© Universal International
David Bowie, Umberto Eco, Prince, Michael Cimino, Gene Wilder, Edward Albee, Leonard Cohen… During 2016 the Grim Reaper has cut a swathe through the world’s great musical, literary and cinematic figures. At times the bodies were dropping so thick and fast that he didn’t seem to be using his scythe on the global arts community, but driving a combine harvester through it. And the year isn’t over yet. I just hope that for the remaining twenty days of 2016, Neil Young, Philip Roth and Robert De Niro are holed up somewhere safe with ample supplies of food, drink and antibiotics.
Therefore, with death all around, it’s nice to be able to report on a 2016 news story involving longevity. For yesterday saw the 100th birthday of dimple-jawed Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas.
During the late 1950s, it seemed that cinematically Kirk Douglas could do no wrong. (I’m not old enough to have seen his 1950s movies when they were released in the cinema, of course, but they never seemed to be off the TV when I was a kid in the 1970s.) As Ned the harpooner, he rescued James Mason from that pesky giant squid in Richard Fleischer’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954). As Vincent Van Gogh, he sawed off his own ear in Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life (1956). And as Doc Holliday, he overcame his tubercular cough to help out Burt Lancaster in John Sturges’s Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957).
He played a Norseman alongside Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine in Fleischer’s testosterone-charged, hardly-historically-accurate but thoroughly enjoyable The Vikings (1958). It’s Borgnine, not Douglas, who gets the film’s best line – after listening to treacherous English nobleman Lord Egbert (James Donald) describe the custom back home of dropping prisoners into a pit of ravenously hungry wolves, he exclaims, “You see? The English are civilised!” But an earlier retort by Douglas to Borgnine is pretty funny too: “Oh, stop shouting. You sound like a moose giving birth to a hedgehog.” The Vikings, though, isn’t all fun and games. Watching it as a kid, I was traumatised by the scene where Douglas loses an eye to Curtis’s very pecky pet falcon.
© United Artists
In 1960, of course, he played the leader of Rome’s rebellious slaves in Stanley Kubrick’s epic Spartacus. The film’s most moving and memorable scene is still surely the bane of the British police force on Saturday nights, when it has to deal with damage caused by a drunken stag parties / rugby clubs / gangs of engineering students. “All right. Will the person among you who broke the window identify himself, please?” “I’m Spartacus!” “I’m Spartacus!” “I’m Spartacus!” “I’m Spartacus!” Etc.
But it’s in another Kubrick movie from the same era, 1957’s Paths of Glory, that Douglas perhaps enjoys his finest hour. He plays Colonel Dax, a French officer trying to save three of his men when they’re court martialled for refusing to take part in a suicidal assault on a German position during World War I. The film’s historical and anti-military themes proved so controversial in France that it was denied a showing there until 1975.
After that, Kirk Douglas’s film roles were never quite as good again, although I’m partial to his turn in Anthony Mann’s tale of World War II Norwegian resistance fighters The Heroes of Telemark (1965), a movie that’s engrained on my memory because during the 1970s the BBC seemed to show it on TV every other week. And I like him in Burt Kennedy’s The War Wagon (1967), where he spends most of his time getting wound up by John Wayne. (“How are we going to take it? With the Prussian Army?” “With three other fellas. Five of us.” “Five. I’m kind of glad I didn’t kill you tonight. You’re funny as hell.”)
© Universal Pictures
Perhaps his last good film was Brian De Palma’s The Fury (1978). Still, afterwards, he managed to improve the quality of a couple of movies just by being in them – even though essentially those movies were puddings. I’m thinking of Don Taylor’s shonky fantasy The Final Countdown (1980) about a modern US aircraft carrier being catapulted back in time to the week before the attack on Pearl Harbour; and Stanley Donen’s sci-fi misfire Saturn 3 (1980), in which Douglas and Farah Fawcett are menaced by a killer robot that’s had Harvey Keitel’s libido programmed into it. (I suspect these days Martin Amis keeps it quiet that he wrote Saturn 3’s script.) Not even Kirk Douglas, though, could redeem Alberto De Martino’s Holocaust 2000 (1977), a British-Italian horror movie about nuclear power plants and the Antichrist that truly has to be seen to be believed.
He’s given great performances in some of the most robustly-entertaining movies that Hollywood has ever produced. Congratulations, Kirk, on reaching treble figures.