TOP 7 Heroic American Soldiers on Film

We start the Top 7. You finish the Top 10.

War sucks. But in the midst of an awful situation, some men and women manage to rise above and show great courage and humanity. Captain America: The First Avenger hits theaters this weekend. Captain America is one of the best soldiers fiction has to offer, but is he the best? Below are my favorite TOP 7 Heroic American Soldiers on Film. Be aware there are PLOT SPOILERS.

7. Cpl. Nikanor “Nick” Chevotarevich (Christopher Walken) The Deer Hunter (1978)

Recap: Three friends in a factory town enlist in the army and go to Vietnam. Despite being in separate units they find one another in time to have a horrific experience together involving Russian roulette. Eventually they all escape, but only one returns to a semblance of a normal life.

Reason: Nick’s the tragic hero of The Deer Hunter. After his experiences as a prisoner of war, he’s so traumatized that he becomes trapped in one moment in time. He’s constantly reliving his experience playing Russian roulette against his best friend. He’s not a typical hero, but he embodies a particular type of hero, one who performs in the moment but is too traumatized by the event to move beyond it.

6. Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) Rescue Dawn (2006)

Recap: Dengler is a German-American fighter pilot who’s shot down over Laos. He’s then captured, tortured and taken to POW camp with horrific conditions. But he hatches a plan to escape and despite some pretty crazy obstacles, succeeds.

Reason: Dengler’s fortitude is amazing. I wouldn’t believe the events of the film if it wasn’t based on a true story. Bale throws himself into the part, both mind and body. Between him and Werner Herzog, I’m surprised he survived the filmmaking process. Both tend to go method. Dengler’s ability to not give up, and persist despite obstacles human, animal and vegetable is incredible.

5. Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Recap: Three men return home from World War II to discover their families have changed in their absence. Among them is Homer Parrish, a young man who lost his hands in the war. Now with two hooks, he finds it hard to readjust to life. He tries to convince his fiancee that she’d be better off with another man, but in the end realizes that she’s a better person than he gives he credit for and that his life isn’t over after his injury.

Reason:  Not only is Homer a heroic character in the film, but he’s played by a real hero. Russell wasn’t a professional actor, he was an army veteran attending Boston University when William Wyler cast him in the film. Despite that, he won two Academy Awards, one for Best Supporting Actor and an honorary Oscar for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.” He would go on to get a degree, write two autobiographies and become active in AMVETS, a veterans organization. His courage, both in the film and in real life, is inspirational. His ability to relearn skills and have a full life after his injury impresses.

4. Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) Platoon (1986)

Recap: A young man goes to war, where he witnesses horrific behavior, not only by the Vietcong but also his own platoon members. The one admirable soldier is Sergeant Elias, a man who refuses to lose his humanity despite being in a hellish situation. He’s ultimately betrayed and killed by another officer in a very memorable death scene.

Reason: Platoon heaps horror on horror and doesn’t leave the viewer much to feel good about. For that reason, Elias is a really heroic man. In a reasonable situation, he would just seem like a decent man. But despite the mire of atrocities committed in the film, he refuses to give in or go along with things and demands justice. He doesn’t mean to become a martyr because of it, but that decision led to his death (and again, that scene is awesome). Dafoe was nominated for an Oscar for the part, and rightly so. The part pretty much made his career (though for early Dafoe I kind of like Streets of Fire, too.)

3. Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Recap: A group of Jewish-American soldiers are sent to France, within Nazi territory, to wage a campaign of terror against the Third Reich. Led by Lt. Aldo Raine, most of these men know they may never return, but go along anyway on many daring adventures.

Reason: So many Basterds to choose from! I chose Pitt’s Aldo because he’s such a damn gutsy bastard. Even plans that aren’t well thought out (like the final movie theater bombing) are taken on with a gusto. But as leader, he also cares for the safety of his men and makes clear the dangers of their collective undertaking. Signing up for such a dangerous mission alone would get points, but he also helps kill Hitler! And even better, got that ass Landa in the end.

2. SFC William James (Jeremy Renner) The Hurt Locker (2008)

Recap: SFC James joins a Army bomb disposal unit after a previous member is blown up by an explosive he was attempting to defuse. He comes into conflict with others on his team due to his methods, which aren’t all by the book. Eventually the tour ends, but James can’t get used to civilian life and re-enlists.

Reason: James desperately wants to be a hero. Part of it seems to be knowing he’s good at his job, he takes pleasure in that. But he also goes off to take revenge for the death of an Iraqi child after he believes the child has been attacked by some insane person or group that’s implanting bombs in people. Though he barely knows the kid, he goes all Rambo, ready to kill. When it turns out to be a different boy, it still doesn’t change his intent. He really wants to save people. That he loves the job only helps. I think he exemplifies the best of our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Well, maybe without the vengeance.

1. SGT York (Gary Cooper) Sergent York (1941)

Recap: Alvin York is kind of a dick. He drinks a lot, gets into fights and generally worries his mother. Then he has a religious conversion and decides to become a good Christian man and a pacifist. When WWI comes, he’s drafted. He tries to get a deferment as a conscientious objector, but is rejected. So he joins the army where the brass are impressed by his abilities as a marksman. But he tells the officers he won’t kill anyone. Eventually he goes overseas, still unsure if he could kill another man. However, during a particularly bloody battle, he ends up the most senior man in his unit. He shoots so accurately that he kills 28 men and forces the Germans to surrender. In all, his unit will return to their camp with 132 German prisoners.

Reason: Sergeant York is based on a real life story that was very popular during WWI. But why not, it’s amazing. The film shows Cooper at his best, he never plays York as a rube or a goody-goody. He shows him as a man who has a change of heart and stands by his convictions. That may sound weird considering he ends up leaving for Europe and agreeing to kill, but the film takes time with York’s story and you’re with him the whole way. His success under such overwhelming odds is incredible, but his kindness and humanity make him really admirable.

There’s the Top 7, now what should be in the Top 10?


  1. david says:

    how about michael from the deer hunter, played by Robert De Niro; he not only has the brains to analyze the situations both at home and abroad and handle them in a wise manner. He goes back to save Nick from himself. And does everything he can INCLUDING putting a GUN to his OWN HEAD to save his friend’s life. And let’s not forget the journey he took to make sure that Steven came back safely without use of his legs (and later at home, to be back with his family and his friends). He doesn’t relish in the glory of being a veteran, he merely wants to be recognized as a man of substance–which is something he always was–and something he continued to be, even under the most difficult circumstances.

  2. Bill Bell says:

    Leave No Man Behind”
    by Garnett Bill Bell
    4209 Boys Ranch Road
    Lavaca, AR 72941

    “No event in American history is more misunderstood than the Vietnam War. It was misreported then, and it is misremembered now. Rarely have so many people been so wrong about so much. Never have the consequences of their misunderstanding been so tragic.” (Nixon)

    “Psychologists or sociologists may explain some day what it is about that distant monochromatic land, of green mountains and fields merging with an azure sea, that for millennia has acted as a magnet for foreigners who sought glory there and found frustration, who believed that in its rice fields and jungles some principle was to be established and entered them only to recede in disillusion.”
    (Henry Kissinger, White House Years, 1979. Reminiscing about Vietnam)

    Leave No Man Behind: An eyewitness account of the Vietnam War from its early stages through the last day of the Republic, 30 April 1975. A startling new look at the postwar era and the issue of America’s unreturned veterans listed as POW/MIA, an issue that has haunted America since the beginning of American involvement. Shrouded in controversy, a subject of great emotion amid charges of governmental conspiracy and Communist deceit, the possibility of American servicemen being held in secret captivity after the war’s end has influenced U.S. policy toward Southeast Asia for three decades. Now, the first chief of the U.S. Government’s only official office in postwar Vietnam provides an insider’s account of that effort. The challenges he faced in dealing with U.S. politicians, including Vietnam veterans, Senators John McCain and John Kerry, are an ardent reminder of the many similarities in the bloody wars fought by American troops in both Vietnam and Iraq-Afghanistan. In an illuminating and deeply personal memoir, the government’s top missing persons investigator in Southeast Asia, who later became a member of the U.S. Congressional Staff, discusses the history of the search for missing Americans, reveals how the Communist Vietnamese stonewalled U.S. efforts to discover the truth, and how the standards for MIA case investigations were gradually lowered while pressure for expanded commercial and economic ties with communist Vietnam increased. Leave No Man Behind is the compelling story of a dedicated group of professionals who, against great odds, were able to uphold the proud military traditions of duty, honor and country.

    Every American fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan should read ‘Leave No Man Behind.’

    As the US Marine Corps helicopter lifted from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon at daybreak on April 30, 1975, I thought about the carnage that would result from a heat-seeking missile fired by Vietnamese Communist forces gradually encircling the besieged capital of the dying Republic of Vietnam (RVN). Exhausted by a lack of sleep for the previous several days, I no longer felt fear, only curiosity. Tears welled up in my eyes, perhaps due in part to the anguish of witnessing the tragic events unfolding before me, but also from caustic smoke belched out of rooftop incinerators glowing cherry-red from reams of frantically burned secret US Government documents. Feeling a sense of relief, I nevertheless harbored an even stronger sense of guilt. On the Republic of Vietnam’s final day, as I looked down into the gradually diminishing compound and into the terrified eyes in the upturned faces of hundreds of Vietnamese nationals and citizens of other countries friendly to the United States, who were being left behind, I knew that I would be haunted for many years to come. As the venerable ‘Sea Stallion’ throbbed its way through the damp morning air toward a helicopter carrier anchored off the coast at Vung Tau, blazing multicolored tracers rising from the dark-canopied jungle below bade farewell to America and to an era known as the Vietnam War.

    During the more than 30 minute flight into the future I sat angry and confused after some 10 years of involvement with a faraway place called Vietnam. I wondered whether the sacrifices in lives and national treasure made by America had been worthwhile or in vain. After contemplating the issue for many years, I believe it is now time to take stock of the American War in Vietnam so that Americans, especially those of us who served there, can finally decide whether or not we now have cause for a celebration or the lingering agony of defeat.

    With the fall of the RVN, as many analysts had predicted, jubilant communist forces quickly invaded and occupied the populated areas. Hundreds of thousands of former military and civilian officials were required to be screened, classified and registered as enemies of the revolution to be detained in remote, isolated concentration camps under horrific conditions. Thousands died due to disease and malnutrition, many never to be heard from again by family members. At the same time, the communist leadership insisted that the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north and the Provisional Revolutionary Government in the south be united as one.

    From that day forward, according to the constitution, only one political party, the Vietnam Communist Party, would be allowed to exist. On official letterheads of government stationery the three previously used terms comprising the national motto of the communist north: ‘Freedom, Independence and Democracy’ were changed forever to read ‘Freedom, Independence and Happiness.’ To the Vietnamese people this change in terminology, especially the reference to happiness, would provide one of the few sources of humor during a desperate time. To add insult to injury, the graves of fallen RVN military personnel were razed by bulldozers in cemeteries across the country. Typewriters, radios, televisions and anything that could be used for propagation or communication were required to be registered with the ‘Military Management Committee’ responsible for political security under the new ‘Socialist Republic of Vietnam.’ As interest began to wane, occasional references to the Vietnam War coined phrases such as ‘a noble cause’ or ‘an unnecessary war.’ The question as to whether the Vietnam War was or was not necessary was just as divisive in postwar debate as it was during the days following the 1968 ‘Tet Offensive.’ In my own assessment of both the necessity for and the outcome of the Vietnam War two primary considerations were the U.S. national interest at the time and the mission of the U.S. Military Forces that fought in Southeast Asia.

    The overall mission of U.S. military forces for the latter part of the 20th century began to take shape shortly after the conclusion of World War II. At that time the policy of the United States was one of containment of Communism. I believed that this policy was fully justified, because it was obvious that the Communist International, especially Russia and China, sought to ‘liberate’ the entire world. This policy of containment became known as the ‘Cold War.’ Although there were numerous clashes involving air crews during missions involving special operations and reconnaissance, the first major battlefield of that war erupted in 1950 on the Korean Peninsula, where the successful accomplishment of the mission of containing communism there was dubbed by the media as a ‘stalemate.’

    At the beginning of the War in Vietnam, the basic mission of American soldier worldwide was to kill, destroy, or capture the enemy, or repel his assault by fire. Over one million men and women answered their nation’s call, and they did their level best to carry out their mission in Southeast Asia. As a result, some 58,000 Americans and some 225,000 allied personnel made the ultimate sacrifice, while by comparison, communist Vietnam suffered the loss of over 1,300,000 personnel, including 150,000 personnel who were killed-in-action but never recovered. I personally witnessed the strongest blow struck at communist forces by hard-fighting American and South Vietnamese troops that occurred during the January 31, 1968, ‘Tet’ offensive. The bodies of thousands of communist personnel were stacked in piles around installations throughout South Vietnam, and losses were so heavy for the communist side that the entire military rank structure was temporarily abandoned and cadre selected to command and control units were assigned based on position or job title only, rather than actual military rank. The loss of life to the communist side was nothing less than staggering, and any U.S. military commander whose losses approached even a small percentage of actual communist fatalities at that time would most likely have been relieved of command.

    Even though America’s servicemen and women fought valiantly during the 1968 ‘Tet’ offensive, the U.S. and international media nevertheless managed to reshape their hard-earned victory into a political defeat. Vietnamese communist propaganda experts were so skillful that they were able to convince many members of the media and even some military analysts that two separate governments, the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the North, existed side by side and that both were involved in a ‘civil war.’ It has since been proven that both the NLF and the DRV were tightly controlled by the Vietnam Communist Party and both governments were actually one and the same. Moreover, personnel of the two purported military organizations of both illusionary governments, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong (VC), were in reality members of the Peoples Army of Vietnam (PAVN).

    Admittedly, in terms of national treasure the Vietnam War was not cheap. Depending on which expert’s figures are used, the total cost of the Vietnam War to America was somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 billion dollars. By comparison the overall U.S. defense budget during postwar, peacetime years exceeded that amount annually. In reality one million men could not have been trained at U.S.-based training centers for a 10 year period, even using blank ammunition, for a lesser amount. While the Vietnam War was certainly a drain on the U.S. economy, during the decade of our of engagement there the former Soviet Union also provided significant amounts of financial and material support to communist forces deployed throughout Southeast Asia. Support by the USSR to Vietnam, the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan and a badly managed, centrally controlled economy all combined to bring the former Soviet Union to its knees and bring about the collapse of the Communist Party. Ultimately this collapse led to the end of the Cold War. Veterans of the Cold War, especially those who fought in Korea and Vietnam, now enjoy the gratitude of the peoples of many European, East Asian and Southeast Asian nations. It is now clear that as a result of the sacrifices made by American and allied veterans, today the people of Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia are living under freely elected governments. This accounts for one quarter of the earth’s population. Radical Muslims bent on Jihad should pause to remember that the citizens of the two largest Islamic nations, Malaysia and Indonesia, are able to freely worship Islam due in large to the sacrifices made on their behalf by Americans fighting against Communism throughout Southeast Asia.

    Obviously, the true losers of the Vietnam War are the Vietnamese people, not just the people of the former Republic of Vietnam, but citizens from all areas of the country, including the north. Although millions of Vietnamese ‘voted with their feet’ by escaping on small boats across dangerous ocean currents, resulting in staggering losses to mankind, today millions more freedom-loving Vietnamese still yearn to be free. I believe that the two most important bilateral issues remaining between the U.S. and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam are an accounting for the almost 1,800 Americans still missing from the Vietnam War and democracy for the Vietnamese people.

    Successive administrations in Washington, D.C. have pressed for democracy in many countries around the world, including Russia, Haiti, South Africa, Afghanistan and Iraq. But there has been very little interest shown in gaining democracy for Asians, and this double standard is difficult to understand. It is almost as though we Americans have a collective mentality whereby we believe that peoples with yellow skin cannot manage freedom, and that tight control is the only option available.

    The American business community, aggressively buying up cheap products manufactured in Asia for resale on the U.S. market, is blinded by the lack of labor unions, cheap wages and fear of violent reprisals against labor strikes. It is ironic that after some 58,000 fine young Americans died in Vietnam while fighting for democracy the American business community is now steadily developing the economy of communist controlled Vietnam, insuring that the Vietnam Communist Party will not only remain in power, but that it will increasingly have the ability to maintain an even larger and more powerful military force. Concerning the plight of the families of Vietnam War POWs and MIAs, democracy can also go a long way to help in this regard. I believe that most Americans, especially Vietnam veterans, will agree that for the most part the Vietnamese people are honest and hardworking. Like our people right here at home, I can’t imagine a situation where the people of Vietnam would be willing to hide the remains of anyone’s loved one in order to extort money from them. Although during the past 30 years the ruling communists have gradually doled out bits and pieces of skeletal remains and personal effects in return for large monetary sums, once the Vietnam Communist Party has collapsed the Vietnamese people will rise to the occasion and provide whatever assistance is necessary to resolve the issue of our missing men. We should all be doing everything we can to make sure that day comes.

    Garnett ‘Bill’ Bell, a retired GM-14, DoD, went to Vietnam as an infantryman in 1965 and served four tours there. Bell was awarded 20 individual decorations and numerous unit awards. Bell later served as an instructor in the Department of Exploitation and Counterintelligence, U.S. Army Intelligence Center and school. During his career Bell served in the 327th Airborne Battle Group, 101st Airborne Division, the 1/35th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, the 2/506th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, the 101st MI Company, the 525th Military Intelligence Group, the Defense Language Institute, the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command, the 6th Special Forces Group, the Joint Casualty Resolution Center (JCRC), the Four Party Joint Military Team (FPJMT) and the Joint Task Force Full-Accounting (JTFFA). Bell’s wife and son were killed and a daughter critically injured in April 1975, when the families of U.S. officials assigned to the American Embassy in Saigon were evacuated in conjunction with the ‘Operation Babylift’ program. After being evacuated by helicopter from the roof of the American Embassy on the final day of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) (30 April 1975), Bell returned to postwar Vietnam as the first official U.S. representative after the war ended when he was assigned as the Chief of the U.S. Office for POW/MIA Affairs in Hanoi. He served more than 12 years on the POW/MIA Search Teams. An Airborne-Ranger and Jumpmaster, Bell eventually became a member of the Congressional Staff, U.S. House of Representatives. Fluent in Vietnamese, Thai and Laotian, Bell is a graduate of Chaminade University and the author of ‘Leave No Man Behind.’ Bell is employed as an investigator in the 12th Judicial District western Arkansas.

    “This book is one of the most accurate and detailed accounts of the Vietnam War from beginning to end. It is arguably the very best book ever written concerning the important POW/MIA issue. No one, military, civilian official, or private citizen, has contributed as much as Bill Bell to the national effort to recover and repatriate America’s unreturned veterans from the Vietnam War. Every veteran of any war definitely needs to read this important work, which I believe is destined to become an icon that will withstand the test of time. Bill Bell certainly deserves the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his courageous efforts.
    Michael Depaulo, USMC (ret), Vietnam Vet, National Service Officer, Rolling Thunder Inc.”

    This book isn’t just for the soldier, student, or history buff. It’s also for the average American who should know more about the Vietnam War, how
    people in our CURRENT government felt and behaved then, and how the war in Iraq really is similar. A very compelling story. 474 pages, semi-hardback: ISBN 096476634-5,

    Signed copy available at for $19.95 or from

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