Captain Jamie McGrath, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Clint Eastwood as Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Highway in Heartbreak Ridge (1986). He was competent, cared about his Marines—even those who deserved his wrath—and saw past poor leaders in his chain of command to accomplish the mission.
Chief Petty Officer Patrick Corrie, U.S. Navy (Retired) and U.S. Marine Corps Veteran
A World War II Marine Corps veteran himself, James Whitmore was outstanding as Master Sergeant “Mac” in Battle Cry (1955). He reflected the “Old Corps,” which carried the Marines from a small service with units no larger than a regiment to six divisions and a corps.
Henry A. Kyle III
John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) and Flying Leathernecks (1951), because training the men under his command to succeed in combat at all costs was his priority. His film characters represented the epitome of leadership, duty, honor, and commitment.
Senior Chief Petty Officer Paul H. Sayles, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Kevin Bacon in Taking Chance (2009). This was a portrayal of the Marine Corps taking care of one of its own. Bacon’s performance is a professional depiction of a difficult duty.
Master Sergeant John L. Conley, U.S. Army (Retired)
In Gung Ho! The Story of Carlson’s Makin Island Raiders (1943), Randolph Scott as Lieutenant Colonel Thorwald. Scott’s character is based on Lieutenant Colonel Evans Carlson, the real-life leader of the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion at Makin Island.
Randolph Scott in Gung Ho! Universal Pictures
Theodore Kuhlmeier, U.S. Marine Corps Veteran
In the The Wind and the Lion (1975), Steve Kanaly gave an excellent portrayal of a Marine captain. As swaggering, cocky Captain Jerome, he leads his men in an armed intervention against the Moroccan government to rescue a kidnapped American woman and her children.
Major Bob Cypher, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve (Retired)
R. Lee Ermey, who was an actual drill instructor (MOS 8511). Who could watch Full Metal Jacket (1987) and not have flashbacks? Honorable mention: Kevin Bacon as Lieutenant Colonel Strobl in Taking Chance (2009).
Captain C. A. Stuart, U.S. Navy
Robert Duvall for his brilliant performance in the The Great Santini (1979). The film depicts the reality of a Marine at work and play, and with his dysfunctional family.
Lieutenant Kevin J. Leford, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Kirk Douglas as Colonel Martin Casey in Seven Days in May (1964) is loyal to the founding principles of the nation and service in its armed forces. He confronts wrongdoing face-to-face, in spite of inferiority in rank and the popularity of the leader of this treasonous scheme.
Andres Vaart, U.S. Marine Corps Veteran
Richard Rogers, who composed the song “The Guadalcanal March” for the Victory at Sea television series. This episode moved me to apply for and earn an NROTC scholarship and on graduation in 1966 a commission in the Marine Corps.
Lieutenant Colonel Robert B. Lange, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)
Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan. I know he didn’t depict a Marine, but he sure played the part: Expeditionary, quick-thinking (jump off the LCI?), innovative (chewing gum on a mirror?), and trusted. He used and supported NCOs, had great rapport with his men, accomplished all assigned objectives, and with his death imminent, even had the class to pass on life-changing words to Private Ryan. It doesn’t get any better.
Theodore Kuhlmeier, U.S. Marine Corps Veteran
In the 1992 film, A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson was superb. As the arrogant, self-righteous Colonel Nathan Jessup, who viewed himself as the law unto itself, he brought back memories of other Marine senior officers with whom I served.
Ethan Harris, U.S. Navy Veteran
James Whitmore played the quintessential Marine Corps master sergeant in Battle Cry (1955). Whitmore was a Marine Corps veteran himself, having served at Saipan. Of note, Whitmore also played Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey in Tora!Tora!Tora! (1970).
Colonel Michael N. Daily, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve
James Whitmore for his realistic portrayal as Master Technical Sergeant “Mac” in Battle Cry (1955). Whitmore was a Marine in World War II and nailed the role of “Mac”, the character in the radio battalion that the movie (and book) centered around.
James Whitmore (left) in Battle Cry. Alamy
Chief Petty Officer John M. Duffy, U.S. Navy (Retired)
John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), hands down. He takes raw recruits and molds them into well-trained fighting men in time for the bloody battles of Tarawa and Iwo Jima. No one comes close except maybe Clint Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge (1986).
John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), of course. As Sergeant John M. Stryker, he symbolizes that average guy who finds himself in the middle of a World War and somehow rises to the occasion, leading his men to victory.
Clint Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge (1986). Not only did he portray an older Marine ready for retirement, but he gave a good portrayal of a generation of Marines that prepared men to be fighting men with respect.
Captain T. E. Prendergast, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Clint Eastwood as Gunnery Sergeant Tom Highway in Heartbreak Ridge (1986). All he wanted to do was train his people, keep them alive, and make things better than he found them. Just the kind of person with whom I would have wanted to serve with or for had I been a Marine.
Nicolas Cage did a great job in Windtalkers (2002). As Sergeant Enders, Cage and his fellow Marines had to protect the Navajo code talkers. The code was never broken, and it helped U.S. forces prevail against the Japanese in the Pacific.
There are many. These are my top five: John Garfield in Pride of The Marines (1945), Brian Donlevy in Wake Island (1942), Jack Webb in The D.I. (1957), Frank Lovejoy in Retreat, Hell! (1952), and James Whitmore in Battle Cry (1955).
Louis Gossett Jr. for his portrayal of a Marine Corps drill instructor in An Officer and a Gentleman (1982). At the time of the movie's release, Gossett's character met the high test of former drill instructors who praised his appearance, decorum, and "presence" in the movie. Above all, they praised the way Gossett taught officer-candidate Richard Gere the value of being a leader through serving the unit over self.