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.