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Countdown: Top 10 Greatest Movie Mentors

Updated on November 30, 2011

In movies it's either the lead heroes and villains that draw our focus, but we often forget about the guiding force that motivates, influences, and inspires these main characters. These mentors usually take a seat on the sideline while their predecessors steal the show, but are undeniably behind most major decisions. This is a countdown of the top 10 greatest mentors in cinema. Although these may not be your personal choices, here’s my list of the most influential mentors that drive the main characters and story.


10. Pai Mei

Series - Kill Bill

Before Beatrix Kido (Uma Thurman) began her sweet bloody revenge against Bill and the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, she was their top international killer. After getting pregnant, Kido abandons the hazardous lifestyle for the sake of her unborn baby, but is only met with a gunshot to the head from her former boss. However, she awakes from a coma and leaves a bloody trail of corpses on her way to gaining revenge on her former group and leader.

While Kido is an unstoppable force of pure vengeance, it is her mentor that crafted the young woman into the deadly killer. Pai Mei (Gordon Liu) the kung fu master trains the Kido through vigorous, physical, and torturous sessions via flashback sequences in volume 2. Through these grueling lessons she acquired invaluable techniques that would later be essential for her survival and the eventual showdown with Bill. She even mirrors her master’s work when she tares out Elle’s eye, as Pai Mei had already taken the other, during a confrontation with her old associate. Elle even reveals that she had poisoned the kung fu master prior to the film’s beginning, which only further drives Kido to defeat the treacherous woman.

While racist, sexist, harsh, and cruel, Pai Mei knows how to drive determined students to reach their full potential. He even acknowledges Kido’s skill with a respectful and subtle head nod; even though he despises nearly everything she is due to his predispositions. Pai Mei Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Techniques to tenth place.


9. Master Splinter

Series - Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Who would have thought that a giant mutant rat could be the respected master of four teenage mutant ninja turtles (yeah actually think about it for a minute)? Not only is Splinter a guiding light of influence and a father figure, but is arguably the most powerful of the bunch as his victory over Shredder in the first film demonstrates.

Although his origins differ between adaptations (original comics and films vs. the cartoon series), the films depict the oversized rodent as initially the pet of a ninja master Hamato Yoshi. However, following his master’s death at the hands of Oroku Saki (Shredder), the ordinary rat departed Japan and ended up in the New York sewer system. This would lead to the discovery of the radioactive turtles, who Splinter would take in as his own, raise, and train in the art ninjutsu. After also being exposed to the radioactive ooze, Splinter’s intellect and body grew. While modeling his teachings after Hamato Yoshi’s, the rat crafted Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael into the legendary crime-bashing teenage mutant ninja turtles. However, this is not to say that Splinter is not capable, as he proves during the first two films (defeat of Shredder and the rescue of the turtles).

Splinter is calm, wise, overly caring, and a master ninja. Although most would simply be horrified at the sight of the giant rat, he acts as the turtle’s father and, with the occasion exception of the rebellious Raphael; they will follow him without hesitation. The turtle’s teacher, leader, and parent, he has unquestionably earned himself the rank of master, thus securing a spot on our list. Splinter cowabungas his way to number nine.


8. Morpheus

Series - The Matrix

While Neo (Keano Reeves) steels the show in The Matrix trilogy, as he is the chosen one, we cannot forget about the man who taught him everything there is to know about the artificial reality. Morpheus (Laurenece Fishburne) ripped Neo from what he believed to be real and introduced him to the truth. The matrix is a shroud that all humans see to conceal the true machine controlled reality and Neo becomes humanity’s best chance at overthrowing their technological oppressors.

However, Neo would have never been unhooked from the system were it not for Morpheus and his brave crew. The freedom-fighting captain shows Neo the ropes and takes him to receive a reading from the legendary oracle. Morpheus even sacrifices himself to prevent the chosen one from being capture and is later rescued by Neo during the film’s finale. While Morpheus takes a back seat later in the series, as he is no longer needed as a mentor, he still plays a prevalent role in the remaining two sequels.

Morpheus is brave, intelligent, a natural leader, and is willing to risk his life for humanity’s freedom. Neo may be the chosen one, but Morpheus is responsible for shaping him into the agent-bashing hero. He bullet-times his way to eighth place.


7. Mickey Goldmill

Series - Rocky

How did a mediocre Philadelphian boxer go from a zero to the World Heavyweight Champion? Training montages aside, no one can dispute that the real credit is owed to Rocky Balboa’s (Sylvester Stallone) half sized trainer, Mickey (Burgess Meredith). Without the former bantamweight’s training, Rocky would still be breaking thumbs for the mob. Owner of Mighty Mick’s Boxing during his retired years, Mickey convinces the Italian Stallion to give his life purpose once again by letting him prepare him for the big fight.

Although Rocky loses during his first matchup with Apollo Creed, Mickey’s training and rough words of encouragement ("You're a bum") still carried him the distance. During his second outing, Rocky successfully defeats Apollo after Mickey pushes his training further with unconventional methods. There are also some tender moments during the second movie, where Rocky is struggling with a sick pregnant Adrian. This results in the boxer and his mentor sharing an unforgettable, sentimental moment in church. Mickey’s final outing, except for a flashback in Rocky V, results in the character’s death during the initial match with Clubber Lang (Mr. T) in Rocky III. Inspired by his trainer death, Rocky drives himself harder and defeats Lang in a rematch to regain his heavy weight title.

Mickey is a tough, compassionate, committed, trainer, who is not afraid to push Rocky to his limit. A soft man deep down, his rock hard exterior only reflects what he expects from his trainee, who undoubtedly is the greatest accomplishment in his career. Mickey demands all bums to clear out on his way to seventh place.


6. Mr. Miyagi

Series - The Karate Kid

Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) appears to be a humble building technician at first glance, but it is only later that Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) learns that he can kick some serious ass. This Okinawan, former U. S. Army veteran and Medal of Honor recipient is no mere tech, as he is a master of karate. After witnessing five Cobra Kai students pummeling poor Daniel, Miyagi intervenes and bests all of them at once. Shortly afterwards, the karate master agrees to teach Daniel in preparation for a tournament against the boy’s harassers. What the pupil in training initially believes to be menial and laborious tasks is Miyagi’s method of training Daniel’s body for specific combat movements. What else can be said, the man is simply a genius. Not only does Daniel win the tournament, but would go onto obtain other victories throughout the series, under Miyagi’s unique training style.

Although he's the boy's mentor, Mr. Miyagi means more than that to Daniel. The pair’s relationship transcends that of a mere teacher and student, as they fill the emptiness in each other’s lives. Miyagi lost a son at a young age and Daniel father is no longer in the picture, so the bond surpasses your typical master and protégé relationship.

Mr. Miyagi is wise, clever, a master of karate, a reliable friend, and funny at times. He waxes onto our sixth place slot.


5. The Emperor (Palpatine)

Series - Star Wars

With the exception of Pai Mei, whose motives are his own, all of our mentors have influenced those under them to fight for good. However, this is certainly not the case with this fifth place runner. The evil, dark lord of the Sith himself, the former Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) seized power over most of the galaxy, through deception, manipulation and lies. After severing all ties to democracy, Palpatine secured his place as the oppressive Emperor. He would rule with an iron fist for roughly twenty years with Lord Vader enforcing his evil will, before being overthrown by the apprentice himself. Drawing from characteristics of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Caesar, and even Satin, the Emperor is malevolent force of wickedness.

However, it is not the Emperor’s limitless power and pure evil will that grant him a spot on our list. The distinguishing factor here is his ability to manipulate others, especially the fallen Jedi Knight, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen). The fearful young warrior was deceived and brainwashed by the crafty Sith Lord since his childhood. Tragically destined to be his puppet and servant, Anakin betrayed the Jedi and swore allegiance to the dark lord. Given the Sith name, Darth Vader, Anakin relentlessly carried out the Emperor’s twisted will for years, until watching his son being brutally tortured to death before him. Still possessing some good in him, Vader gains redemption and fulfills the prophesy by saving Luke and destroys his menacing evil master and himself in the process.

The Emperor is cunning, evil, merciless, and extremely influential. Able to hold thousands of star systems under his reign of fear and warp the minds of others, he truly is a master of deception. the dark lord of the Sith manipulates his way to the respectable slot of five on our list.


4. Sarah Connor

Series - Terminator

Before discovering her true destiny, “the mother of the future” was but a simple diner waitress residing in Los Angeles, California. However, similar to her son’s message about the future, all of that would change on one fateful Friday night during the events of The Terminator. After being rescued from the cybernetic killing machine, known as a terminator, Sarah’s (Linda Hamilton) life is forever changed. Her savior was sent to intercept the deadly T101 (terminator) and was a future freedom fighter, Kyle Reese. He explains that Sarah’s unborn son is the key to humanity’s salvation during a futuristic war for its very survival against the supercomputer, Skynet, and its genocidal machines. Her protector is later revealed to be John’s father after the couple shares an intimate moment while on the run. However, Kyle falls while defending Sarah during the film’s conclusion and she is forced to prepare for the coming storm alone.

During the years that follow, the enlightened woman trains both herself and son in preparation for the looming nuclear war. John Connor may be the key to humanity’s survival, but would have undoubtedly perished without the extensive training and forewarning that his mother provided. But this leaves some uncertainty, such as the idea of John Connor’s success relying on his own words being relayed to his mother. Even though Kyle reveals that it was John’s mother that crafted him into the fearless leader, would she have known without John’s premonition (Maybe we’ll get to that later)? Also, not to mention that John could never be born if it not for his future self sending Kyle back to impregnate his mother (try to wrap your head around that).

Regardless, by Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Sarah is a ripped, experienced, determined, calculating soldier who is willing to do whatever it takes to protect humanity’s future and her son. Even if it cost Sarah her life, she will do anything to stop the mechanized holocaust and craft John into the leader of the human resistance. Connor terminates her way to four.


3. Dumbledore

Series - Harry Potter

What began as a successful book series has now graced the big screen with an amazing display of special effects and imagination. As with any movie adaptation, there is a great deal lost in the transition but the Harry Potter Franchise's film counterparts have been widely praised. While the central story revolves around the exploits of Harry, Ron, and Hermione, we can’t forget about the series true mastermind.

Already a strong character early in the franchise, the Hogwarts headmaster’s intricate role in the plot only further unravels with each movie (even more so in the books). With a plan that transcends even Harry’s placement with the Dursleys and continued to grow throughout the series, Dumbledore successfully crafted a scheme to destroy Lord Voldemort once and for all. While it was Harry and his friends who carried the plan out following his death, we cannot discredit the brilliant mind behind it.

While alive, Dumbledore acts as a mentor for Harry and a close ally in his battles against the dark lord. While always keeping a careful eye on "the boy who lived", the headmaster eventually entrusted him with nearly all the secrets (left out Harry himself being a horcrux) and theories on how to dispel Voldemort from the world. However, in order to protect Harry and prevent Draco from committing murder, Dumbledore is murdered in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Although later we learn that this too was all part of the wizard’s master plan).

Transcending death itself, the former Hogwarts headmaster and leader of the order is a constant guiding presence. Whether it’s through carefully left clues or his influence on others, Dumbledore’s aid to the three heroes is not limited by death. Even after departing from this life, he plays an equal role in overthrowing Tom Riddle and forever ridding the wizarding world of his reign of evil.

Dumbledore is kind, accepting, wise, powerful, and respected wizard. A natural leader, he is a mentor for Harry in both life and death. Harry’s success almost entirely depends on the headmaster’s influence. It gives Harry the strength and determination to thwart the dark lord countless times. Dumbledore's complex plan that tightly weaves through the series’ plot apparates him to number three.

Dumbledore battling Lord Voldemort
Dumbledore battling Lord Voldemort | Source

2. Gandalf the Grey/White

Series - Lord of the Rings

Wizards are wise and natural mentors in stories dating back to the legends of King Arthur, so it's no mistake that we have yet another sorcerer on our list. When the dark Lord Sauron’s armies amassed to conquer Middle Earth, few were more successful in rallying and counseling others against the dark lord than the powerful wizard Gandalf. Knowing that Sauron sought that which was once his, the wizard convinced Frodo to flee with the ring to Rivendell. Once there it was decided that the hobbit would carry the weapon of the enemy to the very hellish environment where it was forged. However, he would be escorted by a fellowship, which Gandalf lead until falling during a trek through orc infested mines. Later the wizard would return reborn as Gandalf the White and play an intricate role in uniting those who opposed the dark lord. His council is sought by military leaders, kings, and even the heir to the thrown of Gondor himself, Aragorn.

Not only an invaluable asset in battle, Gandalf is a brilliant strategist and powerful wizard. He is responsible for preserving the people of Rohan and holding the city of Minas Tirith. However, it’s his ability to inspire those around him and mentor nearly all members of the fellowship at some point in the series that grants him the runner-up spot on our list. Gandalf shall not let the previously discussed pass him on his way to number two.


1. Obi Wan Kenobi

Series - Star Wars

Once a great Jedi Master and warrior, Obi Wan Kenobi was forced into exile after his apprentice and closest friend, Anakin Skywalker, fell to the dark side of the force. As the Jedi Order collapsed Kenobi and Master Yoda were forced into hiding as the Empire was born from the ashes.

Following an intense showdown and duel where Obi Wan bested the former Anakin, the Jedi Master played a role in concealing newborns from the twisted technologically infused Darth Vader (formerly Anakin). After safely delivering the infant Luke Skywalker to his aunt and Uncle on Tatooine, he adopted the alias of Ben to avoid being hunted down by the Empire. While on the barren desert planet, Obi Wan kept an eye on young Skywalker as he was raised on his family’s farm for 19 years. At that point, the fate (or the force) would guide young Luke to old Ben after acquiring R2-D2 and C-3PO during Episode IV: A New Hope. Following the murder of his aunt and uncle, Luke decides to accompany the late aged Obi Wan to return the droids to their proper owners. This would introduce Luke to the rebel alliance and set the stage for the rest of the original trilogy.

I know what some of you may be thinking. Why the hell not Yoda too? You’re right, in the regard that the small green Jedi Master trained Luke. However, we have to remember that it was Ben who guided Luke to Dagobah in the first place. Also, in a later scene it’s revealed that Obi Wan had been in contact with Yoda prior to Luke’s arrival as they discuss the young Jedi’s fate.

Obi Wan’s life is marked with many accomplishments. He defeated Darth Maul, General Grievous, and severed off most of Anakin’s limbs in a hellish fight on the planet Mustafar. While these are impressive, they did not secure his seat at number one on our list. Obi Wan is certainly Luke’s mentor during Episode 4: A New Hope, but his influence transcends death as he continues to guide the young Jedi in training during the other two original installments. All of Luke’s accomplishments, from destroying the Death Star to defeating Vader in the classic showdown, can be traced back to Obi Wan’s careful guidance and encouragement. This Jedi Knight is truly the most influential mentor in motion picture history. Obi Wan certainly doesn't have to Jedi mind trick his way to the top, as the force is incredibly strong with this one.


Serious Contenders

  • Jor El - Superman
  • Chubbs Peterson - Happy Gilmore
  • Patches O'Houlihan - Dodgeball
  • Rufus - Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure
  • Professor Charles Xavier - X-men


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