Leader, Nazi hunter, and proud owner of the coolest scar in history, Lt. Aldo Raine. Screenshot from YouTube.
Hollywood often portrays military leaders as crotchety old men, incompetent snot-nosed kids, or authoritarian assholes that just get in the way.
We’re kidding. Well, mostly. (We’re looking at you senior leaders who continually fail to prioritize troop welfare.) The men and women who take up leadership roles in the United States military shoulder one helluva burden. There’s a great demand placed on leaders at all levels, and the responsibility is immense. Good leadership requires strong character, intelligence, courage, and a multitude of other qualities that aren’t in your typical cinematic portrayal. Since military leaders in film aren’t always depicted in the most flattering light, we put our heads together and made a list of five of the best military leaders in movie history.
Capt. John H. Miller is the gold standard for cinematic military leaders. Portrayed by Tom Hanks in the World War II classic Saving Private Ryan, Miller is a stellar example of a professional soldier and leader.
Miller is pragmatic enough to see the folly in risking the lives of his men to save just one soldier while also being professional enough to suppress those feelings and execute the mission regardless. Miller would later set aside this pragmatism and lead an ill-conceived assault on an easily surpassable enemy radar station, but the loss incurred as a result of his poor decisions weighed heavily on his psyche.
Miller leads from the front, and whether it’s storming Omaha Beach or an entrenched enemy position, Miller is always fighting alongside his men and sharing equal risk.
Sgt. Elias Gordon is an idealistic and moral noncommissioned officer in Oliver Stone’s legendary Vietnam war movie Platoon. He’s good natured and serves as a mentor to the film’s protagonist, Chris Taylor. Elias is compassionate not only to his fellow soldiers but also to the people of the country he’s fighting in.
A notable example is when Elias confronts Sgt. Barnes for threatening to execute a child and subsequently rifle-butts him in the face. Elias checks all the boxes for a good leader: grounded, capable, and willing to rifle-butt an asshole square in the face for committing war crimes. Promote ahead of peers.
Hailing from a long line of military service, Lt. Dan Taylor from the film Forrest Gump felt that it was his destiny to fight and die in combat like his forefathers. Dan survived the war, however, thanks to Forrest. He struggled significantly after his service but eventually found a renewed sense of purpose with Forrest’s help.
While in Vietnam, Lt. Dan was a straightforward, no-bullshit officer who clearly knew his shit and was more than willing to die out on the battlefield. After being severely wounded in an ambush that wiped out most of his platoon, Lt. Dan continued fighting and even called in an airstrike on his own position. When Forrest arrived to rescue him, Lt. Dan ordered Gump to leave him on the battlefield to die with his men. Now that is an LT.
There are two things grunts always like to see in a leader; the first is brevity, and the second is the willingness to get their hands dirty. These are attributes that the character Lt. Jean Rasczak from the sci-fi hit Starship Troopers has in spades.
Portrayed by the best voice in the business, Michael Ironside, Rasczak is a seasoned soldier who inspires deep loyalty in his troops through his tough but fair demeanor, combat prowess, and excellent leadership. A soldier’s soldier, Rasczak also wins points with us for showing up with beer and giving Rico an extra 10 minutes to … handle business.
Lt. Aldo Raine is the bushwhacking, Nazi-hunting US Army officer who led a group of Jewish American guerrillas in Quentin Tarantino’s World War II hit Inglourious Basterds. A self-proclaimed descendant of the mountain man Jim Bridger, Aldo wages an Apache-style resistance against the Germans; the Basterds utilize tactics like scalping to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies.
Eccentricities aside, Aldo is one of the greatest leaders in military movie history, if you think about it. Not only were Aldo and the Basterds extremely successful in their guerrilla war/psy-op efforts, but they also managed to assassinate Hitler himself and torch the rest of the Nazi High Command in an elaborately staged trap, effectively bringing an end to World War II.
Eric Miller is a former Army Combat Medic from Parkersburg, West Virginia. He holds a bachelor’s degree in history and has worked with homeless populations and veteran services throughout the state. He is an avid outdoorsman and has recently become interested in woodworking.
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