Special Report

The 50 Greatest Movie Heroes

Michael Ochs Archives / Moviepix via Getty Images

There’s a Tina Turner song called “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” but 24/7 Tempo begs to differ. “The more heroes the better,” we say and so we’ve assembled a list of 50 of the best of them from the past 90 years of cinematic history, as compiled by the American Film Institute for its report “AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes & Villains.” (As a counterpoint to all these heroes, these are the most popular villains of all time.)

The list covers an incredible range of characters. There are adventurers on earth (like archaeologist Indiana Jones) and in outer space (such as Millennium Falcon captain Han Solo from “Star Wars”); environmental activists like Erin Brokovich and Karen Silkwood; gunslingers with names like Rooster Cogburn and Shane; soldiers ranging from Sergeant York to General Patton. (Here are 50 of the most-decorated war heroes in American history.)

There are superheroes like Superman and Batman, of course, but there are also characters who are ordinary in many ways, such as Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp, or Marge Gunderson, the mom-to-be police chief in “Fargo.” There are also people who do extraordinary things under difficult circumstances — for instance Atticus Finch, the lawyer who defends an African-American man wrongly accused of rаpe in a small Southern town in “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Oskar Schindler, who saves Jews from the Holocaust at great personal risk, in “Schindler’s List.”  

These are the 50 greatest heroes in the movies

There are some antiheroes here, too, such as Harry Callahan from “Dirty Harry” and “Popeye” Doyle from “The French Connection,” both cops who don’t mind breaking the rules, or even breaking a few bones, when chasing bad guys. And there are heroes who aren’t even human, including the cyborg Terminator and everybody’s favorite collie, Lassie.

Source: Courtesy of DreamWorks Distribution

50. General Maximus Decimus Meridius
> Played by: Russell Crowe in “Gladiator” (2000)

Maximus Decimus Meridius is a successful general who is forced to become a gladiator after refusing to follow the self-proclaimed emperor Commodus, who killed his own father and then Maximus’s family.

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Source: Courtesy of TriStar Pictures

49. Andrew Beckett
> Played by: Tom Hanks in “Philadelphia” (1993)

Andrew Beckett, a gay lawyer suffering from AIDS, successfully sues a major Philadelphia law firm for unfair dismissal, with the help of an African-American lawyer who has also suffered discrimination. Tom Hanks won an Oscar for the lead role in one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to acknowledge HIV/AIDS.

Source: Courtesy of TriStar Pictures

48. Terminator
> Played by: Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991)

In the first “Terminator” film, Arnold Schwarzenegger played a cyborg assassin sent back in time to kill the woman whose son will lead the resistance against domination by artificial intelligence. In “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” he’s a good guy, sent by the resistance to protect mother and son from an even more advanced Terminator.

Source: Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

47. Karen Silkwood
> Played by: Meryl Streep in “Silkwood” (1983)

“Silkwood” is a biopic about Karen Silkwood, a nuclear whistle-blower and labor activist who died in a car crash while investigating alleged wrongdoing at the plutonium plant where she worked.

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Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

46. Batman
> Played by: Michael Keaton in “Batman” (1989)

Michael Keaton plays Bruce Wayne/Batman in the first installment of the Warner Bros. “Batman” series, and battles various baddies in Gotham City.

Source: Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

45. Zorro
> Played by: Tyrone Power in “The Mark of Zorro” (1940)

Tyrone Power plays Don Diego Vega, a privileged young man who becomes the masked vigilante swordsman Zorro, and battles corrupt officials and other villains in Spanish California.

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Source: Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

44. Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle
> Played by: Gene Hackman in “The French Connection” (1971)

Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle is both the hero and antihero of “The French Connection,” a crusading cop who breaks the rules while trying to bring down a gang of drug smugglers. This year marks the 50th anniversary of this classic film’s release.

Source: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

43. Moses
> Played by: Charlton Heston in “The Ten Commandments” (1956)

This biblical epic is the story of Moses, who leads the enslaved Hebrews out of bondage in Egypt, receives the Ten Commandments from God on Mount Sinai, spends 40 years in the wilderness, and finally arrives with his people at the Promised Land — but cannot enter it himself.

Source: Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

42. Father Edward
> Played by: Spencer Tracy in “Boys Town” (1938)

“Boys Town” is a biopic about Father Edward J. Flanagan, played by Spencer Tracy, who founded a home and educational complex for underprivileged youth in Nebraska.

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Source: Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

41. Charles Edward Chipping
> Played by: Robert Donat in “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” (1939)

“Goodbye, Mr. Chips” is the story of Mr. Chipping, who recalls his six-decade career as a teacher and headmaster at a boarding school.

Source: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

40. Frank Serpico
> Played by: Al Pacino in “Serpico” (1973)

“Serpico” is based on the real-life story of Frank Serpico, a plainclothes officer who exposed corruption in the New York City Police Department.

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Source: Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

39. Lassie
> Played by: Pal (the dog) in “Lassie Come Home” (1943)

“Lassie Come Home” is the story of a collie who is sold by her poverty-stricken family but escapes from her new owner and begins a long trek from England to her rightful home in Scotland.

Source: Courtesy of United Artists

38. The Tramp
> Played by: Charles Chaplin in “City Lights” (1931)

An iconic character created by Charlie Chaplin, The Tramp is a good-hearted, childlike vagrant who has various adventures. “City Lights” is a 1931 silent film in which he falls in love with a blind girl and befriends an alcoholic millionaire.

Source: Courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.

37. Obi-Wan Kenobi
> Played by: Alec Guinness in “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope” (1977)

In the original “Star Wars” film (later retitled to fit chronologically into the lengthy “Star Wars” series of films), Obi-Wan Kenobi is a Jedi Master and mentor to Luke Skywalker, whom he guides through the Force in the fight against the Galactic Empire.

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Source: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

36. Rooster Cogburn
> Played by: John Wayne in “True Grit” (1969)

Rooster Cogburn is an ageing, cantankerous, one-eyed lawman who is hired by a young girl to track down the man who killed her father.

Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

35. Alvin York
> Played by: Gary Cooper in “Sergeant York” (1941)

“Sergeant York” is the story of Alvin York, a World War I hero who originally claimed conscientious objector status because of his religious beliefs but went on to win the Medal of Honor for his exploits on the battlefield.

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Source: Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

34. Tarzan
> Played by: Johnny Weissmuller in “Tarzan the Ape Man” (1932)

Loosely based on the 1912 Edgar Rice Burroughs novel “Tarzan of the Apes,” “Tarzan the Ape Man” was the first of 12 films in which Johnny Weissmuller played the jungle-dwelling friend to apes and elephants.

Source: Courtesy of Gramercy Pictures

33. Marge Gunderson
> Played by: Frances McDormand in “Fargo” (1996)

Marge Gunderson, played by Frances McDormand, is a pregnant police chief on the trail of a couple of killers in North Dakota in this black comedy crime drama.

Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

32. Philip Marlowe
> Played by: Humphrey Bogart in “The Big Sleep” (1946)

Humphrey Bogart plays private detective Philip Marlowe opposite his real-life love interest Lauren Bacall in this ironic crime film. “The big sleep” is a metaphor for death.

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Source: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

31. Erin Brockovich
> Played by: Julia Roberts in “Erin Brockovich” (2000)

This film is a dramatization of the true story of Erin Brockovich, played by Julia Roberts, a legal clerk and environmental activist who takes on a giant energy company for contaminating drinking water.

Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros./Seven Arts

30. Lucas Jackson
> Played by: Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke” (1967)

In this film Paul Newman plays Lucas “Luke” Jackson, a decorated World War II veteran, who defies a prison warden and his staff after being sentenced to two years on a chain gang for a fairly minor crime.

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Source: Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

29. General George Patton
> Played by: George C. Scott in “Patton” (1970)

George C. Scott plays World War II General George Patton, a hard-charging leader who can control an army but not his own temper, in this biopic. “Patton” won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Source: Courtesy of United Artists

28. Juror #8
> Played by: Henry Fonda in “12 Angry Men” (1957)

In this classic legal drama, Henry Fonda plays a juror who helps sway a jury that is inclined to convict a youth of murder, which would mean a death sentence for the young man.

Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

27. Bob Woodward & Carl Bernstein
> Played by: Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in “All the President’s Men” (1976)

Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford play Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose investigation of the Watergate scandal helped bring down the presidency of Richard Nixon.

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Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

26. Superman
> Played by: Christopher Reeve in “Superman” (1978)

Christopher Reeve plays Clark Kent/Superman in the 1978 movie. Born on the planet Krypton and raised on Earth, he uses his super powers to protect and save others.

Source: Courtesy of RKO Radio Pictures

25. Lou Gehrig
> Played by: Gary Cooper in “The Pride of the Yankees” (1942)

Lou Gehrig played 17 seasons in major league baseball for the New York Yankees before being forced to retire and eventually dying from the disease to which he gave his name.

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Source: Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

24. Thelma Dickerson & Louise Sawyer
> Played by: Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis in “Thelma & Louise” (1991)

“Thelma & Louise” is a buddy movie, a road movie, and a crime movie about two women, played by Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, on the run, beginning in Arkansas and ending at the Grand Canyon.

Source: Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

23. Terry Malloy
> Played by: Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront” (1954)

Terry Malloy is a former boxer and dock worker forced to confront union corruption and violence on the waterfront in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Source: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

22. Spartacus
> Played by: Kirk Douglas in “Spartacus” (1960)

Spartacus was a gladiator who led a slave revolt against the Roman Empire. He was played by Kirk Douglas in this memorable “swords and sandals” epic.

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Source: Central Press / Getty Images

21. Mahatma Gandhi
> Played by: Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi in “Mahatma Gandhi: 20th Century Prophet” (1953)

Mahatma Gandhi was an Indian lawyer and anti-colonial activist who successfully used nonviolent resistance in the struggle against British rule in India. This documentary about his life and struggles is based on archival footage of Gandhi himself.

Source: Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

20. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
> Played by: Paul Newman and Robert Redford in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford, are charismatic train robbers on the run from a posse in the Wild West. The desperadoes make their way to Bolivia in the hope that things will be better for them there.

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Source: Courtesy of United Artists

19. Virgil Tibbs
> Played by: Sidney Poitier in “In the Heat of the Night” (1967)

Virgil Tibbs, played by Sidney Poitier, is an African-American police detective who comes into conflict with a racist police chief in a small Southern town in this adaptation of a John Ball novel. Poitier also played the role in two sequels.

Source: Courtesy of Dominant Pictures Corporation

18. Robin Hood
> Played by: Errol Flynn in “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938)

Robin Hood was the legendary heroic outlaw who led the Merry Men in their struggle against the evil King John and his henchmen, including the Sheriff of Nottingham. Errol Flynn’s portrayal of Robin is considered iconic.

Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

17. Harry Callahan
> Played by: Clint Eastwood in “Dirty Harry” (1971)

Harry Callahan, nicknamed Dirty Harry, is an antihero cop who dispenses rough justice to assorted villains and lowlifes in San Francisco.

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Source: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

16. Shane
> Played by: Alan Ladd in “Shane” (1953)

Shane, played by Alan Ladd, is a gunfighter looking for a quiet life who has to take on a ruthless cattle baron and his henchmen who are preying on settlers in the Wyoming Territory.

Source: Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

15. Norma Rae Webster
> Played by: Sally Field in “Norma Rae” (1979)

Norma Rae Webster, played by Sally Field, is a textile mill worker who becomes a union activist and battles exploitation and corporate greed.

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Source: Courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.

14. Han Solo
> Played by: Harrison Ford in “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope” (1977)

Han Solo, played by Harrison Ford — the hero of the original “Star Wars” film and some of its sequels — joins the Rebel Alliance in the fight against the evil Galactic Empire.

Source: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

13. Oskar Schindler
> Played by: Liam Neeson in “Schindler’s List” (1993)

Oskar Schindler was an enigmatic and charismatic German businessman who saved many Jews from the Holocaust by giving them employment in his factory in Nazi-occupied Poland under false pretences.

Source: Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

12. Tom Joad
> Played by: Henry Fonda in “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940)

Tom Joad, the hero of John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath,” was played by Henry Fonda in the film version. He’s one of the “Okies” who took to the road in search of a better life during the Dust Bowl era.

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Source: Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

11. Jefferson Smith
> Played by: James Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939)

Jefferson Smith, played by James Stewart, is a newly appointed United States Senator who goes to Washington and fights against a corrupt political system.

Source: Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

10. T.E. Lawrence
> Played by: Peter O’Toole in “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962)

T.E. Lawrence, played by Peter O’Toole, was a charismatic British army officer and leader of the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire during World War I.

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Source: Courtesy of RKO Radio Pictures

9. George Bailey
> Played by: James Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946)

George Bailey, played by James Stewart, is a banker who considers suiсide, but is redeemed by a guardian angel who shows him what would have happened to his town if he had never been born.

Source: Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

8. Ellen Ripley
> Played by: Sigourney Weaver in “Aliens” (1986)

Ellen Ripley, often known simply as Ripley, is the protagonist in the “Alien” science fiction film franchise. It was a groundbreaking role for Sigourney Weaver — and for women in general — as a kiсk-аss heroine in a genre traditionally dominated by men.

Source: Courtesy of United Artists

7. Rocky Balboa
> Played by: Sylvester Stallone in “Rocky” (1976)

Rocky Balboa, played by Sylvester Stallone, is an underdog boxer who prevails against assorted opponents in this film and various sequels.

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Source: Courtesy of Orion Pictures

6. Clarice Starling
> Played by: Jodie Foster in “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991)

In “The Silence of the Lambs,” Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster, is a trainee at the FBI Academy who is sent to enlist the aid of Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant but evil cannibalistic doctor in a maximum security prison, in the hunt for a serial killer.

Source: Courtesy of United Artists

5. Will Kane
> Played by: Gary Cooper in “High Noon” (1952)

Will Kane, played by Gary Cooper, is the newly married marshal of Hadleyville in the New Mexico Territory. He takes on a gang of villains alone, without any help from the townspeople.

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Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

4. Rick Blaine
> Played by: Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca” (1942)

Played by Humphrey Bogart, Rick Blaine is the cynical, world-weary protagonist of this film classic, who falls in love with Ilse, played by Ingrid Bergman.

Source: Courtesy of United Artists

3. James Bond
> Played by: Sean Connery in “Dr. No” (1962)

Created by English author Ian Fleming, James Bond is a fictional British spy with a license to kill. He was first played by Sean Connery in the 1962 film “Dr. No” and most recently portrayed by Daniel Craig in “No Time To Die.”

Source: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

2. Indiana Jones
> Played by: Harrison Ford in “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981)

Indiana Jones is an archaeology professor, treasurer hunter, and adventurer, and the hero of the 1981 hit film “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and three sequels — so far.

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Source: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

1. Atticus Finch
> Played by: Gregory Peck in “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962)

Atticus Finch is a the hero of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” — a lawyer who represents an African-American man wrongly accused of rаpe in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama.

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