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10 Heroic Movie Vigilantes

By Amhara Chamberlayne | April 19, 2022

If you like The Batman, you’re gonna love this lot.

If the continued fascination with The Batman showcases anything, it is the enduring resonance of the vigilante figure. The Caped Crusader embodies traits seen in the vigilantes of old such as samurais and cowboys – two archetypes that have significantly influenced modern heroes. These characters are known for doing their talking through action rather than words. The key to their intrigue is that they break the law, their moral fibre, and their surrounding environment. Their ability to work independently of restrictions acts as entertaining wish-fulfillment for audiences, even when they are clearly crossing the line. If you’re looking for characters that share a similar psychological outlook as Vengeance himself, look no further than the following ten law-benders.

Shane – Shane (1955)

Shane is a classic American western, and its hero is a classically American cowboy – a protector of free will and a charming warrior. Upon his mysterious arrival at a ranch, he assumes the role of protecting the family who owns it amidst their vicious dispute over land with their dangerous neighbours. Shane’s backstory is never elaborated upon, and he is a man of few words, but it soon becomes clear that he has a past as a gunslinger from which he has failed to move on. Shane brilliantly showcases the moral grey area inherent to the cowboy – he is at once a saviour and yet a magnet for violence, ultimately incapable of fitting in modern society, like so many vigilantes. 

Sanjuro – Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (1962)

Although Seven Samuraï may be the better film, Toshiro Mifune’s Sanjuro is a hugely influential character in the vigilante genre. Just look at A Fistful Of Dollars, a near carbon copy of Kurasawa’s samurai caper Yojimbo. Sanjuro shares the reservedness of Shane. We are rarely told what he is thinking, yet he reveals it in his actions as he expertly pits two criminal organisations against each other. When he does talk, it is often to quip wittily, a trait which Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name also adopted, as well as later tough guys like Le Samouraïs Jef Costello (Alain Delon)

The Man With No Name – A Fistful Of Dollars (1964), For A Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good The Bad And The Ugly (1966)

Though The Man With No Name owes a massive debt to Mifune’s samurai, he has arguably become the most iconic western character. Callous yet cool, Eastwood employs many of Mifune’s inflections yet imbues them with a quintessentially American presence. He is so mysterious we don’t even know his name, which is a step beyond the mystique typical of the vigilante. Only his deeds matter and the smoothness with which he carries them out. 

Paul Kersey – Death Wish (1974)

Death Wish is a silly film about very serious issues. Its hero, Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson), is an architect who wages war on crime after his wife and daughter suffer a horrific attack. The premise is essentially a realistic version of Batman, though the execution is quite cheesy. Kersey becomes known as “The Vigilante” and creates a public debate about whether such a figure is good for society. The film attempts to explore vigilantism head-on, but the thing that makes it oddly funny rather than poignant is that Kersey seems to genuinely enjoy being a vigilante – the film fails to convince us that he is primarily motivated by the horrors suffered by his family. Still, Death Wish remains a key entry in the genre thanks to its B-movie charm and Bronson’s brilliant performance.

Travis Bickle – Taxi Driver (1976)

Death Wish flirts with the idea of depicting a real-life vigilante. Taxi Driver does it properly. Travis Bickle is an entirely credible, realistically portrayed character. The film is exceptional in setting out the reasons for which he chooses to take the law into his own hands, but it is even more about the tragedy of his failure to assimilate into society. Taxi Driver reflects the harsh realism of the cinema of its time in its grim, unglamourised depiction of what a real-life vigilante looks like.

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