Kirk Douglas – the best of a Hollywood giant
He was one of the most charismatic and fiery actors of his generation. The rags-to-riches star worked with some of the greatest directors in cinema to produce some of the most iconic moments in film history. Although he frequently displayed great versatility and vitality as an actor, Kirk Douglas always maintained the image of a tough, passionate individual in whatever role he played. Often starring alongside other giants such as John Wayne, Burt Lancaster, Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis to name but a few, he always shone brightest. Trying to narrow down his best films is almost impossible, since there are that many from varying genres. The list below isn’t a fair representation of the man’s talent, or the quality of his output, but for me, these films represent my favourites of his extensive career in multiple genres.
The Heroes of Telemark (1965)
Douglas portrays Dr Rolf Pedersen, a Norwegian scientist who becomes embroiled in the resistance movement, attempting to halt the Nazis’ advancing developments with atomic fission. Douglas once again displays his physical prowess in many action sequences during this picture, including a lengthy ski chase and leaping from an exploding ferry. His cantankerous relationship with equally charismatic film star Richard Harris, helps make this a compelling war-drama.
Lust for Life (1956)
There are many things to love here in this colourful adaptation of Irving Stone’s biopic. The cinematography and mise-en-scène give the impression of a living Van Gogh painting. Anthony Quinn gives a memorable supporting performance as Paul Gauguin, but at the centre of it is a multi-layered, powerful and vulnerable performance by Douglas as the doomed artist.
Paths of Glory (1957)
Kubrick’s best film (yes, I’m saying it) remains one of the most powerful representations of war, displaying the futility, tragedy and hypocrisy of conflict. Douglas stars as Colonel Dax, a French officer charged with defending three innocent men chosen as scapegoats for a botched attack on the Western Front during WW1. Douglas portrays a man at odds with duty and his own conscience, who knows the helplessness of his task. The black-and-white photography is beautiful and haunting, and Douglas’ powerful climatic outburst channels the audience’s frustration against stubborn aristocratic authority.
Kubrick’s glorious epic was very much driven by Douglas at each turn. Douglas portrays the Thracian slave trained as a gladiator who revolts against the oppressive regime of the Roman Republic. Douglas looks and acts magnificently, combining the strength and anger of a slave warrior, and the affection of a man who simply wants to love and to be free. The jaw-dropping battle sequences and sets play host to titans of film and theatre, flexing their well-tanned thespian muscles. Douglas remains top dog, even in the presence of Laurence Olivier’s omniscient Crassus.
The Vikings (1958)
In a rare turn as an antagonist, albeit a very likeable one, Douglas plays Viking warrior Einar, son of Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine). In his quest to plunder the English stronghold of King Aelle, he clashes with half-brother Eric (Tony Curtis). The film is notable for featuring legitimate long-boats, locations and a glorious final battle in an authentic Medieval castle. The sword fight between Douglas and Curtis is wonderful to watch, as is the final shot of Douglas sailing off into the sunset on a burning ship to Mario Nascimbene’s rousing score.