Humanity’s earliest stories were about heroes. I’m sure that the same people who created those breathtaking cave paintings up to 25 thousand years ago sat around the campfire telling stories of people who triumphed over charging sabertooth tigers or assaults from other tribes. The great myths and legends of ancient Greece first used the word that became “hero.” Those literally larger-than-life figures were demi-gods like Hercules who exemplified courage and protecting others without regard to risk.
In 1903, one of the very first films to tell a story, “The Great Train Robbery,” featured a heroic posse who captured the title thieves. And since then the movies have given us unforgettable heroes and heroines who continue to enthrall and inspire us. I’m going to list a dozen of my favorites — six fictional characters and six inspired by real-life heroes. And of course I want to hear about your favorites, too.
1. Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark and its sequels. What could be more dashing than an adventurer/scholar? Jones admits that even he gets frightened sometimes (he hates snakes). But he always keeps his cool, whether he is facing an enormous opponent who is brandishing a gigantic sword or escaping from an underground temple. His courage, determination, and integrity are what make the non-stop action in this box office champ and its sequels so enthralling.
2. Ellen Ripley in Aliens. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) shows great courage in the first film of the series, but it is really in the second that we see what a hero she is. In Aliens Ripley saves not just herself but the little girl who is the only survivor of the alien’s attack on a space colony. Ripley’s indomitable spirit is shown right from the beginning, when she deliberately takes on the mission to confront the fears she still harbors from her previous encounter with the alien. And the movie creates a fascinating parallel between Ripley as the child’s substitute mother and the alien itself, who is also trying to protect her children.
3. Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. James Stewart plays a naive young man who is appointed to fill a term in the Senate because the politicians in the state think he will be easy to control. He makes some foolish decisions at first but his honesty and concern for the boys of his state win him the support of his staff. When the corrupt politicians find him less easy to manipulate than they thought, they try to smear him. But he will not back down. His moral courage is what makes him a hero.
4. Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night. Sidney Poitier plays a Philadelphia homicide detective who is first a suspect in a murder in a small Southern town and then stays on to help solve the crime. Both he and the local sheriff (Oscar-winner Rod Steiger) have to confront their prejudices and acknowledge their similarities. Tibbs exemplifies the famous Hemingway definition of courage as “grace under pressure” as he maintains his dignity and sense of honor in an environment of bigotry and ignorance.
5. Tom Doniphon in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance John Wayne often played the hero, and one of his best roles was the rancher who stood up to a gunslinging bully (Lee Marvin) who terrorized the town. What makes Doniphon so interesting is hinted in the title. An idealistic young lawyer played by James Stewart builds a political career out of being credited with shooting Valance, a career that enables him to do a lot of good for a lot of people. But Doniphon’s heroism goes beyond the courage to take on the outlaws. He also has the wisdom and modesty to let someone else get the credit and win the woman they both love because he knows it is best for all three of them and for the people of the territory.
6. Han Solo/Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars Trilogy Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) are more than a team; they are two sides of one heroic character. Luke is the young, inexperienced “chosen one” and Han is the cynical, cocky rogue. Together, they make a thrilling hero — hope tempered with skepticism, talent tempered with expertise.
And many runners-up (some with more than one hero), including “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” “Captains Courageous,” “High Noon,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Sister Kenny,” “The Magnificent Seven,” “The Terminator,” “Mad Max,” “Sherlock Holmes,” “Transformers,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Twelve Angry Men”
1. Norma Rae in Norma Rae Sally Field won an Oscar for playing a character based on real-life activist Crystal Lee Sutton, who helped organize millworkers to get safer working conditions and better wages. Seeing Norma Rae’s growing understanding of her own power and her ability to help her community is like watching a flower bloom.
2. Robin Hood in The Adventures of Robin Hood The real-life Robin Hood was probably not as dashing as Errol Flynn and his legend owes as much to folklore as history. But this stirring story of a truly great hero who fought a corrupt would-be king on behalf of the commoners has inspired people for centuries and he could not ask for better than this magnificent telling. Flynn’s Robin Hood laughs when he is defeated by Little John, exclaiming, “I love a man who can best me!” True heroes surround themselves with people they respect and admire; they love to be challenged.
3. Spartacus in Spartacus Kirk Douglas plays the leader of a slave rebellion in the last century A.D., willing to sacrifice himself for freedom. His example of courage and integrity is so powerful that hundreds of other slaves are inspired to give their own lives in a struggle that still touches us two thousand years later.
4. Erin Brockovich in Erin Brockovich A clerk in a tiny law firm uncovers a cover-up of water contamination by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company that led to a payment of $333 million to the victims. Julia Roberts won an Oscar for her portrayal of the single mother who would not give up. She was tenderhearted and sympathetic with those who had been hurt, and she was fearless in a fight.
5. Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird Author Harper Lee based this character on her own father, a small-town lawyer. Finch is a man of quiet integrity who teaches his children about the importance of courtesy toward everyone at all times. And in an era when “justice” for African-Americans in the South often meant lynching, Finch insisted on representing a black man unfairly accused of rape. Gregory Peck won an Oscar for his portrayal of a man of impeccable honor and courage.
6. Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver Jaime Escalante believed that inner-city high school students could not just study calculus; they could excel. And they did — their test score were so high they were accused of cheating. Sometimes the greatest heroes are those who show us not what they are capable of but what we are capable of. He could have taught math at a school for college-bound kids but he chose to spend his life teaching teenagers to believe in themselves and to dream of greatness along with lessons about derivatives and integrals.
And many runners-up, including “A Man for All Seasons,” “Serpico,” “Amistad,” “Schindler’s List,” “Gandhi,” “Glory,” “Sergeant York,” and “All the President’s Men”