Lindsay is a working actress and honors graduate of Texas Christian University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Theatre: Film/TV.
Who Was Kirk Douglas?
Kirk Douglas, to put it simply, was a force of nature. Known for playing rebels and tough outsiders, his presence forces you to pay attention. His larger-than-life persona often made him appear much larger than his actual 5’9’’ frame and, in many ways, Kirk could be considered the ultimate leading man. He was an actor who gave off a passion and intensity onscreen that matched the intensity of the dramas and action films he appeared in. Indeed, Kirk's films rarely have happy endings, but you’ll be happy to know that a few on this list actually do.
After suffering a major stroke in the 1990s that partially impaired his speech, Kirk slowed down considerably. But, he continued to act occasionally until officially retiring in 2008. Passing away at the ripe old age of 103, Kirk left behind an acting legacy that is continued by his son, Michael (a Hollywood legend in his own right). 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.
A Note on This List's Order
I chose the order of my Kirk Douglas top 10 movies 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.
Top 10 Kirk Douglas Films
- Paths of Glory
- Seven Days in May
- The Bad and the Beautiful
- Lonely Are The Brave
- Lust For Life
- 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
- Ace in the Hole
- Gunfight at the OK Corral
1. Spartacus (1960)
Widely considered one of the greatest epics ever made, Spartacus features Kirk in his most iconic role. The part of the titular rebel slave perfectly captures Douglas' defiant screen persona. 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 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 with ending 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 co-producer on Spartacus and is often credited as the one responsible for hiring Trumbo and blacklisted character actor, Peter Brocco. Kirk was also the one responsible for replacing original director Anthony Mann with the legendary Stanley Kubrick.
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 made 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 marks Kirk’s first experience working with writer/director Stanley Kubrick. Set in the trenches of the First World War, 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. In fact, the film wasn’t shown in Germany, France, Switzerland, or Spain until years after its release. (Germany merely pushed back the release for two years, while France, Switzerland, and Spain didn't release the film until 1975, 1978, and 1986, 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, 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.
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President John F. Kennedy was actually a big advocate of Seven Days in May and gave the production designer unprecedented access to the White House in order to replicate the interior. President Kennedy’s enthusiasm notwithstanding, the Pentagon had reservations and refused to grant them 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 specific people to work 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 before and even springboarded each of their careers. However, he has also betrayed each of their trust and none are sure they could (or should) work with him again.
Kirk gives an incredible performance as Jonathan. At times, his intensity is so raw 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. 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.
It’s entirely possible that The Bad and the Beautiful, actually, ruffled some feathers within the industry. Which might explain why this future classic wasn't nominated for Best Picture and, in fact, still holds the record for most Oscars won by a film not nominated for Best Picture, with an impressive five statues.
5. Lonely Are The Brave (1962)
Based on Edward Abbey's novel, The Brave Cowboy, this modern Western has been quoted as one of Kirk’s personal favorites—even Michael Douglas has cited it as one of his father’s best roles. Made through his own production company (Joel Productions), Kirk personally assembled the cast and crew of Lonely Are The Brave and once again employed blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Spartacus).
Filmed around Albuquerque, New Mexico, Lonely Are The Brave stars Kirk as Jack Burns, an independent modern-day cowboy who is 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 rocked when he discovers that his old friend, Paul, has been arrested for aiding illegal immigrants. Concerned about his friend’s wellbeing, Jack gets arrested in order to help Paul break out of jail. However, the ramifications of this reckless decision might bring an end to his beloved independence.
Without a doubt, Kirk’s rough-hewn face and weathered performance make him one of the screen’s most convincing cowboys. Kirk even performed his own stunts in the 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 become something of a cult film. If you like nontraditional Westerns, this is the movie for you.
6. Lust For Life (1956)
The role that Kirk Douglas was born to play. Kirk IS 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. Reuniting Kirk with The Bad and the Beautiful director Vincente Minnelli, 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's elevated further by the actor's striking resemblance to the late painter. This actually made the film shoot a somewhat eerie experience. Kirk was very aware of the fact that he not only looked like Van Gogh, but was the same age as the famous painter 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 died) some of the older inhabitants had actually 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. He couldn’t have chosen a better family film. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is probably the best cinematic adaptation of any of Verne’s novels. Some even claim it's one of the best science fiction films ever made.
Set in the 1860s, the movie stars Kirk as Ned Land. He's a sailor who's been shanghaied into service aboard a vessel searching for an alleged sea monster. 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 questionable and as they board the sub, the trio wonders if they are guests or 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 persona. 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 for 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 to New York City. Unfortunately, nothing major ever happens in Albuquerque. When Chuck 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. The film’s story is even inspired by two real-life events. The first involves 1925 cave-in victim, Floyd Collins, which is mentioned in the film. The second took place in 1949 when a 3-year-old girl fell into an abandoned well and thousands of spectators arrived to witness the rescue effort.
Over the years, this film has garnered a great deal of prestige, but Ace in the Hole was 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, watching Ace in the Hole is 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 Holliday, 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.
The second of seven films Kirk made with Burt Lancaster, Gunfight stars Kirk as the infamous Doc Holliday, a professional gambler and former dentist who has gained a 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.Of course, everything in this movie is lead-up to the titular gunfight and it doesn’t disappoint.
Action-packed finale aside, Gunfight at the OK Corral gives its actors space to shine. As usual, Kirk and Lancaster play beautifully off of one another. Lancaster gives a very restrained performance as Wyatt, imbuing the legendary lawman with a palpable internal strength. Conversely, Kirk gives a brooding, charismatic performance as the bitter Doc Holliday, a dying man with an unwavering death wish.
To prepare for his scenes as the terminally-ill Holliday, 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 appeared in after his debilitating 1996 stroke, Illusion was Kirk's last feature film appearance. Done on a minuscule budget by a newbie writer and director (Michael Goorjian), Illusion tells the story of Donald Baines (Kirk), a successful movie director lying 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 (played by Goorjian).
One night, Donald is visited by the spirit of an old, beloved acquaintance named Stan, who shows him three movie reels, each representing a different time period in Christopher's life. As Donald watches Christopher live out his life story, he begins to become more and more concerned over how the story is destined to end. It took six years for 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 made Kirk a memorable star in the first place are still very much present. Kirk's performance also gives the movie an 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's 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 is falling in love with 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. The movie features gorgeous mountain scenery and a fantastic soundtrack by composer Bruce Rowland. Perhaps the movie’s most memorable moments are provided by actor Tom Burlinson, who performed all of his own stunt riding. His riding skills are even more remarkable when you consider 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 wrote himself: his autobiography, Let’s Face It: 90 Years of Living, Loving, and Learning (2008), and I Am Spartacus: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist (2012).
© 2012 Lindsay Blenkarn
RayJay on March 15, 2020:
Man from Snowy River is one of my favorites. Just wish he would’ve played in Return to Snowy River. It would’ve been a perfect sequel
Robin Britt on September 10, 2016:
Where in the world is 'Man with a Horn'??? It brought out the best in all of them!
Lindsay Blenkarn (author) from Nashville, TN on January 17, 2015:
joe vegas51: "The Long Ships", actually, does not star Kirk Douglas. Most likely you're thinking of Richard Widmark, who plays Rolfe in that film.
joe vegas51 on January 17, 2015:
What happened to " the long ships". That was fantastic!
Lindsay Blenkarn (author) from Nashville, TN on November 07, 2012:
Steve Lensman: So glad you liked the top ten! :) Yeah, Illusion is a little more obscure than most of the others on this list. When I was first compiling the top ten, I was very surprised how popular it seemed to be on IMDB and Netflix. Definitely worth checking out for a Kirk Douglas fan.
petenali: So happy to hear that you've shared your love for Spartacus with the next generation! :) I've always considered it to be one of those classic "guy movies" so, it's certainly fitting that it would earn a place on your family's "man-movie rotation". I'm sure your boys are now learning not to be so skeptical of those "old" movies! Haha!
Pete from Ontario, Canada on November 07, 2012:
Great tribute hub to a great actor. I have loved Spartacus since I first saw it as a teen. I recently watched it with my own teenage sons, who were a little sceptical at first because it is an "old" film, but being boys, they soon got into it and loved it. It's now on our frequent man-movie rotation alongside Braveheart, First Knight, Gladiator and 300!
Steve Lensman from Manchester, England on November 07, 2012:
An excellent article on one of my favourite movie stars. Spartacus is a film I watch at least once a year. Looking forward to watching 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea at Xmas as usual.
The only film on your list I haven't seen is Illusion.