HEROES: The Best in History

Aug 12, 2005 (Updated Aug 16, 2005)

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The Bottom Line Since motion pictures began, heroes have been one of their favorite subjects. These are some of my favorites.

What makes one person stand and face danger while a hundred run for cover? What is that special quality of leadership that makes certain men’s followers ready to follow them into hell? I don’t know the answer, but these movies are about men (or groups of men) throughout history who have had that elusive quality. Each of the films are highly recommended for history or military buffs.

Leonidas "Eat a good breakfast as our supper will be served in hell.: The 300 Spartans were the personal bodyguard of King Leonidas of Sparta. Join them at their heroic last stand for Greece and the West against the Eastern hordes of Xerxes, 480 years before Christ. Learn the meaning of “molon labe.” You’ll have tears in your eyes after watching this one.

Alexander the Great "I will not steal my victory.” - said on the eve of Gaugamela when urged to surprise attack by night. Although I don’t think any film yet has done justice to this multifaceted conqueror, this one comes closest to capturing the spirit. Starring Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, Fredric March, and Peter Cushing. Someday, someone will realize Alexander’s achievement-packed life would be better told through a series of movies. Much better than the recent Oliver Stone bomb.

Spartacus ”Most people think of Rome as their mother, but Crassus wants to ‘marry the old girl,’ to put it politely.” With a cast full of Hollywood legends, Spartacus is the film that allowed Stanley Kubrick to break with Hollywood and move to England. Kirk Douglas is one of the most sympathetic heroes ever filmed, with Sir Laurence Olivier one of the most despicable (and pitiable) villains. Scrumptious Jean Simmons gives a feminine touch in contrast to the violence and gore. Great pathos and humor in the story of a slave revolt that turned Rome on its ear. Must see.

El Cid Director Anthony Mann raised the epic to new heights with this masterpiece. Charlton Heston stars as the title character, the greatest knight of medieval Spain. With the amazing Sophia Loren as his ladylove. Without a doubt the best sword fight ever filmed in the trial by combat for the City of Calahorra. Every aspect from the direction, to the cinematography, acting, costuming, sets, and glorious Miklos Rosza score will have you enraptured. Viva El Cid!

Davy Crockett "I can whip my weight in wildcats." Davy Crockett was a frontiersman, a former Congressman, and an adventurer who joined the fight for Texas independence. Together with the larger than life Jim Bowie and William Travis, Crockett made a heroic 13-day stand at the Alamo and passed into legend. “Remember the Alamo!” has been a rallying cry among Americans ever since. Yeah, it’s sentimental, but it’s the best view we’re likely to get. John Wayne, Richard Widmark, and Laurence Harvey star.

George Armstrong Custer ”Where the &%$%^ did all the Indians come from?” A general at age 23, Civil War hero, and Indian fighter. A great biography of the controversial man starring Errol Flynn and directed by Raoul Walsh. Absolutely sterling production values, great supporting cast, including Sydney Greenstreet, Arthur Kennedy, Charley Grapewin, and Olivia DeHavilland, Max Steiner score. The most thrilling of the Custer depictions, it is one of the top cavalry films of all time.

General Gordon “This plan is so disreputable I must have nothing to do with it.” Prime Minister Gladstone A story pregnant with mystery that concerns the struggle between two enigmatic men, one Christian, one Muslim. Chinese Gordon, hero of the Boxer Rebellion goes down to the Sudan to see if he can defuse a jihad. Charlton Heston vs. Sir Laurence Olivier with a superior supporting cast. More timely than ever. Should be on the top shelf of every history fan’s video rack.

B Co. 2/24 Regiment ”Button your tunic up! What would her majesty think?” This company, consisting of about 100 men and two officers, stood off 4,000 Zulu warriors coming straight from the massacre of a British regiment. A miraculous upset victory and one of the finest examples of heroism in history. Michael Caine and Stanley Baker star as Lieutenants Bromhead and Chard, the officers in charge of the mission station at Rorke’s Drift. Great characterizations, high adventure, stirring action, heroic score, and two of the best male choir performances ever filmed.

Alvin York "I learned to shoot before I was weaned." The modest hillbilly farmer from the hills of Tennessee became the hero of the Argonne Forest, capturing about 150 Germans single-handedly after killing more than 20. Directed by the great Howard Hawks and starring Gary Cooper in his career best performance. Superb production values and supporting cast, Max Steiner score. One of those movies you’ll want to see again and again.

Audie Murphy "Get up you goldbrick. You aren't wounded. That bullet just spoiled your lunch." Audie Murphy was a poor kid from Texas who became responsible for his younger siblings while he was just a kid. Enlisting in the Army after being rejected by the other services, combat unleashed the hero in Murphy. He became the most decorated hero in the war culminating in his valiant defeat of a combined arms advance in the Colmar Pocket. Audie Murphy plays himself with a great set of pals including Jack Kelley and Marshall Thompson. “Little Texas” does himself and his country proud in a film that will be relevant as long ast there is a USA.

General George S. Patton "I don't want to get any messages saying that we are holding our position. ... we're not interested in holding onto anything except the enemy. We're going to hold onto him by the nose and we're going to kick him in the @$s." Story of the winningest general in the European Theatre. They called him “Old Blood and Guts” - “our blood, his guts” quipped a less than enthusiastic soldier. George C. Scott gives an uncanny portrait of the controversial Patton, the greatest exponent of tank warfare and a man that felt he had lived before. Jerry Goldsmith provides a great score and Scott won an Oscar, which he turned down.

Douglas MacArthur ”In war there can be no substitute for victory.” Harry Truman relieved this old soldier for insubordination but no one can deny he was the greatest strategist the US ever produced. MacArthur took more real estate with less casualties than any other commander in WWII. MacArthur was also an intellectual, not often seen in military leaders and the film does justice to his complexity. Gregory Peck provides a compelling portrait of the “American Caesar,” probably the only general who could have pulled off a coup d’Etat, had he desired to. The ever reliable Jerry Goldsmith provides a compelling and introspective score.

Raymond Spruance "Find Yamamoto and chew his @$s!" Bull Halsey The Battle of Midway in June 1942 was the turning point of the war in the Pacific and Ray Spruance was its hero. The fleet had been shot up at Pearl Harbor and Coral Sea but there were three flat tops left and they bushwhacked the Japanese at Midway. The flotilla led by the carriers Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown sank four Japanese carriers. The Japanese were thwarted from advancing their empire into the Central Pacific and were put on the defensive for the rest of the war. Glenn Ford, Henry Fonda, Charlton Heston, and an all star cast populate this thrilling account of the great naval battle and turning point.

Rommel "I was just following orders." Erwin Rommel became known as “The Desert Fox” for his brilliant tactics in North Africa. He later became responsible for the defenses in Normandy opposing the D-Day invasion. The most popular general on the German side, there is a paradox in Rommel‘s character. A personal friend of Adolf Hitler, yet he is not tarred with the usual vitriol reserved for Hitler’s inner circle. How can this be? James Mason gives a great, if sanitized portrait of the Desert Fox, with brilliant cinematography, a fine supporting cast, and stirring score by Daniele Amfitheatrof.

Rangers and Delta Force "When that first bullet goes by your head, politics and all that other &^%$ goes right out the window." It started out as a 45 minute mission and ended in 19 hours of all out war. The 160th SOAR and Delta Force provide heroism akin to that seen in Zulu in the 1991 Battle of Mogadishu. An ensemble cast led by Josh Hartnett, Eric Bana, and William Sanderson provide thrills seldom seen on the silver screen. Direction by Ridley Scott with the best camera and sound I’ve seen in a long time. This story of modern war belongs on the top shelf of your video rack.

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