J.T. Walsh is worth remembering! "Hero" must be taken in context! Readers respond to recent articles by Cintra Wilson and Charles Taylor.

By Salon Staff
Published August 31, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

[Read "Oh, That Guy," by Cintra Wilson.]

Cintra Wilson's piece on J.T. Walsh omitted one of his best performances, in John Dahl's "Red Rock West," opposite Nicolas Cage, Dennis Hopper and Lara Flynn Boyle. Walsh's portrayal of a corrupt sheriff who hires a hit man to kill his wife is chilling and utterly convincing; his wordless stares convey more than most actors could dream of with their most impassioned monologues.

-- Nizam Arain

Cintra Wilson notes actor J.T. Walsh's role in Billy Bob Thornton's "Sling Blade," where he gave a great performance. But there is another film to consider: "Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade." This independent short is just the 30-minute opening sequence that takes place in the hospital as Karl Childers is about to be released and is being interviewed by Molly Ringwald. I think that Thornton used it to sell the actual film that was ultimately made. It probably should have been included together with the DVD version of "Sling Blade." For 30 minutes everyone, including J.T. Walsh, is pulling together in a remarkable piece of filmmaking. It's dark and far more nuanced than the opening sequence in "Sling Blade."

-- Ed McGlynn Jr.

I just wanted to thank Cintra Wilson for the wonderful tribute to the work of J.T. Walsh. Yes, many character actors remain nameless to the masses who see and enjoy their films, but I made it a point to remember his.

-- S. Vistins

Talk about still on fire: J.T. Walsh has a short speech in the movie "Outbreak" that is the single most electrifying scene in the film. He is addressing a conference room full of government officials and military men who are pondering the bombing of an American town where there has been an ebola outbreak. He tells the officials that they are going to stand up and support the president's decision and not weasel off to the press after the fact and say they didn't support the decision to bomb the town. He tosses an envelope full of photos on the table and tells the officials, "Look at them! I want them seared in your brain!" And the top photo exposed is that of a resident of the town, a mother who minutes before had left her family after exhibiting signs of the disease, and whose corpse, it is now clear, had been part of a bonfire. It is Walsh's only scene in the movie, and it is riveting. Thanks for the retrospective.

-- Jack Crosby

[Read Charles Taylor's review of the film "Hero."]

The notion that an artist, oppressed by his government, might turn out works in honor of that government is no insult -- it's a common theme of history. What's Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony if not a "response to just criticism" by Stalin?

"Hero" is both a beautifully filmed movie and a really frightening piece of fascist propaganda. (No contradiction there -- one can admire the aesthetics of a Leni Riefenstahl film and loathe the message.) It tells us that the highest ideals are peace and country, and for that reason, the King should be spared. That the King is a violent, paranoid thug, bringing peace and unity only by the sword, is all but forgotten in the movie's rush to judgment that a unified China is a great goal regardless of the cost in human life (ironically, even the hero's own).

Peace is a great goal. So is patriotism. Having both without justice and freedom, however, makes one think of Hitler's vision of a unified Europe bringing patriotism, or Stalin's vision of world revolution bringing peace. That the self-sacrificing "hero" of the title is willing to toss his life and 10 years of planning away in hopes that the king might kill fewer people than the civil war is possibly the dreariest, coldest, most pessimistic message I've taken away from a movie this decade.

-- Lionel Artom-Ginzburg

Reading Charles Taylor's review of "Hero," I found myself following everything he said up to his rebuttal of anti-"Hero"-ites, which caused me to go, huh? His analysis of the situation seems very Western and therefore self-centered (not meant as an insult), when in fact the argument should be discussed on a historical and philosophical level.

The significance of this particular emperor is that he unified a warring and disparate China and brought peace for a number of years. He was also incredibly bloody and ruthless, comparable to and perhaps exceeding Stalin in scale, which is why so many people hate him. This part is true. It's how one interprets this that is controversial.

The film rationalizes these two philosophical paradoxes by contextualizing them within the idea of individual sacrifice for the good of the whole. This rule is one of the primary bases for Chinese life, explaining everything from why there is a seeming lack of concern for human rights in China to why the Chinese government feels justified in conquering Tibet and making claims on Taiwan. People who watch this movie and don't see the message behind it and are unfamiliar with Chinese culture and history do not understand the importance of what is being said here.

The legend of this emperor and the making of this movie is not merely for the sake of entertainment, or the retelling of some bit in history. This story is repeated to Chinese children over and over again, illustrated in god knows how many books, until it is a mantra. It's like the story of Washinton felling the apple tree. Everyone who hears that story knows that the importance of the story lies in the moral of the story, not in recounting how Washington spends his days. It is propaganda, pure and simple. This story has been repeated and used by every autocratic regime in China since this man became emperor.

The most damning thing about this fable and this movie is that it pushes the argument that to have peace in China, there needs to be a strong, autocratic figure. It supports and validates bloody and oppressive regimes that are in power. Better this, goes the reasoning, then to have chaos.

What this movie does not do is point out that this kind of peace is temporary. Futhermore, it closes any avenues for discovering whether it's even possible to have peace without all-centralized power and mass suffering. Because the filmmaker is pushing party lines, he is tacitly acting as an instrument of the government. The ambiguity that Taylor alludes to simply does not exist.

There is one and only one way to understand what the movie's about. While the story style may seem elliptical, the message it conveys is clear. The primary hero in the movie is Jet Li's character, who gives up his chance to kill the emperor, and therefore sacrifices his own life. He represents everyman, or rather every Chinese person. The emperor, as portrayed in the movie, must also thus be considered a hero because he must continue fighting against enemies in order to keep China united and therefore can never experience peace. Both men (supposedly) do this because of love for the country. To be Chinese is to love one's country. To be a hero, one must sacrifice for the country. If you do not act in accord with this, you are not Chinese. It's not just a good yarn. It's dangerous propaganda.

-- Jackie Yuen

Salon Staff

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