Tag Archives: Kirk Douglas

SIX OF THE BEST #36 – FILM UNDERDOGS!

Why the canine is considered to be the appropriate animal to represent a character who overcomes great loss and adversity is fascinating. On further digging one will find that etymological history of the term, Underdog, derives from the second half of the 19th century, where its first meaning was “the beaten dog in a fight”. Two dogs fight and the losing one is the underdog. Quite simple and obvious really. It makes sense then that the term has also been used in sporting and filmic language down the years. Here the underdog is a team or individual who faces an insurmountable opponent where defeat is most likely. To then gain victory against the odds makes the winning oh so much sweeter and glorious.

So, for my occasional Six of the Best series I’d like to explore and list some of the finest underdogs from cinema. I’d also like to consider certain conventions from within this subgenre. Clearly, I could just choose six films about sport, so I am going to work a bit harder and provide some less obvious choices too. Hope you agree.

** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS **


ROCKY (1976) – The individual underdog!

The individual underdog is synonymous with sporting films. Cinderella Man (2005), Eddie the Eagle (2015), Rudy (1993) and The Karate Kid (1984) are just some of the fine narratives which have used the individual overcoming the odds to triumph. Obviously, though the greatest of all time is Stallone’s working-class journeyman, Rocky Balboa, rising up from the gutters of Philadelphia to seeing stars and finding love in the ring. Reflected in Rocky’s incredible journey is Stallone’s own underdog story of a struggling actor, who had to sell his dog, wrote a brilliant script, determined to play the lead, earned his break and became one of the biggest film stars of a generation.


REMEMBER THE TITANS (2000) – the team underdog!

Like the individual underdog sports film, cinema is brimming with crowd pleasers about a bunch of unlikely oddballs or losers joining forces to steal victory from the jaws of defeat. Usually, the team underdogs will overcome singular divisions, while learning about themselves to find formidable communal fighting spirit. The Bad News Bears (1976), The Mighty Ducks (1990), The Longest Yard (1974/2005), Miracle (2004) and the aptly named Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004) are but a few of these excellent team films. However, Remember the Titans (2000) is one of the most powerful sporting team movies featuring Denzel Washington as T. C. Williams High School coach, Herman Boone, whose team not only overcomes sporting obstacles, but political ones including institutional racism and widespread bigotry outside and within the school system.


NIGHTCRAWLER (2014) – the villain as underdog!

Here’s a character which is incredibly difficult to write and even more problematic to define due to the paradoxical nature of their personality. If you’re doing bad things can you be considered an underdog? I mean is the underdog’s victory earned and can an audience root for the villain? I think one of the greatest underdogs and most unreliable of protagonists is Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects (1995). But he was a trickster, genius and fake underdog. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom tops Verbal for me. At the start of the film, Nightcrawler (2014), he has absolutely nothing. But his conniving, planning and preparedness to go the extra mile and expand his media business via sabotage and eventually murder are an unforgettably dark underdog journey.


CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011) – the superhero underdog!

The superhero genre staple for both heroes and villains often finds a character acquiring by accident, fate or design abilities which transform them into beings of immense and fantastic power. The likes of Superman, Thor, and Wonder Woman are god-like superheroes, however, the likes of Steve Rogers, as Captain America, grew from humbler beginnings. Rogers is an admirable underdog because he doesn’t like bullies, his character never knew when he was beaten, he comes from working-class stock and he’s an anachronism as character tension comes from not fitting into the present. Rogers is not a god or scientist or billionaire, but the little guy with a big heart who becomes a hero.


ERIN BROCKOVICH (2000) – the legal underdog!

It’s a sad indictment of humanity and the capitalist system that there are so many films showing the evil wrongs corporations have perpetuated against people and the environment. Dark Waters (2019), Silkwood (1983), Class Action (1991) and Erin Brockovich (2000) are but a few of such stories where individuals fight against an unjust legal system which strives to protect the rich and powerful from accepting responsibility for the heinous damage they have wreaked. Erin Brockovich is an especially positive example of an individual who, despite her lack of education in the law, was instrumental in building a case against Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) involving underground contamination. Brockovich also overcame sexist attitudes in the workplace too which placed certain judgements on the way she behaved and dressed. Brilliantly portrayed by Julia Roberts in the film, Erin Brockovich is a true underdog hero of a generation.


SPARTACUS (1960) – the epic underdog!

Having recently read Kirk Douglas’ enlightening memoir, I Am Spartacus!: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist, I have to say it is one of the most excellent books about filmmaking and politics I have experienced. Douglas took up the cause of underdog screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who having served prison time for refusing to name names to the Joseph McCarthy led House of Un-American Activities Committee, was blacklisted in Hollywood. Writing under a series of fake names, Trumbo scribed the screenplay to the epic Spartacus (1960), with Douglas as the eponymous hero who rises up from slave to Gladiator to leader, defeating the Romans in many battles before dying a martyr. One can see Trumbo’s underdog fight reflected in Spartacus’ epic journey and the fact that Douglas eventually placed Trumbo’s name in the credits of the film was testament to his powerful writing and unjust treatment by the nefarious American government.

PATHS OF GLORY (1957) – CLASSIC FILM REVIEW

PATHS OF GLORY (1957) – CLASSIC FILM REVIEW

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Thomas Gray, 1751

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Stanley Kubrick is the greatest filmmaker who ever lived. That is a fact.  He made films in all genres but indelibly stamped his own genius on the war, comedy, thriller, horror, satire, crime, science-fiction, historical and drama films he adapted and created for the big screen. His work contains a litany of iconic images, searing soundtracks, stupendous performances, great intelligence and provocative thought which ensures his films linger in the memory of those who have witnessed them. All hail a true cinematic master.

Paths of Glory (1957) was Kubrick’s fourth feature film and certainly his biggest budget film to date. His previous film had been a B-movie crime masterpiece called The Killing (1956), which meticulously examined the planning, progression and aftermath of a racetrack robbery. Using a documentary style and surgically precise narrative structure The Killing is indicative of Kubrick’s subsequent ability to reinvigorate a genre with his masterly eye. However, Paths of Glory was, emotionally speaking, even more powerful than The Killing.

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The story is set in France, 1916, during the heated battle and burning mud of WW1 trench warfare. World War I is rightly (and then wrongly) thought of as the war to end all wars with millions of soldiers and civilians losing their lives in a coruscating damned hellish indictment against humanity. As if the incredible number of deaths between the warring factions were not enough the powers-that-be would also shoot their own men for cowardice and desertion believing this to be “good for morale” or at very least a warning to those who refuse the fight. This is the frankly insane setting for this formidable dramatic tale.

The main action concerns the court martial of four men chosen, apparently, at random to face a firing squad following a botched attack on a key enemy position called the ’Anthill’. War is a desperate prison even at the best of times but here the men are shown as broken, battered, starving, shell-shocked and on their knees spiritually even before the attack. When the suicide mission unsurprisingly flounders, ambitious and sociopathic General Mireau – portrayed with venal glee by George Macready – proclaims death to all who failed the glory of France. The seemingly more reasonable, yet equally poisonous Major General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) lowers the numbers to be shot in a chilling scene that reduces human life to no more than barbaric bulls-at-a-market bartering.

The voice of reason amidst all this insanity is Kirk Douglas’ former-lawyer Colonel Dax; who himself was part of the failed raid on the ‘Anthill’ and could testify to the impossibility of the task. Dax is the audience’s conduit to the madness of those in charge; from the: choosing of one soldier by lots; the farcical trial and even the final execution where one unconscious soldier is woken up only to be shot dead moments later. Douglas is imperious in the role demonstrating a range of emotions from incredulity, despair, anger and a powerful sense of the righteousness. The final heart-breaking scene where he gives his men a few more minutes listening to the folk song tells us Dax is a sane man in an insane world run by psychopaths. The song is delivered hauntingly by the captured German girl (the actress Christine Harlan was later to become Kubrik’s wife) to men who are destined to die in the barbed-wire brutality of war.

Kubrick’s work (Barry Lyndon, Dr Strangelove, Clockwork Orange to name a few) is full of damning critiques of the upper classes, high falutin politicians and war-mongering men who use the working or lower classes to do their filthy bidding. In this film they are represented by Menjou’s politically-driven Broulard who sits comfortably in his Chateau quaffing wine and scissoring quail; all the while brave men are skewered in battle. Full of tragedy, wicked satire and black humour the screenplay based on Humphrey Cobb’s novel is eighty-eight minutes of sheer cinematic perfection, power and heartwrenching injustice and emotion.

Quite rightly Paths of Glory has been proclaimed a masterpiece and one of the greatest anti-war films of all time. Filled with the now-iconic tracking shots of bloody battle, plus many tremendous performances notably Macready, Menjou, Douglas and the scene-stealing, druggy sop that is Timothy Carey. Overall, I have watched this classic many times when young and having seen it on the big screen at the BFI recently I can testify that it has lost NONE of its grandstanding power. Forget the insipid blockbusters of today and revisit the master of cinema where and when you can: his name is Stanley Kubrick.