Top Ten Gregory Peck Films
Gregory Peck, the cinematic personification of moral strength and dignity. Often playing heroes that possess a quiet strength and strong convictions, Gregory Peck's screen personae was that of a force for good that audiences could trust implicitly. Which always made it all the more effective when he, occasionally, played against type in more villainous roles.
His good looks and incredible speaking voice made Greg an easy choice for romantic roles but, Peck, also, possessed an air of authority and nobility that made him uniquely suited to play military commanders and father figures. In real life, he even served as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1967-1970. He was, actually, the one who made the important decision to postpone the Academy Awards in 1968 in acknowledgement of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination. You'll often hear the words "decency" and "integrity" thrown around when speaking about Greg (both onscreen and off), and after seeing a couple of the movies on this list, you'll quickly understand why that is.
FYI: I chose the order of my Gregory Peck top ten by considering each film's importance in Greg’s overall career, the size/importance of his role in them, and their overall popularity today as evidenced by their ratings on sites like IMDB, Netflix, and Rotten Tomatoes. Naturally, feel free to watch them in any order you like (this is merely a recommended top ten). You might watch them in the order listed here, chronologically (like I did), or in a way that corresponds with your own movie tastes. If you discover your favorite Gregory Peck film is missing, feel free to post a comment explaining why you would recommend it.
And now, on with the Top Ten:
1. “TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD” (1962) –
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee, this classic courtroom drama features Gregory Peck in what easily became his most iconic role (and, also, his personal favorite). Set in the 1930s, To Kill A Mockingbird is told from the point of view of 6-year-old Jean Louise Finch (known as “Scout”) who, along with her older brother Jem, lives with her widower father Atticus (Greg) in a small Alabama town. Atticus is a well-respected lawyer, but his abilities are severely tested when he takes on the difficult task of defending Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a “black man” who has been accused of raping a “white woman”. A movie that touches on such topics as human decency, family, racial injustice, and empathy, To Kill A Mockingbird is both beautiful and powerful. The film won Greg is first and only Oscar for Best Actor and everyone from his co-stars, to his children, to Harper Lee, herself, agreed that he was Atticus Finch, both onscreen and off. The character was named by the American Film Institute as the greatest cinematic hero of the 20th Century and, indeed, it's the quiet strength and conviction of Greg's performance that helps hold this classic film together. The novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was semi-autobiographical with the steadfast Atticus clearly written in loving tribute to Harper Lee’s real-life lawyer father, Amasa Lee. Greg reminded Harper Lee so much of her father that she, actually, gave him her father’s watch after filming wrapped. (Greg was wearing the watch when he won his Oscar a few months later). Greg made a number of lifelong friends while making this film, not only Harper Lee, but, also, Brock Peters, and Mary Badham (who played Scout). Throughout his life, Greg and Badham would continue to call each other "Scout" and "Atticus", while Brock Peters even gave the eulogy at Greg's funeral many years later.
2. "ROMAN HOLIDAY” (1953) –
Arguably one of the greatest romantic comedies ever made, Roman Holiday gave Greg his first chance to appear in a cinematic comedy and it has since become one of his most beloved films. Produced and directed by William Wyler, the movie tells the story of Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn in her Oscar-winning Hollywood film debut), the crown princess of an unnamed European country who is in the middle of a diplomatic tour of Europe. As such, Ann has been spending all of her time giving speeches, accepting gifts, and making public appearances. By the time she arrives in Rome, she’s become emotionally exhausted by her tight schedule and lack of freedom. So, one night (after a small nervous breakdown), she decides to sneak out to explore Rome for a few hours. However, Ann doesn’t realize that her doctor has already given her a sedative and it starts to kick in shortly after she manages to “escape”. She’s soon found fast sleep on a public fountain by Joe Bradley (Greg), an American news reporter currently living/working in Rome. Reluctantly, Joe allows the woozy mystery girl to sleep on his couch, only to realize the next morning who she really is. Not knowing that Joe is a reporter or that he has already guessed her secret, Ann introduces herself under the alias “Anya Smith”, a student who has run away from boarding school. Joe plays along and encourages “Anya” to take the whole day off to explore Rome, secretly hoping that he'll be able to get a great story for his paper out of it. He even enlists his photographer friend, Irving (Eddie Albert), to take stealth pictures of their excursions. But, in the end, this little Roman holiday may turn into more than just another story for Joe. Shot completely on location in Rome, Roman Holiday was a welcome change of pace for both Greg and director William Wyler. Wyler hadn’t directed a comedy since the 1930s and was looking for the chance to return to the genre, while Greg was thrilled to, finally, be offered a comedy script at all. Originally, Greg was to be given sole star credit for the film with Audrey Hepburn’s name listed below the movie title. But, Greg recognized that this film would make Hepburn a star and insisted the newbie actress be given star billing alongside him. When asked about it later, he would always simply state that it would’ve looked ridiculous for him to be given star status without her.
3. “THE BIG COUNTRY” (1958) –
Co-produced by Greg and director William Wyler, this Western epic features an incredible cast that includes Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, Chuck Connors, Charlton Heston, and Burl Ives (in an Oscar-winning performance). Greg stars as James McKay, a New England sea captain who has traveled West to join his fiancée, Pat (Baker), at her father’s ranch. It’s soon clear that Jim’s mild-mannered ways stand at stark contrast to the aggressive cowboy culture Pat is used to. Jim is self-assured and cool under pressure and, therefore, not easily bullied into fights. However, Pat’s pride is more easily wounded and she can’t understand why her fiancée doesn't immediately side with her family in their long-standing feud against the rough-and-tumble Hannassey clan. But, Jim isn’t so easily swayed and begins to suspect that both sides of this feud may be in the wrong. Based on the short story, Ambush At Blanco Canyon (which was later extended into the novel, The Big Country) by Donald Hamilton, this film was a humongous success when it was first released. Shot entirely around California at various locations (including Red Rock Canyon State Park and the Sierra Foothills), The Big Country features gorgeous cinematography paired with an unforgettable score by Jerome Moross. The film is sometimes credited as starting a new trend of so-called “pacifist Westerns”. Interestingly, Wyler conceived the film as an allegory for the Cold War, with Pat’s father representing Dwight D. Eisenhower (and, quite ironically, The Big Country, actually, became Eisenhower’s favorite movie).
4. “CAPE FEAR” (1962) –
Based on the novel, The Executioners by John D. MacDonald, this psychological thriller proved to be the last movie made through Greg’s production company, Melville Productions. Greg stars as Sam Bowden, a respected lawyer living in Georgia with his wife, Peggy, and teenage daughter, Nancy. Eight years earlier, Bowden testified against a rapist named Max Cady (Robert Mitchum), after witnessing him attack a girl in a parking lot. Now Max Cady has been released and he holds Bowden, personally, responsible for his conviction. Determined to get even, Cady begins to subtly threaten and stalk Bowden’s family, giving particular emphasis to his daughter, Nancy. What’s worse is that Cady did his homework while incarcerated, giving him the tools necessary to keep the law on his side. So, even while Cady terrorizes his family, Bowden is left seemingly powerless to stop whatever ultimate revenge Cady has planned. This tense film is very similar in tone to Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and, in fact, director J. Lee Thompson deliberately intended Cape Fear to have the visual style of Hitchcock’s classic black-and-white thrillers. The film’s score was even composed by Hitchcock's frequent collaborator, Bernard Hermann. Hermann’s score for Cape Fear, actually, proved to be so good, that Martin Scorsese re-used it 30 years later for his 1991 Cape Fear remake. The film’s title, actually, comes from Greg, himself. He wasn't a fan of the original novel’s title and started looking for an interesting-sounding place name to use instead. He found the real Cape Fear River in North Carolina while scanning over a US map and knew it would be the absolute perfect title for this cinematic thriller.
5. “TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH” (1949) –
Based on the book by Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay, Jr. and adapted by them for the screen, Twelve O’Clock High revolves around the men of the U.S. Army’s 8th Air Force, who have the dangerous task of flying daylight bombing missions against Nazi Germany in World War II. Greg plays Brigadier General Frank Savage, who is brought in as the new commanding officer of the 918th Bomb Group after the previous commanding officer is deemed to be “too soft” on his men. The 918th is referred to as “a hard luck group” due to the amount of casualties and injuries they’ve suffered. But, Savage is determined to whip the men into shape. However, his tough demeanor, immediately, causes the emotionally exhausted men to rebel. So, Savage must find a way to win his men’s trust, before all of their transfers go through. Although many different real-life Air Force commanders influenced the fictional character of Frank Savage, he was based, primarily, on Colonel Frank A. Armstrong, who commanded the 306th Bomb Group. The name “Savage” was, actually, chosen as a subtle nod to Armstrong’s Cherokee ancestry. In the book, Savage, actually, has a love interest, but the romantic subplot was deleted in order to focus more on the themes of leadership and the psychological toll of war. In fact, Twelve O’Clock High was one of the first films to focus on the psychological effect of battle rather than the actual battles, themselves. Veterans of the “heavy bomber campaign” often credited the film as the only accurate Hollywood depiction of their wartime experiences. The movie's big air battle scene even incorporates real documentary footage of air combat between the U.S. and Germany (a fact that makes the scene that much more intense). For a time, Twelve O’Clock High was even required viewing at all U.S. service academies as an example of “situational leadership theory” and it’s still, occasionally, used in leadership training today.
6. “CAPTAIN HORATIO HORNBLOWER” (1951) –
Based on the first three novels of C.S. Forester’s classic Horatio Hornblower series (Beat To Quarters, A Ship of the Line, and Flying Colors), this heroic swashbuckler stars Greg as the titular Horatio Hornblower, a captain in the British Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars of the 1800s. Captain Hornblower’s ship, the HMS Lydia, has been tasked with a secret mission to Nicaragua with the captain, alone, privy to the journey’s true purpose. Once they arrive at their destination, Captain Hornblower informs the crew that they are there to supply arms to the forces of Don Julian Alvarado, an enemy of Spain who plans on attacking the Spanish on the North American front. As an ally of France, Spain is Britain’s enemy in the war, which makes Don Alvarado an ally of Britain, by default. So, Captain Hornblower appeases the psychotic Don Alvarado (or “El Supremo”, as he prefers to call himself) in order to prevent bloodshed and, hopefully, gain an upper-hand in the war against France. So, when the Lydia captures a large Spanish ship while in Nicaraguan waters, Captain Hornblower, immediately, hands the ship over to “El Supremo” as a sign of goodwill. But, shortly after leaving “El Supremo”, the Lydia comes across a smaller Spanish vessel waving a white flag. The passengers inform Captain Hornblower that Spain has switched sides and is now an ally of Britain’s against France, which means that Hornblower has just supplied one of Britain’s enemies with a very well-supplied and extremely powerful war ship. Despite being adapted from a combination of three books, Captain Horatio Hornblower manages to stay pretty true to its source material thanks to the involvement of the novels’ original author, C.S. Forester, who helped with the adaptation. And if the HMS Lydia looks vaguely familiar to classic Disney fans, that’s because, the set had, originally, been used for the Hispaniola in Walt Disney’s adaptation of Treasure Island.
7. “THE GUNS OF NAVARONE” (1961) –
Based on the novel by Alistair McLean, this classic WWII adventure film features a talented cast that, along with Greg, includes Anthony Quinn, Anthony Quayle, and David Niven. Greg plays the role of Captain Keith Mallory, a renowned spy and mountaineer who is recruited by the Allied Intelligence to join a team of commandos, led by Major Roy Franklin (Quayle), to destroy two massive guns the Axis powers’ have stationed on the Greek island of Navarone. If the guns are destroyed, the British Royal Navy can prevent an assault on the nearby island of Keros, where 2,000 British soldiers are currently marooned. Inspired by the real World War II Battle of Leros, The Guns of Navarone was filmed mostly on location on the Greek island of Rhodes (“Navarone”, itself, is a fictional island). Behind the scenes, the cast bonded by playing chess against each other, merely tapping out whenever they were needed on set. Director J. Lee Thompson has stated that it often looked more like they were playing a chess tournament than making a movie, simply due to the sheer number of chess boards they would have set up at one time. As an American, Greg felt a bit miscast in the role of Mallory, but chose not to affect an English accent, since he thought it would be better to use his real voice than fail at attempting an accent. This proved to be the right choice since most viewers assume that Mallory is supposed to be an American, anyway. In actuality, Mallory’s nationality is never even mentioned in the film and in the novel, he is, in fact, a New Zealander. While filming The Guns of Navarone, Greg developed a close friendship with co-star, David Niven, who had a particularly rough time during filming, becoming extremely sick to the point of near death. He had to remain in the hospital for weeks before he could, finally, return and shooting could be fully resumed. Niven, actually, came back a bit early to finish the shoot against the advice of his doctors. This ended up resulting in a relapse that put him back in the hospital for 7 weeks after filming ended.
8. “THE OMEN” (1976) –
A true horror classic, this British/American co-production was the breakout film for director Richard Donner (who would later rise to greater fame for directing Superman and Lethal Weapon) and the 1st film Greg had made in 7 years. Greg stars as American diplomat Robert Thorn, whose wife, Kathy (Lee Remick), gives birth to a baby boy while the couple are living in Rome. Unfortunately, shortly after the birth, Robert is told that his son has died. Hoping to shield Kathy from the pain of losing a child, Robert is convinced by the hospital’s chaplain to secretly adopt another baby boy whose mother died in childbirth. So, the adoption goes through and Kathy is none the wiser. They name the boy Damien and 5 years later the family is living happily in London with Robert working as the U.S. Ambassador to Britain. But, starting on Damien’s 5th birthday, strange and insidious happenings begin to occur. When a priest named Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton) shows up at Robert’s office adamantly stating that Damien is not human, naturally, Robert kicks him out, convinced that the overzealous priest is crazy. But, then he starts to wonder: what if he’s right? The unsettling quality of The Omen owes a great deal to its Oscar-winning score by Jerry Goldsmith. His haunting music brings a real sense of dread to the film that helps elevate the scares. Although much of The Omen’s storyline is, supposedly, inspired by a Biblical passage detailing the rise of the Devil, the passage in question was, actually, entirely made up for the movie. The Omen’s production was famously plagued by strange accidents, prompting some people to believe the film was cursed. Some of the oddest things that happened were that even though Greg and screenwriter David Seltzer flew on separate flights to the shoot, both of their planes were struck by lightning, and producer Harvey Bernhard was nearly struck by lightning in Rome. Donner’s hotel was, also, bombed by the IRA, an experienced stunt double was badly injured during a dog attack scene, and several crewmembers were in a head-on car crash on the first day of shooting.
9. “SPELLBOUND” (1945) –
Directed by the legendary Alfred Hitchcock, Spellbound is loosely based on the book, The House of Dr. Edwardes by Hilary Saint George Saunders and John Palmer (written under the collective pseudonym, Francis Beeding). The film stars Ingrid Bergman as Dr. Constance Petersen, a psychoanalyst working at a mental hospital called Green Manors. The hospital’s director, Dr. Murchison, is being forced into retirement and when his replacement (Greg) arrives, he is much younger than expected. The new director introduces himself as Dr. Anthony Edwardes, but even while Constance finds herself falling for this charming man, she, also, begins to realize that he may not be who he claims to be. But, if he’s not really Dr. Edwardes, who is he? And what happened to the real Dr. Edwardes? Designed as a bit of a tribute to psychoanalysis, Spellbound was, actually, one of the very first Hollywood films to deal with psychoanalysis directly. Producer David O. Selznick was inspired to make the film due to his own successful psychoanalysis treatments. Selznick’s therapist, Dr. May Romm, even served as a technical advisor on the film (to Hitchcock’s occasional annoyance). Although Hitch did not appreciate Dr. Romm butting in during filming, screenwriter Ben Hecht, actually, consulted many leading psychiatrists while writing the film’s script. Spellbound famously includes a memorable dream sequence conceived and designed by artist Salvador Dali. Hitchcock respected Dali immensely and worked closely with him to create the surrealist sequence. But, although Hitch was involved in its design and conception, he did not, actually, direct the film’s dream sequence, instead bringing in director William Cameron Menzies to film that particular scene.
10. “GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT” (1947) –
Based on the novel by Laura Z. Hobson, this groundbreaking film stars Greg as Philip Green, a widowed journalist who has just moved to New York City from California (with his mother and young son) in order to accept a job at a New York-based magazine. The publisher, John Minify, informs Phil that he has been hired to write a series of articles about anti-Semitism. Phil struggles to find an original angle at first, but then realizes that there is only one way to write the article from a truthful and human point of view: to live as a Jewish man and experience anti-Semitism firsthand. Gentleman’s Agreement was the first major film to address the issue of anti-Semitism and many of the other studio heads (most of whom were Jewish) tried to convince 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck to stay away from the controversial subject. They were concerned that calling attention to the issue would just stir up trouble. Ironically, Zanuck was one of the few studio heads who was not Jewish. He felt inspired to make the film after he was denied membership to the Los Angeles Country Club when it was assumed he was Jewish due to his foreign-sounding name. Zanuck had the last laugh because Gentlemen's Agreement ended up becoming the top-grossing film of the year for 20th Century Fox, winning Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director for Elia Kazan and Best Supporting Actress (for Celeste Holm as the liberal fashion editor, Anne Dettrey). Unfortunately, Greg and Kazan, actually, did not get along very well during filming. Greg would later say that although he thought Kazan was the perfect choice to direct the film, the two of them were just not suited for one another, stating that “emotionally, we were not on the same wavelength."
HONORABLE MENTION: “DUEL IN THE SUN” (1946)
To finish up this Gregory Peck Top Ten, I decided to choose the film that represents one of the few times that Greg ever played a villain. Directed by King Vidor and based on the novel by Niven Busch, Duel In The Sun tells the story of Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones), a young woman living in the Old West, who is half European (on her father’s side) and half American Indian (on her mother’s side). When Pearl’s father, Scott Chavez, kills her mother in a rage for cheating on him, he, immediately, turns himself in for his crimes. Facing execution, he arranges for his beloved daughter to be sent to live with his distant cousin, Laura Belle (Lillian Gish), and her family. When Pearl arrives, she is greeted by Laura Belle’s oldest son, the gentlemanly Jesse (Joseph Cotten). Pearl, immediately, takes a liking to Jesse and the genteel Laura Belle, both of whom treat her with great affection and kindness. However, she receives nothing but scorn from Laura Belle’s mean-spirited husband, Senator Jackson McCanles (Lionel Barrymore). She, also, meets Laura Belle’s other son, Lewt (Greg), a villainous scoundrel who pursues her relentlessly. Although attracted to the sexy Lewt, Pearl is determined to prove herself a proper lady, like Laura Belle, rather than the trash the Senator sees her as. But, Lewt’s aggressive advances become increasingly difficult to ignore and the cowboy seems determined to keep Pearl from becoming the “good girl” she’s always wanted to be. Produced and co-written by David O. Selznick, Duel In The Sun earned the unfortunate nickname “Lust in the Dust” due to the subject matter and the multiple edits that had to be made in order to get the movie past the censors. Behind the scenes, Selznick and Jones, also, started a love affair that broke up both of their marriages and caused a great amount of controversy/bad press when the film was first released. Although many consider this movie a guilty pleasure, famed director Martin Scorsese, actually, cites Duel In The Sun as a huge influence on his work and has said that it is the first film he ever remembers seeing.
And if you would like to learn more about the noble hero Gregory Peck, check out Gregory Peck: A Biography by Gary Fishgall.
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