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The Top 10 Richard Harris Films

By Martin Keady · June 10, 2015

Richard Harris is probably the greatest Irish screen actor. Peter O’Toole was half-British and half-Irish, while Daniel Day Lewis only became Irish later in life (prompting his old friends to joke that they had known him “before he was Irish”), but Harris, even when he was playing the great scourge of the Irish, Oliver Cromwell, was always quintessentially Irish, equally adept at comedy, tragedy and song, sometimes in the same film. Like most film stars, he made a lot of bad films (as his contemporary, Michael Caine, put it, “Sometimes you have to make a low standard of film to sustain a high standard of living”), but he also made several great ones, as exemplified by his Top 10.

10. ORCA: THE KILLER WHALE

(1977, Directed by Michael Anderson, Written by Luciano Vincenzoni and Sergio Donati)

There are some films that are so bad they’re good, and then there is Orca: The Killer Whale, which is so awful it’s magnificent! The ultimate JAWS rip-off (supposedly, it was inspired by producer Dino De Laurentis seeing Spielberg’s blockbuster and wondering if there was an underwater predator that was even deadlier underwater than a shark), Orca was a rare mid-career starring vehicle for Harris as Captain Nolan, the fisherman who simultaneously hunts Orca and identifies with him, most poignantly (or risibly, depending on your point of view) when he recounts that his own wife and child had been killed by a drunk driver, just as he himself had inadvertently killed Orca’s own mate and child, thus setting in train the whole unlikely marine revenge-tragedy.

It is, of course, easy to mock, but in its own ridiculous way Orca, and Harris’s performance in it, are astonishing, if only for Harris’s ability to keep going in the face of such an implausible story. (The makers of JAWS were careful never to anthropomorphise the titular Great White.) And there is also some underlying majesty, in the beautiful Canadian scenery and in Nolan’s own “back-story” as an exiled Irishman who dreams of returning home. Besides, Harris isn’t the only great cinematic talent associated with this grand folly: in addition to De Laurentis himself, who produced such classics as Serpico, Three Days of the Condor and Blue Velvet, the script was allegedly rewritten by Robert Towne himself, the writer of Chinatown. Orca’s no Chinatown, but because of Harris and the sheer, crazily ridiculous brilliance of the script, it is certainly worth seeing.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DRBIdo5KEJQ]

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9. HARRY POTTER: PARTS I AND II 

(aka The Philosopher’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets, 2001 and 2002 respectively, both Directed by Chris Columbus and Written by Steve Kloves, based on the books by J.K. Rowling)

Harris was the original on-screen Albus Dumbledore, before his death necessitated his replacement as the Hogwarts Headmaster by Michael Gambon, and for most younger viewers it is the role he is most famous for. As the archetypal wizened wizard, Harris was perfect, and never more so than in the scene at the end of the first film when he informs Harry that the philosopher’s stone has been destroyed to prevent it from being possessed by Voldemort, even though that means its ability to convey immortality has also been destroyed. When Harry realises that that means that the philosopher himself, Nicolas Flamel, is doomed to die, Dumbledore consoles him by saying that, for old people such as himself, death at the end of a long life comes like sleep at the end of a long day. It is a simple but truly magical scene, perhaps the most single memorable scene in all the Potter books and films, and on screen much of its success is due to Harris’s beautifully understated delivery.

8. GLADIATOR

(2000, Directed by Ridley Scott and Written by David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson)

There was always something imperial about Richard Harris (that strong nose appeared as much Roman as Irish) and in Gladiator he finally got to play an Emperor, in fact arguably the Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, the Emperor-Philosopher whose meditations remain enduringly popular. Harris captured that wistful quality perfectly even in his brief time on screen, before he was murdered by his vengeful and vindictive son, Commodus, played by Joaquin Phoenix (in the role that allowed him to escape from the long shadow cast by his older brother River).

Harris’s cameo performance in Gladiator is often forgotten because of that by another great hell- raiser of his era, Oliver Reed, as a slave-owner and gladiator-trainer. (Reed, of course, famously died before filming was complete and had to be “resurrected” on screen by the wonders of CGI.) Nevertheless, Harris himself is memorable as Marcus Aurelius in what was one of his finest late-period films.

7. UNFORGIVEN

(1992, Directed by Clint Eastwood and Written by David Webb Peoples)

Harris’s career was almost one of two halves: in the first half, he was a major star, playing the lead in classics such as This Sporting Life and A Man Called Horse; in the second half, after a long mid-career lull (during which he partly reprised earlier roles such as those in A Man Called Horse and Camelot) he generally played smaller cameos, but cameos so precise and perfect as to illustrate the bigger themes in the film. Nowhere is that truer than in Unforgiven.

Unforgiven, arguably still Clint Eastwood’s finest film as a director (despite the competing claims of Bird and Million Dollar Baby, among others), is all about the distance between myth and reality in the Old West: the gap between simplistic story-telling (of the kind found in most traditional Westerns) and the complex, often ambivalent truth of real life and real events. Harris’s “English Bob” (another one of his quintessentially English characters and the most famous Bob this side of Sideshow Bob himself) is the epitome of the mythical West, a master-bullshitter who is literally telling and selling his story to the biographer he has in tow, until he is unceremoniously arrested and exposed by Gene Hackman’s gunfighter-turned-sheriff, Little Bill. Clearly, “Irish Dick”, another legend in his youth who had declined alarmingly into middle age, saw something of himself in English Bob.

Any mention of Unforgiven is also an excuse to give an enormous “shout-out” to one of the great modern Hollywood screenwriters, David Webb Peoples, whose other credits (as writer and co-writer) include two more masterpieces, Bladerunner and Twelve Monkeys. Sci-fi and Westerns are perhaps the two most polarised and polar opposite of movie genres: the great screenwriter and screenwriting guru, William Goldman, who wrote Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, claimed that he could write anything but sci-fi. Webb Peoples, in the archetypal modern Western Unforgiven and his two sci-fi classics, proved that he could master both.

6.  THE MOLLY MAGUIRES

(1970, Directed by Martin Ritt, Written by Walter Bernstein, based on the novel of the same name by Arthur H. Lewis)

The Molly Maguires is a fascinating film, because it is one of the few Hollywood movies of any era to examine the issues of organised labour and unions, and the sometimes extreme lengths that unions had to go to in order to establish themselves.  The Molly Maguires was based on a real 19th century group of Irish-American coal miners who became a quasi-terrorist organisation, blowing up mines and mine shafts in a desperate attempt to try to extract better working conditions for themselves.  Appropriately enough, it was directed by Martin Ritt, who himself had been blacklisted in Hollywood during the anti-Communist witch-hunts of the 1950s, a period he immortalised in his later film with Woody Allen, The Front, in which Woody plays a hopeless loser who becomes the successful public face of a blacklisted writer.

What is particularly fascinating about The Molly Maguires from Richard Harris’s point of view is that he plays, as it were, “the baddie”, the Irish private detective hired by the mine-owners who infiltrates The Molly Maguires and ultimately betrays them.  It was Sean Connery, another proud Celt, who plays the leader of the group of workers, and who rounds on Harris’s “snitch” when he learns of his complicity with the group’s enemies.  In this way, Connery and Harris represented the two poles of the Irish experience in America, and indeed the two poles of any immigrant experience anywhere: one, the eternal outsider defiantly asserting his independence in a new land, with disastrous consequences; the other assimilating himself entirely, and in the process being perceived by his own kind as a traitor.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0_XZzA1-24k]

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5. CROMWELL

(1970, Written and Directed by Ken Hughes)

Oliver Cromwell is one of the most remarkable and divisve figures in Anglo-Irish history.  His statue still stands outside Parliament in Westminster, as a testament to his role in overthrowing King Charles I and establishing England as a parliamentary democracy (even though he later ousted the MPs and became a virtual dictator).  But in Ireland he is one of the “anti-pantheon” of supposed English heroes, along with Winston Churchill himself, who are still remembered with hostility, even hatred, for their involvement in the suppression of the Irish people.  It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that Cromwell should have been played on screen by Richard Harris, a proud son of Ireland who made his name in England.

As the star of Cromwell, Harris gives a superb performance, simultaneously exhibiting great strength and great subtlety, and holding his own on screen even alongside Alec Guiness as King Charles.  The movie itself also demonstrates the strength of the British film industry in the 1960s and early 1970s, when distinctively British characters and subject matter could be portrayed on screen without necessarily having any wider international appeal.  In these days of internationalised, even globalised, film-making, when it is apparently necessary to appeal to every audience, it is unlikely that any such films could be made.  Nevertheless, there remains a great canon of great British heroes, from Isombard Kingdom Brunel to Livingstone, whose stories still cry out to be told on the big (or even small) screen.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=30wnEFouh5k]

 

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4. THE FIELD

(1990, Written and Directed by Jim Sheridan, Based on the play of the same name by John B. Keane)

The role of Bull McCabe in The Field was the role that Harris was arguably born to play, although he had to wait a long time and had to play a lot of English Kings and Generals before he finally got round to it. McCabe is almost the embodiment of the traditional Irish “love of the land”, which presumably comes in part from having had that land forcibly occupied by English forces for the better part of a millennium, and when his precious rented field is threatened by another invader, in the form of an American developer, he resorts to using any means necessary to repel him.

The Field is also the film in which arguably the greatest Irish film star – Harris – is directed by arguably the greatest Irish film director, Jim Sheridan, who also made My Left Foot and In The Name of The Father, and in so doing did much to create a cinematic vision of a more modern Ireland. But in The Field, the characters and conflicts are as eternal as the land itself, and Harris, the archetype (at least in appearance and upbringing) of the traditional, older Ireland, is perfectly cast.

The Field is a beautiful film, capturing the magnificence of the Irish countryside but also the harsh reality of so many rural Irish lives, including land-grabbing, inter-family conflict and even suicide. Bull’s tragedy, it emerges, is the self-slaughter of his oldest son, Seamie, and that tragedy is replicated in the astonishing ending of the film, when his youngest son is also unwittingly driven to his death by Bull as he tries to herd his cattle over a cliff-top, in a scene of truly Biblical scale and intensity.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PRov2-LZ51s]

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3. CAMELOT

(1967, Directed by Joshua Logan, a film adaptation of the musical of the same name by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe)

Many of the finest screen actors, from Brando (in Guys and Dolls) to De Niro (in New York, New York), have excelled not just in drama and comedy but in musicals, and Harris is no exception, playing King Arthur in the film adaptation of Lerner and Lowe’s Broadway smash. Indeed, Harris had arguably the finest voice of any major screen actor, and was certainly the most successful commercially, enjoying a Top 10 hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 1968 with his extended version of the Jimmy Webb classic, MacArthur Park.

The film Camelot is often unfairly seen as being symptomatic of the big-budget, low-brain Hollywood fare of the 1960s that was ultimately swept away by Dennis Hopper, Martin Scorsese and the other members of the “movie brat” generation. However, that is to ignore its considerable delights, not least the cinematic and musical chemistry between Harris as King Arthur and Vanessa Redgrave as Guinevere. (Camelot remains one of the highlights of Redgrave’s relatively unremarkable screen career, as she chose to focus afterwards on the theatre and her political activities.)

Incidentally, it is also fascinating to consider how Harris, the ultimate Irishman, excelled at playing quintessentially English characters, such as Cromwell and King Arthur. That is a testament to the close intertwining of English and Irish life over many centuries, which, now that Northern Ireland is relatively peaceful, can finally be fully celebrated. Just as so many of the greatest writers in English since Shakespeare have been Irish (from Oscar Wilde to Yeats, and from Joyce to Beckett), so many of the finest English performers in all artistic fields (from John Lydon and Morrissey in music, to Cyril Cusack and Peter O’Toole in acting) have been products of the Irish diaspora (what might be called, with the pun very much intended, “the Paddy-aspora”).  Harris himself is firmly in that tradition of great Anglo-Irish artistry.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hzaeisqxtvQ]

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2. A MAN CALLED HORSE

(1970, Directed by Elliot Silverstein, Written by Jack DeWitt and Dorothy M. Johnson, based on a short story by Johnson of the same name)

1970 was obviously Harris’s annus mirabilis, as he made The Molly Maguires, Cromwell and A Man Called Horse all in that year, but A Man Called Horse is the best of the three. It is the brutal story of an English aristocrat who is captured by Sioux warriors in the early 19th century and, after a series of extraordinary (and extraordinarily painful) initiation rituals, eventually becomes a member of the tribe himself.

Harris excelled at playing “outsiders” who are integrated into a society, be it a sensitive rugby player in This Sporting Life or the Roundhead General who becomes ruler of England in Cromwell, and the same is true in A Man Called Horse. It is tempting to imagine that he had learned such integration and assimilation in his own life, having made the journey from his native Limerick in the west of Ireland to the heights of the London stage and Hollywood cinema. But whatever personal embarrassments or humiliations he experienced as a young Irishman in London at a time of intense anti-Irish racism, they were as nothing compared to the painful introduction to Sioux life that is depicted in A Man Called Horse, culminating in his being hung from pins stabbed into his chest, which required the film’s make-up artist to create a special prosthetic chest (the most famous prosthetic chest in cinema until the one that the monster in Alien burst out of).

A Man Called Horse became Harris’s “pension movie”, as he recreated the character in two sequels, The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976) and The Triumphs of a Man Called Horse (1982), neither of which were a patch on the original. However, just as the sheer cinematic horror of Psycho cannot be eclipsed by its seemingly endless sequels, nor can the sheer cinematic power of the original A Man Called Horse be overlooked because of the relative poverty of the series of films that followed it. It is one of the great modern Westerns (by which I mean Westerns made after the heyday of the genre between 1930 and 1960), and in its relatively sensitive depiction of Native American life and rituals paved the way for later modern Westerns such as Dances With Wolves.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qGu4Ycp655U]

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1. THIS SPORTING LIFE

(1963, Directed by Lindsay Anderson, Written by David Storey, Adapted from his novel of the same name)

Harris’s greatest ever screen role was his breakthrough role, in Lindsay Anderson’s seminal This Sporting Life, one of the finest of the so-called British “kitchen sink” dramas of the early 1960s, and one of the finest films ever about sport and indeed life, showing just how unfair – how “unsporting” – both could be.

Harris himself had been a fine young rugby player, representing the Irish province of Munster at youth level, but that was in the union code. It was in the other rugby code – rugby league – that he found fame and cinematic glory as Frank Machin, the “great ape” of a man and player who goes from fighting outside nightclubs to fighting his way through opposition defences on the rugby field. The original novel from which the film was adapted was based on David Storey’s own almost schizophrenic existence as a rugby league player who also attended art school. Clearly, Harris recognised something of the same duality in himself, as a sensitive, poetry-quoting soul who could also raise hell with the best of them. That same duality extends to the whole film, which alternates between the rough and tumble of the rugby pitch and the relative peace and quiet of the “digs” where Machin is housed by the club, in a house owned by a young widow, Rachel Roberts (giving an equally sublime performance), with whom he falls in love.

The great triumph of This Sporting Life is that it inverts the usual “sport as life” metaphor. Typically, the positive attributes of sport are celebrated in movies: the grace; the glory; the victories against the odds. But This Sporting Life shows how sport can be just as just as violent, just as odious and, most importantly, just as unfair as life itself. This is a bleak film, but a beautifully bleak film, capturing on celluloid the sheer melancholy grandeur of the north of England in the same way that The Smiths captured it on vinyl. (In fact, such are the similarities between This Sporting Life and the output of The Smiths that it is a wonder that Morrissey, a precocious young athlete himself, never put a picture of Harris as Frank Machin on the cover of any Smiths single.)

This Sporting Life is the most enduring example of Richard Harris’s greatness as a screen actor: rough-hewn but beautiful; strong but tender; a truly “great ape”, which, after all, is all we humans are. If Brando has On The Waterfront and Streetcar, O’Toole Lawrence of Arabia and De Niro Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, then Harris has This Sporting Life, and he and it deserve to be included in such stellar company.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9RNWy5VpL8Q]

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END CREDITS

(or THE DECLINE OF THE GREAT BRITISH WORKING-CLASS ACTOR)

Richard Harris was an integral part of the great wave of working-class (or at least lower middle-class) British and Irish actors who swept through British and ultimately American cinema in the late 1950s and 1960s. In a recent interview, Brian Cox, who came from similarly lowly origins himself, bemoaned the ending of that great tradition, pointing out that it was only World War Two that had weakened the centuries-old British class system sufficiently for talent from more humble origins to emerge. Now, he suggested, the old order was reasserting itself, and whatever the merits of “Old Etonian actors” such as Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne (and their merits are considerable), it is impossible not to lament the loss of such working-class vitality in British cinema today. It is a terribly sobering, even depressing, thought to consider that today a talent such as Richard Harris would probably not even be able to afford to go to drama school. The likes of Harris, Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole did much to make British cinema the great national cinema it was in the 1960s and 1970s, and it would be a genuine tragedy if similar working-class heroes are not allowed to develop in the future.