In another time they may have sailed with Blackbeard or Captain Kidd but these anachronistic swashbucklers live in a future of droids, Daleks, and mutants. They are heroes who laugh in the face of death, live to do battle against impossible chances, and know when to toss that one-line quip that sends proceedings up with a wink. Quite often they are hesitant protagonists who seem more prone to shady dealings than noble pursuits, but when the chips are down they rise to the occasion and balance the odds.
Without further ado, here are seven science-fiction heroes with swashbuckling swagger!
Han Solo from Star Wars—portrayed by Harrison Ford
Take a bunch of Han Solo quotes and that’s enough to make this list and arguably land him on top: “Look, I ain’t in this for your revolution, and I’m not in it for you, princess. I expect to be well paid. I’m in it for the money,” “Never tell me the odds!” or “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” The iconic scene that seals his cavalier status is in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) when bounty hunter Greedo threatens his life and from under the cantina’s table Han coldly draws his weapon and blasts the little twerp away, walks to the bar’s counter, and apologizes for the mess. George Lucas would later reedit this to show Solo defending himself, but, sorry George, I was in the theater back in ‘77 when the captain of the Millennium Falcon killed in cold blood. It will be interesting to see, in 2015’s Episode VII if time has mellowed the “scruffy looking nerf herder.” I hope not.
Trivia: Other actors who tried out for the role included Kurt Russell, Perry King, and Nick Nolte.
James T. Kirk from Star Trek—portrayed by William Shatner and Chris Pine
Captain Kirk—later promoted to Admiral—seems to have had one helluva time bending the rules, kicking alien butt, and romancing gorgeous green women along the way, all while boldly going where no human has gone before. Kirk was still in Starfleet Academy when he became the youngest officer ever to helm a starship. He reprogrammed the Kobayashi Maru training test because he didn’t believe in a “no-win scenario” and ended up being rewarded with a commendation for original thinking. When Kirk blows up the Enterprise in The Search for Spock, he laments, “My God, Bones, what have I done?” McCoy reassures, “What you had to do, what you always do. Turned death into a fighting chance to live.”
The new Kirk, Chris Pine, brilliantly captures the same chivalrous and cocky mantle while stamping the role with his own distinctive charm. In Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) when Spock (Zachary Quinto) chides, “You violated the Prime Directive.” Kirk snaps, “Oh, come on, Spock. They saw us, big deal.” You just gotta love the chutzpa of this guy!
Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica—portrayed by Dirk Benedict and Katee Sackhoff
Lieutenant Starbuck is a cigar-chomping, devil-may-care Viper pilot who is loyal to his buddies and the cause of finding Earth but he never allows that to interfere with enjoying life to the fullest by card gambling and having lots and lots of sex. Dirk Benedict so nailed (pardon the pun) the role in the original 1970s television series that it was hard for me to imagine anyone but him in the role. And I had my doubts that the creators of the reimagined show could pull off a gender switch. Shame on me! Not only did actress Katee Sackhoff pay homage to the iconic character’s cavalier lifestyle, but took the colonial warrior in a valiant new direction as she becomes pivotal in the Galactica reaching its destination. Part of her success comes from bucking the system at every turn. When Starbuck (full name Kara Thrace) inquires, “Can I make a suggestion that you won’t like?” Captain Apollo (Jamie Bamber) naturally replies, “Do you make any other kind?”
Trivia: According to Wikipedia the name of the character Starbuck is derived from Herman Melville’s Great American novel, Moby Dick.
Snake Plissken from Escape from New York—portrayed by Kurt Russell
“Snake”—“I heard you were dead”— Plissken (Kurt Russell) is a former Special Forces soldier turned hardened criminal who is serving a life sentence. He is recruited to rescue The President of the United States (Donald Pleasence) whose plane has crashed into the island of Manhattan, which is now a federal penitentiary, circa 1997. (Sidebar: For those too young to remember, the 1990s were a hellish time in our history with the lawlessness embodied in Escape and the rise of Khan Noonien Singh’s Eugenics Wars from Trek) Snake is given extra incentive to complete the mission after he is shot full of infinitesimal explosives that will kill him unless an antidote is delivered to his system within 24 hours. This is a film packed with one amusing scene after the next. When NY Police Commissioner Hauk (Lee Van Cleef), who initially sent him on the likely one-way assignment, inquires, “You going to kill me, Snake?” Plissken replies, “Not now, I’m too tired.” A slight pause, “Maybe later.” The lackluster sequel, Escape from L.A., should be avoided but the original endures as one of the greatest cult films ever made.
Trivia: Director John Carpenter has candidly admitted, “It’s a Western in every essence.”
Captain Mal Reynolds from Firefly and Serenity—portrayed by Nathan Fillion
Joss Whedon (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Marvel’s The Avengers) created the definitive Space Western with the short lived Firefly TV series (2002) about an eclectic group of nine people in the year 2517 surviving on the fringe of a galaxy ruled by The Alliance. These drifters are led by Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) who grew up as a farm boy and later joined the resistance, gaining the rank of sergeant. Now more concerned with living a happy-go-lucky life, he commits petty robberies and smuggles various cargoes in his ship’s hull without asking too many questions. Like Han Solo, he follows his own personal code of ethics and is very loyal to his crew. During the Battle of Serenity Valley Mal confidently tells a fellow soldier, “We’re not gonna die. We can’t die, Bendis. You know why? Because we are so… very… pretty. We are just too pretty for God to let us die. Huh? Look at that chiseled jaw!” Oh, how I wish Firefly had lasted even half as long as Fillion’s current series, Castle. A follow-up film called Serenity was released in 2005.
Lando Calrissian from The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi—portrayed by Billy Dee Williams
From the first moment we see him unnerving Han Solo—“Why, you slimy, double-crossing, no-good swindler”—to his decisive Millennium Falcon led attack on the second Death Star in 1983’s Return of the Jedi— “Yes, I said closer! Move as close as you can, and engage those Star Destroyers at point blank range!”—Lando (Billy Dee Williams) is one-hundred percent swashbuckling greatness. In The Empire Strikes Back (1980) as the administrator of Cloud City, Lando (like any self-respecting pirate) sells out his friends, only to develop a conscience and later help rescue them. Perhaps the most gentlemanly of the endearing rogues on this list, Lando tells Princess Leia, “You look absolutely beautiful. You truly belong here with us among the clouds”—Han rolling his eyes the whole time. In this Wired video, Billy Dee Williams explains why Lando did (or maybe didn’t) betray Han Solo.
Backstory: In a series of tie-in books of the expanded Star Wars universe—that take place prior to the events in the movies—the relationship between Han, Lando, and Chewbacca is further explored and how he lost the Falcon.
Captain Jack Harkness from Doctor Who and Torchwood—portrayed by John Barrowman
A former Time Agent from the 51st century, Jack encounters The Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) and Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) in 2005’s “The Empty Child.” The handsome, affable, trench coat-wearing rogue ends up heading the super-secret Torchwood—an organization that is Earth’s first line of defense against all hostile alien life forms. Jack is unable to die (he’s shot right in the forehead in the Torchwood series opener) and feels naturally indestructible, which may account for a lot of his cavalier approach. When he’s warned about going up against a pterodactyl he smirks, “Dinosaurs? Had ’em for breakfast. Had to. Only source of pre-cooked food protein after the asteroid crashed. Long story.” And Harkness has the distinction of being the only hero on this list to fight, a la Beowulf, in the nude. When an android asks him where he was hiding a gun he responds, “You really don’t want to know.”
In a longer list I would add Jason from Ice Pirates, Riddick, John Carter, Buck Rogers, and Flash Gordon. Who would you add or subtract?