The Good, The Bad and The Badass: Kirk Douglas

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

Last week, we took a look at Michael Douglas, who's been making incredible movies for four decades now. But, if you think that's impressive, consider his father, who's quickly closing in on his 100th birthday, and whose career we're celebrating this week…

Kirk Douglas

kirk douglas friend 20000 leagues under the seas

Kirk Douglas is without a doubt one of the great stars of the twentieth century. For those of you who may not be classic film buffs (yet), you may only know him as the kindly old man from various award shows and retrospectives to his son, who carried on the family legacy through the last part of the 20th century and beyond. Don't be mistaken – up until Douglas' stroke in 1997 he was an enduring, ultra macho figure with a long history as a superstar.

kirk douglas the vikings

Kirk Douglas got started after WW2, playing mostly cads or villains in his early films, including film noir classics like OUT OF THE PAST, I WALK ALONE and THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS. Following a star-making turn in the boxing melodrama CHAMPION (essentially the RAGING BULL of its era) Douglas became a major star, working as a leading man for the next forty years or so. Like his son Michael, Douglas was adept at many genres. While nowadays mostly known for his historical epics like SPARTACUS, PATHS OF GLORY, and THE VIKINGS (a crazy tough movie for its era where Douglas sports a gnarly milked-over fake eye), Douglas also excelled at thrillers (including one of the first political paranoia yarns – SEVEN DAYS IN MAY – about a coup to overthrow the president), westerns (GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K CORRAL – where he played arguably the best Doc Holiday ever) and even sci-fi (THE FURY & SATURN 3) which his son Michael has yet to try. Truly, he's had one of the great Hollywood careers.

His Best Film

kirk douglas paths of glory

A strong case could be made for either of Kirk Douglas' Stanley Kubrick epics. For those not in the know, Douglas essentially discovered Kubrick, hiring him to direct PATHS OF GLORY and giving him total creative control – virtually unheard of for a novice director. Together, they made arguably the grittiest war film of its era, one-up'ing ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, with their brutal take on WW1 trench warfare and the political machinations that went in to choosing which battles to fight. It's strong, sobering stuff.

kirk douglas spartacus

Yet, when it comes down to it I'd wager Douglas' best film – and certainly the one he's best known for – is SPARTACUS. Again, this is a movie that has to be looked at in context. For one thing, period epics of the era always tended to be religious, and Douglas' great film was the first to buck that trend, with God not being mentioned once in SPARTACUS, instead giving us a thoughtful, violent, and modern look at the roman empire and the ugliness involved with its use of slaves. Now, Kubrick deservedly gets a lot of credit for this, but in this case I'd argue Douglas is the film's true author. For one thing, Kubrick was the second director, replacing Anthony Mann (who went on to do another movie with Douglas later – THE HEROES OF TELEMARK). A lot of it came down to Dalton Trumbo's literate script, with Douglas sticking his neck out in a big way hiring the blacklisted writer (this was the height of the 'red scare') and essentially breaking the black list (Bryan Cranston is actually starring as Trumbo in an upcoming biopic based on the event). In the end, SPARTACUS has stood the test of time, and Douglas turn as the titular hero will never, even be forgotten.

His Most Underrated Films

kirk douglas ace in the hole

Kirk Douglas' career almost ended before it began when he signed on to do Billy Wilder's ACE IN THE HOLE. A pitch-black satire of the media, Douglas plays a journalist who's so unscrupulous that he makes Michael's Gordon Gekko look like Mother Teresa in comparison. He plays a guy banished from his big city paper to a small town where he orchestrates a media circus centered around a trapped miner, whose plight he mercilessly exploits. It was way too strong for 1950, but it holds up magnificently, with directors like Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee going on record about how it influenced their work. Lee even recorded an intro for the recent Criterion DVD/Blu-ray.

kirk douglas burt lancaster tough guys

Another movie of Douglas' I've always had a soft spot for is 1986's TOUGH GUYS. A goofy eighties comedy, it's bittersweet in that it was the last time he worked with his best-pal Burt Lancaster, who suffered a crippling stroke shortly after. It's a pretty good little movie, with the two playing cons who get released after a thirty year stretch only to find themselves totally out of sorts in 1980's America. One great scene has Douglas and Lancaster get mugged by a gang of 80s-toughs (who stand around playing with knives and listening to Janet Jackson's 'Nasty Boys' over and over) who they quickly disarm and embarrass. Two minutes later they foil a bank robbery. The two guys had amazing chemistry, and Douglas, at seventy, still had a crazy physique, with him getting plenty of opportunities to show off his Stallone-like biceps. It's a great little movie, if dated in that kind of 1980's kind of way (particularly in that staple of eighties comedies – the makeover scene).

His Most Overrated Film

kirk douglas oscar

Overall Douglas has had a pretty rock solid career, with very few flops and nary a bad performance in the lot. Maybe the worst he's been was his cameo in the ill-conceived screwball comedy OSCAR, where John Landis tried to turn Sylvester Stallone into an Edward G. Robinson kind of funny tough guy. Yeah, it didn't work. Douglas is no worse than anyone else, but his quick scene here shows you why he didn't do more comedy (although years later he was pretty funny on THE SIMPSONS as the creator of Itchy & Scratchy).

His Most Memorable Scene

There are two scenes in SPARTACUS that are absolute classics. The first is the sequence where Douglas and Woody Strode are forced to fight to the death to entertain Laurence Olivier and some Roman aristocrats. The second is a devastating battle where Douglas' Spartacus is forced to fight Tony Curtis' sensitive poet Antoninus to the death. What makes this a chilling scene is that each man is trying to spare the other a slow death by crucifixion. It's a duel where them trying to kill each other is actually an act of deep love and devotion. While I'm probably more moved by the second, it's obvious that the first is the scene the movie's particularly known for, and it's also pretty big of Kirk to allow himself to actually lose a fight. I know that sounds like a small thing but when's the last time you saw Stallone or Schwarzenegger lose a fight?

His Ten Best Films


Up Next

At ninety-nine, Kirk Douglas is deservedly kicking back and enjoying his retirement, although he still shows up now and them to talk about his movies on TCM or in interviews. All told, he looks pretty good for a guy who's closing in on 100.


About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.