Originally I was going to write about the silly thing that occurs in climactic showdowns, when the hero and villain square off. The villain for some reason is out of ammo or has thrown his sword in desperation. And the hero, smiling toothily, drops his weapon to go hand to hand, mano-a-mano.
Then I noticed that I don’t see this in novels. See it all the time in movies. In Scaramouch, the hero taps the vibrating sword just thrown at him by the swinish Marquis de Maynes and bids him to retrieve it. In The Great Race, Tony Curtis permits Baron Rolfe von Stuppe to draw a sabre so the two can have their expected duel. But for novels, the only thing that comes to mind is the old yarn by Morgan Robertson, The Pirates, where navy brig rats steal a destroyer from the US navy and plan to go modern-day pirating, Yo Ho! And of course, Lieutenant Denman is a sporting chap with a childhood playground score to settle…
“Now, Forsythe,” he said, as he covered the chagrined marksman, “you should have aimed lower and to the right—but that’s all past now. This boat is practically captured, and I’m not going to kill you; for, even though it would not be murder, there is no excuse in my conscience for it. Whether the boat sinks or not, we will be taken off in time, for that fellow over yonder is coming, and has ceased firing. But before you are out of my hands I want to settle an old score with you—one dating from our boyhood, which you’ll perhaps remember. Toss that gun forward and step aft a bit.”
This might also be true of The most dangerous game, when the hero (Rainsford) who was presumably dead at the bottom of a sea cliff appears in General Zaroff’s own bedroom and gives him a chance to see him, to recognize the danger of this “beast at bay”, to square-off. A challenge is issued: the winner gets to sleep in the bed, the loser will be flung into the yard with the hunting dogs below.
Me, if I’d had time in the General’s bedroom, I’d be getting the biggest candlestick holder I could find and easing into the drapes next to the bed, looking for that clean head-shot. A fair fight? Why do you think man is really ”the most dangerous game”?
But that’s the deal. Back in earlier literary eras, we could assume (even expect) our heroes to fight fair and not take the advantage. One reason was that anti-heroes were largely unknown back then. But I think this even has more to do with the idea that heroes were third-person for the most part. We’d see them externally but be spared their thoughts. They were as believable as modern movie action heroes. But heroes in our modern books (well, the books to be taken seriously) are first-person fellows. We know what they think. We know that they can feel pain and fear. It is unbelievable to us, riding around in the good guy’s skull, that any villain worth three hundred pages of pursuit is worth giving a fighting chance too. They are dangerous and unloved for a reason, and leveling the field is as laughable as Queensbury Rules. Further, what sort of hero would risk what he stands for in a selfish (if you think about it) pugilistic contest? If his own cause (loved ones, nation, honor, whatever) is so important, why is he willing to risk it all in a knuckle-duster?
This means, of course, if you want to extend the action, the hero and the villain are both going to have to be disarmed in some way. Guns are slippery things. They can jam or run out of bullets. Swords break, and missed lunges bring the fighters in close. If you want your hero and villain to pummel each other, to go personal on each other, fine. But bring them together realistically. Don’t have your hero drop his pistol and give some Dick Champion speech about fair-play and such.
It might have worked in 1920. A century later, I don’t think so.