The James Clayton column: underdogs, Ewoks and hobos with shotguns

Struggling to find a screening of Hobo With A Shotgun because Harry Potter's clogged up all the cinemas, James ponders the long history of underdog movies…

Underdog stories are great, and we all love tales of triumph over adversity, where the meek and humble rise to conquer the impossible. Most of us identify with the little guy, and love to see them stand defiant against the colossal dark titans that overshadow ’em.

It’s sweet to know that David beat Goliath, and that the Hobbits cast the ring into the crack of Mount Doom and destroyed the evil Eye of Sauron. It’s sweet to see Ewoks battering Stormtroopers with sticks, stones and bongo drums, bringing down the Empire in the process. These narratives inspire us, make us a dance for joy and bring a warm fuzzy feeling. (That’s actually an Ewok in your underwear.)

In real life, the massive little guy social demographic rarely gets to taste victory. The meek never seem to inherit the Earth, because the top dog power blocs maintain control and aren’t keen on sharing it around. In a dog-eat-dog world where the overdogs are greedy and not averse to cannibalism, the underdog often gets clawed down, chewed up and then eaten alive with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.

(Cue lip-smacking and hissing from Sir Anthony Hopkins. I imagine that, every time a real-life underdog crashes and burns, Hannibal Lecter’s wicked grin cracks out on the Celestial Scoreboard of Karmic Imbalance (sponsored by Omni Consumer Products) along with a Game Over subtitle and the sound of a balloon deflating.)

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We need movies because they provide a fantastic glimpse at a world where the oppressed, the losers and the lower-organisms-of-the-food-chain become heroes. They get their chance to shine, and cinemagoers get to celebrate the overturning of order, encouraged by optimistic visions, and are reminded that hopeful dreams can come true.

Hollywood makes tokenistic movies and cynically profits from these delusions, but no matter. A little belief is better than no belief, and I’ll take an entertaining break from the overwhelming sense of futility and hopelessness for a couple of hours, thank you very much.

Watching films raises our spirits, and we get a temporal surge of strength and motivation thanks to movie characters, with their upbeat backing soundtracks, gutsy catchphrases and astounding feats and achievements.  We get a hit of hope and are momentarily galvanised to reckon that we can take the power back and win, ’cause Mr Smith Goes To Washington, Spartacus, Rocky and The Karate Kid say so.

It’s not totally accurate to view the wish-fulfilment factory as being solely interested in the viewer’s wallet, though. There are elements within the film industry – mainly the actual creative people and not studio suits – who want our minds more than they want our money. They want to bombard our brains with messages, wake us up to ideas and empower us. These creators aspire to make uplifting art that enlightens and inspires, with the action figures and spin-off video coming as afterthoughts. (Now you truly get to defeat the dark side… with your Wii remote.)

Minority groups have repeatedly wielded cinema as an effective and entertaining tool to represent themselves, and raise the spectator’s socio-political consciousness. Thinking of examples, I’m immediately drawn to early 70s visions of Pam Grier bringing it on behalf of black females in Blaxploitation movies, and Bruce Lee striking back against oppressive Japanese occupation in Fist Of Fury (“We Chinese are not sick men!”)

These pictures are low-budget, independent productions that are both fun and thought-provoking at the same time. They showcase fringe cultural identities and portray the problems minority groups experience, all in sublime cinematic style with some superb fight sequences and superfly dialogue.

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Robert Rodriguez’s Machete is a more recent example of the exploitation flick spirit in action. Audiences get to enjoy a gloriously loopy star-packed splatterfest, and are simultaneously reminded of real life problems of racism, low-wage labour and illegal immigration that are prominent in the Mexican border region.

It’s like a Tex-Mex Ken Loach film with ultraviolence, enormous knives, explosions and a funky soundtrack. It’s therefore, in my opinion, more appealing and interesting as a motion picture and at spreading an important set of messages and ideals.

Having got such a kick out of Machete, I’ve been eagerly awaiting Hobo With A Shotgun, another feature-length Grindhouse trailer spin-off. Rutger Hauer plays the shotgun-toting Hobo of the title, and that’s all you need to know to realise that this, clearly, is a cult package worth catching on the big screen.

Keen to see someone from the bottom of the social structure blasting back at the world with double-barrel strength, I’ve been looking forward to Hobo With A Shotgun’s release date. The date came, so where was the Hobo?

I’m not sure, but I’m pretty sure that Hauer’s vagrant hasn’t stood us up. We can’t see him because he’s been removed from public view. He’s now probably in the gutter turning his shotgun on himself because he hasn’t had a chance to blaze at the multiplex where Harry Potter’s hogging all the screens. Once again, another worthy underdog gets completely crushed beneath the might and bulk of a giant cash cow. It’s heartbreaking.

Potter, as a cursed orphan invented by a single mother scraping a living on the dole, once had a touch of the underdog about him, but now that’s not the case. Now The Boy Who Lived is a Quidditch star and all-round-winner who’s loved the world over and has his own theme park. He’s also a white, middle class male with magic powers, and is always going to be an overdog when you place him next to, say, Rutger Hauer’s Hobo. All Hobo has is his shotgun, and a well-aimed expelliarmus spell would strip him of that as well.

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This is disappointing and distressing to me, personally, as a champion of the underdog. I’ve got worries here that the all-pervading blockbuster power of Pottermania, the Transformers franchise and suchlike completely overshadow all the bold, progressive efforts to present authentic minority tales at the cinema. The meek get lost in an oversaturated marketplace, essential voices aren’t heard, issues are overlooked and truly excellent ideas (a hobo with a shotgun!) don’t get appreciated by wide audiences.

What’s more, the movies cease to be the pop cultural space where the underdog thrives. It’s not just about one hobo – this is about everyone who’s ever had an impossible dream, confronted tremendous adversity or lived as an outsider.

Ask yourself this: do you really want the Ewoks to die and be eaten alive with some fava beans and a nice Chianti?

James’ previous column can be found here.

You can reach James on his Twitter feed here, see his film cartoons here and more sketches here.

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