The Top 10 Movie Troops of All Time: A Definitive, Armed Forces–Informed RankingElias Stein
At the beginning of my sophomore year of college, I seriously considered joining the Army. It wasn’t that I wanted out of school. On the contrary, I very much enjoyed attending a university. I was the first person in my family to even graduate high school. My going to college was no different from my going to the moon, or my having invented the moon, really. That’s a strong card to hold. I could’ve strangled two people and my mom would’ve been like, “That’s good, mijo. I’ll bet nobody strangles as well as you do. Do you want me to make you some arroz con pollo for your bus ride to prison?”
So it wasn’t about not wanting to be in school. It was just feeling like maybe I needed to be somewhere else too. My dad had served in the Army. A few of my uncles were in the military, and later my cousins would join. The pressure was only ever internal, but it was there. So I talked to the recruiting officer on campus.
We went over the talking points: How it was going to be better for my life long-term, how I’d have the opportunity to do these amazing things, how my college would be paid for afterward, how I didn’t have anything to worry about because there were no wars so basically it was just gonna be me hanging out with a bunch of cool bros with short hair playing flag football on the weekends and don’t you like flag football of course you do everybody likes flag football. Have you ever talked to a recruiting officer for more than 25 seconds? There’s a reason these guys are recruiting officers: They’re really good at recruiting. After we talked I was feeling like I was about to be the next Patton, or at least the next Bill Murray in Stripes. He gave me some paperwork to fill out, asked where he could find me the next day, then sent me on my way toward a nobler, more patriotic future. I will always remember that conversation. I’ll always remember that day. It was September 10, 2001.
The next 36 hours were crazy, of course. The country was changed irrevocably, and so was my future. I knew right then that I could never serve in the military. Go to Afghanistan? I’d never even been to Oklahoma. Shoot at somebody? I hit a raccoon in the face with a rock one time and I still get sad thinking about it. There was no way. So when the recruiter and I finally ran into each other, he asked, “You ready to sign up?” And I said, “Nope. I’ma go ahead and stay right here.” He asked, “What changed?” I said, “You’re funny. I’m good. Thank you.” And that was that. No Army for me.
But my appreciation for those who serve remains, as does my fascination. This is all a roundabout way to get into a thing about the best movie military fighters (basically, members of the armed forces) of all time. That, and the release of Fury this week, the new World War II tank movie starring Brad Pitt, which arrives in theaters Friday. So let’s get into the ranking.
Here’s how we did it: First, we compiled a long list of all the memorable service members from all the best military movies. For that, there were a few rules:
1. You can’t pick more than one service member from any one movie. This is the Full Metal Jacket Rule. There were three iconic roles there (Private Joker, Private Pyle, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman), but then that’s possibly 30 percent of the top 10 from one movie, and that seemed silly.
2. You can’t use the same actor on the list twice. This is the Tom Cruise Rule. He was great in Top Gun, great for a different reason in Born on the Fourth of July, great for a different reason in A Few Good Men, and great for a different reason in Edge of Tomorrow. You get only one of him.
3. The picks are not limited to serious roles. Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder, Tommy Lee Jones in Small Soldiers, Bill Murray in Stripes — those are in play.
4. You can’t pick an entire platoon, the only exception being the Wolverines from Red Dawn. You can take a walk if you think we’re breaking up the Wolverines. They’ve been through enough.
5. You can’t pick someone whose military was part of a backstory but not the thrust of a role. This is the Tommy From Warrior Rule. He was a Marine, but really he was a mixed martial arts fighter in the movie. You get it.
6. No movies before Apocalypse Now (1979). This is the Apocalypse Now Rule. We needed a cutoff point, and 35 years sounded like a good number, but also because the movies before that date are mostly very boring.
Those are the rules. After we compiled a master list, we polled 20 real-life service members that I’ve come to know — men and women who either are or were in the military. They submitted their top choices, and their picks and our picks were combined and averaged: That’s how we got the top 10 movie troops of all time. Legit. That’s what’s coming. Before that, though, some awards.
The Best Insulter
Gunnery Sergeant Hartman,1 Full Metal Jacket
It’s not even close. What a treasure. What glory. What prose. What perfection. I feel like I should include a few quotes from his monologue, but I also feel like I do not want to get fired today, so I probably won’t do that. Did you know that R. Lee Ermey was a for-real drill instructor in for-real real-life? That’s a true thing. Also, did you know that R. Lee Ermey’s eyebrows are insured for up to $100,000? That’s a true thing, too.2
The Best at Not Giving an Order
Commander Anderson, The Rock
Do you remember how intense this was the first time you watched it? Commander Anderson 100 percent deserved to star in a prequel based on his three minutes here. Also, this is a forever funny loop:
Best Coming Up Out of the Water Stealth Mode
Captain Willard, Apocalypse Now
I do this at least, like, five or six times whenever we go swimming. It’s actually how I met my wife. She was in the pool talking to one of her friends and I came up out the water slow-mo just like this right in between them like, “What up, boo?” That’s a little thing called real romance.
Best New Guy
Private Taylor, Platoon
What a compelling creation. Private Taylor seemed to be the John Everyman of Platoon, but ended up being way more interesting, because as the movie jungle-crawled forward he began juxtaposing his insecurity in his soldiering ability with his resolute morality. (If you’ll recall, Charlie Sheen spends his time in Vietnam trying to process and validate his role in the war, and even the war itself, really, then ends up shooting and killing one of his own platoon’s soldiers as a matter of exorcising evil with evil. It was a very profound moment. I was super surprised he didn’t make it into the top 10. I have to assume his turn in Two and a Half Men played a sizable role in his absence from the top of the list.)
Also, has there ever been a better fictional line of succession than Martin Sheen as a soldier in Apocalypse Now to Charlie Sheen as a soldier in Platoon?
Most Agonizing Death
Private Mellish, Saving Private Ryan
Just cosmically unsettling and devastating. Maybe it was because it took so long to develop? Maybe it was because Mellish began to beg for his life when he realized he couldn’t stop what was happening? Maybe it was because it just felt so real and true? Maybe it was because we all saw that there was a guy who could’ve saved him just a few steps away, but he was having a nervous breakdown? Maybe it was because the guy who played Mellish had a three-episode run on Friends? I don’t know. Whatever it was, this scene is a pulverizer. I can’t even watch it without taking a week off work because of emotional distress.
Best Group of Warriors Who Weren’t in the Military
The Wolverines, Red Dawn
- Get the 2012 version all the way outta here forever. What a tragedy.
- The craziest thing is when Wolverine Daryl is forced to swallow a tracking device by the Soviets because they want him to lead them to the rest of the Wolverines. The Wolverines figure it out. Daryl is like, “My bad, guys.” All the Wolverines are like, “Totes not cool, man.” Then Wolverine Robert is like, “Nah, you gotta die,” AND THEN HE KILLS HIM. Just shoots him. Do you even understand how amazing that is? The Wolverines are not a joke, son.
- That the Cubans and the Soviets would identify Calumet, Colorado, as a hot point for a takeover of the United States is exactly the reason Cuba and the Soviet Union have both disbanded and are no longer countries.3
Best at Hiding
John Rambo, Rambo: First Blood Part II
Bro, I know he’s there and it’s still hard to see him. Can you even imagine how sucky this was for the guy Rambo killed here? He has absolutely zero idea what’s happening. For all eternity, he’s just there in the afterlife swearing that a tree came alive and killed him. He’s the laughing stock of the underworld. That’s the real tragedy.
Worst at Hiding
John Matrix, Commando
We see you, Arnold.
Arnold, we still see you.
It’s like you’re not even trying, man.
I guess if you’re a warrior you either have to be very good at hiding or very good at killing. Arnold kills more people in Commando than in any of his other movies, including Kindergarten Cop.
Private James Ryan, Saving Private Ryan
The story that Matt Damon’s character tells Tom Hanks’s character about his oldest brother nearly having sex with a very unattractive woman is so great, particularly near the end, when Damon realizes he’s talking about the last time he and his brothers were together before they died, and especially the way Hanks absorbs it, knowing the realization is about to come. It’s amazing and devastating that these sorts of conversations are common. If I ever happen to be in a war (let’s say that, all of a sudden, 33-year-old out-of-shape Mexicans become super in demand in the military next year and I get drafted) and I get killed like one of the Ryan brothers did, please have my body cremated and my ashes scattered on Kawhi Leonard’s scalp. Thank you.
The Bear Jew, Inglourious Basterds
It’s fantastic basically 100 percent of the time when you make a nickname by combining the name of an animal with the name of a religious group.
Least Believable Service Member
Owen Wilson, Behind Enemy Lines
Caps Lock + g
Caps Lock + t
Caps Lock + f
Caps Lock + o
Caps Lock + h
Most Motivating Speech
Chip Hazard, Small Soldiers
It’s a runaway.
Most Relatable Service Member
Staff Sergeant Matt Eversmann, Black Hawk Down
I’m going to hand it off to Rob Foster, who served eight years in the Army and did a tour of duty in Iraq. He had Hartnett no. 1 on his list.
“So, I saw this movie in theaters with my friends before I was ever in the Army and we were all in agreement that it was a super sweet action movie and soldiers are badasses, especially Delta Force, whatever that is. Then, I watched this movie in Iraq with my unit, and it was still awesome, but for so many other, different reasons. To me, Eversmann is such a great representation of the Military experience. We all have the training, but only a handful of people are put in those life or death decision-making positions — usually only after extensive vetting. Eversmann was thrown into one like an hour before the shit hit the fan. He stepped up. Nobody I was watching with said anything, but we were all asking ourselves, Would I step up if it was me? That’s what makes him my number one: he was 100% relatable.”
Best at Defending America Against Switzerland
Clint Eastwood, Heartbreak Ridge
I kind of wish that Clint Eastwood would’ve spent his whole career playing a Marine. He’s perfect here. I don’t know that any fighter has ever been cooler. Or growl-ier.
Best Explanation of Why Service Members Do What They Do
Eric Bana, Black Hawk Down
Bana finished 13th overall. Four separate warriors specifically mentioned this scene when we asked them to list their top 10. Dan Green, who served seven years with the Australian infantry and another four years after that as a contractor in Iraq, had him as number 10: “Eric Bana makes it because in one scene he explains why front line soldiers fight. And nails it.” You can’t argue about anything with a guy from Australia, and you certainly can’t argue about anything with a guy from Australia who was in the Australian army. I didn’t even know they had an Australian army. There’s no telling what kind of crazy shit those guys have to do.
Best Funny Service Member
Bill Murray, Stripes
Raaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhzuhllll daaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhzuhllll. Duh.
Marcus Luttrell, Lone Survivor
The Top 10
10. Lt. Jordan O’Neill, G.I. Jane
Smart. Stubborn. Strong. Told her C.O. to “suck my dick.” The greatest female fighter of all time. Better than Meg Ryan in Courage Under Fire. Better than Goldie Hawn in Private Benjamin. Better than Sigourney Weaver in Aliens. Better than Juwanna Mann in Juwanna Mann 2: Juwanna War, Jugotta War. Better than all of them.
9. Private Roland Bozz, Tigerland
He openly hated the war but he secretly loved being in the military, and that made for a very engaging, very engrossing dichotomy. He was cool, likable, noble, smart, funny, and a very big jackass and even bigger bleeding heart. He undermined nearly every single thing he was told to do or feel by his superior officers, and spent a good amount of his time helping people who didn’t want to be in the military get out (the movie was set around the Vietnam War, so the draft was still a thing). Bozz is actually my second-favorite movie service member that’s ever been.
Here’s the best Bozz exchange in the movie:
Bozz: I’m just trying to keep myself alive.
Captain Saunders: We’re fighting a war, private. Nobody knows how he’s gonna come back.
Bozz: That’s not the kind of alive I’m talking about, sir.
Perfect. Please have my babies, Bozz.
8. Private Anthony Swofford, Jarhead
Jake Gyllenhaal has quietly worked his way onto the You Have To Watch Every Movie This Person Is In list, which is remarkable when you consider that he was in Bubble Boy. His role here as the conflicted Swofford was pitch-perfect.
7. Master Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Beckett, Sniper
Just a wonderful mix of camp and self-seriousness and ridiculousness and legitimacy. Beckett was doing and saying everything with so much confidence in Sniper that you were watching him like, Wait a second. Is this real? Because it definitely is starting to feel real. Thomas Beckett is the greatest assassin in history.
Semi-related: I think none of us really realized how great of a 10-year run Tom Berenger had from 1986 to 1996. During that time, he was in 19 real movies, including but not limited to Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Major League, Major League II, Sniper, and The Substitute. That’s a rock-solid résumé. He needs some sort of award.
6. Lieutenant Aldo “The Apache” Raine, Inglourious Basterds
Christoph Waltz was amazing as the slow-boiling Colonel Landa. His measured demeanor, that unsettling you-know-that-I-know-that-you-know-that-I-know-ness, make for an all-time villainous Nazi foil. And were this an acting-specific ranking, he’d have likely finished no lower than third.4 But it’s not acting-specific. It’s military-specific. And no one in the top 10 had more charm, more silent intelligence and wit, more infinite coolness than Lieutenant Aldo Raine.
5. Sergeant First Class William James, The Hurt Locker
The erosion of the perceived validity of existence outside the barbed-wire fences of battle is, from the exterior of the fraternity, anyway, one of the most compelling (and crushing) thought patterns of the American warrior. When my cousin came home from serving in Afghanistan, he and I were sitting outside talking and he was explaining to me how difficult it was to recalibrate his brain, to switch it from thinking Every single person I see could possibly kill me to It’s unlikely anybody here wants to cause me harm. He didn’t say that he wanted to go back — he definitely didn’t seem to want that. He just seemed to be processing that world and this world differently. I imagine that’s why Jeremy Renner’s William James from The Hurt Locker ended up higher than, say, a more (semi)-iconic figure like Demi in G.I. Jane. He was great here; distraught but proud but lost but not really lost but reckless but understandably so.
4. Private Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence, Full Metal Jacket
I was going to just make a list of all the mean things that get said to Private Pyle during Full Metal Jacket as a way to address the psychological pile driver that happens to him in the movie, but I got halfway through it and started feeling an overwhelming depression, so I had to stop. What a poor, discarded soul.
You have to assume that he joined the Marines with hopes of finally fitting in or belonging somewhere — it’s difficult to watch him for more than 40 seconds and come to any conclusion other than he was habitually and regularly designated as a worthless person as he grew up. And he gets to the Marines and is just absolutely shredded to sadness ribbon. That’s the worst.
A real-life thing: A couple of years, one of the classes I was teaching included a special-education student I’m going to call A.J. Now, A.J. was a real sweetheart. And I liked him very much. He had all the traits that teachers hope for their students to have: a hard worker, respectful, courteous, so on. But he was a meek kid and had not yet grown into his face and wore glasses and had braces, and so it was almost impossible for him to avoid occasional ridicule from some of the more popular kids.
One Friday, our school had Go Texan Day, which is during the rodeo season and when kids are allowed to dress up in their best Western gear. A.J., that glorious little man, came to school just completely done up. He had on his best jeans, his best button-up shirt, his best cowboy hat, his best boots, and the most amazing thing: spurs for his boots. SPURS, bro. Nobody ever wore them and he had them and they made the most beautiful sound. They sounded like happiness. They sounded like acceptance. They sounded like a day of not getting messed with. I saw him walking down the hallway to my class and he was just so pleased with himself and I couldn’t stop smiling. It was really just this incredible transformation. For the moment, he looked like a Mexican Paul Newman, in that he was just the coolest person on earth. And so he walked up and I shook his hand and told him he looked amazing and he smiled and even his braces looked perfect and he went to sit down.
Two or so minutes later, after I’d welcomed the rest of the kids into class at the door, I walked in. And I saw he had his head down on his desk. So I called to him, I said, “A.J., you OK? What’s up, sir?” And he said nothing’s up, that he was fine, and just stayed staring at the floor. And then I heard it.
Across the room, the most popular boy in the class and a known rapscallion, J.P., was walking around and I could hear the ka-chink, ka-chink, ka-chink of the spurs. HE HAD TAKEN THE SPURS FROM A.J. AS SOON AS A.J. HAD GOTTEN TO HIS SEAT. I called to him. “J.P., are those A.J.’s spurs?” And he said, “Yes, sir. A.J. said I could wear them.” And I looked at A.J. and it was pretty clear that he said J.P. could wear them but it was also pretty clear he said so in the same way that a gazelle would agree to being eaten after it’s been pinned down and bitten in half by a lion. I immediately felt all of my insides turn to fire.
I made J.P. give A.J. the spurs back. But I don’t think I’ll ever forget the way A.J. looked after being de-spurred. That poor kid had just wanted to fit in. He had just wanted for people to think he was cool, or, at the very least, that he wasn’t uncool. And he had that hope snatched from him real quick (though, thankfully, only temporarily).
Pyle’s treatment is the same as that, just the adult version. It’s the worst. Don’t make people feel like that. Just be nice. This shit ain’t that hard, man.
3. Private Silas Trip, Glory
This is the most brilliantly acted military moment on the list and Denzel needs exactly zero words to pull it off. Give him all the money. Give him all the everything. Remake every movie and let Denzel play every role and watch Hollywood’s Golden Era get smushed into nothingness.
2. Major Alan “Dutch” Schaefer, Predator
HE FOUGHT AND KILLED AN ALIEN IN THE JUNGLE. I DON’T CARE ABOUT ANYTHING ELSE. NOT ONE SINGLE THING.
1. Captain John H. Miller, Saving Private Ryan
Perfect. Just perfect. Just positively perfect. Just positively, absolutely perfect.
After we posted this, a member of the U.S. Marine Corps emailed Grantland and respectfully informed us that the term “soldier” applies only to members of the Army. We have revised the piece throughout to reflect that, and thank him for the note.