Looking for some commendable movie role models? Films with strong and faithful characters of outstanding moral fiber, individuals that can be admired and emulated… this type of role model is rare in our contemporary age of the ‘flawed antihero.’ But not to worry. There are some wonderful role model movie characters out there, you just need to look for them.
So I did. I searched high and low to find the most commendable movie role models. The films listed below are solid, classic, and entertaining movies with genuinely heroic movie role models from whom both children and adults can learn. These are men and women (and hobbits) who show integrity, love, kindness, grace, a strong sense of justice, and the desire to overcome obstacles and do what is right.
I came up with this list of commendable movie role models because, 1) these are good things to know when choosing your own family’s entertainment, and 2) any of these films make great gift ideas for movie buffs.
The list is ranked a little haphazardly, but with the general idea in mind that the characters are listed higher based on how memorable they are, how good of a role model they are, how good the film itself is, and with a bonus push for lesser-known films.
I chose to leave off some great characters from kids movies. Childrens and animated movies are more likely to have good role models but tend to follow the common, time-tested film tropes. So instead, I wanted to focus on classic and family-friendly films that are a bit less formulaic and have a little more breadth and depth.
As far as content goes, all of these films are family friendly for all ages with a few exceptions. Namely, Hotel Rwanda and Life is Beautiful, both of which are tastefully done but still carry a solid PG-13 rating for relevant depictions of war atrocities. The Pursuit of Happyness and 42 include some language that push it just beyond a PG rating.
31 Commendable Movie Role Models
1. Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
The ultimate role model. One of the greatest characters in literature and film. Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus Finch is perfection. A must-see.
2. Bishop Bienvenue in Les Miserables (1935)
The best adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic work, Cedric Hardwicke plays a bishop whose unprejudiced kindness, sacrificial giving, and grace set Jean Valjean on the path to redemption.
3. Rachel Cooper in The Night of the Hunter (1955)
True and false religion have never been contrasted so perfectly on film, before or since this 1955 masterpiece. After three quarters of the film dominated by Robert Mitchum’s terrifying Harry Powell, the appearance and subsequent righteous resolve of Rachel Cooper (played with courage and sincerity by Lillian Gish) comes like the light of dawn.
4. Babette Hersant in Babette’s Feast (1987)
In this 1987 Danish film, Stéphane Audran plays Babette, a quiet, reserved refugee from the Franco-Prussian war. Her humble service is displayed in a surprising and affective way that has strong overtones of the sacrificial supper of the Lamb. Subtitled.
5. Gladys Aylward in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958)
Gladys Aylward was a real-life hero who, despite many setbacks, paid her own way to become a missionary in China and served faithfully until she became a legend. Ingrid Bergman was affected so deeply by her role as the missionary and orphan caretaker that it ultimately led her to the Christian faith.
6. Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
James Stewart’s titular character has a definite arch, as the young new senator grows out of his naive idealism in the face of Washington’s corruption. But even in the midst of opposition his moral integrity never fails as he finds a way to stand up to the political machine.
7. Sophie Scholl in Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005)
Julia Jentsch plays Sophie Scholl in the true story of Germany’s most famous anti-Nazi heroine. A fearless activist for what is right, with unwavering conviction in the face of death, Sophie Scholl is a role model for all time.
8. Mark Thackeray in To Sir, With Love (1967)
Sidney Poitier is the young teacher shunted to a completely unruly class in London’s East End while he waits and hopes for a better engineering job to come through. He gradually earns the respect of each class member, teaching them to treat each other with dignity. A classic teacher role model.
9. Guido in Life is Beautiful (1997)
Roberto Benigni directs and stars as a Jewish librarian who, along with his beloved little boy, becomes victim of the Holocaust. The love and joy of a devoted father is on full display as Guido uses a mixture of will, humor and imagination to protect his son from the dangers around their camp. Italian, with subtitles.
9. Juror #8 in 12 Angry Men (1957)
Henry Fonda plays a juror on a trial that appears to be a slam-dunk guilty verdict. Juror #8 stands up to the pressure and prejudice of a whole room of his fellow jurors in the search for truth and justice.
10. Belle in Beauty and the Beast (2017)
Belle is the perfect incarnation of inner beauty: Devoted, selfless love; unassailable integrity and virtue; an eye that looks to the heart rather than what is on the outside; a heart that stands strong and steadfast in protecting those she loves.
11. Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013)
Chadwick Boseman stars as the Hall of Fame baseball player who broke the “color barrier” in the 1942 season. Robinson is a wonderful role model for his nobility, courage, and selflessness in facing racism and opposition.
12. William Wilberforce in Amazing Grace (2006)
Wilberforce was a great man and a faithful Christian who endured a long political fight to end the slave trade in England.
13. Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons (1966)
Thomas More was a councilor to King Henry VIII, but first and foremost convicted to follow his conscience, even to the point of execution.
14. Father Barry in On the Waterfront (1954)
Father Barry, played by Karl Malden, is the local parish priest who ministers among the workers along the waterfront. Early on in the film he is shamed into opposing the mob-controlled union, but his character grows as he comes into a firm conviction of what is right and how he can best help.
15. George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
Nearly everyone has seen Frank Capra’s classic film at some point in their life. Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey is a fully human character who does what is right even when it causes his own plans to go by the wayside. Tempted by bitterness, regret, and futility after the mishandling of his bank’s funds, Bailey learns the value of faith and friendship through an eye-opening experience.
16. Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Sidney Poitier at his finest as the black out-of-town detective helping out on a murder case in a racist town. “Call me Mr. Tibbs!” is such a famous line because of the way Poitier’s character stares down prejudice without flinching. Though flawed in his own way (which is part of the reason the film is such a classic), Virgil Tibbs is a nuanced human character commanding respect and worthy of emulation.
17. Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
Tevye balances faithfulness to the old traditions with recognition of the value of new ways, searches for the line between protecting what is right and good with unsupportable prejudice, and talks to God as if He is really listening. All while doing his best in his role as a husband, father, milk deliveryman, and member of the community.
18. Will Kane in High Noon (1952)
Gary Cooper is Will Kane, a marshall in a Western town torn between duty to the people and his new bride. He wrestles with his decision to stay and help the townspeople as the clock ticks down to the arrival of a train bearing a gang of killers.
19. Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda (2004)
In 1994, Paul Rusesabagina was the hotel manager at the Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kigali at the outbreak of the Rwandan Genocide. Rusesabagina took advantage of the hotel property and successfully hid 1,268 Hutu and Tutsi refugees, saving them from probable death. The film Hotel Rwanda is harrowing, but without excessive violence and it conveys the inspiring story of an ordinary man who did the right thing in the midst of dangerous and difficult circumstances.
20. Chris Gardener in The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
Will Smith turns in a sincere performance as the real-life Chris Gardener, a salesman who loses everything but gets custody of his young son (played by Smith’s actual son Jaden). Living on the streets and competing for beds and hot meals at homeless shelters, Gardener strives to take care of his youngster while pursuing an unpaid internship at a big-time stockbroker agency.
21. Mama in I Remember Mama (1948)
The titular matriarch of the Norwegian immigrant family in 1910 San Francisco, played by Irene Dunne, is practical, devoted, truthful, compassionate, sacrificial, and ready to do anything for the ones she loves.
22. Jimmy Morris in The Rookie (2002)
A high school chemistry teacher and coach of the school’s baseball team, 39-year-old Jimmy Morris (Dennis Quaid) once aspired to play in the big leagues until a career-ending injury forced his life on a different track. But when his attempt to motivate his players somehow results in him agreeing to try out for a major league ballclub, Morris is challenged to walk his own talk about hard work, pursuing a goal, and living out aspirations.
23. Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire (1981)
Based on the true story of an Olympic Champion and winner of the Best Picture Academy Award. Eric Liddell’s Christian convictions and conscience are tested in full view of the world when the track star’s signature event is scheduled on Sunday, the day of worship.
24. Matthew Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables (1985)
There are many admirable characters in this beloved miniseries, but Richard Farnsworth’s Matthew Cuthbert just may be the most imitable. A quiet but deeply caring elderly bachelor, Matthew’s endless supply of grace and love provides the foundation for all of Anne’s adventures by providing her with a real and true home.
25. John J. Macreedy in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
As soon as John J. Macreedy, played by Spencer Tracy with a restrained brilliance, steps off the train in Black Rock, he senses that something is amiss in the little Western town. Macreedy is there on a personal mission of honor to meet a local farmer. When he has difficulty finding the man and none of the locals can be bothered to help, his sense of duty and responsibility is tested to the uttermost.
26. Samwise in The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003)
What can be said of dear Sam that has not already be said? He is a simple hobbit with no need of adventure or glory or riches. Nevertheless, he is drawn in to the defining conflict of Middle Earth due to his loyalty to his friend Frodo. Sam teaches us that there are no small parts to play, and no little people, and that there is nothing so great as faithfulness and humility.
27. Marmee in Little Women (1994)
Marmee, the mother of four creative, unique, and passionate ‘little women,’ is a wonderful role model. She loves her children dearly, yet does not coddle them. She knows how to do just about everything, always has the right answer, and stands up for what is right. Every child should have a parent like this, one truly worthy of imitation.
28. Maria in The Sound of Music
How do you solve a problem like Maria? Well, realize that she’s not a problem to be shut in or shut up, but a blessing of energy and hope and creativity to be unleashed on the world.
29. Nate Saint, Jim Elliot, Ed McCully, Peter Fleming, and Roger Youderian in End of the Spear
These four men sacrificed first-world luxury to bring the Gospel and the love of Jesus to a far-off tribe. At the time, this tribe had one of if not the highest murder rate in the world. Their sacrificial lives and deaths are truly inspiring.
30. William Spence in One Foot in Heaven
Fredric March as William Spence is a dedicated Methodist minister. Just and pious without being overbearing and sanctimonious, Spence treats everyone as equals, has the ability to receive correction and learn to change, and battles the inevitable hypocrites of every town in which he and his family are assigned to minister.
31. Coach Herman Boone in Remember the Titans
The true story of the 1971 T. C. Williams High School football squad as the school hires a new coach and integrates the team. Herman Boone is portrayed by Denzel Washington in one of his finest roles. Boone displays a deep strength of character, always doing what is right even when faced with pure unreasoning hatred. He eventually wins over his fellow coaches, the players, and even the entire town as the team learns to work together.