BILL HARTLEY salutes a Hollywood hero
Very few stars from the great days of Hollywood are still with us. One who is and who has entered his eleventh decade is Kirk Douglas, who on December 9th celebrates his 101st birthday. Given his long and hugely successful career it seems strange that his centenary wasn’t marked by a season of his pictures on one of the television channels. There are many which would make a refreshing change from the usual fare served up, since they date back to the era of great film dramas backed up by high quality scripts.
Despite this a straw poll among colleagues who span a range of ages reveals that for the majority it is his action man roles for which Douglas is best remembered. The two mentioned most often were, The Vikings (1958) and of course Spartacus (1960). Both are excellent pictures and a good way of passing a wet Saturday afternoon, which is when they seem to crop up most often on television. In his prime, Douglas had the physique for these roles and he was effective alongside those other macho actors of his era Burt Lancaster (with whom he collaborated on seven occasions) and, of course, John Wayne. He may have been a little too healthy and vigorous to altogether convince as the alcoholic tubercular Doc Holliday in Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) but Douglas was always a powerful presence in any kind of action picture. Given his current great age and long retirement from the film industry it’s perhaps understandable that his other pictures have faded from memory. Incidentally a quick guide to some of the best can be found in the British Film Institute’s ‘Ten Essential Kirk Douglas Films’ It is a sign of an outstanding career when ten of your films are good enough to join an ‘essential’ list.
Douglas was fortunate to have been working in Hollywood at a time when script driven pictures were being made and this gave him ample opportunity to demonstrate that his abilities as an actor extended well beyond action man roles. In Lust For Life (1956) he played tortured artist Vincent van Gogh a role that allegedly prompted John Wayne to comment, ‘guys like us don’t make pictures like that’. Fortunately, Douglas ignored this advice and sought some terrific parts which sometimes took him away from the kind of roles Wayne would have preferred him to accept.
If ten essential Douglas pictures are too many to watch in order to gain an appreciation of his talent then just three may suffice. In The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) Douglas plays a ruthless Hollywood film producer in a story told largely in flashback. Three people: a top movie actress, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist turned screenwriter and a director, are brought together by a producer who tries to persuade them to collaborate with Douglas on a new project. Each refuses and takes their turn at excoriating a man they claim had ruined their lives. Ironically each is now at the top of their game as a consequence of his ruthlessness, a point which fails to alter their opinion of Douglas’s character. As the film nears its end, the prospect of a change of heart is dashed as the three reiterate their view. Then as the expected telephone call from Douglas to the producer is put through to another room, the actress slowly picks up the extension and begins to eavesdrop. Moments later she is joined by the two men: a superb ending to a picture which requires no further dialogue. The film won five Oscars and showed how Douglas could turn in a performance of great ruthlessness and charm.
A personal favourite is Paths of Glory (1957) directed by Stanley Kubrick. The description ‘anti-war picture’ has become a broad brush term but in this film it is wholly accurate. As one critic put it, ‘this is the kind of film which makes an audience angry’. The film is set in the First World War with Douglas playing Colonel Dax, an officer in the French army charged with the task of assaulting a heavily defended German position. A general’s career prospects are dependent upon the attack succeeding. Douglas listens with scarcely controlled fury as the general calculates the percentage of losses likely to be incurred at each stage of the attack, with ‘sufficient men remaining to hold the position’. When the attack fails a travesty of a court martial is held with three soldiers sentenced to death as an example to the others in the regiment. What follows is a firing squad scene with an additional element of ghastliness. Douglas plays an honourable man doing his best in a system so corrupt that he cannot hope to defend his men against their fate. The film is based on a true story and wasn’t shown in France until 1975.
Seven Days in May (1964) marked his fourth collaboration with Burt Lancaster. It concerns a plan to stage a military coup in the United States and constitutes an early example of the cold war thriller. Douglas plays a US Marines colonel, aide to Lancaster’s air force general James Mattoon Scott who has publicly criticised the president for having gone soft on the Commies by signing an arms reduction treaty. Both men were known for their explosive style of acting but interestingly, in this picture, Douglas does the quiet and thoughtful stuff whilst Lancaster is the man you wouldn’t want near nuclear weapons. In parts, it is like a military detective story with Douglas gradually picking up clues to what is afoot, before showing both ruthlessness and personal self-sacrifice to thwart the general’s plans. It ends with a showdown: a proven traitor being confronted by the man who was previously an admirer.
Sadly, we don’t always appreciate great film talents of the past even when they are still with us. Supported by well written scripts, the films of Kirk Douglas show us what cinema can do.
BILL HARTLEY, a former deputy governor in HM Prison Service, writes from Yorkshire