Top Ten Kirk Douglas Films
Kirk Douglas, to put it simply, is a force of nature. Known for playing rebels and tough outsiders, his mere presence forces you to pay attention. His larger-than-life personae often makes him appear much larger than his actual 5’9’’ frame and, in many ways, Kirk could be considered the ultimate leading man. He's an actor who gives off a passion and intensity on onscreen that matches the intensity of the dramas and action films he, usually, appears in. Indeed, Kirk's films rarely have happy endings, but you’ll be happy to know that a few on this list, actually, do.
Now well into his 90’s, Kirk has become the head of an acting legacy that has been continued by his son, Michael Douglas (a Hollywood legend in his own right). Since suffering a major stroke in the 1990’s that partly impaired his speech, Kirk has slowed down considerably. But, if you're new to the work of Kirk Douglas, check out this incredible list of critically-acclaimed films and witness the work of a man capable of rising above anything.
FYI: I chose the order of my Kirk Douglas top ten by considering each film's importance in Kirk’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 Kirk Douglas film is missing, feel free to post a comment explaining why you would recommend it.
And now, on with the Top Ten:
1. “SPARTACUS” (1960) –
Widely considered one of the greatest movie epics ever made, Spartacus features Kirk in his most iconic role. The part of the titular rebel slave perfectly personifies Kirk’s defiant screen personae. Heavily based on the novel Spartacus by Howard Fast, the film tells the true story of a former gladiator who leads a major slave uprising against the powerful Roman Republic (an event that later came to be known as the Third Servile War). The battle sequences in this film are shockingly intense and awe-inspiring in their scope. But, Spartacus, also, features brilliant performances from unforgettable actors including, Lawrence Olivier, Charles Laughton, and an Oscar-winning Peter Ustinov. The movie has, also, been credited as the film that ended the “Hollywood blacklist” by hiring blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and giving him full credit onscreen (making it the first major film to do so). Kirk acted as a co-producer on the film and is often credited as the one responsible for hiring (and giving screen credit to) Trumbo, as well as, the blacklisted character actor Peter Brocco. Kirk was, also, the one responsible for replacing original director Anthony Mann with the legendary Stanley Kubrick. However, many claim that Spartacus is more Kirk’s movie than it is Kubrick’s (including Kubrick, himself). And that may very well be true. Offscreen, the two clashed often and Kubrick bristled over not having full creative control over the script (something he would rectify in every film he would make afterwards). But, it’s hard to argue with the finished product. Spartacus is a true classic and not one any Kirk Douglas fan should miss.
2."PATHS OF GLORY” (1957) –
Based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb, Paths of Glory is best described as a study of the brutality (and psychological toll) of war. This downbeat anti-war film, also, represents Kirk’s first experience working with writer/director Stanley Kubrick. Set in the trenches of World War I, Kirk plays French officer Colonel Dax, who is ordered to lead his troops on a suicidal mission. When a section of his regiment refuses to continue, three men are chosen at random and charged with cowardice as an example to the rest of the troops. As a former defense attorney, Dax elects himself to defend his men in a formal hearing. However, just like his men, Dax soon discovers that he may be fighting a losing battle. True to Kubrick’s style, Paths of Glory is full of memorable and striking visuals. Filmed entirely in Bavaria, Germany, the movie was considered very controversial in much of Europe due to its “unflattering” portrayal of the French military, as well as, its anti-war message. The film, actually, wasn’t shown in Spain, France, Germany, or Switzerland until years after its release (Germany merely pushed back the release for 2 years, while France, Switzerland, and Spain did not release the film until 1975, ‘78, and ‘86, respectively). However, Winston Churchill characterized this film as an accurate portrayal of trench warfare and the occasionally misguided workings of the military mindset.
3. “SEVEN DAYS IN MAY” (1964) –
Directed by John Frankenheimer and produced by Kirk’s own Joel Productions, this strong political thriller features Kirk in a more restrained role than usual. Based on the 1962 novel of the same name and written by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, Seven Days in May casts Kirk opposite frequent co-star, Burt Lancaster. Taking place over the span of seven days, the film begins with the President of the United States (Fredric March) dealing with public reaction to his controversial decision to sign a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. Amongst the opposition is Air Force General James Scott (Lancaster), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a popular speaker. The public have even pegged Scott as a possible Presidential candidate. Kirk plays Scott’s subordinate and protégé, Colonel “Jiggs” Casey, a U.S. Marine and Pentagon insider. When Casey discovers evidence that General Scott may be planning a military coup to overthrow the President, he’s forced to choose whether to tell the President what he suspects or trust a man that he has long respected. But, more importantly, if Scott is planning a coup, how could any one possibly stop him? Interestingly, Kirk was originally cast as the traitorous General Scott, but he chose the more subdued role of “Jiggs” Casey when he realized that Lancaster would be better suited for the role. He couldn’t have been more right; it’s impossible to imagine anyone but Lancaster as the passionate and imposing Scott. President John F. Kennedy was, actually, a big advocate of Seven Days in May being made and gave the production designer unprecedented access to the White House in order to replicate the interior. But despite President Kennedy’s enthusiasm for the film, the Pentagon still had reservations and refused to give the filmmakers access. But, using true guerrilla filmmaking techniques, Frankenheimer managed to film Kirk entering the Pentagon by secretly hiding the camera in a station wagon across the street. In the finished film, you can see that Kirk’s convincing colonel uniform even resulted in nearby soldiers giving him the appropriate salutes.
4. “THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL” (1952) –
Directed by the great Vincente Minnelli, The Bad and the Beautiful is often cited as one of the best movies about Hollywood ever made. The film features Lana Turner in her iconic role as actress Georgia Lorrison, while Kirk plays the manipulative, ambitious, and maddeningly complex Hollywood producer, Jonathan Shields. In the film, Jonathan is one of the most successful producers in Hollywood and he, desperately, wants three particular people to work with him on his next film: actress Georgia Lorrison, director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), and screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell). Jonathan has worked with all three of them before and even acted as a sort of springboard for each of their careers. However, he has, also, managed to betray the trust of each of them and none of them are sure they could (or should) ever work with him again. Kirk gives an incredible performance in this film as Jonathan and, at times, his intensity is so raw that it, actually, borders on frightening. Since The Bad and the Beautiful is a movie about Hollywood, many viewers have debated over which Hollywood legend each character represents. But, in reality, you’ll find that most of the characters are a combination of various Hollywood legends, rather than any one particular star. Jonathan, clearly, shares traits with David O. Selznick, Orson Welles, and Val Lewton, while Lana Turner’s character, Georgia, has obvious parallels with Diana Barrymore (John Barrymore’s daughter) and even, possibly, Minnelli’s ex-wife, Judy Garland. Make no mistake, The Bad and the Beautiful is a gritty movie for its time and it’s entirely possible that this film, actually, ruffled some feathers within the industry. That would explain why this future classic was never nominated for Best Picture and, in fact, currently holds the record for the most Oscars ever won by a movie that wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, with an impressive 5 wins.
5. “LONELY ARE THE BRAVE” (1962) –
Based on the Edward Abbey novel, The Brave Cowboy, this modern Western has been quoted as one of Kirk’s personal favorites (even Michael Douglas, has named it as one of his father’s best roles). Made through his production company, Joel Productions, Kirk, personally, assembled the cast and crew of Lonely Are The Brave and, once again, employed blacklisted screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo (writer of Spartacus), to pen the script. Filmed around Albuquerque, New Mexico, Lonely Are The Brave stars Kirk as Jack Burns, an independent modern-day cowboy who stays mostly out of touch with modern society. He lives a nomadic and very traditional Western existence, using his horse for transportation and the open plains as a bed. But, Jack’s individualistic lifestyle is, suddenly, rocked when he discovers that his old friend, Paul, has been arrested for aiding illegal immigrants. Concerned about his friend’s wellbeing, Jack decides to get arrested, himself, in order to help Paul break out of jail from the inside. However, the ramifications of this reckless decision run the risk of ruining his beloved independent lifestyle forever. Without a doubt, Kirk’s rough-hewn face and weathered performance as Jack, make him one of the screen’s most convincing cowboys. Kirk even performed his own stunts in this film, some of which (involving a horse and a mountain terrain) were really quite dangerous. Beloved by many Western fans, Lonely Are The Brave has earned somewhat of a cult status over the years. If you like nontraditional Westerns, this is the movie for you.
6. “LUST FOR LIFE” (1956) –
Without a doubt, this is the role that Kirk Douglas was born to play. Kirk completely disappears into the role of Vincent Van Gogh, the tragic and talented painter of such iconic works as, “The Starry Night” and “Sunflowers”. Based on the biography by Irving Stone, the film follows Vincent on his journey from hopeful missionary into one of the most iconic and tortured painters of all time. Directed by Vincente Minnelli (director of The Bad and the Beautiful), Lust For Life is a moving portrait of an artist consumed and destroyed by his desire to recreate the images he sees within his own mind. Easily, one of Kirk’s most brilliant and transcendent performances, it is elevated further by Kirk’s striking resemblance to the late painter. His resemblance to Van Gogh, actually, made the shooting of the film a, somewhat, eerie experience. Kirk was very aware of the fact that he not only looked like Van Gogh, but was, also, the exact same age as the painter was when he committed suicide. The film was even shot in the very places that Van Gogh had frequented in life. While filming in the French town of Auvers-sur-Oise, (where the real Van Gogh had died) some of the older inhabitants, actually, had known Van Gogh personally. Needless to say, many of them were very startled by Kirk’s presence, believing that Van Gogh had returned from the grave.
7. “20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA” (1954) –
Based on the classic sci-fi novel by Jules Verne, this landmark Disney adventure film marked a bit of a departure for Kirk, who was usually more at home in gritty dramatic roles. But he couldn’t have chosen a better family film to appear in, for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is, largely, considered to be the best cinematic adaptation of any of Verne’s novels (some even claim it to be one of the best science fiction films ever made). Set in the 1860s, the movie stars Kirk as Ned Land, a sailor who has been shanghaied into service aboard a vessel on the look out for a sea monster that has, supposedly, been terrorizing the area. Also on board the ship are Professor Aronnax (Paul Lukas) and his assistant, Conseil (Peter Lorre), who are hoping to study this “sea monster” or, at the very least, disprove its existence. When the monster, suddenly, makes an appearance and attacks the ship, Ned, the Professor, and Conseil are all thrown overboard. Once in the water, the trio discover that the “sea monster” is, actually, a futuristic submarine, captained by the enigmatic Captain Nemo (James Mason). Nemo’s morals are, clearly, questionable and they quickly begin to wonder whether he plans for them to be his guests or his prisoners. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a must see for Kirk Douglas fans, for it offers a rare opportunity to see the more light-hearted side to his intense personae. Kirk even gets to show off his singing skills in the charming sea shanty, “Whale of a Tale”. But, you really can't mention this movie without talking about the incredible James Mason, who gives the definitive portrayal of Captain Nemo, one of the most ambiguous anti-heroes ever created.
8. “ACE IN THE HOLE” (1951) –
Directed by Billy Wilder, Ace in the Hole marks the first time the famous director wrote, directed, and produced his own production. In the film, Kirk plays Chuck Tatum, a down-on-his-luck reporter stuck working on a small Albuquerque newspaper after being fired from every major newspaper in the country. He’s been waiting desperately for a big story to come along that will give him the prestige to get back on a New York City paper, but nothing major ever seems to happen in Albuquerque. So when Chuck, suddenly, stumbles upon a local man trapped in a cave collapse, he jumps at the opportunity to use the tragic event to his advantage. But, exploiting a rescue effort in order to get a better story may come at a greater cost than Chuck expects. Filmed on location in Gallup, New Mexico, Ace in the Hole contains elements of film noir but, actually, has more of a documentary feel to it. The film’s story is even inspired by two real-life events. The first (involving 1925 cave-in victim, Floyd Collins) is, actually, mentioned in the film. The second took place in 1949 when a 3-year-old girl fell into an abandoned well, causing thousands of spectators to arrive to witness the extended rescue effort. Over the years, this film has garnered a great deal of prestige but, at the time, Ace in the Hole marked Billy Wilder’s first commercial failure. It’s not entirely surprising, given that this is a very cynical film. A bitter commentary of human nature at its worst, in many ways, watching Ace in the Hole is just like being a spectator at a rescue effort: morbidly knowing it probably won’t end well, but hoping for the best, anyway.
9. “GUNFIGHT AT THE OK CORRAL” (1957) –
Based on the legends of real-life gunslingers, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday, Gunfight at the OK Corral brings to life one of the most famous shootouts of the Old West. In fact, this classic Western is what gave that moment in history its most recognizable moniker (i.e. “the gunfight at OK Corral”). The second of seven films that Kirk would, eventually, make with Burt Lancaster, the film stars Kirk as the infamous Doc Holiday, a professional gambler and former dentist who has gained a considerable reputation as a gunfighter. Lancaster co-stars as Wyatt Earp, a respected lawman with a strong sense of ethics. In part, the film is a male bonding story, highlighting the unlikely friendship between the levelheaded Wyatt and the impulsive Holliday. But, of course, everything in this movie is meant as a lead up to the titular gunfight and it, certainly, doesn’t disappoint. Despite the attention given to the action-filled finale, Gunfight at the OK Corral still gives its actors a chance to shine. As usual, Kirk and Lancaster play beautifully off of one another. Lancaster gives a very restrained performance as Wyatt and provides the legendary lawman with a palpable internal strength. On the other hand, Kirk gives a brooding and charismatic performance as the bitter Doc Holiday, a dying man with an unwavering death wish. To prepare for his scenes as the terminally-ill Holiday, Kirk, actually, preplanned exactly how many coughs (and what kind) he would do in each scene. He did this in order to make it easier for the filmmakers to edit the multiple takes together, eliminating any chance of continuity issues.
10. “ILLUSION” (2004) –
One of a handful of movies that Kirk has appeared in since his debilitating 1996 stroke, Illusion was done on a minuscule budget by a newbie director/writer. It tells the story of Donald Baines (Kirk), a successful movie director who now lies on his deathbed with only hospice nurses for company. Nearing the end of his life, he regrets his devotion to his work at the cost of building a family. In particular, he regrets his disregard for his illegitimate son, Christopher (Michael Goorjian). Then, one night, Donald is visited by the spirit of an old (but, beloved) acquaintance named Stan, who proceeds to show him three movie reels, each representing a different time period within Christopher's life. As Donald watches Christopher live out his life story, he begins to become more and more concerned over how that story is destined to end. It took 6 years for writer/director/actor, Michael Goorjian, to get Illusion made and he even filmed all of Christopher’s “reels” ahead of time in order to convince Kirk to sign on to the film. Obviously, it worked and it’s the scenes with Kirk that really make this movie worth watching. Even at 87 years old, the passion and fire that, originally, made Kirk such a memorable star are still very much present in this film. He, also, gives the movie an important emotional center and weight that might be severely lacking otherwise. Although not a perfect film, Illusion features some truly lovely visuals and if you stay with it until the third (and best) of Christopher’s “reels”, you, certainly, won’t regret it.
HONORABLE MENTION: “THE MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER” (1982)
When choosing the honorable mention this time around, I knew I had to go with this popular family film which falls under the rare genre of the Australian Western. Based on the 1890 Banjo Paterson poem of the same name, The Man From Snowy River tells the story of Jim Craig (Tom Burlinson), a young man from the mountains who is forced to leave his family farm after the death of his father in order to find work. Hoping to prove himself worthy of running his father’s ranch, Jim heads to the low lands and takes a job as a cowhand on a ranch. The owner of the ranch, Mr. Harrison (Kirk), has a brother named Spur (also, played by Kirk), who was an old friend of Jim’s. However, the two brothers have been estranged for many years and, unfortunately for Jim, he finds himself on Harrison’s bad side when he is accused of losing an irreplaceable horse. To make matters worse, Jim may even be falling for Harrison’s beloved daughter, Jessica. Shot in the Victorian High Country of Australia, The Man From Snowy River proved to be amazingly popular in its native country, while, also, gaining a strong international following, as well. The movie features gorgeous mountain scenery that results in some truly spectacular visuals, bolstered immensely by the memorable soundtrack by composer Bruce Rowland. But, perhaps, the movie’s most memorable moments are provided by actor, Tom Burlinson, who performed all of his own stunt riding to incredible effect. His riding skills are made all the more remarkable considering that he had never even ridden a horse before being cast. In short, The Man From Snowy River is an incredibly beautiful and inspiring family film, and it’s easy to understand why it has become a beloved classic in its native Australian home.
If you would like to learn more about the life of Kirk Douglas, I recommend two books that Kirk has written himself: his autobiography, Let’s Face It: 90 Years of Living, Loving, and Learning, and I Am Spartacus: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist.
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