse, Jews – like pretty much every culture in human history – went through a time when they ran around getting in sword fights. It’s what people did before guns were invented.
And it’s not like there’s any shortage of real-life Jewish badasses to serve as inspirations in the modern age.
I figure the dearth of Jewish action heroes is related indirectly to the fact that in America, the 1960s TV show “The Green Hornet” was about a square-jawed white hero and his Asian sidekick, Kato. But when it aired in Hong Kong, it was called “The Kato Show” and regarded as a show about an Asian hero and his white sidekick.
The point is, people tend to model their heroes after themselves. Nothing wrong with that, in and of itself.
But the fact that virtually every movie hero for a hefty chunk of America’s pop culture history was an Anglo Saxon white guy (or an actor who at least looked like one) says a lot about how blinkered we were regarding the mere existence of other cultures as anything other than a bunch of people with exotic accents and clothes hanging around on the periphery of “normal” life. Heck, even the occasional hero such as Zorro or Charlie Chan had to be played by a white actor.
I figure for American audiences in the 1950s, accustomed to seeing black and Asian people portrayed as buffoonish caricatures in movies, the idea of a black or Asian man of action being a movie hero would have seemed laughable.
The started changing in the 1960s with the advent of Blaxploitation and Hong Kong action cinema – two movie genres initially made by and for people of their respective ethnicities that eventually caught on among white Americans because of their almost blinding awesomeness.
In a way, though, that makes the scarcity of Jewish action heroes in American cinema that much more puzzling. Because there’s been a strong Jewish presence in the American film industry almost from its inception.
Of course, the Louis B. Mayers and Jack Warners of early Hollywood were nothing if not pragmatic judges of American taste. In an era when anti-Semitism was common and Eastern European Jewish immigrants like themselves often felt compelled to Anglicize their names, I guess they figured “John Wayne” would fly as an action hero for “mainstream” America audiences, but “Josh Rabinowitz” wouldn’t.
Maybe with movies like “Munich” and Inglourious Basterds,” and books like “Gentlemen of the Road” and “Shalom on the Range,” that’s starting to change.
Hey, better late – even very freakin late – than never.