Modern audiences may know Kirk Douglas best as the father of Academy Award-winning actor Michael Douglas, but devout historians of the movies may also know him by another name: “Spartacus.” That epic cinematic hero was just one of the many iconic roles that defined the prolific acting career of Kirk Douglas, who passed away of natural causes on February 5, 2020, at the age of 103.
While the screen legend had not acted in 16 years before his death, Kirk Douglas’ career was almost cut short even earlier after he suffered a stroke in 1996 that badly affected his speech, but even that did not stop him from starring in films for several more years. It was his passion after all, and something that the three-time Academy Award-nominee was certainly good at.
As a tribute to this Golden God of cinema, who received an honorary Oscar in 1996, we take a look back at some of his brightest moments on film, for which he will remain immortal. These are just some of the best Kirk Douglas movies to check out.
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954)
Like father, like son. Decades before Michael Douglas took on the role of Hank Pym in the MCU film Ant-Man, his dad became a member of the Disney clan, too, this time by playing the lead of this classic adventure film that would even inspire a Disneyland ride that would later close in 1996.
Based on the 1870 literary classic by French novelist Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea stars Kirk Douglas as Ned Land, a professional whaler who joins an expedition to find and destroy a rumored treacherous sea beast, only to discover that their target is really the Nautilus: a highly advanced submarine commanded by the nefarious Captain Nemo (James Mason). This blockbuster took home two Academy Awards for Art Direction and Special Effects, which were well-deserved for, even after nearly 70 years, it still looks way ahead of its time.
Gunfight At The O.K. Corral (1957)
During Hollywood’s Golden Age, it was practically a requirement to star in a western to be certified as a movie star. Kirk Douglas actually starred in several of them, including Howard Hawks’ The Big Sky and the romantic Along the Great Divide to name a few, before appearing as the iconic, real-life gunfighter Doc Holliday in director John Sturges’ iconic masterpiece.
Burt Lancaster also stars in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral as the legendary Wyatt Earp, looking to set aside his career as a lawman and retire in Tombstone, Arizona, until a conflict with local outlaws forces him to enlist the help of Kirk Douglas’ Doc Holliday, a dying gambler, with in a wild, titular shootout against his adversaries. Nominated for two Academy Awards, this star-studded western based on true events is one of the most inspirational and often referenced films of its kind.
Paths Of Glory (1957)
In the same year that he participated in an iconic fight in the western America, Kirk Douglas led an army into a hellish fight in western Germany. World War I drama Paths of Glory centers on soldiers in the French army who are ordered by their power-hungry general to spring an attack on their Germany army, despite the fatal outcome it is certain to bring.
Kirk Douglas gives a moving performance as Col. Dax, reluctant to accept his general's order, but is left with no other choice to hope that he can protect his men, whom he must defend when they are accused of cowardice. Director Stanley Kubrick is known for his unique takes on war, ranging from pure absurdist satire in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb to observation of the dehumanizing effects of violent conflict in Full Metal Jacket, but in Paths of Glory, he uses this true story as vehicle to comment on the topic of war as a competition for power, even within the same side of the trench.
One of cinema’s most prominent and definitive epics saw Kirk Douglas in his second collaboration with director Stanley Kubrick after 1957’s World War I drama Paths of Glory. This film, adapted from Howard Fast’s fact-based novel by prolific screenwriter Donald Trumbo, depicted a more savage breed of war in Rome, 73 B.C.
Kirk Douglas plays the title role of Spartacus, a Thracian slave who leads a revolt against the Roman Republic that treats his people like dehumanized pawns for their gladiatorial games, facing an army led by General Marcus Licinius Crassus (Sir Laurence Olivier) in the process. Spartacus, a Best Picture Golden Globe-winning box office hit that later inspired a hit television series on Starz, is often remembered best for an iconic scene in which Douglas’ enslaved brethren come to the defense of the persecuted hero by claiming to be him when Roman soldiers ask for him by name.
Seven Days In May (1964)
When combined with the previous films mentioned on this list, Paths of Glory and Spartacus, one could refer to Seven Days in May as a third in a virtual trilogy of films starring Kirk Douglas that focus on the topic of power struggles in war. Instead of focusing on a specific time in history, this film imagines a cataclysmic threat to humanity set in the present (at that point, the 1960s).
It is the height of the Cold War, and the unpopular U.S. President Lyman (Fredric March) has signed a U.S. disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union, much to the chagrin of General Scott (Burt Lancaster). Kirk Douglas plays Col. Martin "Jiggs" Casey, who begins to uncover an impending plot to overthrow the president out of suspicion of a Russian attack in this high stakes, impressively timely political thriller.
While we may have reached the end of Kirk Douglas’ time with us on this earth, this could also mark the beginning of a new generation of admirers for the screen legend as people begin to discover his most memorable endeavors for the first. We hope this modest list of recommendations is a good start.