Friday, 9 December 2016
Remebering Kirk Douglas on HIs 100th Birthday
Given Kirk Douglas was still making films when I was born and would continue to do so well into my adulthood, he was one of the first actors of the Golden Age of whom I was aware. That having been said, as a child I did not identify him with such films as The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), Young Man with a Horn (1950), or The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). Instead I saw him as the star of boy's adventure movies. Earlier generations had Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, and Tyrone Power Jr. For older Generation Xers, our adventure star was Kirk Douglas.
Indeed, the first film in which I ever saw Kirk Douglas was based on one of the all-time great boy's adventure novels. He played Ned Land in Walt Disney's adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). It had everything a young boy could want: action, adventure, and even a submarine. What is more, it pitted Kirk Douglas against one of the all-time great villains, Captain Nemo played by James Mason. I loved 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as a kid, and it remains one of my favourite films to this day.
It would not be long before I would see Kirk Douglas in other films that would appeal to young boys. Spartacus (1960) may have had some important things to say about the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings and the civil rights movement, but to a lad not even in his teens it would simply a great adventure story. What could be better than Spartacus leading slaves in a rebellion against Rome?
Kirk Douglas seemed well suited to movies with swords in them. Two years before playing Spartacus in the movie of the same name, he played Einar in The Vikings (1958). Vikings, like pirates and cowboys, have held a fascination for entire generations of boys. Quite naturally I was drawn to the film. What could be better than a film with Vikings storming castles and plenty of swordplay. Of course, it also featured the beautiful Janet Leigh, although as a lad I would be loath to admit she was much of the film's appeal. The Vikings is not historically accurate, and I don't know if I would necessarily call it a classic, but it is a lot of fun.
Four years earlier Mr. Douglas also wielded a sword in Ulysses (1954). Ulysses is not necessarily a great movie, but it is a very enjoyable one. Kirk Douglas did very well in the title role, and there was plenty of action and adventure that most boys would enjoy. It was certainly successful. In fact, it was responsible for inspiring a whole string of Italian sword and sandal movies, such as the equally successful Hercules (1958), that would last into the Sixties.
Kirk Douglas did not wield a sword in every role he played in the Fifties. Sometimes he wielded a gun. As a kid growing up I loved Westerns, in large part because I think the Western was my parents' favourite genre. In fact, he appeared in one of the all time classic Westerns. Although it featured several historical inaccuracies, John Sturges's Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) remains one of the best films about the historic gunfight. Kirk Douglas co-starred in one of my favourite John Wayne Westerns in the Sixties. In the War Wagon (1967) he was Lomax, the gunfighter who helps Taw Jackson (played by Mr. Wayne) rob the wagon of the title. Over the years Kirk Douglas made several Westerns, including Along the Great Divide (1951), The Big Sky (1952), Man Without a Star (1955), and Last Train from Gun Hill (1959) among others.
I am sure today that in the various tributes to Mr. Douglas there will be much talk of his more serious roles. Critics and fans will discuss films like The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Champion, The Bad and the Beautiful, and Lust for Life. That having been said, when I think of Kirk Douglas, it is as the star of action/adventure films I remember from my childhood. While I will admit he did a fantastic job as Vincent Van Gogh and Lust for Life is a better movie than The Vikings, I am probably always going to think of him as Ned Land in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and as Einar in The Vikings. Regardless, Kirk Douglas having reached the centennial mark is certainly cause for celebration.