Everyone has favorite movies and favorite actors.  It’s nice when our favorite films actually have our favorite actor in the lead.  That isn’t always the case however. This list takes a look at five possible top movies of the actor Val Kilmer (who by the way is one of the actors I continually enjoy watching). 

Kilmer has a long list of movies from which to choose when making a list of top five.  The actor started his career on stage, but became widely popular in the 1980s and 90s when he transitioned to the big screen.  Kilmer studied at the prestigious Juilliard School during the years 1977-1981 where, at 17 years old, he was the youngest up to that time to be accepted.

Not just another pretty face, Kilmer also penned poetry books and in his early stage career, co-authored the play, How it all Began, in which he starred.  He has easily incorporated both the big screen and television into his career.  He has held his own while sharing the screen with many other big name actors such as Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, and Michael Douglas.  Leading ladies have included Michelle Pfeiffe, Kim Bassinger, and Kate Bosworth; directors have included the well-known Oliver Stone, Ron Howard,  Joel Schumacher, and life-long friend Francis Ford Coppola.  While not his first turn on the big screen, Top Gun (in the role of Iceman), brought him into stardom and those chiseled abs catapulted him into the dreams of millions of women across the globe.

Kilmer’s film debut was a bit part in the 1977 movie The Deep.  His first starring role was in the 1984 comedy Top Secret!.  This brings us to the top five movies of Val Kilmer.  Kilmer has given many fine performances and it is difficult to keep some off of this list.  Other Kilmer fans may disagree, (as no doubt many will) but this is my list.


#5  Top Secret!  (1984)Val Kilmer in Top Secret; Source: IMDbCredit: Source: IMDb

It might seem unusual for an actor’s first film to be sitting at the five slot on this list; however, this film is a jewel.  Introduced to this film by a friend years ago, this is one I watch again and again, simply put:  this film is funny and fun!

Directed by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker, it also stars Lucy Gutteridge, Omar Sharif, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, Jeremy Kemp and Christopher Villiers.  The movie is a parody of the Elvis Presley musicals and spy thrillers of the cold war era.  The plot revolves around U.S. rock and roll singer Nick Rivers, played by Kilmer, who goes to East Germany for a gig at a cultural festival.  During his stay, he helps the beautiful Hillary Flammond (Gutheridge) rescue her scientist father (Gough) and becomes involved in the French resistance.

In the movie (as well as the movie soundtrack) the songs Kilmer sings are performed by him and on the soundtrack, are released under his character’s name “Nick Rivers.”  The movie uses a multitude of Yiddish lines (portrayed as German in the movie) which are translated to sometimes ridiculous nonsense.  For example in one scene a conductor calls for tickets in German, but the actual translation is an old Yiddish saying "May you grow like an onion, with the head in the ground."[3]

Kilmer not only shows his singing and acting chops in the film, but the man has some moves that would rival Elvis.  Though the hips are in motion each time he sings, in one particular scene in a Swedish diner, Rivers’ hips swivel and twist like there’s no tomorrow!   It is truly an Elvis moment.

In what is probably the most impressively interesting scene, the directors showed the whole thing in reverse. Nick and Hilary enter a Swedish bookstore and the minute they step inside, the entire scene is in reverse.  The directors wanted to give the scene’s dialog a “unique” sound.  The scene is 88 seconds long, with no cuts, and makes sense when viewed forward or backwards.  On the DVD, a version with the scene playing forward is found as an Easter egg.

Swedish Bookstore Backwards scene

Top Secret!
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#4 The Ghost and the Darkness  (1996)The Ghost and the Darkness; Photo by Paramount PicturesCredit: Photo by Paramount Pictures

This movie, also starring Michael Douglas was directed by Stephen Hopkins.  In this film Val Kilmer plays Lt. Col. John Paterson, a British bridge engineer, who is sent to East Africa to build a railway bridge across Kenya's Tsavo River.  Upon arriving, Paterson is met with a deadline to get the bridge completed whilst dealing with the threat of a lion that is attacking the workforce.

After killing the lion soon after his arrival, he earns the respect of the workers; however, days later two more lions begin attacking and killing the workers; coming inside the camp to take their victims.  The two lions were called The Ghost and The Darkness because the workers rarely saw the killers and many believed they were not real, but were a supernatural force in the form of lions.   The railroad company calls in “great white hunter,” Charles Remington, played by Douglas, to hunt and kill the two beasts. 

The lions are not quickly stopped and the frightened workers flee, leaving Patterson, Remington and assistant Samuel (played by John Kani) to face the terrifying beasts.  Remington kills one of the lions, but the second one comes in the night and drags him from his tent.  Paterson discovers the mutilated body of Remington and sets it ablaze on a pyre.  He decides to set the grass surrounding the camp ablaze in order to drive the second lion into an ambush.  It sort of works.  The lion is driven onto the partially completed bridge where Paterson and Samuel are waiting.   In a dramatic end (of course), Paterson is able to kill the lion.  The workers return and the bridge is completed on time.  At the end of the movie, Samuel tells us the lions are on display at the Field Museum in Chicago and “"if you dare lock eyes with them, you will be afraid."[4]

The Man-Eaters of Tsavo; Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Source: Wikimedia CommonsThe movie is set in 1896 and is based on a true story.  Paterson wrote about the encounters in a book titled The Man-eaters of Tsavo.  He owned the skins and skulls of the lions and sold them in 1924 to the Museum for $5,000.  Reportedly, the skins were not in the best of shape, and this resulted in the reduction of size of the displayed animals versus the actual lions.[4]  The character of Remington is completely fictional; Paterson killed both lions in the true account.

The Tsavo lions were maneless and about nine feet in length. The liSecond Tsavo lion; Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Source: Wikimedia Commonsons did kill and eat humans, although the estimated 140 total by Paterson’s account may be an exaggeration. There is no widely accepted known reason explaining the behavior of the lions. Several theories are bandied about including a disease at the time that wiped out their natural prey. 

Kilmer’s portrayal of Paterson is realistic with all of the expression you’d want to see in a man who goes through what he does in the film.  In each scene you easily understand and believe where Paterson’s emotional journey is taking you.  No display of the six-pack abs needed for this role.

The Ghost and The Darkness
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#3 The Doors  (1991)Val Kilmer in the Doors; Photo by Columbia PicturesCredit: Photo by Columbia Pictures

Kilmer is masterful as Jim Morrison in this feature about the legendary singer and his 1960s band The Doors.  Directed by Oliver Stone, the movie also stars Meg Ryan as Pamela Courson, Morrison’s lifelong girlfriend, muse, and self-proclaimed (in the movie at least) ornament; and Kyle MacLachlan as band member, Ray Manzarek.

The film is as much a biography on Morrison as it is a film about the band.  It follows Morrison from his early days as a film student to his death in 1971 at a mere 27 years old.  Kilmer does much of the singing himself and did such a spectacular job; reportedly surviving members of the Doors had a difficult time distinguishing his voice from Morrison’s.[5]

Purist fans of the Doors will definitely have problems with the movie.  Family and many friends of Morrison and other members of the Doors were quite dissatisfied with the film’s portrayal.  Having stated that; the performance Kilmer gives has been lauded by most.  According to numerous stories, Kilmer spent a year almost impersonating Morrison, hanging out in old haunts and learning all the lyrics of every song Morrison wrote.

Originally, a host of other actors were considered for the role, including John Travolta. At the time he was being considered, the band thought about reforming and touring with Travolta on vocals, but later determined Travolta was too nice to portray Morrison.[5]  After having watched Kilmer’s performance in the film, I can’t imagine anyone else in the role.  He was the whole package.  I forgot it wasn’t actually Morrison on the screen and isn’t that what any actor aspires from their performances?

The Doors (15-Year Anniversary Edition)
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#2 Willow  (1988)Val Kilmer in the Movie Willow; photo by Lucasfilm & 20th Century FoxCredit: photo by Lucasfilm & 20th Century Fox

This is a truly delightful, fun and entertaining romp taking place in medieval times with castles and queens and kings and knights and all sorts of creatures and good and evil witches.   The story was written and produced by George Lucas with the screenplay written by Bob Dolman.  The film is directed by Ron Howard and co-stars Joanne Whalley as Sorsha, Warwick Davis (yes Professor Flintwick from the Harry Potter films) as Willow Ufgood, and Jean Marsh as Queen Bavmorda.  Kilmer plays the rascal Madmartigan. Reportedly, Kilmer improvised much of his dialogue in the film.[7]

Lucas wrote the story specifically for Warwick after meeting him on the set of Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi.[7]  Originally, Lucas wanted to make two sequels; however, the film didn’t do as well as expected at the box office, so he chose to write novels instead. The continued story of Willow is three books known as The Chronicles of the Shadow War with Chris Claremont sharing writing credit with Lucas.  The three books are Shadow Moon (1995), Shadow Dawn (1996) and Shadow Star (2000).[10]

The plot revolves around Willow, who must protect the infant Elora Danan from the evil Queen Bavmorda who the infant is destined to destroy.  Early into his journey, Willow and his companions come across Madmartigan  hanging in a crow’s cage.  Despite attempts to get Willow to free him, Madmartigan finally has to resort to assuring Willow he will care for the infant.  Leaving Elora Danan in Madmartigan’s care, Willow and his companions head for home only to find out Elora  Danan has been stolen.  While rescuing the infant, Willow learns Elora Danan has chosen him as her guardian and he ends up teaming up with Madmartigan to seek the sorceress Fin Raziel.

The adventure is a madcap of fleeing from Queen Bavmorda’s army which is led by her beautiful daughter Sorsha, who of course ends up changing sides and joins with Madmartigan and Willow’s forces.  The film is full of laughs and Kilmer’s expressions are priceless. (Expecting a beautiful sorceress, when Fin Raziel is revealed, his face tells the whole story!)   As Madmartigan transitions from a con-man type character to one who is willing to put his life on the line for Elora Danan, Kilmer aptly takes you with him through the change.  In the end, Madmartigan is an “upright” fellow.

Background of Madmartigan and Sorsha were contained in the first draft, but left out of the final script.  It explained the recklessness of Madmartigan; yet, even without the background on film, the performance of Kilmer makes the transition believable; and as the viewer, we can surmise some of the background from the clues of some of the scenes.

Willow (Special Edition)
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#1  Thunderheart  (1992)Val Kilmer in Thunderheart; Photo by TriStar Pictures, Tribeca Productions &  Waterhorse ProductionsCredit: Photo by TriStar Pictures, Tribeca Productions & Waterhorse Productions

My top pick for favorite Val Kilmer movies is Thunderheart; which is also one of my all-time favorite movies.  This film was directed by Michael Apted and written by John Fusco.  Kilmer plays Ray Levoi, a part-Souix FBI agent who is assigned to team with cynical veteran agent Frank Coutelle played by Sam Shepard.  The cast is rounded out nicely with Graham Greene in the role of Walter Crow Horse, Sheila Tousey as Maggie Eagle Bear, and Ted Thin Elk as Grandpa Sam Reaches.

The plot is fictional, but loosely based on events relating to a 1973 incident at Wounded Knee, when followers of the American Indian Movement (AIM) protested federal government policy regarding Native Americans.  The film follows Levoi as he is assigned to assist in a murder investigation on a reservation where he must come to terms with his Native American heritage.  (While in the movie, Levoi is one quarter Sioux; Kilmer is one quarter Cherokee.)

Wounded Knee Aftermath; Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Source: Wikimedia CommonsThe film depicts several actual events in history that occurred on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the early 1970s.  The Pine Ridge Reservation did endure exploration for uranium, disease from irradiated water, conflict between AIM and the “Traditional” Natives fight against the government of the Tribe, GOONS (Guardians of the Oglala Nation) and the assistance from the FBI which provided weapons as well as other assistance to the GOONs.[8]

Ted Thin Elk was a Sicangu Lakota (Sioux) who spent most of his life on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota.  At 72 years old, Thunderheart was his first turn in front of the camera.  Kilmer treated the man with respect, helping him with scenes and discussing Native American topics off camera.

The majority of the filming was done on location in South Dakota with much of it on the Pine Ridge Reservation.  Many Native American actors were used for the film with screen roles mirroring their real lives.  Reviews were mixed, but generally positive with most noting the outstanding performance of Graham Greene as the wise-cracking reservation cop.

My viewing of the film can’t ignore the lessons learned.  Kilmer once again offers the facial expressions that convey a thousand unspoken words.  I feel his struggle to find his identity and stay on a “righteous” course.  The journey is emotional and at times humorous (just like real life).  Not only does Greene show his chops, Ted Thin Elk is absolutely marvelous as the elder of the Tribe.  You’d never know it’s his first movie role.

The movie makes one think; it isn’t the type of movie you simply walk away from and never give a second thought to the content.   It takes the young confident Levoi into an unfamiliar and definitely unwanted environment and forces him (subtly and not so subtly at times) to examine his own heritage, values and belief system.

And that concludes my top five Kilmer movies.  While they are movies of the 1980s and 1990s, I believe they are his finest.  I am most impressed by his ability to fashion his face into a million expressions seemingly with ease.  I see his character, not the actor, and to me, that is what actors should be able to do in any performance they undertake.


compilation of clips showing journey to acknowledgment of heritage

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Other notable roles include Kilmer’s turn as Doc Holiday in Tombstone.  His performance (as well as performances by leading star Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and supporting actor Sam Elliot as Virgil Earp) is one of  the jewels in the western that make it worth watching. It really ties the second place slot for me.  The film production ran into trouble from the beginning and still, Kilmer gives a brilliant performance as the infamous gambler/gunslinger.  It just goes to show no matter how much a critic pans a movie in general, an actor can shine in his or her role.

If you haven’t seen Heat, (1995) take the time to do so; you won’t be disappointed.  Kilmer holds his own with the iconic actors, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino.  Kiss, Kiss Bang, Bang, (2005) is another gem many movie goers missed because it had limited theatrical release.  Another earlier movie with a great Kilmer performance is the television movie The Man Who Broke 1,000 Chains (1987).


The copyright of the article The Iceman Cometh and Goeth: The Top Five Movies Starring Val Kilmer is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.


Doc Holliday meets Johnny Ringo

"Here is the translation of what Doc and Johnny Ringo are saying to in Latin: Doc Holliday: In vino veritas. (In wine there is truth.) Johnny Ringo: Age quod agis. (Do what you do.) Doc Holliday: Credat Judaeus Apella, non ego. (Let Apella the Jew believe, not I.) Johnny Ringo: Iuventus stultorum magister. (Youth is the teacher of fools.) Doc Holliday: In pace requiescat. (May he rest in peace.) The line "Credat Judaeus Apella, non ego. (Let Apella the Jew believe, not I)" was confusing to viewers; scholarly papers showed that Romans used the phrase to show contempt for Judaism's belief that divine power was involved in everyday life."[9]