The annals of history have seen its fair share of badasses who managed to set themselves apart from all the other distinguished leaders, heroes, madmen and even villains over the years. Although a few of these people aren’t featured in the history books and sometimes their contributions or efforts aren’t widely celebrated or even remembered, their actions distinguished them in ways that few people could ever hope for. They may have straddled that fine line between insane and courageous, but they’ll always be recognised as true badasses.
10. Christopher Lee (1922 – )
Hollywood’s modern generation of actors just can’t touch the badassery of the old guard from years ago. Sure, there’s still the rowdy ones who make a show of themselves in public, but none of them can match the efforts of the likes of Oliver Reed, Richard Harris and Errol Flynn. However, while these notorious hellraiser reputations guarantee a place in the history books, they’re still not quite worthy of badass status. This is where horror legend Christopher Lee excels above all others. Best known as being the definitive Count Dracula from the popular Hammer Horror movies, Lee has been acting since 1946 and is still going strong to this day. Before he made his living as an actor, Lee volunteered for military service on the outbreak of World War II. He originally trained as a pilot but a medical condition grounded him just before his first solo fly. Undeterred, he became an RAF Intelligence officer and bounced around Europe, the Middle East and Africa on special operative missions. After the war, Lee worked for the Central Registry of War Criminals and Security Suspects tracking down and interrogating Nazi war criminals. Lee prefers not to talk about his time working for the British secret service, but one famous anecdote shared by filmmaker Peter Jackson gives some insight into the type of work he did. For Lee’s death scene in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Jackson was trying to explain to Lee how he should react when he was stabbed in the back. However, Lee calmly interrupted Jackson and explained that he knew exactly what it sounds like when a man is stabbed in the back. Now 92, Lee hasn’t let old age deter him from being a badass and in 2013 he released his own heavy metal album called Charlemagne: The Omens of Death.
9. Ronald Speirs (1920 – 2007)
It’s no exaggeration to say that World War II saw millions of truly heroic and brave men fighting and dying on battlefields around the world. However, during this time a special few managed to distinguish themselves as truly badass. Ronald Speirs was an American paratrooper who fought in the legendary Easy Company throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, and he quickly developed a reputation for being a tough, uncompromising soldier. One controversy states that following the initial D-Day landings, he rounded up twenty to thirty captured German soldiers and gave them all cigarettes before mowing them down. Despite this, Speirs is still better remembered for his actions on the battlefield. During an assault on the Austrian town of Foy, Spiers was put in charge of the pinned-down 101st Airborne when its commanding officer seized up when the bullets started flying. Spiers immediately took control of the situation and ordered the unit to advance on the town, but the other half of the assault team was on the other side of Foy. Without hesitation, Speirs took off sprinting through the town right past Nazi soldiers to give orders to the other team. Remarkably, he made it there in one piece, but his true moment of badassery came when he ran back through the town to get to his original position. Speirs was promoted to Captain after the battle and he led Easy Company throughout the rest of the war. His actions during the assault of Foy were immortalised forever in one of the best scenes from the outstanding TV show Band of Brothers
8. Leonid Rogozov (1934 – 2000)
Unlike most of the combat-hardened badasses on this list, surgeons and doctors devote their time to saving lives rather than ending them. Nevertheless, it stakes a certain steely resolve and determination to be able to cut open another person’s body and spend hours in an operating theatre. It takes a complete badass to perform such a life-saving surgery on yourself. Leonid Rogozov was the only doctor on a Soviet Arctic expedition at the Novolazarevskaya Station when he became ill. It became apparent that Rogozov was suffering from peritonitis and need to have an emergency appendectomy, but he was more than 1000 miles away from the nearest research station and a severe blizzard prevented any aircraft landing near the base. With the assistance of two other men who handed him instruments and held up a mirror so he could see what he was doing, Rogozov performed the surgery on himself. Rogozov could only use local anaesthetic as he cut himself open to expose his appendix and administered antibiotics to the inflammation. The surgery took two hours and Rogozov made a full recovery afterwards, even returning to his normal duties two weeks later.
7. Roy P Benavidez (1935 – 1998)
Unlike previous generations who fought in the World Wars and came home to fanfare and praise, the veterans of Vietnam were overlooked and even condemned for fighting in a war which faced staunch public disapproval back home in the States. However, the actions of Roy Benavidez proved that all of these soldiers had been through hell and that they deserved respect and admiration. A member of the Green Beret special forces, Benavidez was off-duty on a South Vietnamese base when he overheard radio chatter saying a dozen of his fellow soldiers had been pinned down by an entire NVA battalion near the Cambodian border. Benavidez gathered up medical supplies, jumped on a chopper and was dropped off at a clearing near the location. For the next six hours, Benavidez fought off the enemy forces while administering medical attention to the downed men. When an evac chopper finally came and returned the survivors to base, an unconscious Benavidez was put in a body bag along with four other men who had died during the assault. However, despite receiving 37 separate wounds from bullets, bayonets and shrapnel, Benavidez was still alive and he roused from his state to spit in the doctor’s face. He recovered from his wounds and received four Purple Hearts and the Medal of Honour for his service.
6. Lachhiman Gurung (1917 – 2010)
An entire separate list could be dedicated to the hardcore warriors who fought as Gurkha soldiers. These Nepalese soldiers fought in the Gurkha War of 1816-1818 between Nepal and the East India Company, and the British were so impressed by their warlike, aggressive skills that they included a special condition into the peace treaty after the war which allowed the Gurkhas to fight for the British army. One of the most badass stories from WWII comes from one of the 250,000 soldiers fighting as part of the British army during 1939 to 1945. Lachhiman Gurung was a rifleman stationed in Burma serving the 89th Indian Infantry Brigade. By May 1945, they had driven back the Japanese army toward Taungdaw in the northwest, but on the early morning of May 12th the opposing forces launched a counterattack. Gurung was a soldier in one of two small companies who were suddenly attacked by a force of 200+ Japanese soldiers. The Japanese had flanked them with grenades and shot anyone fleeing from the explosions, but Gurung (along with other Gurkhas) threw the grenades back. One of these grenades blew up in Gurung’s hand, blowing off several fingers, shattering his arm and blinding him in one eye. However, Gurung was still one of the few soldiers left standing and for the next 4 hours he fought every Japanese soldier he saw. Reloading and shooting with only his left arm, Gurung was eventually found surrounded by the corpses of 31 Japanese soldiers. Remarkably, the badly wounded Gurung returned to service after his injuries had been treated (he lost his right eye and use of his right hand) and saw out the rest of war, earning a well-deserved Victoria Cross for his actions.
5. Boudica (AD 26 – AD 61)
The Roman Empire suffered one of its most serious rebellions when Prasutagus, king of the Iceni tribe in East Anglia, left half of his kingdom to Rome and the other half to his wife, Queen Boudica. Emperor Nero, not a ruler to be argued with, was clearly displeased with this development and didn’t want to cede any land to the tribal inhabitants of one of Rome’s client-states. The Roman’s pushed back hard on the Iceni tribe. They stripped Boudica of her crown and publicly whipped her for insolence and then took the Icenians for everything they were worth. However, that wasn’t the end of the matter. Enraged, Boudica led her people onto Camulodunum, the capital of Roman Britain, and laid waste to the town. They tore every Roman they could find limb from limb and laid waste to the buildings. Boudica headed to London and, even with reinforcements from Wales, the Romans still didn’t stand a chance against Boudicca and her army. However, the Empire finally roused more troops and, although Boudicca and her Britons outnumbered them ten to one, the better-trained Romans won the battle and Boudica poisoned herself instead of being captured. She have may have been beaten in the end, but it takes one hell of a badass to stand up to the Roman Empire.
4. Joan of Arc (1412 – 1431)
Joan of Arc’s time in the public eye was brief, but the young teenager changed the course of the Middle Ages and is still remembered as one of France’s greatest heroines. Born into peasantry, Joan was just a simple farm hand until she started claiming that she received heavenly visions from Archangel Michael, St Catherine and St Margaret. France was embroiled in the bitter ‘One Hundred Years’ war with the British at the time and the visions apparently told Joan to lead the French armies to victory. Remarkably, not only did Charles VII believe Joan and send her on a relief mission to the siege of Orléans, she actually managed to lift the siege. Joan led the French army to other key decisive military victories before she was finally captured and given over to the British to be burnt at the stake. The iconic imagery of Joan decked out in armour leading the French troops is undeniably badass (even if it’s not completely accurate), and she truly had a remarkable, albeit brief, life.
3. Vasily Zaytsev (1915 – 1991)
The Battle of Stalingrad was one of the biggest and bloodiest battles in the history of warfare, and it is thought that around 2 million Axis and Soviet soldiers were killed during this turning point of World War II. Amongst all this bloodshed, one Soviet sniper emerged as a hero of the conflict. Vasily Zaytsev was a Soviet sniper who killed at least 500 enemy combatants between December 1942 and January 1943. Zaytsev often positioned himself in concealed vantage points in the bombed out buildings of the city and patiently waited until he had the perfect shot. In September 1942, he engaged in a cat and mouse game with a skilled German sniper which culminated in the two men having a three day standoff. Vasily eventually killed the German and took his scope as a trophy, and the infamous confrontation was the premise for the sniper movie Enemy at the Gates. Zaytsev was injured in a mortar attack in January 1943, but he returned to the front after being awarded a Hero of the Soviet Union and finished his military career as a captain and a true legend.
2. Ching Shih (1775 – 1884)
The seven seas have seen their fair share of fierce pirates, but few could match the badassery of Ching Shih. The pirate life was definitely considered a man’s world, but Sinh managed to prove that women could be as ruthless as their male counterparts when it came to plundering and looting. Ching was a prostitute working out of Canton when she was captured by pirates in 1801 and taken to the infamous captain Zheng Yi to be his wife. Zheng Yi died in 1807, but during the few years he was married to Ching his fleet – the ‘Red Flag Fleet’ – ballooned in size thanks to a united coalition made with other Chinese pirates. Ching was fully involved in her husband’s line of work and, after he died, she gained the support of other powerful pirates in the coalition to assume a leadership position. To ensure she couldn’t be challenged, Ching married Zheng Yi’s widely respected first mate Chang Pao and she introduced the ‘pirate’s code’. The purpose of the code was to ensure that the ever-growing Red Flag Fleet (which eventually had more than 300 ships manned by 20,000 to 40,000 pirates) was united in its actions, but the code also made sure that everyone followed Ching’s command. Anyone foolish enough to disobey Ching was executed there and then on the spot. To say that other parts of the code were strictly enforced would be an understatement as Ching was also said to be quick to flog, beat, imprison and even cut the ears off of any pirate who made mistakes. For years, Ching plundered coastal villages, cities and boats up and down the Chinese coast and was even dubbed “The Terror of the South China” by British admirals. She successfully warded off attacks from the Chinese, Portuguese and British navies when they attempted to take on the Red Flag Fleet, so the Chinese government finally offered an amnesty to her and her pirates in 1810 in a desperate attempt to end her reign of terror. Ching eventually accepted the terms of peace and she and her men kept their loot and, unlike most pirates, retired rich. Ching opened a gambling house in Canton and lived a peaceful life until her death.
1. Genghis Khan (1162 – 1227)
It’s difficult to neatly summarise the vast conquests of Genghis Khan because the Mongolian warlord effectively built one of the biggest empires the world has ever seen. The son of a tribal chieftain, Khan recognised the weaknesses of the politically unstable Mongolia and realised that true power could come from uniting the nomadic tribes of northeast Asia. When he fought with a rival tribe, Khan took on the enemy soldiers rather than drive them away after they had been defeated. Khan’s numbers and power grew and he became the sole leader of Mongolia. He then pushed forward with his brutal military campaigns into Central Asia and no army in his path stood a chance. He captured the Xia Dynasty and Jin Dynasty in China before going on to sweep through modern-day Russia and the Middle East. A fearsome, ruthless leader, his armies slaughtered millions and Khan is still regarded (and rightfully reviled in many places) as being one of the fiercest men who even lived.