Kirk Douglas: A Painter, a Gambler and a Warrior

8 Feb

Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas died on February 5, 2020, at the age of 103. I’ve seen 45 of his 74 movies. In a nearly 60-year film career, he made more than his share of classics. My favorites include THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946), OUT OF THE PAST (1947), ALONG THE GREAT DIVIDE (1949), YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN (1950), ACE IN THE HOLE (1951), DETECTIVE STORY (1951), THE BIG SKY (1952), LUST FOR LIFE (1956), GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL (1957), PATHS OF GLORY (1957), THE VIKINGS (1958), SPARTACUS (1960), THE LAST SUNSET (1961), LONELY ARE THE BRAVE (1962), SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (1964), IN HARM’S WAY (1965), HOLOCAUST 2000 (1977), and THE FURY (1978). Among the great directors he worked with were Lewis Milestone, Jacques Tourneur, Raoul Walsh, Michael Curtiz, Billy Wilder, William Wyler, Howard Hawks, Vincente Minnelli, King Vidor, John Sturges, Richard Fleischer, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Aldrich, John Huston, John Frankenheimer, Otto Preminger, Anthony Mann, Martin Ritt, Elia Kazan, Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Brian De Palma. That’s quite a record.

My all-time favorite Douglas films, each of which I’ve seen multiple times, remain these three and I’ve decided to focus exclusively on them for this piece:





Getting his third (and last) Academy Award nomination, Douglas portrays the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh in a film directed by Vincente Minnelli and based on Irving Stone’s best-selling biographical novel. It dramatizes most of the arc of van Gogh’s adult life, from his stint as a missionary in Belgium for a sect known as “Messengers of the Faith,” through his years in France as a struggling painter and friend of French Impressionists, to his stay in a psychiatric hospital and his eventual death by self-inflicted gunshot.

Douglas was the perfect actor to enact van Gogh’s obsessive behavior, his almost psychotic devotion to his art, his social awkwardness and his neediness towards those close to him. We see this right at the start when Vincent is assigned to minister to a poverty-stricken coal-mining Belgian community and realizes he can’t do it adequately unless he is living like his embittered congregants and is soon immersed in squalor, scandalizing his superiors and forcing them to revoke the assignment, even though he seems to understand his mission better than they do.

Years later, while living in Arles, Vincent is joined by Paul Gauguin (Anthony Quinn, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for this film), who has come to paint with him, He is overjoyed to have a friend and companion who understands his love of painting and with whom he can share his ideas and painting adventures, but eventually Gauguin is repulsed by Vincent’s clinging behavior and finally storms out, leaving Vincent so anguished that he slices off part of his ear.

I’ve seen lots of films about artists and this is by far my favorite, truly capturing the emotional essence of a great artist’s all-consuming relationship to his art, both the greatness it achieves in its results and the toll it takes on a man’s ability to function in the real world. We see a lot of painting being done amidst splendid recreations of the scenery and farm life that inspired van Gogh, filmed on the actual locations, and we see a lot of actual van Gogh paintings, all underscored by a magnificent soundtrack by Miklos Rozsa. It’s an art lover’s dream. With help from a haircut, hair dye and a slight makeup job, Douglas looks enough like van Gogh to enable the production to use van Gogh’s own self-portraits among the many actual van Gogh paintings borrowed for the film.

There’s an amusing story about how this film was received by a future co-star of Douglas’s, as recounted in Douglas’ memoir, The Ragman’s Son:

Van Gogh made an impression on others. There was a private screening of Lust for Life; quite a few members of the industry attended.  We had a dinner party later at Merle Oberon’s house. John Wayne was there. He kept looking at me. We had not worked together yet. He seemed upset. He had a drink in one hand, motioned to me with the other.  Out on the terrace, he berated me. “Christ, Kirk! How can you play a part like that? There’s so goddamn few of us left. We got to play strong, tough characters. Not those weak queers.”

I tried to explain. ”Hey, John, I’m an actor. I like to play interesting roles. It’s all make-believe, John. It isn’t real. You’re not really John Wayne, you know.”

He just looked at me oddly. I had betrayed him. I took it as a compliment; the picture had moved him, or at least disturbed him. I understand that—Van Gogh disturbed me, too.

John Wayne, Kirk Douglas in THE WAR WAGON (1967)


Douglas’ next production, directed by John Sturges, is my second favorite of his films. Douglas plays dentist-turned-gambler Doc Holliday to Burt Lancaster’s lawman, Wyatt Earp, the second of five starring films they would appear in together. (Lancaster had made his film debut the same year as Douglas and became a star around the same time; their first co-starring gig, I WALK ALONE was the fourth film for each of them.) Douglas observes the unwritten law of the Hollywood west that Doc Holliday must steal every film he appears in. (Think TOMBSTONE, 1993.) Although Douglas seems as robust as ever in the film’s opening scenes, he has to convince the audience that his character was, like the real Holliday, quite sick with consumption, so he erupts into coughing fits every so often, one of which is so bad he winds up bedridden on the night before the title gunfight, forcing Earp to display, for the first time, serious distress and prompting him to plead with Holliday at his bedside, “Doc, I need you.” Needless to say, come the morning dawn, Doc is up and ready for the showdown, declaring his insistence on helping “the only friend I ever had.”

The hard-drinking Holliday has the most dramatic confrontations in the film, starting with an early scene where he is forced into a showdown with revenge-seeker Ed Bailey (played by Lee Van Cleef), despite the fact that both men have been disarmed by the local sheriff. Bailey pulls a derringer from his boot as Holliday pulls out a switchblade and throws it into Bailey’s chest before he can fire accurately.

Later, when Earp confronts a band of rowdy cowboys in Dodge City, he stands alone against them, unarmed until Holliday, whose winning streak at a blackjack game was unceremoniously interrupted by the cowboys’ gunfire, bursts in, pulls out his own gun, snatches a pistol from one of the cowboys and tosses it to Earp, effectively evening the odds. When the cowboys’ leader, Shanghai Pierce (Ted De Corsia) threatens to rush them, Earp declares that Pierce will get the first bullet while Holliday addresses his rival, Pierce’s sidekick Johnny Ringo (John Ireland), “And you’re next, Ringo!” The cowboys decide to drop their pistols.

Later, in Tombstone, Ringo confronts Holliday and humiliates him, knowing he’s promised Earp no gunplay, until Holliday breaks down and accepts his challenge. Earp’s brother Virgil (John Hudson) pleads privately with Holliday to leave town so as not to turn the townsfolk against Earp and Holliday reluctantly agrees to, until his coughing fit derails his plans. Holliday also has a number of violent clashes with his ostensible girlfriend and traveling companion, Kate Fisher (Jo Van Fleet), who frequently leaves him for Ringo. Their love-hate relationship is quite brutal at times.

In the course of the film, Holliday drinks, gambles, kills people, brushes off Earp’s early attempts at friendship, and roughs up Kate. Earp, in contrast, comes off as quite a straight-arrow throughout, prompting Holliday to refer to him as “Preacher” at times. The two actors, Lancaster and Douglas, close in age, both physically fit, and both given to intense screen performances, made a most charismatic screen duo and they certainly fit the larger-than-life characters they play in this enduring western myth.


Douglas is at his most physical in this action-packed historical epic of pillage and plunder as the Vikings raid the English coast in the 9th century and cause all sorts of trouble. It’s also a familial saga involving Viking chief Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine), his warrior son Einar (Douglas), and a son he didn’t know about who is the result of his rape of an English queen in the opening scene. This son, Eric (Tony Curtis), winds up, by some strange coincidence, as a slave in Ragnar’s village. The two unwitting half-brothers have a violent confrontation early on that prompts Eric to send his falcon to attack Einar, taking out an eye and disfiguring the handsome Viking prince, thus prompting Einar’s vow of revenge, which takes the entire film to reach its culmination. Eventually, they both fall in love with a captured Welsh princess, Morgana (Janet Leigh), and battle to the death atop an English castle.

Douglas is at the peak of his powers here and engages in all manner of physical derring-do on what turned out to be an arduous location shoot in Norway, as seen in breathtaking vistas captured by cinematographer Jack Cardiff.  In one celebrated scene, Douglas enacts a Viking ritual of celebration after a successful raid by running along the outstretched oars of the ship, leaping from one oar to the other and then going over to the other side to run along its oars and then back up the first side. It’s quite an impressive stunt and he does it entirely himself.

Later on, in the climactic raid on the English castle, he does a lot of his own climbing stunts and engages in a vicious swordfight with Curtis on a precarious tower high above the castle grounds. No stuntmen, no camera tricks, no fakery.

The three stars—Douglas, Curtis, Borgnine–play well off each other and the rivalry between the two half-brothers over Morgana is enhanced by the simple fact that the actress, Janet Leigh, was Curtis’ wife at the time. (Their actress daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, was born not long after THE VIKINGS was released.) Douglas plays another unlikeable character, but one that draws our interest because of his vulnerability, thanks to his disfigurement, his lust for revenge and his obsessive desire for Morgana, who views him with disdain but also refuses to resist, leaving him thoroughly frustrated until Eric sneaks up on him and knocks him out and takes her back to England, thus winning her love for himself and spurring Einar’s further campaign of vengeance. James Donald, who played van Gogh’s brother Theo in LUST FOR LIFE, plays the traitorous Lord Egbert, an English noble working with the Vikings who is the first to realize the secret of Eric’s noble birth.

The plot is standard adventure potboiler material, but the on-location production (and studio shooting in Germany) is so removed from the usual Hollywood gloss and so filled with authentic-looking Vikings and their customs and lore, not to mention the grand action and adventure on display, that it never fails to engage the viewer. The director, Richard Fleischer, had previously directed Douglas in the Walt Disney production, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954), below:

The first Douglas movie I ever saw was THE LAST SUNSET (1961), seen in a theater in 1962 and followed two years later by SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (1964). The last new Douglas releases I saw in theaters were THE FURY (1978) and SATURN 3 (1980). The last Douglas movie I saw in a theater was the restored SPARTACUS in 1991.

Douglas with Rock Hudson in THE LAST SUNSET:

Douglas in a highly unusual pose from THE FURY:

I first wrote about GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL here and here. I wrote about IN HARM’S WAY here. I wrote about OUT OF THE PAST here. Here’s what I wrote elsewhere about the Douglas-Robert Mitchum pairing in the latter film:

Douglas, in only his third film, tried to steal scenes from Mitchum by moving around and pumping up the volume in their scenes together, but Mitchum, already making his 33rd film, very calmly and shrewdly stole them back by underplaying and lowering the volume.

Among the Douglas movies I haven’t seen that seem the most intriguing are these three:


One Response to “Kirk Douglas: A Painter, a Gambler and a Warrior”

  1. Bill Baldwin February 8, 2020 at 8:20 PM #

    Good stuff, Brian. Spartacus, The Vikings, Ace in the Hole, Paths of Glory, and Gunfight at the OK Corral are my favorites. I also wonder whether Anthony Quinn would have ever launched to stardom without Douglas demanding that DeLaurentiis hire him to co-star in Ulysses back in 1953. This led to Quinn’s starring in Attila, which triggered La Strada by total chance. La Strada cemented Quinn’s status in the US and led to a second Best Supporting Actor Oscar (for only 8 minutes of screen time), when Kirk again demanded him for “Lust for Life”.

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