Another Pacific dawn bathes the deck of the USS Reluctant in glowing hues of orange and pink and gold. Lt. J.G. Douglas Roberts, tall and thin, stands alone, gazing through binoculars at a line of destroyers making their way to the final battles of the war. He is a hero who thinks he’s been held back from heroism. While others have fought valiantly in spectacular confrontations with the enemy, Mister Roberts has been stranded on a navy cargo ship on which the crew sails monotonously from “tedium to apathy and back again.”
But it turns out that Roberts is the best kind of hero in a different kind of war. He stands up to the tyrannical captain who would otherwise succeed in crushing the spirit of every man on board. He is a voice for the voiceless. He is a role model for understated courage. Every sailor on the Reluctant looks up to Mister Roberts. Maybe part of their admiration comes from the way they can connect with him. We all have things we long for. Those things are part of what makes us human. The fact that Roberts wants so badly to be on one of those destroyers that he has seen passing him by puts him on our level because of the things we want that seem so wistfully elusive. He’s larger and higher than we are, and yet at the same time, he’s the guy sitting next to us.
Mister Roberts was a hero conceived by novelist Thomas Heggen for a work of fiction that quickly became a successful Broadway play and ultimately a hit movie. The reason behind the story’s success matches the reason why audiences can’t get enough of Superman, Batman, and the various other heroes of fiction, super and otherwise. We most admire heroes who are somehow reachable, and what characteristic makes a hero more reachable than a point of vulnerability? Kids in the 1950’s sat mesmerized before their black and white TV sets (or their open comic books) basking in the adventures of Superman. He could “bend steel in his bare hands” and “run faster than a speeding locomotive.” But he was also an orphan whose home planet had exploded with his parents on it. Beyond that, he couldn’t do the normal things that ordinary people do because he was well, Superman. He had to maintain that secret identity, and Lois Lane was always one step away from outing him. He was a man on the run, a man with a sense of longing for things that could never be. Today, the grandchildren of those ‘50’s kids are just as fascinated by the Man of Steel. Like their grandparents, Superman’s contemporary fans know he isn’t steel inside.
He’s like Bruce Wayne, orphaned millionaire, who became a super hero to avenge his murdered parents. Even in his brightest and lightest portrayals in venues such as the campy 1960’s Batman TV show, the Caped Crusader is a haunted man. He is afflicted with that relentless sense of yearning, the same yearning that afflicts all of our most memorable heroes.
If we go back to the man who may be the first hero of recorded fiction, Odysseus, we have the model. Odysseus was larger than life and far smarter than the average bear. Yet he suffered twenty years away from his beloved wife and son. Somehow we know that even when he finally arrives home and conquers the last of the bad guys, he’s going to be haunted by the years of yearning.
Whether your hero is Katniss Everdeen of Hunger Games, Harry Potter of the novels bearing his name, or even James Bond (the Bond of author Ian Fleming, not the cartoonish movie Bond) vulnerability, a sense of longing, underline the protagonist’s personality. Perhaps our attraction to vulnerable heroes is the knowledge that we will never be super heroes or secret agents, or wizards. Most of us will never even be able to handle a bow and arrow. But as long as our heroes share certain aspects of our weaknesses, there is a way in which we are not so ordinary after all.