These are my favorite protagonists Hollywood has delivered — listed by viewing order, not by favorite. I don’t look for nobility alone (though there must be at least some), but also for complexity and realness of character. Or sometimes I just really like them and always have and don’t know how to stop.
Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer, The Sound of Music)
I don’t know how little I was when I watched this. Little. And I watched Captain von Trapp not only turn into a nicer daddy, but refuse to join the bad guys, always have a smart answer for everyone, and rip a Nazi flag in half. He absolutely defined “hero” for me (along with Davy Crockett).
Robin Hood (Errol Flynn, The Adventures of Robin Hood)
Few things are more important in the raising of a child than having a 100% good, glamorous, swashbuckling hero to look up to. This dashing bandit shaped my ideal of a good guy who always did what was right — not in an insufferable see-my-halo kind of way, but in a way that made me want to follow him in the ride against evil.
Captain Geoffrey Thorpe (Errol Flynn, The Sea Hawk)
Yes, by now you can tell the sort of movies I watched when I was little. I was probably about five years old when I saw The Sea Hawk and Captain Thorpe instantly became a god in my life. He was the very incarnation of bravery, wit, humor, humility, ingenuity, loyalty, patriotism, and yes, he even showed how to woo a stuck-up lady. This was the first movie of my life that proved to me what Chesterton has observed: “I have little doubt that when St. George had killed the dragon, he was heartily afraid of the princess.”
Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis, The Last of the Mohicans)
Being eight years old probably had something to do with the fact that I fell in love with this lead seven years before I even saw the movie. (I still agree with my eight-year-old self, but let’s also file this one under “don’t know how to stop.”) All sorts of things were born from this hero: my love for woods, my love for long rifles (and a crack shot to fire them), my love for waterfalls and Indians and colonial wars and melodramatic music and tomahawks and sacrifice and fiddles. And everything else.
Fitzwilliam Darcy (Colin Firth, Pride and Prejudice)
The man. Don’t argue.
Jean Valjean (Liam Neeson, Les Miserables)
He’s thrown into a sentimental, humanistic story, but the dude himself — gotta like him. It’d be easy to look all limp and persecuted, but the big and brawny Liam Neeson knows how to make sacrifice, long-suffering, and loyalty look masculine.
Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe, Gladiator)
Wait, isn’t this guy a pagan? Sure is. But would you rather find a man more or less like Maximus? A man who is truly masculine without being cheesy? A man who goes through hell, stays humble, remains true to his emperor and his family, and dies for his country, all without taking the descent into bitterness? Gladiator tries in some ways to be a revenge story (due to conflicting goals in various drafts of the screenplay), but ultimately, it’s about a noble man who lays himself down and dies for what’s right. And more Christians could stand to be like him.
Captain “Lucky Jack” Aubrey (Russell Crowe, Master and Commander)
The perfect leader: tough, bold, wise, compassionate, strict, gracious, inspiring. The movie hinges around our belief that Lucky Jack’s men would follow him anywhere, and dude, would they.
William Wallace (Mel Gibson, Braveheart)
History doesn’t have many heroes like William Wallace. Hollywood doesn’t normally feature them. And when it does, it seldom gets them right. (Okay, Mel gets Wallace mostly right, but that’s also rare.) No man would I rather follow, bleed with, and die for.
Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix, The Village)
He’s no crowd-pleasing, nuke-hurtling, world-saving super hero, but that’s what makes him so good. For Lucius Hunt, the very last person on his mind is himself. He’s the guy who follows duty no matter where it takes him–when absolutely nobody’s watching.
Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody, The Pianist)
If I had lost everything I owned to the Germans and everyone I loved to the death camps, I think I would have lain down and died. Not Szpilman. He fought back and survived to tell his tale not just in his own words, but in the language he knew best: his music.
Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle, Hotel Rwanda)
One of the best of the best. Paul Rusesabagina (my favorite role for Don Cheadle) is the kind of seemingly ordinary man you would want to follow in days of extraordinary evil.
James Braddock (Russell Crowe, Cinderella Man)
Every time I watch this, Jim Braddock gets better and better. Great husband, great father, great fighter.
Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix, Walk the Line)
I didn’t know much about Johnny Cash before Walk the Line, but Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscar-worthy performance (scoot over, Philip Seymour Hoffman) made me want to know more. Watch darkness and grace collide like thunderheads in this man’s life.
John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis, The Crucible)
Day-Lewis’s flawed and desperate hero drives the story forward with equals parts sin and repentance. It isn’t easy being the good guy when the appalling Winona Ryder is messing up your life.
Oscar Schindler (Liam Neeson, Schindler’s List)
True story, true man. When your own country is butchering its citizens by the thousands, pray that you can stand against it like this stone wall.
Dusty Miller (Mark Strong, To End All Wars)
You can’t forget Dusty. He’s a true Christ-type, and Christ-types always change the world — even if they don’t have a lot of screen time.
Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy, The Last King of Scotland)
What the heck is this guy doing here? Of all the heroes on this list, Nicholas Garrigan (a selfish, thoughtless, foolish sleep-arounder who gets bullied by Idi Amin) spends the most amount of time on the road to hell and the least amount of time getting off of it. The entire movie is him learning his lesson. He’s portrayed as honestly (yet sympathetically) as the fool in Proverbs, and saved by grace in the nick of time. By the end of the movie, you know you’re looking at a changed man.
Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brick)
Interesting, smart, hardheaded, loyal, witty, gutsy, and bull-dog tenacious. And a little unrealistic. (For a high schooler.)
Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson, Chariots of Fire)
Liddell’s Christianity comes across quiet, but not mousy, which is almost impossible in the movie world where pretty much any Christianity is automatically mousy.
Jamal Malik (Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire)
Most of our favorite heroes are, by nature, determined to get the girl, but this millionaire is also one of the humblest, most giving, least self-serving gentlemen you’ll ever see. Surrounded by thieves and kidnappers and game show hosts who do nothing but grab, Jamal Malik is the only one who gives.
Dick Winters (Damian Lewis, Band of Brothers)
Dick Winters (who only recently died–January 2, 2011) wasn’t flamboyant, charismatic, gruff, tough, or in-your-face, but his men followed him everywhere. His tactics on the battlefield were as sound and powerful as his relationship with his troops. Without this quiet, rock-steady hero who loved peace so much he went and bled for it, there would have been no band of brothers.
Will Hunting (Matt Damon, Good Will Hunting)
Frankly, I go back and forth on this one. Really? Is he really that awesome? Well, maybe no. Not really. Yeah, kinda. I guess Will Hunting will stick around for now because he’s one of the more interesting, complex, and compelling protagonists out there. You root for the little smart-mouther even when you really wish he’d grow up.
Christy Brown (Daniel Day-Lewis, My Left Foot)
Major disclaimers here. Real-life cerebral palsy victim Christy Brown was irascible, unreasonable, and potty-mouthed, so I’m not admiring his character, but there’s still something about a guy who learns how to do everything with his left foot (only his left foot) that you just can’t ignore.
Damien O’Donovan (Cillian Murphy, The Wind That Shakes the Barley)
I was surprised by this movie in general. Long, a bit slow, very much under-budget, it just doesn’t seem like it could have much to say without all the shiny special effects of other war films. But it says a lot, and it says it all through Damien O’Donovan. I’m trying to think of another movie that features a guy who makes the right choice every single time when everyone — everyone — around him is making all the wrong ones…and nope, I can’t.
Hiccup (Jay Baruchel, How to Train Your Dragon)
If this were a Disney lesson in “you can do anything you set your mind to, as long as you’re the underdog,” I wouldn’t like it. But it’s about a David who finds the perfect smooth stone, a scrawny little nobody who kills the evil dragon, and it’s great.
Aron Ralston (James Franco, 127 Hours)
Aron Ralston: a man who descends into a cave broken and comes out whole. James Franco’s performance, by the way, belongs up there with some of Daniel Day-Lewis’s. He shoulda won at the Oscars that year, no question. Colin Firth’s got talent, for sure, but purposefully tripping over your lines isn’t nearly as hard as keeping an audience riveted for two hours while you’ve got your hand stuck under a rock.
John Luther (Idris Elba, Luther)
Idris Elba takes the stereotype of the violent-tempered, out-of-control, rule-busting, problem-marriaged cop and explodes it bigger than you can imagine. If you think you’re done with gritty cop stories because they’re all the same, give Luther a try. There’s a lot of fresh stuff here.
John Watson (Martin Freeman, Sherlock)
Martin Freeman manages not only to be not bland (a feat in itself when starring alongside the one-of-a-kind Mr. Holmes), but to be strong, honorable, and enormously likable.
Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock)
Sherlock is far from normal in almost every way but one: his greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. Watching him realize this over the course of six episodes (so far) is one of the best things I’ve ever seen on TV.