When a big-screen action hero saves a real life or two

Off duty, Harrison Ford's sideline is mountain rescues. But is his motivation purely altruistic?
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The news crept out of the old West last week how Harrison Ford (59 a few days ago), had piloted his own helicopter in the rescue of a 13-year-old boy scout lost overnight in the wilderness of Yellowstone Park, in Wyoming. Ford has an estate there from which, in the last few years, he has pursued the hobbies of flying and collecting small aircraft. It's a passion, and in television interviews I've seen his guarded face relax as if flight was something he'd far sooner talk about than acting. This was already Ford's second rescue – a year ago he picked up an exhausted girl stranded on Table Mountain, Wyoming.

Not that this is a rescue act. Ford has always wanted to be an authentic and rough-hewn American hero (or an actor playing one) – he was a carpenter before he made it as an actor, and he cherishes the simple life in the West, granted that it is sustained by several thousand acres and a bank balance that befits "the star of the century". It's decent, being useful and offering his plane, by local standards, and it's part of the common sense, the rugged ordinariness that he strives for in his life (and screen image).

That Ford's record is easily overlooked is a part of his easy-going reputation, yet consider how he has been central to two great modern franchises – Star Wars and Indiana Jones – as well as the star of these hits: Blade Runner; Witness; Working Girl; Patriot Games; The Fugitive; Air Force One, and so on. True, as he reached his fifties, Ford has been in some duds, films that asked him to be a ladies' man (Six Days, Seven Nights or Sabrina) or even a bad guy (What Lies Beneath). But those vagaries only confirm the proper way of employing Ford which is, more or less, to repeat the advice Gary Cooper gave a screenwriter, "Just make me the hero."

No one mocked Cooper for that insight: he was too "genuine" in his own mind, too "down to earth" to be suspect. He, too, was a fellow known for his "outdoors" life. There were famous photographs of him skiing and shooting with Hemingway. In the same way, Harrison Ford is now celebrated as an "unfussy" actor, a "frontier" figure, a guy in a leather jacket standing beside a small plane at magic hour. I could go on, but we're out of quotation marks.

What I'm trying to suggest is an inner wryness or reticence in Ford that feels the foolishness of earning $20m from movies while being known for the spirit and the prowess that might have thrived in Wyoming when it had a fraction of its current population (pushing one million). Ford went to Wyoming for its privacy, its splendour and because it was still close to a 19th-century model for being American. So, if you hear of a lost kid, you help the search – it's the cowboy way.

Well, sure, but Wyoming has other traits – like beating and killing its rare openly gay person. Wyoming is conservative country – a lot more to the right than Mr Ford – and staying that way. That murder I referred to occurred recently near Laramie – but The Man from Laramie is Jimmy Stewart at his best, isn't it? Harrison Ford can think well of himself there, which doesn't belittle his real service, but may compensate for his modest shame about acting. You see, "acting" in Ford's tough, horizon-searching eyes could be a little soft, a little effeminate.

The example of Gary Cooper is important because Cooper (who was dead at 60) lost his confidence as he grew older. His face became sadder, lined in worry, as he went from the radiance of Morocco, The Plainsman and The Fountainhead to the anxiety of High Noon, They Came to Cordura or Man of the West. Harrison Ford's satisfaction hasn't cracked yet. He hasn't found, or looked for, a role that puts him to a severe test. Maybe they don't exist now? Maybe he passes them by. I don't know the answer, but I'm intrigued at how great stars need to be their own first believers. So don't be surprised if some day soon a picture casts Ford as a kind of shy tycoon living in Montana who happens to be available, and blessed with the right hunch about where to find Julia Roberts when she breaks a leg camping in the back country (and brings her fresh false eye-lashes – if things so lustrous can be "false"). It's a "natural".