Everyday Heroes In Movies

Seven Films Where Characters Learn To Be Fierce

Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

“Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.”

John Wayne

To paraphrase John Wayne, the definition of an everyday hero is someone who is frightened but will nevertheless take action to make a situation better. It’s an individual who overcomes strong negative emotions to find inner strength and makes bold decisions that lead to improved outcomes. Burning buildings, car crashes, life and death emergencies, and the like are not required. This is about being courageous in everyday, mundane life, where the stakes are personal, but the results are life-changing. 

By this metric then, here is a list of everyday heroes in movies:

Friday Night Lights (2004) is a drama based on the book by H.G. Bissinger and directed by Peter Berg about the 1988 high school football season of The Permian High Panthers from Odessa, Texas.

Life Lesson:

If you want to improve your situation, give it all you’ve got and get the job done.

  • Movie Scene:

    Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton): Now you all have known me for a while and for a long time now you’ve been hearing me talk about being perfect. Well, I want you to understand something. To me, being perfect is not about that scoreboard out there. It’s not about winning. It’s about you and your relationship to yourself and your family and your friends. Being perfect is about being able to look your friends in the eye and know that you didn’t let them down because you told them the truth. And that truth is, that you did everything that you could. There wasn’t one more thing that you could’ve done. Can you live in that moment as best you can with clear eyes and love in your heart? With joy in your heart? If you can do that, gentlemen, then you’re perfect.

In this movie the risks are high for everyone, and in every case the path to success lies in facing obstacles head on with grit and determination. When current circumstances leave little to hope for it’s understandable that many will want to give up and not even try. The future isn’t promised to anyone, so it takes courage to overcome the fear of the unknown in order to work toward accomplishing something. And of course, it is impossible to succeed in anything without perseverance. An everyday hero eventually learns all of this.

The Dish (2000) is a comedy co-written and directed by Rob Sitch about the scientists and technicians at Parkes Observatory in Australia who used a massive 64 meter radio telescope to help NASA broadcast the 1969 Apolo 11 lunar landing.

Life Lesson:

Sometimes you have to take risks.

  • Movie Scene:

    Cliff Buxton (Sam Neill): Isn’t that odd?

    Glenn Latham (Tom Long): What?

    Cliff: Well, that I was more scared than excited.

    Glenn: I don’t think that’s odd. I feel like that all the time…  How come you changed?

    Cliff: My wife said something. She said, “failure is never quite so frightening as regret”.

    Glenn: Oh, that’s good advice.

    Cliff: Yeah, pretty good, huh?

    Glenn: I wish someone would tell me that.

Here, characters struggle with fear itself, and the audience is shown how they overcome it. One way, surprisingly, is to use fear to motivate action. In this case, the message is that living with regret is worse than feeling scared. In the end, whatever negative emotions you may be feeling don’t matter. Emotions themselves are not something you can easily control, but the actions you take, what you do, the decisions you make are more under your control, so try something. It’s the essence of John Wayne’s quote: saddle up, do, act, but remember that if you don’t, not only will you not be an everyday hero, you will also have to live with regret, which is a heavy load:

“We must all suffer from one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The difference is discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.”

– Jim Rohn

The Secret Garden (1993) is a drama based on the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett and directed by Agnieszka Holland about Mary Lennox (Kate Maberly), an orphaned ten-year-old girl who goes to live at her uncle’s estate, where she meets her sickly cousin, Colin Craven (Heydon Prowse), and finds an overgrown hidden garden, both of which she restores to health.

Life Lesson:

Don’t let other people determine what you do with your life.

  • Movie Scene:

    Mary: At least we can open the windows.

    Colin: No! Get away from there! Don’t touch them. They’re nailed shut. My lungs – they can’t take the spores.

    Mary: Spores?

    Colin: They’re carried in on the wind. And when you breathe the air, you swallow them. They get stuck in your lungs.

    Mary: But before I got out into the wind, even my hair was scrawny.

    Colin: Your hair? Hair is dead.

    Mary: If hair is dead, then how come it keeps on growing even after you die? Well, maybe not your hair. By then you might be bald.

    Colin: Don’t be stupid. I’ll be dead before I’m old enough to be bald. I’ll get a lump on my back like my father. Then I’ll die.

    Mary: I hate the way you talk about dying.

    Colin: Everyone thinks I’ll die.

    Mary: If everyone thought that about me, I wouldn’t do it.

Mary knows how to say “no.” She doesn’t let others confine her, and she stands up for herself and for what she believes. This movie goes against the common perception that pleasing others, saying “yes” to all their requests, is necessary to be liked. In reality, trying to please others all the time will likely just lead to undue stress and the subjugation of the individual. This movie shows that saying “no” is a sign of strength and assertiveness, qualities that are vital in an everyday hero.

Strictly Ballroom (1992) is a comedy co-written and directed by Baz Luhrmann about Fran (Tara Morice), a novice dancer who convinces Scott (Paul Mercurio), a ballroom champion, to be her partner for the Pan Pacific Grand Prix, and dance the steps their way, non-Federation, even though it means forfeiting a win.

Life Lesson:

“Vivir con miedo es como vivir a medias.”

—A life lived in fear is a life half-lived.

  • Movie Scene:

    Fran: Do you want to dance your own steps or not?

    Scott: It’s none of your business.

    Fran: Well, do you?

    Scott: Look, a beginner has no right to approach an open amateur.

    Fran: Yeah, well, an open amateur has no right to dance non-federation steps, but you did, didn’t you?

    Scott: That’s different.

    Fran: How is it different? You’re just like the rest of them. You think you’re different but you’re not because you’re just — you’re just really scared. You’re really scared to give someone new a go because you think they might just be better than you are. Well, you’re just pathetic, and you’re gutless. You’re a gutless wonder. Vivir con miedo es como vivir a medias!

Fran follows her passion, challenges herself to learn more, and finds ways to open up opportunities for herself. She is not only a novice, she is also an outsider, from a different cultural background than the world she inhabits, yet she is able to harness her resources and triumph through single-minded focus. This movie encapsulates the dedication and commitment that it takes to pursue a dream that seems out of reach, and demonstrates what it means to have the courage of your convictions, which is a basic tenet of the everyday hero.

Dirty Dancing (1987) is a drama directed by Emile Ardolino about a privileged young woman, Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey), vacationing with her family in a resort, where she falls in love with Johnny (Patrick Swayze), a dance instructor, and learns a ballroom routine to help out his dance partner, Penny (Cynthia Rhodes), who needs a medical procedure.

Life Lesson:

Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.

  • Movie Scene:

    Baby [talking to her father]: I’m sorry I lied to you. But you lied too. You told me everyone was alike and deserved a fair break, but you meant everyone who was like you. You told me you wanted me to change the world, make it better. But you meant by becoming a lawyer or an economist, and marrying someone from Harvard. I’m not proud of myself, but I’m in this family too and you can’t keep giving me the silent treatment. There are a lot of things about me that  aren’t what you thought, but if you love me, you have to love all the things about me. And I love you. And I’m sorry I let you down. I’m so sorry daddy. But you let me down too.

Baby finds the courage to stand up for her altruistic ideals, which includes helping those in need and treating everyone as equals, even if it means going against her family and societal norms. This movie shows the struggle between one person’s idealism and the harsh reality of trying to live up to those ideals. It’s not easy to put into practice the beliefs that you hold, and it takes a conscious, concerted effort to actually embody a belief, but this is the stuff that everyday heroes are made of.

Pretty in Pink (1986) is a drama directed by Howard Deutch and written/produced by John Hughes about Andie Walsh, an independent, essentially parent-less teen from the poor side of town, who is caught in a love triangle that forces her to rise above social pressure and prejudice.

Life Lesson:

“Feel the fear and do it anyway.”

Susan Jeffers

  • Movie Scene:

    Andie: It’s okay. I’m gonna go [to the prom].

    Dad: Alone?

    Andie: Yeah, I’m not sad about it. I’m not hurt. I mean, you know, I am hurt a little bit. But I know if I don’t do it, I’ll just feel a lot worse. I’m just gonna go in, walk in, walk out and come home.

    Dad: You sure?

    Andie: I just want to let them know that they didn’t break me.

Andie goes after everything she wants and does not bow to social pressures of any kind. She is the exemplification of individualism and demonstrates a number of virtues, including initiative, self-reliance, and ambition. She is proud of her uniqueness, is able to carve her own path, and breaks away from the expectations of others. This movie is about what it takes to continue marching on in the face of opposition. It’s a true hero’s quest.

The Karate Kid (1984) is a drama directed by John G. Avildsen about Daniel (Ralph Macchio), a newcomer to a high school where he is bullied, which prompts him to seek the teachings of Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), an elderly Japanese martial arts master.

Life Lesson:

Learn to defend yourself in a way that should gain the respect of your opponents.

  • Movie Scene:

    Daniel: Do you think I had a chance of winning?

    Mr. Miyagi: Win, lose, no matter.

    Daniel: No, that’s not what I mean.

    Mr. Miyagi: Hai. Had good chance.

    Daniel: Well, can you fix my leg? I mean, with that thing you do?

    Mr. Miyagi: No need fight anymore. You prove a point.

    Daniel: What point? That I can take a beating? I mean every time I see those guys they’re gonna know they got the best of me. I’ll never have balance that way, not with them, not with Ali, not with me.

    Mr. Miyagi: Hai.

The beauty of this film is that the main character, Daniel, learns to become a hero. This is a case of the circumstances forging the person into a stronger, more capable being, and the viewer can almost follow along and grow with the character. In the end we learn that being an everyday hero is about improving yourself, and in so doing making the world better for others.

These characters are not infallible, but their actions are their own, and they come after struggling with fear caused by self-doubt, neglect, change, prejudice, and conflict. They drive their own stories, and because of that, have extraordinary experiences. These are characters worth meeting—in movies worth seeing.

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