e. magill's                        

The Unapologetic Geek


Top 10 All-American Film Icons

American patriotism isn't cool anymore. A lot of people consider flag-waving Americana to be jingoistic and naive, and this trend has definitely felt repercussions in Hollywood, where they are currently filming a G.I. Joe that is a great international hero. But if you look back in the last century of film, there have been many great American icons put up on the silver screen for us to admire. In some cases, the icon is just an actor, like the immortal John Wayne, but most times it is a character, someone who stands either implicitly or proudly for the American way of life.

The American film icon is a person who is probably flawed in more than one way, but through determination, willpower, and ideals, he (or she) manages to overcome the greatest of obstacles. He is usually an underappreciated underdog who is just trying to make ends meet or set things right. Sometimes, he is forced into violence, but he never hurts or kills without tremendous remorse, and in the end, he always wins. For this list, I chose icons who are usually on the right side of the law (sorry, no Corleones in this list, no matter how iconic they may be), who are easily recognizable not only by Americans but by people around the world, and who exude that enigmatic and unapologetic charm that is uniquely American. Not all of these people are great human beings (a couple of them are downright jerks), but they are all my heroes.

And who knows, maybe now that there's a Democrat in the white house, it'll be cool to be patriotic again.

Harry Callahan
Note to those considering a new Dirty Harry:  let Eastwood direct, and give the role to Hugh Jackman
Note to those considering a new Dirty Harry: let Eastwood direct, and give the role to Hugh Jackman

Dirty Harry is a guy who sees in black and white. There are good guys and bad guys, and Harry will do whatever it takes to catch the bad guys, often putting himself at odds with his superiors and with the justice system. He represents possibly the most disliked aspects of America, the bravado and the disregard for authority, but he also stands for self-sacrifice and the sheer determination to do what must be done regardless of the cost. Dirty Harry is best explained by the famous Teddy Roosevelt quote: "Speak softly and carry a big stick." A .44 Magnum is a big stick indeed, and if I got on Harry Callahan's bad side, I would feel anything but lucky.

Clarice Starling
Any woman who can stand toe-to-toe with Hannibal deserves some serious respect
Any woman who can stand toe-to-toe with Hannibal deserves some serious respect

The only female on this list, Clarice Starling doesn't exactly scream America. Still, she is a character born in rural West Virginia and aspires to become somebody great and respectable, which is one very pure iteration of the American dream. In The Silence of the Lambs, she is a young FBI recruit full of ambition who ultimately becomes an agent by solving the biggest serial killer case of the day. Granted, her psychological sparring partner in the movie, Hannibal Lector, is a far more iconic figure, but Clarice is an icon in and of herself, a strong woman who lives the American dream and tracks down a truly evil man. Her character had continued life in Hannibal, but the less I say about that film, the better.

The Tramp
Just looking at him gets 'The Entertainer' stuck in my head
Just looking at him gets "The Entertainer" stuck in my head

I'm a Buster Keaton fan myself, but no one can deny that Charlie Chaplin's alter-ego, the Tramp, is one of the most iconic figures in the history of film. The Tramp also stood for the American Dream, in that he represented the little guy, the working class, and the dreamy ideals of a contented normal life in America. Some have argued that the Tramp is a character living in a leftist stereotype where capitalism is a failure and all workers are oppressed, but that depiction of society is an important one in the American subconscious. Without icons like the Tramp to reflect on the worst of our excesses, we would spiral out of control and become the greedy and evil country some people seem to think we are.

John McClane
All praise the great Bruce Willis!
All praise the great Bruce Willis!

John McClane is a New York cop and modern American cowboy, coming out of the same primordial ooze of our collective consciousness as Dirty Harry and Jack Bauer. Like Dirty Harry, McClane sees in black and white and goes after the bad guy. However, McClane is an even more flawed character than his predecessor, as his marriage is perpetually falling apart, his friends think he's a jerk, and he is a raging alcoholic. Still, when terrorists threaten America, John McClane is the guy we need to save us. He's the part of America that believes in justice and sacrifice, and he will take care of threats both foreign and domestic to make sure the rest of us can live safe and secure lives.

Indiana Jones
'You call THIS archaeology?'
"You call this archaeology?"

He's a boring professor who goes on wild adventures in his spare time, and he hates Nazis. He's been through both World Wars, confronted Hitler face-to-face, and he's even fought with the Russians in the early stages of the cold war. He's a romantic and a cynic, and his adventures inspire us all. Still, he's not a perfect person or a superhero, often being the punchline in his own jokes and occasionally making huge mistakes. He travels the world in search of historical artifacts, and he confronts religious and superstitious trials along the way. In short, Indiana Jones is an American hero from a time when it wasn't so hard to be one, but he stands as an icon for ideals that are anything but forgotten.

Jack Ryan
Alec Baldwin: the quintessential Jack Ryan
Alec Baldwin: the quintessential Jack Ryan

What do you get if you take a grown-up boy scout and former marine, make him a CPA, and then put him in the center of the most extreme political events? You get Jack Ryan, Tom Clancy's brilliant everyman who, in the novels at least, goes from complete obscurity to the oval office through a long series of adrenaline-fueled ordeals. He makes this list because he sticks up for American ideals in a sea of politicians, bureaucrats, and military leaders who all seem to forget what America is all about. Jack Ryan is, on the surface, a pretty average guy with a wife, kids, and a mortgage; he's afraid of flying and gets incredibly flustered and nervous when in the same room as the President of the United States. He works for the government because that's where he's wound up, and he only gets himself caught up in the political machine because he can't seem to keep his mouth shut. In the films alone, Jack helps a Russian submarine captain defect to the U.S. during the cold war, helps stop nuclear war after terrorists detonate a nuclear bomb on American soil, and even exposes a corrupt president, all in the name of good old American virtues.

The first post-9/11 American film icon
The first post-9/11 American film icon

Before The Dark Knight, Batman probably wouldn't belong on this list. However, Christopher Nolan's latest masterwork (any hope I had for the Academy Awards was recently lost--not even a nomination?!) proves that we can still have American heroes and icons in the twenty-first century. Batman defies left-wing stereotype by being a rich man who uses his wealth and power for the good of the people, out of nothing but a sense of responsibility. He is willing to do what it takes to save his city from the evil and corruption that threaten to destroy it, even allowing himself to become the villain so that Gotham City can have hope and faith. If American patriotism has taken a new form in these troubled times, Batman is the embodiment of that new form.

Rick Blaine
'He's just like any other man, only more so'
"He's just like any other man, only more so"

Rick is the only character on this list to appear in only one film, but that doesn't make him any less deserving of a spot. He starts Casablanca as a bitter bar owner and American expatriate who insists on staying neutral in all things, even as World War II erupts around him. Eventually, forced by his deeply hidden romantic ideals to make a choice, he sacrifices the love of his life in the service of good. Rick is a perfect personification of where America was as World War II began, trying to remain neutral but eventually forced to enter the fray.

Truth, justice, AND THE AMERICAN WAY!
Truth, justice, and the American way!

Where Batman was given greater standing in the twenty-first century, Superman was pushed aside in Superman Returns. He no longer stood for the American way, and any possible thematic exploration of whether or not we need a Superman in the modern world was ruined by a recycled plot and senseless digression about parenthood. Still, if we can just forget that travesty, Superman has always been a truly American icon. He is the ultimate idealist and hero, and he can do seemingly impossible things to stop the bad guys and make the world a better place. In the twentieth century, this is how America saw herself, and though our collective self-image has changed in recent years, Superman is still an important mirror for what this country is supposed to stand for.

Rocky Balboa
How many other film characters get bronze statues on city landmarks?
How many other film characters get bronze statues on city landmarks?

Still, the greatest all-American film icon is a guy from Philadelphia who didn't do anything more special than box. Rocky Balboa is, more than any other character on this list, an embodiment of the American dream. He starts as a poor and stupid bum working for a loan shark and pining for a frumpy pet store employee. Then, miraculously, he is given a chance to fight the World Heavyweight Champion, and through determination, hard work, and heart, the rest is history. No figure in the history of movies has been so poignant an expression of what makes America great than Rocky, and his continued popularity and ability to inspire, even after over thirty years, is testament enough to his iconic status. The fact that he beat Ivan Drago, draped himself in the stars and stripes, and then told the Russian premier to give peace a chance doesn't hurt, either.

-e. magill, 01/26/2009


Copyright 2009 e. magill. All rights reserved.