Thankfully, in my lifetime, I've never had to go to war nor serve in the military. The notion of combat- or even the rigorous discipline of soldiering- has never held much attraction for me. I prefer peace and value my independence. And I'm pretty certain many others share this attitude.
Yet military characters — and the portrayal of human beings in war — have always fascinated me. Part of this is personal: my father did prolonged and courageous duty as a Naval officer during World War 2. He took pride in his service, yet the experience clearly scarred him. Like many other veterans, he was mostly reticent about his wartime adventures. I was always curious about what he was holding inside.
Beyond my Dad's influence, I'm intrigued by how human beings adjust to what is a totally irrational situation. Though many great leaders have sought to eradicate war, no one has succeeded. It seems to be an essential part of our natures. Can there ever really be something redemptive and honorable in it? Or is that just self-delusion?
When we think of movie heroes, soldiers always rank high, particularly those on the front lines. Bradley Cooper's Oscar-nominated turn in last year's "American Sniper" is just the latest example. These men face the prospect of death most every day, leading or working with other men to accomplish seemingly impossible objectives.
Under insane conditions, they manage to hold onto their sanity. And paradoxically, in the basest, most brutal activity civilized humans undertake, soldiers can reach heights of nobility and sacrifice that would hardly be possible in peacetime.
Below are some of my own favorite movie soldiers. I'd follow most any of them into battle- but only if absolutely necessary.
John Gilbert in "The Big Parade" (1925)
Plan of Battle: A naive, cosseted American doughboy grows up the hard way on the bloody battlefields of France during World War 1.
Lew Ayres in "All Quiet On The Western Front" (1930)
Plan of Battle: A green German soldier experiences the trauma of heavy shelling on the front lines as the tide of the First War turns against his country.
Gary Cooper in "Sergeant York" (1941)
Plan of Battle: A good ol' country boy (and crack shot) wins the First War almost singlehandedly with his almost supernatural courage and marksmanship.
Gregory Peck in "Twelve O'Clock High" (1950)
Plan of Battle: A tough-as-nails Air Force General shakes up a bombing squadron experiencing low morale, yet he himself is not immune to the brutal effects of aerial warfare.
Burt Lancaster in "From Here To Eternity" (1953)
Plan of Battle: A master sergeant in Pearl Harbor on the eve of war contemplates whether he wants to be an officer. Regardless of his choice, he remains the backbone of his whole base.
Kirk Douglas in "Paths Of Glory" (1957)
Plan of Battle: A French Colonel defends his own men who are unjustly accused of cowardice for failing to complete what was basically a suicide mission during World War 1.
John Wayne in "The Longest Day" (1962)
Plan of Battle: In this ambitious portrayal of the D-Day invasion, soldiers (and stars) abound, but it's Wayne's Lieutenant Colonel who makes us believe we'll win in the end.
Lee Marvin in "The Dirty Dozen" (1966)
Plan of Battle: What officer could whip a bunch of misfits sprung from military jail into shape, and then lead them on a hazardous mission behind Nazi lines? Only Lee Marvin.
George C. Scott in "Patton" (1970)
Plan of Battle: This three star general was the officer the Nazis most feared and respected, and this grand war movie helps us understand why.
Robert Duvall in "Apocalypse Now Redux" (1979)
Plan of Battle: There are officers made for war — soldiers who are actually in their element on the battlefield. For them, combat is a blast of adrenaline. And bullets bounce off them.
Willem Dafoe in "Platoon" (1986)
Plan of Battle: In the killing fields of Vietnam, two tough, seasoned sergeants lead a unit together. One man is evil, the other good. We'll stand by the good man every time.
Matthew Broderick in "Glory" (1989)
Plan of Battle: A Civil War officer from the Northeast leads the first black Union volunteer company into battle. They go beyond the call to save the country that will continue to marginalize them.
Tom Hanks in "Saving Private Ryan" (1998)
Plan of Battle: An Army captain in World War 2 gets assigned the task of finding the title character, whose other brothers in the service have all perished. It's no cake walk.
Jeremy Renner in "The Hurt Locker" (2008)
Plan of Battle: In Iraq, a sergeant in a bomb unit annoys fellow soldiers with his seemingly cavalier attitude towards a very dangerous job. He's really good at it though.