Why the 'hero' is the ultimate myth

Is he a Marvel-esque superhuman or an SAS daredevil? Or is he Ed Sheeran? Whatever the answer, it’s clear the public imagination is still holding out for a hero

Andy Martin@andymartinink
Thursday 12 July 2018 17:29
Mark Billingham has become a talisman because – almost miraculously, as if blessed by the gods – he has been able to walk through shot and shell, IEDs and landmines, and come out the other end, more or less unscathed
Mark Billingham has become a talisman because – almost miraculously, as if blessed by the gods – he has been able to walk through shot and shell, IEDs and landmines, and come out the other end, more or less unscathed

He was providing protection to Tom Cruise at the time. Summer of 2002, in Rome. Time off from shooting The Last Samurai. He had mapped it all out, talked it over with the paparazzi beforehand, so it was no sweat. They would pause for a minute or so in front of the Excelsior, the snappers would politely keep their distance, and then he and Cruise would sedately enter the hotel. Everyone would be happy. And the plan went completely to plan. They stopped. The paparazzi took their pictures. Box-office star plus bodyguard gracefully two-step in the direction of the hotel. No drama. Until the point where they’re about to go through the door.

Mark “Billy” Billingham spots this blue streak coming towards them from the right out of the corner of his eye. Instinct honed by years of training, he simultaneously wraps a protective arm around Tom Cruise and grabs hold of the blue streak with the other one. And all three of them tumble into the foyer of the hotel, with Billingham wrestling both of them to the floor. Then Tom says, “Billy, you can let me up now. I want to introduce you to my girlfriend.” Penelope Cruz – Cruise’s then partner – was the blue streak.

She was impatient to see Tom. Maybe she should just have warned his bodyguard before popping up unscripted.

Another time he was escorting Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie down the backstairs of the Waldorf in New York. Everyone was waiting for them at the front. Billingham’s simple plan was to take them out the back down the service stairs. What could possibly go wrong? He was leading them from the front. Ready for anything. Then he tripped and fell down the stairs, knocking himself unconscious. Pitt and Jolie rushed down and held his head and nursed him till he came around. He was seeing stars in more ways than one.

It probably wouldn’t happen in Mission: Impossible. In reality everything always goes wrong and you just have to adapt. Billingham has been an A-list bodyguard to Michael Caine and Russell Crowe and he hasn’t lost anyone yet. He says the main difference with Crowe is that “you spend a lot of your time trying to stop him picking fights”. Now one of the stars of the rugged Channel 4 show SAS: Who Dares Wins, he is an ace sniper and served in the SAS for nearly two decades. Earned an MBE for leading a hostage-saving mission. Tracked down, acquired and delivered mass killers to the War Crimes Tribunal. And is even now planning to take on human traffickers and slavers around the world. He has paid his dues. He is probably about as close as you can get to a real-life hero. One who is still breathing, that is.

Billingham with Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and their children in Chicago in 2007

The “hero” is the ultimate myth, the “monomyth” as Joseph Campbell would say (in The Hero With A Thousand Faces), going all the way back to the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, through The Odyssey and The Aeneid, and all the way up to Mission: Impossible and Jack Reacher. The “hero” – whether engraved in stone or encoded in digitally enhanced celluloid – never dies. Real heroes always do, ultimately, but some live long enough to tell the tale. Here we run into the major dilemma for the hero: can he be the narrator of his own story? Can he speak in the first person of his own exploits in war? And is he necessarily a “he” anyway?

T.E Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) pulled it off in his autobiographical Seven Pillars of Wisdom. So too, more recently Andy McNab, also ex-SAS, in Bravo Two Zero, and Tom Marcus in Soldier Spy. But there is a grand tradition of the unsung hero. A decent working definition of the hero is: someone who says nothing (or not much) and confines himself to pure doing. He acts and then keeps his mouth shut. A hero needs a Homer. This is only partly because, more often than not, there is a legal gag on telling tales. He is subject to the Official Secrets Act or the equivalent. But he is also constrained by the code of modesty. The hero, if he says anything, is always self-deprecating. Thus Mark Billingham’s funny, oblique, mock-heroic stories above.

Tom Cruise in 2012’s ‘Jack Reacher’

On the other hand Billy is very good at swearing. His daughter reckons he has a touch of Tourette’s. “I’ll try not to swear too much, I really will,” he tells the audience at Prince’s Hall in Aldershot for An Evening with Mark Billingham, “but I’ll probably f***ing fail.”

Rambo (in David Morrell’s First Blood, immortalised by Sylvester Stallone) set fire to an entire town because he couldn’t find the words to express his post-Vietnam sense of guilt and horror. Thus the reality of the hero is that he has to say something. Self-repression leads straight into PTSD. Hero turns anti-hero. Billingham was inspired to join up by tales of veterans returning from the Falklands. Now 53, then a teenage rebel, troublemaker and discontent. Brought up on a council estate in the Midlands, he became an artful dodger, going about stealing hats from old guys, until one old guy ran after him, caught him, and persuaded him to go to his gym and learn to box.

He thought of joining the Marines, but ultimately signed up with the Parachute regiment because “they sounded wilder”. He’d never been out of Walsall and suddenly he found himself jumping out of planes in places he’d hadn’t even heard of. Billingham is above all a survivor. He says it’s “90 per cent luck and 10 per cent skill – or maybe it’s 100 per cent luck, I don’t know”. Billingham has become a talisman because – almost miraculously, as if blessed by the gods – he has been able to walk through shot and shell, IEDs and landmines, and come out the other end, more or less unscathed. “I can survive in bad places,” as he puts it. The most time he has spent in hospital has been with a dose of cerebral malaria.

The true hero is vulnerable, mortal. Not a Marvel superhero. The army prizes the hard man. Maybe we all do. Which is why we sign up for SAS: Who Dares Wins or the adjacent “Break-Point Prime Evolution” regime, devised by Ollie Ollerton. We want the abs bordering on armour plating, like a shield or suit of armour. So the bullets will just bounce off. Unbreakable. That is the myth, at any rate. But Billingham tells a story of one of his comrades in Belize, a man who was famously “hard as nails”. The toughest guy in the whole regiment. He marches off into the jungle one day and not long after they hear him screaming. A group of men, led by Billingham, go trooping off after him, assuming he has been taken captive, and is almost certainly being tortured. They locate him quickly enough. No sign of the enemy. But the guy has a thorn in his ear and it’s killing him. Sometimes the worst thing about being a hero is you get dirty and sweaty and you can’t get a shower.

But the big news about SAS: Who Dares Wins is that the fourth series, now in preparation, will have women recruits as well as men. No reason why they can’t jump out of helicopters or rappel down a mountain. You don’t necessarily have to look like Bruce Willis or Arnie Schwarzenegger. “Hero” is now both masculine and feminine. You can’t plausibly say “heroine” any more. It sounds too much like a weepy sentimental movie or a damsel in distress.

Women fight in the front line. The Kurdish Peshmerga (which translates as “those who face death”) includes a lot of women fighters. Asia Ramazan Antar was one of the fallen in the fight against Isis; so too was Anna Campbell, from Lewes. On the more mythic side, we have Wonder Woman and X-(Wo)Men. This is the age of the rogue female.

Grace under pressure: Ruth Shackleton 

I spoke recently to Ruth Shackleton: distant relative of the Antarctic explorer, she spent 20 years in the RAF, rose to squadron leader, did tours of duty in all the usual hellholes, and orchestrated the Red Arrows. She totally denies ever being a hero. She reckons her most heroic moment was when, with Scud rockets from Baghdad raining down, she helped a comrade (who had temporarily lost it) put on her chemical protection suit. Which demonstrates grace under pressure.

Do heroes need to be less modest? The ancient myth of the hero was largely to do with defining and asserting masculinity. Aeneas dumps Dido. Theseus uses Ariadne and her thread to negotiate the labyrinth – where he slays the Minotaur – and then sails away. Ian Fleming’s James Bond follows the same pattern. The contemporary woman hero is fighting back, mainly against patriarchy. “This is the thing about bad guys,” says Stephanie Broadribb, author of Deep Down Dead (shortlisted for the International Thriller Writers’ Best First Novel award at ThrillerFest in New York, the winner of which is announced today). “They are generally guys.” She is a skilled horsewoman who trained as a bounty hunter to provide authenticity for her ass-kicking protagonist. And wields a mean taser. “I knew when I created Lori Anderson, a woman action hero, that she would never have to be rescued by a man.” She was influenced by Thelma and Louise, re-runs of The Saint, but above all by The Avengers (the TV series) in which Emma Peel is on a par with Steed when it comes to karate.

There are other variations on the hero archetype, Carrie Gracie of the BBC for one, or the suffragettes or Stella Rimington, ex-head of MI5. I would propose Sofia Helin, who plays Saga Noren in The Bridge, but is also one of the extremely modest leaders of the Swedish #MeToo movement (“SilenceAction”). But it still comes down to being able to outfight, outwit, or outgeneral the opposition. And being prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice. Billingham sees no reason why women can’t get into the SAS itself: “If you can pass the test, you’re in.”

I was brought up on a diet of highly heroic post-Second World War comics, like Valiant and Victor (who could forget Captain Hurricane?) But at a certain point I decided the hero was uncool. Was he not, after all, a flag-waver for the military industrial complex? Verging on imperialist? Behind every Aeneas there is an Augustus or a Caesar. Winston Churchill is liable to be co-opted by every tub-thumping would-be dictator (as per Boris Johnson with his sub-Kipling rhetoric of “sending our vanguard into battle with the white flags fluttering”.) The hero, like Napoleon, can become a tyrant. And yet the hero deserves resurrection.

At one level, maybe nobody is a hero (who can coincide with a myth?). At another, maybe everyone is, or would like to be (sometimes just getting out of bed in the morning is an act of heroism). Perhaps Gareth Southgate and the England football team all are. Anyone on a quest or a mission. Most of my personal heroes are surfers (take a bow, Ted Deerhurst). We haven’t yet given up on knight errants, Shane-style lonesome cowboys, and Liam Neeson. Lee Child, creator of the globally bestselling Jack Reacher series, says of vigilante loner heroes – who, like the ronin, are wandering samurai that have no lord or master and don’t belong to any conventional force – that “we invented them tens of thousands of years ago because we desperately wanted them to exist. We continue to reinvent them in flimsily disguised forms because we need them to be there, as a matter of catharsis and consolation.”

Women Peshmerga recruits, some of whom are volunteers, aim their AK-47s as they take part in military training

Paul Hughes reckons we need them more than ever. He is a multilingual ex-RAF intelligence officer turned forensic scientist (and CEO of PH Interim) who goes about the country inspiring young people in schools with his non-fictional tales of bravery – not least in dealing with challenges they might face at school. Hughes says that “if you ask anyone who their hero is these days, they are more likely to answer Ed Sheeran or one of those characters from Love Island”. He argues that we are apt to think, just because we are sitting on a sofa and watching television, that the world is a safe place. It isn’t. “Today’s teenagers were born after 9/11. They haven’t seen Srebrenica or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. People forget so quickly – they need to be reminded.”

I’ve often said (mostly to others, sometimes to myself), “Don’t be a hero!” Which is fair enough, mostly. Avoid pointless heroics, if possible. Jaw-jaw not war-war. But the hero, of whichever gender, Billingham or Bond, Thelma or Louise, remains rooted in the collective unconscious. Maybe it’s just as well. So long as we have enemies, we will still need heroes.

Andy Martin is the author of ‘Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me’ and teaches at the University of Cambridge. This article is the result of the ‘Independent Thinking’ collaboration between the University of Cambridge and The Independent

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