They walk headfirst into one of the most dangerous situations — and for that, they’re justifiably considered heroes around the world. Firefighters choose their careers knowing that they put their lives on the line to insure the safety of others. The actors who play fictional firemen and women can’t claim to be as heroic as the characters they portray. But they do help bring to light the acts of bravery that make firefighters truly unique. Here are 4 of the most heroic firefighters ever to grace the silver screen.
1. Fahrenheit 451 — Guy Montag
The first character on our list didn’t make the cut because of the fires he fought, but because of the ones he prevented. In Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag (Oskar Werner) is a member of the Firemen, a branch of a totalitarian regime assigned to burn all literature because it encourages individualism. But after an encounter with a rebellious neighbor, he begins to hide and read the books he’s been assigned to destroy. He faces the loss of his marriage and his career just to follow his heart and rebuke the oppressive ideals he’s helped perpetuate. This bravery in the face of societal isolation makes him truly heroic.
2. The Towering Inferno — Mike O’Halloran
Fighting fire is a hard enough job — but when you have to locate and extinguish a fire in the world’s tallest building, the challenge may seem insurmountable. That’s what San Francisco Fire Department 5th Battalion Chief Mike O’Halloran (Steve McQueen) faces in The Towering Inferno. He makes his way through the building and ultimately chooses climb to the 137th floor to attempt to extinguish the fire before it spreads even more. While each firefighter in The Towering Inferno is inherently brave, the focus on O’Halloran allows us to witness the split second decision making and bold selflessness of many firefighters in an intimate way. Director John Guillermin dedicated the film to “the firefighters of the world,” and with good reason — it’s a true testament to their heroism.
3. Backdraft — Bull and Brian McCaffrey
In Backdraft, firefighting isn’t just a profession for the McCaffrey brothers, it’s a way of life. After witnessing their father’s death as child, Brian McCaffrey (William Baldwin) tried numerous professions before landing where he belonged — alongside his brother Bull (Kurt Russell) in the Chicago Fire Department. They both display tremendous acts of bravery — rescuing children and navigating crumbling, flaming structures — even in the face of a serial arsonist terrorizing the city. Though they’re often at odds, they share one unmistakable bond: a heroic streak and an ability to selflessly put their lives on the line to save others.
4. Ladder 49 — Jack Morrison
When Baltimore firefighter Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) finds himself trapped inside a burning warehouse, he reflects on his life and how he ended up in the grips of death. The resulting memories — from academy training to his first fire, and the comrades he lost along the way — display a lifetime of courage from a man who, to an outsider, would look perfectly ordinary. Ladder 49 isn’t just about the dauntlessness of firefighters, but the quiet moments that happen in their lives as well.