Erastus Salisbury Field's Lincoln With Washington And His Generals assembled individuals from different eras in national history to evoke a particular national lineage and to form a composite ideal of American leadership and morality. The idealized, composite hero envisioned by Field and other cultural mythmakers possesses a recognizable set of traits; he has been an enduring feature in American collective consciousness through our songs, political debates, art, literature, folklore, school textbooks, television, and film.

Director Frank Capra endowed many of his most memorable main characters with the qualities of the quintessential American hero, and Capra attempted in his autobiography to cast his own life in the heroic mold. However, Capra, like many other American artists and thinkers, could not accept this heroic type unequivocally. In his films, particularly Mr. Smith Goes to Washingtonand Meet John Doe, doubts about the American hero surfaced and were not completely resolved. Were the traditional qualities of the American hero adequate to meet the challenges of a modern, increasingly institutionalized world? What kind of relationship could the hero have with the people--a perennial tension for democratic societies--in a culture increasingly mediated by technologies of mass communication? What dangers lay in the process of simplification necessary to hero-making, and how could that simplification obscure important truths when cynically manipulated? Capra's films are skeptical of the public's ability to interact wisely with a heroic figure, and ultimately they point to a breakdown of the heroic model at a particular period of crisis in American life during the 30s and 40s.

We Meet Our Hero: The American Heroic Type

Mr. Capra Goes to America: Capra as American Hero

"A Big-Eyed Patriot Turned Loose in Our Nation's Capital": Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

"Wake Up, John Doe. You're the Hope of the World": Meet John Doe

Coda: Capraesque Film and the American Hero in Modern Times

Further Reading and a Capra Filmography