Kirk Douglas, one of the last icons of Hollywood's golden age, died this week at age 103. Before he became one of the most successful actors in Hollywood history, Douglas served in the U.S. Navy during World War II as a communications officer in anti-submarine warfare.
He was born Issur Danielovitch Demsky, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. He completed college and was studying acting in New York City when he enlisted after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
After the war, his career took off immediately, and he became one of the studios' go-to actors when they were looking for a virile tough guy. Of course, that meant Douglas made more than his share of war movies.
Here are six of his best.
1. Spartacus (1960)
Douglas plays a slave who leads a revolt against Rome in director Stanley Kubrick's film, best remembered for its epic battle scenes. The actor was one of the first stars to run his own production company, and he developed "Spartacus" after he lost the lead role in "Ben-Hur" to Charlton Heston.
Douglas hired the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and got the writer his first screen credit in 15 years (though Trumbo had actually won two Oscars during that time with work that was credited to other men acting as his front). This movie, about resistance against an unjust ruler, was the film that broke the blacklist for good.
"Spartacus" is available on Blu-ray and DVD. You can also rent or buy it from all the usual online Digital stores.
2. In Harm's Way (1965)
"In Harm's Way" is director Otto Preminger's fabulously soapy World War II drama set in Hawaii in the days after Pearl Harbor. John Wayne plays Capt. Rock Torrey, a maverick-y Navy man who loses command of his heavy cruiser for ignoring orders that would have prevented his ship from getting torpedoed by a Japanese submarine.
Douglas plays Wayne's XO Paul Eddington, whose career is on the verge of getting derailed because he's distracted by his wife Liz's escapades with Jody. Wayne has a difficult relationship with his son from his previous marriage now serving in the Navy (a plot twist familiar to fans of the 1976 "Midway") and has a torrid affair with Navy nurse Maggie Haynes (Patricia Neal).
Wayne returns to sea but not before Douglas is given command of his own ship. Douglas' character then rapes Wayne's son's fiancée and tries to redeem himself by commandeering a plane and going on a solo kamikaze mission.
Douglas (and his cleft chin and gritted teeth) somehow sell a story that's both morally dubious and over-the-top ridiculous. Everyone remembers his character's flaws but appreciates his sacrifice. Things turn out better for John Wayne, but they always do.
"In Harm's Way" is available on DVD. You can also rent or buy it from all the usual online Digital stores. It also turns up pretty regularly on the FX Movies channel if you want to set your DVR.
3. Seven Days in May (1964)
Ah, the Cold War. Director John Frankenheimer's "Seven Days in May" is based on a best-selling novel about a Pentagon plot to overthrow a president who's getting close to an arms deal with the Soviet Union in 1974.
Douglas plays Marine Corps Col. Martin "Jiggs" Casey, the ONE MAN who realizes that the Joint Chiefs of Staff is plotting a coup. Burt Lancaster is Air Force Gen. James Mattoon Scott, chairman of the Joint Chiefs and leader of the cabal. Ava Gardner plays Scott's mistress, and Frederic March is President Jordan Lyman.
It's a thriller, so no spoilers here. But you get the drift: It's May 1974, and Jiggs Casey has only a week to save the Republic. Tick, tick, tick.
"Seven Days in May" is available on Blu-ray and DVD. You can also rent or buy it from all the usual online Digital stores.
4. "Paths of Glory" (1957)
If you think "1917" is the greatest World War I movie, you need to see Stanley Kubrick's class "Paths of Glory." Kirk Douglas stars as French Army commander Col. Dax, whose men refuse orders to undertake a suicidal attack.
Dax must later defend his men in a court-martial proceeding. The entire point here is that the French command is decadent and corrupt and considers its ground troops to be expendable. Of course, the savagery of WWI combat is on trial here, as it is in every movie about the era.
Kirk is a brave man of principle, in sharp contrast to the cowardly, scheming careerists around him. He does his best for the troops he honors and stoically faces the reality of the carnage to come.
"Paths of Glory" is available on Blu-ray and DVD. You can also rent or buy it from all the usual online Digital stores.
5. The Hook (1963)
Douglas loved to play men who struggled with their consciences, and director George Seaton's Korean War thriller "The Hook" gave the actor one of his most challenging dilemmas.
Douglas is Sgt. Briscoe, on board a ship with troops who capture the pilot of an enemy plane that's been shot down. Ordered by headquarters to execute their prisoner, Briscoe and his men delay before realizing that they have to carry out orders or face charges themselves.
But, wait! The armistice is signed just in time to stop the execution. The prisoner is released, and you can guess what happens next. If it's not obvious to you, then you can watch this one and actually get a big surprise at the end.
"The Hook" is available on DVD. You can also rent or buy it from all the usual online Digital stores.
6. Cast a Giant Shadow (1966)
Douglas' Jewish identity was always a big part of his public profile, and he never got a better chance to put it to use than in "Cast a Giant Shadow." He plays Col. Mickey Marcus, a real-life American World War II veteran who goes to the new state of Israel to help set up the nation's Israel Defense Force.
His men are a motley assortment of refugees, and he's tasked with whipping them into battle shape to defend against what seem like certain Arab attacks. Because it was made in the '60s, it's melodramatic and epic and 2½ hours long. Douglas sets his jaw and powers through every resistance and incompetence he must face.
"Cast a Giant Shadow" is available on Blu-ray and DVD. You can also rent or buy it from all the usual online Digital stores.
If you're really into Kirk Douglas at this point, there are two more films that aren't streaming and are available only on DVD that you might want to check out.
Town Without Pity (1961)
"Town Without Pity" (1961) is a particularly bleak story of the military justice system. In the days after WWII, four American servicemen rape a local German girl. The incident is terrifying on its face but almost equally disturbing is how the movie presents it as something that just happens during a military occupation.
Douglas plays Maj. Steve Garrett, assigned to defend the four troops played by Frank Sutton (Gunny Vince Carter from "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C." in a terrifying role), Robert Blake (the "Baretta" guy who was later tried for allegedly killing his wife), Richard Jaeckel (Sgt. Bowren in "The Dirty Dozen") and Mal Sondock (a guy with a short career that you've never heard of).
Douglas tries to get the men a long term of hard labor instead of the death penalty and is forced to attack the victim even as he knows what he's doing is morally despicable -- but also required in his job as a defense attorney. There's no happy ending in a "Town Without Pity," but Gene Pitney's recording of the Oscar-nominated title song was a huge hit.
The Heroes of Telemark (1965)
"The Heroes of Telemark" (1965) is director Anthony Mann's WWII drama about the Norwegian resistance to Nazi occupation. The Vemork Norsk Hydro plant was manufacturing the heavy water that Germany needed to complete its development of the atomic bomb.
Douglas plays a Norwegian physics professor who's dragged into the fight against the Nazis and becomes a leader of the crew determined to blow up the plant. Since this story was based on real-life events, the actual tale is a bit more complicated than the heist movie plot might suggest. Still, the movie remains the greatest tribute to one of WWII's most undertold stories.
Of course, Douglas starred in dozens of other outstanding non-military movies. Vincente Minnelli's "The Bad and the Beautiful" (1952), Billy Wilder's "Ace in the Hole" (1951), Brian De Palma's "The Fury" (1978), David Miller's "Lonely Are the Brave" (1962), Richard Fleischer's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" (1954) and Jacques Tourneur's "Out of the Past" (1947) are some of the greatest movies ever made, and Douglas played a key role in every one.