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Does The Great Train Robbery Explain How Villains Became the New Heroes?

07/08/2013 18:53 BST | Updated 07/10/2013 10:12 BST

The anniversary of the Great Train Robbery is being marked in various ways - The Times newspaper reports that a Monopoly set, played by the Great Train Robbers using real cash, while they eluded capture by hiding on a farm, has turned up on the TV programme Antiques Roadshow. Apparently, The Times reports, it was fingerprints on this board game, which later helped convict the gang.

That such an item could become revered, might be part of a modern glamorisation of villainy. Ronnie Biggs and fellow gang members began to be portrayed as romanticised folk heroes. Was the Great Train Robbery the beginning of a process which lead to popular TV series such as The Sopranos and Dexter, where hero and villain often appear inverted?

If heroes were supposed to be moral enough to still do the right thing, despite facing difficult predicaments, does the modern transformation of criminal to hero reveal something deeply troubling about our era?

Psychologist Derek Rohleder has published a dissertation entitled The shadow as hero in American culture: A Jungian analysis of the villain archetype transformed. His thesis is that in modern popular culture the villain has frequently been transformed into a heroic figure. Dr Rohleder uses examples including Hannibal Lecter the cannibal psychiatrist who has become the 'hero' of blockbuster movies including The Silence of the Lambs.

The 'rogue' or 'rebel' has long been a key element of heroic character in fiction and real life, perhaps part of the confusion here is that we assume the outlaw is naturally an underdog.

George Goethals and Scott Allison from the University of Richmond, Virginia, USA, in their analysis of who the public regards as heroic, have found that a key ingredient is the notion of the underdog. In a paper entitled Making Heroes: The Construction of Courage, Competence and Virtue, they state how they found people root for, identify with, and are most fond of, underdogs. Those who must struggle to achieve their objectives.

Their paper published in the journal Advances in Experimental Social Psychology explains that this liking and rooting for perceived underdogs, is so deep-rooted, it even holds for inanimate objects, whose movements on a computer screen activate scripts of struggle and effort against more powerful rivals.

They discovered in their own surveys of the public that when asked if they had any heroes, 95% listed at least two heroes, and two-thirds listed six or more in just a few minutes. Roughly a third of heroes, from this research, are family members, a third are real public figures, but the last third are fictional, often from TV and film.

This indicates the media representation of heroic status is extremely important.

Political strategists now make a standard attempt to cast even the most wealthy, institutionalised candidates as actually battling rebels, fearlessly taking on vested interests.

Our deep psychological needs for heroic individuals to idolise, who triumph over adversity, is revealed by the structure of modern popular stories in fiction and film. It's never 'systems' or 'committees' which ride out of the sunset, to the rescue of those in distress, but instead it's the rebel loner.

Disobedience and defiance are also deliciously childish pleasures, which the Freudians would probably contend are part of the romantic allure of those who disregard rules.

Modern cynicism about our rulers is revealed in anti-heroes who dissent and refuse to follow edicts.

The rise of the vigilante hero - who takes the law into their own hands and meters out justice themselves, without waiting for due process to creak into action, also reveals a lack of faith in 'the system' to see injustice is punished.

But the reality of criminals, beneath the veneer of glamour which Hollywood and paperback fiction likes to gloss over them, is that these are often the immature and inadequate who want to take short-cuts.

They yearn for comfort and luxury without sweating through hard work or delaying gratification required by scrimping and saving. There is a part in all of us who is attracted to the short cut, which might partly explain the allure of the criminal as hero. It's the same draw as 'get rich quick' schemes.

However, Hollywood blockbusters today depict heists of labyrinthine complexity, requiring such complex skills and hard work from the heroic con artist or criminal, one wonders why they didn't just get a high paying job that rewarded them legitimately for their breath-taking sophistication.

Instead, the plots require us to believe that being an outlaw, dodging and diving outside the system, might be an inherently preferable. The villain as hero is also more free than the law-abiding rest of us, they don't care what others think of them and this liberty from constraint or judgement suggests they possess an independence of spirit, the rest of us crave.

The irony is that in pursuing this supposed self-determination, the criminal ends up behind bars. How free is a fugitive anyway - someone who has to keep looking behind his shoulder?

But the recent inversion of criminal and hero is important if the heroic are vital in guiding and inspiring us. Should our idols become those who are self-indulgent and selfish, we should beware. True heroes are those who make huge personal sacrifices for noble causes.

In the film Casablanca, at first it seems that Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart, will not assist the Allied war cause. He famously declares "I stick my neck out for nobody" and "I'm the only cause I'm interested in". He appears the archetypal anti-hero, sulky, self-centred and running what appears to be a shady night-club.

But in the climax of the story, he makes huge personal sacrifices for someone he loves, and the Allied side.

It's psychologically intriguing that for Bogart to play one of the greatest cinematic heroes of our time, he has to at first appear bitter, selfish, dodgy.

The danger is, if we get confused over who are true heroes, as opposed to those who just look rebellious, dangerous and glamorous, we will lose out on truly inspiring figures.

We will end up being robbed.