Fictional Military Leaders We’d Follow Into Battle

Photo Credit: 1. Zayne / United Artists / MovieStillsDB 2. Zayne / Columbia Pictures / MovieStillsDB 3. Kupca / MovieStillsDB
Photo Credit: 1. Zayne / United Artists / MovieStillsDB 2. Zayne / Columbia Pictures / MovieStillsDB 3. Kupca / MovieStillsDB

When it comes to military movies, directors can get a little carried away with the heroism of leaders. This list of fictional military leaders showcases the best of the best when it comes to Hollywood’s portrayal of strategic genius, unwavering resolve and indomitable spirit in the face of enemy action. These men embody the epitome of leadership, and we’d follow any of them into battle.

Gunnery Sgt. Tom ‘Gunny’ Highway – Heartbreak Ridge (1986)

Clint Eastwood as Gunnery Sgt. Tom "Gunny" Highway in 'Heartbreak Ridge'
Heartbreak Ridge, 1986. (Photo Credit: Zayne / MovieStillsDB)

The first on our list of fictional military leaders is Gunnery Sgt. Tom “Gunny” Highway from Heartbreak Ridge (1986).

Even on the brink of retirement, Highway, played by Clint Eastwood, is an absolute legend. In his new position, he immediately sets to work on his group of unmotivated men. Slowly but surely earning their respect and loyalty, he engages them in a series of competitions against the platoon of Maj. Malcolm Powers, played by Everett McGill, to show who is superior. In one, Highway even gets into the boxing ring himself to show Powers who’s boss.

As if being awarded the Medal of Honor for his service in Korea wasn’t enough, Highway shows time and time again his drive and determination in making these soldiers the best they can be on the battlefield. Using unorthodox training methods, he trains them to adapt and familiarize themselves with the conditions they could be exposed to when fighting in the field, like the sound of gunfire.

The proof is in the pudding, as Highway’s training helps his troops take initiative, make their own decisions in the heat of battle and develop a true fighting spirit.

Capt. John Miller – Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Tom Hanks as Capt. John Miller in 'Saving Private Ryan'
Saving Private Ryan, 1998. (Photo Credit: Zayne / Dreamworks Pictures / Paramount Pictures / MovieStillsDB)

Capt. John Miller from Saving Private Ryan (1998), played by Tom Hanks, is one of the most well-rounded fictional military leaders we’ve ever seen on the big screen.

A former school teacher, Miller serves as a leader in the 2nd Rangers Battalion during World War II. His former occupation serves him well on the battlefield, as he’s familiar with rounding up large groups, so he easily positions himself in a role of leadership among his men.

As a reserved man, Miller never speaks much about his private life, and his assertive and clear direction earns him the respect of his men. One of the most important things about him is that he would never ask anyone to do something he wouldn’t do himself, which is why we always see him fighting at the front alongside with his troops.

Miller keeps his men guided on their mission and approach. He’s the definition of a true leader, and we would lay our lives on the line for him.

Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore – Apocalypse Now (1979)

Robert Duvall as Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore in 'Apocalypse Now'
Apocalypse Now, 1979. (Photo Credit: Zoetrope Studios / United Artist / Sunset Boulevard / CORBIS / Getty Images)

Although his role in Apocalypse Now (1979) was pretty small, we would have no problem being under the command of fictional military leader, Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore. Portrayed by Robert Duvall, he seems like the kind of guy who knows when to have fun and when it’s time to be serious. In command of an air cavalry division, Kilgore earns a bit of a reputation for taking pleasure in the fighting during the Vietnam War, for loving “the smell of napalm in the morning.”

He seems the type to focus hard on the tasks in front of him. This was shown when he initially ignores Capt. Benjamin Willard’s (Martin Sheen) request for help entering the Nung River, too busy focusing on his own things to divert attention elsewhere. When he does finally help, it’s in the middle of a party his squadron is throwing, meaning he can have a good time and also get serious.

Ultimately, Kilgore seems like a likeable guy who is willing to help, a necessary trait for any good military leader. When his entire squadron of helicopters fires against a Viet Cong outpost at an entrance of the Nung, he plays “Ride of the Valkyries” on the loud speaker before completing his task and letting his men go off and ride the waves.

Lt. Aldo Raine – Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Brad Pitt as First Lt. Aldo "The Apache" Raine in 'Inglorious Basterds'
Inglourious Basterds, 2009. (Photo Credit: bilbo / The Weinstein Company / MovieStillsDB)

First Lt. Aldo “Apache” Raine from Inglourious Basterds (2009) definitely had to make our list of great fictional military leaders. The man’s steady leadership sits at the heart of the Basterds, a Jewish-American guerrilla group fighting the Germans during the Second World War.

Born in the South, Raine admits he’s a direct descendant of legendary mountain man, Jim Bridger, which means if we were ever in a tight spot, his inherited intuition could likely figure a way out. Raine shows absolutely no remorse in ploughing down German soldiers. In fact, he’s delighted to do so, and even adopted the habit of scalping those he’s taken down, earning him his nickname.

For those who manage to survive their run-ins with the Basterds, he likes to offer them a permanent reminder of their crimes supporting the Führer by carving the infamous symbol of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party into their foreheads. While this seems a little extreme, so were the majority of war crimes committed by German officers, so his methods seem like appropriate retribution in our eyes.

Lt. A.K. Waters – Tears of the Sun (2003)

Bruce Willis as Lt. A.K. Waters in 'Tears of the Sun'
Tears of the Sun, 2003. (Photo Credit: yassi / Columbia Pictures / MovieStillsDB)

Initially, Lt. A.K. Waters, played by Bruce Willis in Tears of the Sun (2003), seems like a mean guy. A member of a US Navy SEAL detachment, he’s tasked with extracting US citizens from a mission located in war-torn Nigeria. The job proves difficult when the “critical persona,” Dr. Lena Kendricks (Monica Bellucci), refuses to go with him unless he helps rescue the able-bodied refugees she’s caring for at a hospital mission.

Waters concedes to get them moving, but once they reach the extraction point, he realizes the refugees must be left behind and forces the US citizens onto the helicopter to depart. It’s at this point that Waters’ moral compass shines through, as he witnesses overhead the death and destruction caused by the rebels as they fly over, slaughtering anyone left behind.

In that moment, he makes the righteous decision to go back to where they abandoned the refugees at the extraction point and tries to save them. Putting his own life on the line, he and the rest of the SEAL team help escort the refugees safely along the Nigeria-Cameroon border.

Waters steps up once again in the name of what is right to put an end to the carnage being caused to innocent people in a village they reach on their way to safety. In the end, he makes the decision to save the lives of these innocent people, no matter the cost, and through grit and bravery successfully leads them and his men to safety.

His desire to do what’s right, despite the danger, is why we would definitely follow his command.

Sgt. Elias – Platoon (1986)

Willem Dafoe as Sgt. Elias in 'Platoon'
Platoon, 1986. (Photo Credit: Kupca / MovieStillsDB)

It’s certainly easy to like Sgt. Elias, played by Willem Dafoe, when compared against Staff Sgt. Robert Barnes (Tom Berenger) in Platoon (1986). However, he is likeable for more reasons than just being nicer than Barnes.

Elias is assigned to Bravo Company, 25th Infantry Division as the leader of new recruits in Alpha Squad. Immediately, we see his empathy for these young, innocent men being thrust into the brutalities of war. He serves as not only their leader, but as their mentor and friend, helping whenever and however he can. You can tell he truly cares for the well-being of his troops, and has all of the qualities necessary to make a true soldier.

For this, Elias earns the respect and loyalty of the men in his platoon.

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Elias doesn’t take pleasure in the war, nor in taking the lives of innocent people. He’s simply committed to his mission as a soldier and to leading his men as successfully and safely as he can. He’s the ultimate leader, and he’s among the fictional military leaders we’d follow into battle any day.

Samantha Franco

Samantha Franco is a Freelance Content Writer who received her Bachelor of Arts degree in history from the University of Guelph, and her Master of Arts degree in history from the University of Western Ontario. Her research focused on Victorian, medical, and epidemiological history with a focus on childhood diseases. Stepping away from her academic career, Samantha previously worked as a Heritage Researcher and now writes content for multiple sites covering an array of historical topics.

In her spare time, Samantha enjoys reading, knitting, and hanging out with her dog, Chowder!