My Top 5 Film Heroes

Posted by: Tony – Jun 07, 2010


A Top 5 Film Villains certainly warrants a Top 5 Film Heroes, and once again I found myself reviewing iconic performances in top-notch pictures. Most of my choices are taken from motion pictures with a storied history, and the roles discussed herein defined some of the performers on my list. I think you’ll find my rankings to be rather unique, but I hope I make a strong case for all of the heroes on my list.

For the record, I am a lifelong movie lover with a lot of enthusiasm for the legacy of the motion picture industry. Most of my choices are characters who have been around for a while, and in truth, most of my favorite films originated in bygone eras. I’m not going to go on a rant about how I feel that many older films are far stronger than their contemporary cousins here, but rest assured that I think the film community does pander to the audience a bit too much in this day and age, and I miss the days when the line between art and business had yet to be obliterated.

I decided against including James Bond because my choices were largely defined by the merits of both the character and the actors (or actresses) playing the part. I wanted signature characters that were readily identified with a particular performer, and I thought it best to save the whole “Who is the best Bond?” debate for another day. If I felt comfortable choosing Bond and basing my selection on the entire film legacy of the character, that would likely be my first choice. That just didn’t feel right, however, so James Bond was forced to watch from the sidelines.

I also found myself thinking in terms of heroes who could kick ass and save the day when the shit hits the fan as opposed to decent men who wielded a more dignified brand of courage. I didn’t consider fine men like Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird or even hard men who stood tall in the face of oppression like Paul Newman’s Cool Hand Luke. I wanted genuine badasses, heroes (or heroines) who could knock the taste out of a true film villain’s mouth if necessary. As you can imagine, there were few obvious choices and there wasn’t room for many of my personal favorites in the conversation. After careful consideration, I chose the following legendary heroes:

1) Dirty Harry – Clint Eastwood
If something bad was going down and you could handpick any cop to go after the bad guys, any cop at all, including fictional characters and real honest-to-god heroes, who would you pick? I’m picking the guy with the one-liners and the squint, the badass who packs an almost supernatural gun. I’m calling on Harry Callahan and his Magnum .44. I’m dialing up the San Francisco detective known as Dirty Harry for both his methods and his attitude.

Harry gets the job done, end of story. He doesn’t have time for all the fine print and he doesn’t make a lot of rationalizations. He protects innocent people and shoots assholes with a hand canyon that sounds kind of like a shuttle launch every time it goes off. When the bad guys shoot at Harry, their guns sound like firecrackers, but when he unloads it sounds like someone called in the artillery.

It doesn’t hurt that Dirty Harry was the focal point of five distinguished thrillers. Some are better than others, but each packs some sort of punch, and there are fresh ideas and good performances to spare throughout the series. The first film, 1971’s Dirty Harry, is easily the best, closely followed by Magnum Force from 1973 and the fourth 1983’s Sudden Impact though not necessarily in that order. The Enforcer (1976) and The Dead Pool (1988) are good features with several strong scenes, but I don’t think they’re on par with the other Dirty Harry films.

Harry is expertly played by Clint Eastwood, who channels the gunslinger audiences came to love in countless westerns, most notably those directed by Sergio Leone. The plots find Harry confronting serial killers, rapists, an assortment of various thugs, bad cops, vigilantes, and terrorists, always with his trademark bravado and determination on full display. Harry is never a hit with his superiors, but he’s always a hit with the ladies, and you get a feeling that even the bad guys (those who live, anyway) begrudgingly admire him. Clint is aided in these pictures by actors and actresses like Andrew Robinson, Hal Holbrook, Tyne Daly, Sondra Locke, and Liam Neeson.

I have no problem putting Dirty Harry at the very top for my Top 5 Film Heroes list, and it seems like a good perch for both the character and the wonderful actor who gave him life.

“Go ahead, make my day.”

2) Snake Plissken – Kurt Russell
I can’t help but note that in portraying the iconic character I rank second to Eastwood’s Dirty Harry on this list Kurt Russell clearly channeled Clint, adopting both the squint and raspy speech as well as an utter disdain for bureaucracy in general. Yet Dirty Harry was a man on the job, and Snake Plissken represents a different sort of hero altogether. Harry punches in day in and day out, but Snake is the type of guy you have to track down before you can get him on the case, and even then you’re probably going to have to force him to do it. Why is it that so many of the best heroes are so reluctant to take on the mantle they were born to wear? Snake Plissken is a terrific example of the so-called anit-hero, an invention modern audiences have come to know and love.

In John Carpenter’s intense hybrid of a western, a horror film, and a science fiction picture, Kurt Russell dons an eyepatch and cements 1981’s Escape from New York with a magnificent performance. I think much of Russel’s best work came with Carpenter at the helm, but even MacReady and Jack Burton can’t compare to Snake. In Escape from New York, Manhattan has become a maximum security prison, and where else might the president’s escape pod land when his plane is hijacked. Enter Snake, a decorated war vet turned criminal, who is on his way to the same slammer until he is offered with a deal. Save the president and go free or die. By the time the offer is on the table, Snake has a miniature explosive in his bloodstream and a 24 hour deadline. Let the thrill ride begin!

Carpenter gives us a hell of a movie complete with suspense, humor, and a few major jolts, and Russell owns the show as a man everyone thought was dead. Seriously, every other person he meets is astonished to find that Snake is still alive, and he’s never been closer to death as he prowls the lawless streets of a nightmarish wasteland where the end can come in an instant. Soon Snake is the most hunted man in this urban jungle of ghastly delights, and time is running out.

Donald Pleasence, Lee Van Cleef, Harry Dean Stanton, and Ernest Borgnine lend their efforts to one of Carpenter’s best films, the cult classic that gave us one of the cinema’s most inspired heroes. I haven’t even mentioned Escape from L.A. (1996) because it doesn’t warrant the same consideration as the stellar feature that preceded it. For the record, I enjoy that outing as well, but it clearly isn’t nearly as visionary or gripping as Escape from New York was. This is probably a surprise to many of you, but I think both the character and the performance are tremendous examples of what the motion picture industry is capable of. As far as I’m concerned, Snake Plissken will never die.

“When I get back, I'm going to kill you.”

3) Ripley – Sigourney Weaver
Every character on my list aside from this selection is a male as well as a trained combatant, which makes Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley utterly unique. Ripley wasn’t trained to fight, she just found herself at the right place at the wrong time. In fact, Ripley’s story might just stand as the worst case of being in the right place at the wrong time ever presented. For most of us, a bad day at work might mean we fared poorly on a task or one of co-workers (perhaps even our boss, that prick) pissed us off, but for Ripley a bad day at work is when a monster rips its way out of one or your co-workers and kills everyone in sight. Maybe your idea of a bad day is when a customer yells at you or you don’t get a good tip, but for Ripley a bad day could also mean that you’re supposed to be consulting on a mission and then monsters start ripping their way out of your co-worker’s stomachs and killing everyone in sight. Get the picture?

Ripley’s curse is aliens, a nasty breed with no endearing qualities whatsoever, only ravenous appetites and a tendency to drip slime and bleed acid. What’s a girl to do? As it turns out, if your name is Ellen Ripley, you don’t go home and bitch about the lousy day you had at work, you arm yourself and kick some ass. You strap on a torch and grab your favorite machine gun and make your way right into the queen’s lair if you have to, but you don’t just stand there and take it on the chin. Ripley is a fighter, a true warrior, but not because that’s what she was trained to do. Ripley is a fighter because she finds herself in a situation where she must take up arms or suffer a gruesome fate, and there isn’t one ounce of quit in Weaver’s feisty heroine.

It doesn’t hurt matters that the most recognizable films in the character’s legacy (1979’s Alien and the 1986 follow-up Aliens) are directed by Ridley Scott and Jim Cameron respectively. Nor does it hurt that Sigourney’s efforts are bolstered by great performances c/o Tom Skerritt, Bill Paxton, John Hurt, Michael Biehn, and Lance Henriksen. For the sake of this argument, I’m purposefully ignoring all the lousy films that came after Aliens. That leaves us with two science fiction epics, one a horror film and one an adrenaline-soaked thriller that may have given birth to what is now hailed as the “survival horror” genre, and both are squarely centered on Weaver’s gutsy and vulnerable take on Ellen Ripley. Sigourney plays Ripley as a woman who comes to learn that she is a survivor only as a horrid saga of absolute terror unfolds around her. She is human, capable of fear and anxiety under duress, and also capable of strapping on her boots and going to war when the situation requires it. She is a true icon, perhaps the finest heroine of all, and I am happy to include her here.

“You know, Burke, I don't know which species is worse. You don't see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”

And, of course:

“Get away from her, you bitch!”

4) Shane – Alan Ladd
Here’s a curious choice that represents not only a fine hero, but also one of the most intriguing characters in the history of motion pictures. On the one hand, Shane’s story is a simple one. He’s the former gunslinger who comes to the aid of poor farmers being menaced by a cruel land baron and a coldhearted assassin named Jack Wilson. It’s a familiar formula in the western genre, but many things set this 1953 classic from Goerge Stevens apart from the herd. Why exactly does Shane dress in such flamboyant clothing? If he truly wants to leave his days as a gunfighter behind, why is he so quick to thrust himself into this violent struggle? While Ladd makes it clear that Shane yearns for a peaceful life, we can’t help but notice that this character does everything he can to invite conflict and death into his efforts to start a new life.

When Shane takes on with Joe Starrett (Van Hefflin) and his beautiful wife Marian (Jean Arthur) it doesn’t take long for Marian and little Joey Starrett (Brandon De Wilde) to fall under his spell. Joe isn’t oblivious to the way his son looks up to this handsome stranger, nor is he oblivious to the way his wife looks at Shane or the way Shane looks at her either.

Certainly that’s part of his motivation when he decides he’s going to challenge Jack Wilson, a challenge he is doomed to lose. Were Shane to step back and allow Joe to sacrifice himself in the name of honor, perhaps everything he wants could be his, but he isn’t the type of man who can follow such a path. Shane prevents Joe from facing Wilson and straps on his guns in a march toward the confrontation that will crush his efforts to leave his deadly past behind.

Shane is a robust film with terrific performances and enough subtext to reward repeat viewings. It is a fine western with a fine protagonist, a man at war with himself who will deliver salvation to those he comes to love even if the cost is his own damnation.

“There's no living with a killing. There's no goin' back from one. Right or wrong, it's a brand... a brand sticks. There's no goin' back. Now you run on home to your mother and tell her... tell her everything's alright. And there aren't any more guns in the valley.”

5) Mad Max – Mel Gibson
Future superstar Mel Gibson and director George Miller hit the scene in a 1979 film called Mad Max, providing movie lovers with one of the most memorable heroes of all time. Yet Mad Max (the film itself) was only a hint of what lay ahead, for in 1981 Gibson and Miller struck cinematic gold with The Road Warrior, a glorious action spectacle that remains one of the most entertaining films ever lensed. As a character Max is remarkable for one key attribute: the man is truly hell on wheels. Max can use a gun and he’s quick on his feet, but he doesn’t shoot or fight his way to victory. Max drives. This provides us with a fresh hero and two original pictures that have excited fans of this type of material for years. Here will I ignore that whole “Thunderdome” fiasco and focus on the pictures I know and love.

Mad Max and The Road Warrior give us a true find in Max, a cop who becomes a vigilante when his wife and child are run down by a ruthless biker gang and later a loner who comes to the rescue of a community in peril. Max is another anti-hero who doesn’t act selflessly and isn’t motivated by a sense of nobility but rather by his own dark needs. Max believes in order, but he’s only willing to enforce his will when it suits his bottom line. Mostly, Max is trying to do right by himself, and he isn’t the type who willingly offers his service to others in need if they have nothing to offer him.

Yet there can be no doubt that once the chase begins and the blood starts to flow, few heroes are so rugged and determined as this survivor with a knack for leaving his enemies lying on the roadside. Max is a rich portrait of a man who only wants what’s best for himself, a loner who finds that he is at his best when the fates of many rest upon his shoulders. As far as providing viewers with white-knuckle excitement and bone-jarring action on the asphalt, there can be no finer hero than Mad Max, the character who made Mel Gibson one of the most recognizable stars in the world.

“If it’s all the same to you, I’ll drive that tanker.”

Obviously this was yet another tough debate, and I’m sure that many of your favorites were left off of my list. I know that several of my personal favorites simply didn’t measure up, and I’m anxious to hear your thoughts on my latest Top 5. I liked closing things out with a list of those closest to cracking my Top 5 when I did so with my film villains list, so I’m going to do it again this time out, and it might even become routine.

Other characters considered included:

Han Solo
-Harrison Ford in Star Wars
Quint - Robert Shaw in Jaws
John McClane - Bruce Willis in Die Hard
Conan - Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan The Barbarian
Jules - Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction
Doc Holliday - Val Kilmer in Tombstone
Kyle Reese - Michael Biehn in The Terminator
The Bride - Uma Thurman in Kill Bill
John Rambo - Sylvester Stallone in First Blood
Superman - Christopher Reeve in Superman

by Jimmy Wayland