Columbia Pictures

10 Memorable Characters From War Films

In honor of the recent Memorial Day holiday, we look back and honor those that have fallen for our country and the ultimate sacrifice they’ve made with their lives for our freedoms. War is a grizzly and terrible thing – for those of us fortunate enough to enjoy the freedoms we have, it’s important we remember those that have died in allowing us to maintain those freedoms.

Most of us will never know what it’s like to be on the front lines or witness firsthand the tragedy of losing a comrade in arms. From the first shots of the Revolutionary War to the sacrifices of millions during World War II and beyond, war is a brutal thing that tests the strength of each generation.

The closest most of us will ever get to truly “witnessing” combat are the fictional experiences in our own homes – whether it’s through video games, television or film – it’s a far cry from the real life experiences. For decades audiences have had the opportunity to see dramatizations involving our favorite actors in the field of combat or surrounding a military event.

These are 10 memorable characters from war films.

10. The Dirty Dozen – The Dirty Dozen


The Dirty Dozen is a film about a rag tag group of military convicts that have been sentenced to years of hard labor or death during the events of World War II. The only way out of their sentencing is if they join up with Major John Reisman, OSS operative played by actor Lee Marvin, on a mission deep into enemy territory prior to the events of D-Day.

The film is a great story about an ensemble cast that needs to learn how to coexist with one another amidst their clashing personalities. The film is more about the men of the Dirty Dozen rather than the war itself but does a fantastic job at making the viewer care about each individual.

What makes the Dirty Dozen memorable is not that they have a change of heart by films end but rather the roughness they exude. By films end, only one of the felons is the sole survivor of the mission, leaving the viewer curious as to whether or not the convicts made the correct choice.

9. Starship Troopers – Lieutenant Johnny Rico

TriStar Pictures
TriStar Pictures

Starship Troopers is a bit of a stretch as a true war film, it’s a militaristic space fiction full of right wing allegory. By no means can the film actually be taken seriously but it does a fantastic job at forcing the viewer to take a step back and evaluate the blunder that can sometimes be involved with underestimating an enemy – Especially one that appears to be inferior.

Paul Verhoeven, a man known for his ultra violent and bloody movies, directed the film. The picture was originally considered a flop with a budget of $105-million and while only making back roughly $121-million at the time of its release. The film is full of Nazi satire and favors a strong military industrial complex for the advancement of science and the human race. Throughout the film, propaganda news stories pop up reiterating that even during defeat, the Federation is winning against the inferior bug species while countless numbers of Earth’s youth are thrown into a meat grinder.

There are countless other more “realistic” war films out there, but Starship Troopers makes this list because of it’s clean cut, straight forward soldier boy, Johnny Rico, and his patriotic ambition to stop the bugs from destroying Earth. Besides, throw in the fact it’s just a fun ride that never takes itself seriously – a lesson the viewer needs to learn prior to sitting down and experiencing the film.

8. Full Metal Jacket – Gunnery Sergeant Hartman

Warner Bros. Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures

Full Metal Jacket, a film from the mind of Stanley Kubrick, was based off of a novel called Short-Timers that was written in 1979. This warped and twisted film is broken up into two parts, first introducing the films main character James “Joker” Davis to the world of the United States Marine Corp with the second part of the film flipping to Vietnam.

Full Metal Jacket is best known for the role made legendary by R. Lee Emery as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman – A hardcore drill instructor who’s job it is to mold the young Marine recruits into killing machines. Emery puts on a masterful performance in the film taking his real life experiences as a Marine drill instructor during the Vietnam War while doing a number of his scenes off script.

As years have gone by, Full Metal Jacket has grown in stature and acclaim. If you’re looking for a film that shows a psychologically dark side to boot camp and an even grimmer perspective to the Vietnam War, Full Metal Jacket is your film. While much of the movie is known for its boot camp scenes, the second half that covers the war is also brilliantly well done.

7. The Hurt Locker – Sergeant First Class William James

Summit Entertainment/ Universal Studios
Summit Entertainment/
Universal Studios

The Hurt Locker, starring Jeremy Renner at his best, takes place in Iraq during the days of the Iraq War and follows an Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team. Their mission: to eliminate Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), which are scattered across urban locations throughout Baghdad.

Renner’s character, William James, takes over as the leader of an EOD team after it’s former leader is killed by an IED. What makes the film work so well is it removes politics completely from the story. In its simplest form, The Hurt Locker is a movie about a group of guys doing the job that needs to be done. Period. James’ character is a non-sense kind of guy whose “fearlessness” boils over into insanity at points during the film, forcing the viewer to question whether or not he’s truly gone off the reservation.

The Hurt Locker is based off of the experiences of freelance writer Mark Boal. Boal took time in Iraq and was entrenched with an EOD unit, watching and observing them day-to-day while they performed their tasks at disarming countless IEDs. Boal would eventually work with director Kathryn Bigelow on the film, using his account to storyboard and flesh out what would eventually become the screenplay.

6. Born On The Fourth of July – Ron Kovic

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

If you’re looking for a biopic story that is both powerful and moving, Born On The Fourth Of July is a solid recommendation. Taking the primary perspective of Ron Kovic, portrayed by Tom Cruise, a real life Vietnam War veteran, the viewer is taken on a trip revolving around a man who felt sacrifice for his country was the ultimate destiny for any man that was proud to be an American.

The reality sets in for Kovic though when he is critically wounded; leaving him permanently paralyzed from the mid-chest down. Kovic is sent home where he suffers in a military hospital due to lack of proper care and later returns home to discover there’s only honor for those returning home in body bags rather than as husks of their former selves. A majority of the films power comes about once Kovic is back at his home in Massapequa, New York – where his family treats him differently because of his injury and handicap.

As Kovic is forced to look at life from a different perspective, his views begin to change surrounding the events of the Vietnam War when he joins the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). Regardless of ones political beliefs about war, or Vietnam for that matter, Born on the Fourth of July is a powerful and moving film about one mans journey and the sacrifice he made. The big difference is unlike countless other fallen soldiers, Kovic survived to tell his story and lives with his sacrifice daily.

5. The Deer Hunter – Cpl. Nikanor “Nick” Chevotarevich

Universal Pictures, Columbia, Warner

Desiring something that puts you on the edge of your seat with heart-pounding drama? Enter The Deer Hunter – a film that had one of the most controversial scenes in cinema history at the time of its release. The Deer Hunter follows a group of Russian American steelworks from their small town roots to the jungles of Vietnam in the midst of the Vietnam War. Early on, the group makes a pact prior to leaving for Vietnam that they won’t leave one another behind.

Although the main character of the film is Michael Vronsky, played by Robert De Niro, it’s his friend and brother in arms Nick Chevotarevich, performed by Christopher Walken that steals the spotlight with a nail biting Russian roulette scene. The events unfold roughly half way through the film in a North Vietnamese prison camp. As the scene evolves, the friends eventually escape amidst the confusion but are separated in the Vietnamese jungle unsure of the fate of one another.

The Deer Hunter is a film that jumps around a bit but it carries a strong message about the psychological implications of war and the bond of brotherhood that is shared between friends. Nick is shattered from his experiences during the war, which ultimately leads him to a grim fate not even his best friend Mike can save him from.

4. Patton – General George S. Patton

20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

Other than General Dwight Eisenhower, there is no other American general from World War II more well known than “Old Blood and Guts” George S. Patton. Patton led the Seventh and Third armies across Europe in the quest to destroy Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Third Reich and free the continent from fascism.

It’s no surprise one of America’s modern day cowboys and war heroes didn’t get a film of his own starring George C. Scott as Patton. Patton was a monster hit when it was released in 1970, scoring big and winning seven academy awards including the coveted Best Picture award. The film had a budget just over $12-million and managed to capture roughly $60-million at the box office; huge numbers for its time.

What stands out most in this epic film is the amazing attention to detail for its time and the classic opening scene in which Scott gives one of Patton’s most famous war speeches – slightly toned down of course to avoid an R rating. With a gigantic American flag in the background, the scene is considered one of the best in cinema to date. The film has received high remarks as both a war classic and biographical film that still holds strong today.

3. Saving Private Ryan – Captain John Miller

DreamWorks Pictures
DreamWorks Pictures

Much the same way Patton brought World War II realism to screens in the 1970s, Steven Spielberg’s war epic did the same in the late 1990s. Saving Private Ryan follows heroic Captain John Miller, played by Tom Hanks, and his platoon of D-Day veterans on a mission across France. Their goal: To find Private Ryan and send him home to his family after it’s reported his three other brothers have all been killed in action.

In addition to the strict periodic attention to detail, the film is most remembered for its opening D-Day sequence when the Allied Expeditionary Forces stormed the beaches of Normandy. Though only a prologue to the story itself, this scene is still captivating 15-years later. Along with a tremendous ensemble cast, Hanks is easily the best actor in the movie as he embraces his mission to get Private Ryan home to his family – Even at the expense of his own men if need be.

Saving Private Ryan falls into the category of best war movie for many people and rightfully so. It’s almost a perfect film from start to finish and does an excellent job at showing the hardships of what is arguably the greatest generation. War is hell and there are few films that make this a reality in the way Saving Private Ryan does.

2. The Bridge On The River Kwai – Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson

Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

While Patton is considered one of the greatest American war films ever, The Bridge on the River Kwai is much the same to British film critics and historians. The film was directed by David Lean and based on a novel written by Pierre Boulle. The film stars legendary actors William Holden and Alec Guinness.

Although mostly based on fiction, the Bridge on the River Kwai does take some inspiration from factual events on the construction of what was known as the Burma-Siam railway. This bridge was constructed under the supervision of the Japanese who used both Dutch and American prisoners of war to build the bridge. The similarities end there as the destruction of the bridge as depicted in the film never took place.

Guinness’ portrayal of Colonel Nicholson is really what keeps the audiences hooked. Nicholson clearly adheres to the strict hierarchy of the military, forcing his enlisted men to do the tough work on the bridge while believing the officers should be exempt from doing any hard labor. Nicholson eventually takes a personal interest in the construction of the bridge as he feels his honor dictates this must be done – regardless of the fact he’s aiding the enemy in the war effort. Naturally the film ends in tragedy with Nicholson realizing the folly of his ways all too late.

1. Platoon – Sergeant Elias

Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

When looking for a film to depict the Vietnam War, look no further than Oliver Stone’s Platoon. The film stars Charlie Sheen, Tom Beringer and William Dafoe in one of the most emotional war stories ever told on screen. Stone sought to tell a story that was different from what anyone had ever seen in regards to the war experience in Vietnam. The film would go on to win both Best Picture and Best Director.

Although Charlie Sheen’s Chris Taylor is the main character, it’s William Dafoe’s Sergeant Elias that is the most memorable. Elias is a man who stands strongly for what he believes is right and wrong while coping with the stresses of a terrible war along with all of the other men around him. He’s an inspiration to his men as well as the viewer as he represents type of moral compass to all of the madness. He’s not a perfect man but he resembles a counter point to Beringer’s warped Sergeant Barnes – a man that has been in the bush for far too long.

Caught in the middle is Taylor – A man that wants to survive the war by turning a blind eye to events he knows are wrong. After Barnes nearly commits a heinous war crime, Elias threatens to report Barnes’ behavior, which would lead to him being court marshaled. While out on their next patrol, Barnes betrays Elias while the two are alone leading to his death. Platoon is not only a terrific timepiece depicting the events of the Vietnam War; it’s also a riveting tale of loneliness in a place that threatens to consume ones soul if they let it.

What do you think – Are these movie characters worthy of being named some of the most memorable in war films? Let us know what you think!

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