vulture lists

A Brief History of the President of the United States, Action-Movie Hero

Photo: Robert Lerner/Getty Images; 20th Century-Fox; Columbia/Tri-Star

There are a lot of reasons why White House Down achieves new levels of ridiculousness, but Jamie Foxx’s wisecracking, gun-wielding president is not one of them. That’s because the idea of an action-movie president has, over the years, slowly become a kind of accepted concept in our blockbuster movies. The idea goes further back than you think:

The President’s Lady (1952)
Charlton Heston as Andrew Jackson

As Jackson, Heston has to contend with romantic rivals, Indians, insolent gossips, and the British, in a story that covers the love affair between the future president and his beloved wife, Rachel Donelson Robards, who was married to another man when they met. It is never not awesome to watch a future president of the United States kick the crap out of a guy for the sake of a woman.

The Buccaneer (1958)
Charlton Heston as Andrew Jackson, again

Let me make this very clear, gentlemen. Before I surrender this city, I will burn it to the ground.” Imagine this said in your best Charlton Heston voice. He reprised his role as President No. 7 for Anthony Quinn and Cecil B. DeMille’s remake of the 1938 classic (which had also been directed by DeMille) about the Battle of New Orleans. But this time he had become Charlton Heston, international superstar and macho icon. So quite appropriately, he got to engage in a lot of tough-guy heroics, even though he wasn’t the ostensible protagonist of the story, which is mostly about the exploits of Pirate Jean Lafitte (Yul Brynner) in the service of the U.S.

PT 109 (1963)
Cliff Robertson as John F. Kennedy

This was a first: A film about the action-packed adventures of a president made while he was still in office. Robertson is appropriately stoic as young Lieutenant John F. Kennedy, as he reenacts the WWII heroics that won him a slew of medals. (Robertson was reportedly the president’s own choice to play him. Jackie, for her part, wanted this young whippersnapper named Warren Beatty.) Another interesting note: When the film was in production, JFK’s administration was going through the dark days of the Bay of Pigs invasion, and everyone was concerned about the idea of a vaguely hagiographic film about the president being made. By the time the film came out, however, JFK was riding high on the successful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Independence Day (1996)
Bill Pullman as Thomas J. Whitmore

As Roland Emmerich not-very-subtly has a character remind you during White House Down, his new film is not his first go at depicting the president of the United States as a kind of action hero. It’s also not his first go at destroying the White House, which ID4 so memorably did, to the cheers of 1996’s audiences. (The film also killed off its Hillary Clinton–like First Lady, which might give you an idea of how public opinion about Hillary Clinton has changed over the years.) Anyway, although at first Pullman’s President Whitmore is caught off-guard by the massive alien invasion from outer space, he eventually steps into the role of hero/Commander-in-Chief, giving a rousing speech and then leading the nation’s ragtag, hotdogging air forces into battle against the aliens and their Apple-compatible computers.

Rough Riders (1997)
Tom Berenger as Teddy Roosevelt

John “Red Dawn” Milius’s 1997 miniseries is at times heavy on the jingoism and the violence, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt helps lead the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry during the Spanish-American War, which he himself helped fuel. With a band of men defined by their diversity (An Indian! A Mexican! An outlaw! A fancy-pants city guy!), Teddy learns the real meaning of war and heroism.  The scene where they charge San Juan Hill features lots of killing:

Air Force One (1997)
Harrison Ford as James Marshall

When Kazakh terrorists led by Gary Oldman seize his plane and take the first family hostage, President Marshall has to fight back, complete with action-movie quips like “Get off my plane!” and a final hair-breadth zipline getaway before the plane crashes. Independence Day may have paved the way for this one, but this is even more ridiculous than ID4, if that’s even possible. The only real reason it works is because in the mid-nineties, Harrison Ford was probably the guy we all secretly dreamed could be our president.

Black Dynamite (2009)
James McManus as Richard Nixon

Okay, this one’s a counterexample: Here, the president is NOT an action-movie hero, but an action-movie villain, as a nunchaku-wielding, kung-fu-fighting Nixon does battle with Black Dynamite in this faux-blaxploitation film’s hilariously over-the-top and violent final scene. It’s a perfect example, however, of how much the office’s pop-cultural cachet has changed from the years when even the most outsize portrayals of a president were done with the utmost reverence for the office.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012)
Benjamin Walker as Abraham Lincoln

A retelling of the life of Lincoln, only this time the slave owners are vampires, and he has to go around hacking their heads off? Sure, why not. It’s awfully proud of its conceit of America’s greatest president being a buff, tough destroyer of the undead. But maybe, in a world where we’ve already had Black Dynamite, The Buccaneer, and Air Force One, this movie isn’t as original as it thinks it is.

Olympus Has Fallen (2013)
Aaron Eckhart as Benjamin Asher

In this summer’s other movie about the White House being taken over by foreign terrorists, Eckhart’s President Asher is mostly kept captive by the bad guys. Compare that to Jamie Foxx’s more action-y president in White House Down, and you realize why Olympus at times feels like such a throwback. To be fair, Asher is heroic and tough — the opening scene has him boxing and throwing some good punches — but he doesn’t get his hands dirty the way that Foxx, Ford, et al. do. Maybe if he’d been allowed to blow away a few terrorists with an Uzi, the film would have made more money.

A Film History of the President As Action Hero