The cool thing about stuff like the AFI list of top movie heroes and villains comes from considering what constitutes heroism versus villainy.
In my mind, heroism comes not so much from physical bravery, which is not necessarily that difficult- especially for stupid people. Any idiot can hold their breath for a few seconds and walk into a line of fire.
It generally impresses me much more to see people struggling against their own internal forces, making an ongoing effort to overcome their own demons to figure out what they need to do.
The AFI list had some good but fairly obvious choices, such as Rick Blaine in Casablanca. They had some interesting and less than obvious choices (the best part), such as Juror #8 from 12 Angry Men. There were some cheap, shallow choices, such as Superman. Then there were some plain stupid choices, such as Cool Hand Luke. What was heroic about this character? He was just stupid and suicidal.
Most annoying, however, was their #1 movie hero of all time: Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Oh, the great white liberal lawyer has come to save the black man! Crikey. If I were picking someone out for heroism in that movie, it would be Boo Radley.
Anyway, this annoyed me enough to make me conjure up my own list of great movie heroes. Instead of the self-satisfied white lawyer, let’s start with…
Malcolm X (Malcolm X)
I’m only marginally knowledgeable about Malcolm X and I don’t much trust Spike Lee, so keep in mind that I am judging the character played by Denzel Washington rather than the historical character. With that in mind, however, this character showed great integrity and ultimately even fair humility in doing the right thing by his people and his God, even knowing that it would get him killed. He’s certainly a much greater savior figure to the black man than any liberal white lawyer.
Karl Childers (Sling Blade)
Karl really struggled in his soul to do right, but ended up with an irreconcilable division between his Christianity and his imperative need to protect the boy. Ultimately, he sacrificed not just his freedom, but (in his own mind) the salvation of his soul to protect his loved one.
Rachel Cooper (Night of the Hunter)
This old woman showed what a real Christian was supposed to be- captured perfectly in the image of her rocking in her chair through the night, cradling a shotgun to protect the children, singing “leaning on the everlasting arms” with the wolf prowling the grounds.
The Stranger (High Plains Drifter)
Being dead to start with, you couldn’t really say that Eastwood’s stranger was exactly courageous. He was more like an agent of God- the Old Testament YHWH version- carefully and methodically forcing the people of the town to see into their own souls in such manner as they could not deny.
Raymond Shaw (The Manchurian Candidate)
From Sinatra’s final voiceover: “Made to commit acts too unspeakable to be cited here… by an enemy who had captured his mind and his soul… he freed himself at last… and, in the end, heroically and unhesitatingly gave his life to save his country.”
Ed Exley (LA Confidential)
Exley showed great exceptional integrity to truth in tearing down his apparently perfect career making achievement in the Night Owl Cafe murders.
Sarah Connor (Terminator 2)
She was the fiercest protective mother cub in the history of film.
Marge Gunderson (Fargo)
Fighting through the extreme cold and the discomfort and indignities of a late term of pregnancy, Marge quietly plodded forward to solve murders and -in the most understated way- provide a human soul and an understanding spiritual presence amidst all the greedy losers whose petty venality created so much suffering.
John Coffey (The Green Mile)
The coolest “magical negro” in movie history, and a striking figure. For being so nice though, note that he absolutely destroyed one jackass guard, and quite consciously pushed him into killing another inmate.
Robin Hood (The Adventures of Robin Hood)
Errol Flynn’s classic 1938 swashbuckling Robin Hood can’t be denied. His heroism did not have the flavor of self-sacrifice, but of proper pride and joy.
Maid Marion: You speak treason!
Sir Robin of Locksley: Yes, fluently.
Clarice Starling (Silence of the Lambs)
Her most impressive displays of courage came in her talks with Hannibal, knowingly making herself vulnerable to him in order to save the senator’s daughter.
Ichabod Crane (Sleepy Hollow)
Notice how this version of Ichabod struggled constantly against his physical fears and sensitivities, trying to stoically choke it back again and again. Even more impressively, notice his integrity in following the empirical evidence where it led- even when it led to his beloved.