Top 20 Desert Isle Films

It’s sure refreshing to take a breather from backpacking—and talking about it—especially during these steamy dog days of August. One last trail observation, though: I discovered a nifty trick for alleviating the toil of steep mountain climbs is to create mental lists.

Here’s one of them, yet another of my periodic “desert isle” lists. This time it’s my top twenty favorite films (appropriate, since I’m partially immobile due to a leg vein that looks and feels like a red-hot fire iron, and have once again become good friends with my recliner and television remote). I think I formulated this list while struggling up Pond Mountain in Tennessee. Or maybe it was while descending into the town of Erwin.

Uncharacteristically for a born critic like me, I didn’t critique them. I just provide year, two key actors, and a short plot summation. I omitted director for brevity’s sake…but if you’re curious, directors Martin Ritt and Sergio Leone take top honors here, with two films apiece (all four are Westerns).

My favorite era is the 1960s, so it’s no surprise these films were made during that decade, or close to it. And I think you’ll see that many could be characterized as “guy flicks”…maybe because I’m a guy? 🥸 Who knows.

Lastly—while in my mind all of these movies are well-made—not all might be Leonard Maltin four-star-caliber. I admire critically acclaimed powerhouses like Citizen Kane and Schindler’s List, but they may not be the best entertainment for an isolated island in the South Pacific. However, the movies below I return to time and again and are entertaining with a strong nostalgia element, and those are the criteria I use for my desert isle collection.

Check ’em out, and let me know some of your own fave films—especially if made outside Hollywood, since this list woefully neglects foreign and independent films. I’m thinking of you, Neil, Mike, and CB!

“I hardly think a few birds are going to bring about the end of the world.”

“These weren’t a few birds.”

(Listed in order of release date):


On the Waterfront (1954). Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger. An idealistic young boxer and longshoreman defies a corrupt and powerful union boss.


Twelve Angry Men (1957). Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb. A jury of twelve very different personalities deliberates guilt or innocence in a murder trial.


Ben-Hur (1959). Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd. The life of a Jewish merchant, galley slave, and charioteer during the time of Christ.

“Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength.”


To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Gregory Peck, Mary Badham. A woman reminisces about her influential father and her childhood in segregated southern Alabama.


Hud (1963). Paul Newman, Melvyn Douglas. A free-spirited man without principles clashes with his rancher-father while negatively influencing his younger nephew.


The Birds (1963). Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor. A woman visits a small seaside village and has a strange and horrific effect on bird behavior.


The Train (1964). Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield. A French Resistance fighter and railway inspector tries to prevent a Nazi colonel from absconding with priceless paintings.


A Hard Day’s Night (1964). John Lennon, Paul McCartney. Humorous semi-documentary of The Beatles and their recording and touring activities.


Goldfinger (1964). Sean Connery, Gert Frobe. Agent 007 tries to prevent an evil mastermind from stealing gold from Fort Knox.

“Do you expect me to talk, Goldfinger?”

“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”


Nevada Smith (1966). Steve McQueen, Karl Malden. A young man in the West goes on a trail of vengeance after three men brutally murder his parents.


The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach. Three men compete to uncover buried treasure in the West during the American Civil War.


Hombre (1967). Paul Newman, Fredric March. A white man raised by Apaches is forced into helping a group of bigoted stagecoach passengers.


The Graduate (1967). Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft. A recent college graduate confused about his future falls in love with the daughter of a woman who seduced him.


Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Henry Fonda, Jason Robards. Sprawling Western involving land rights, vengeance, and the arrival of the railroad in the changing American West.


The Party (1968). Peter Sellers, Claudine Longet. A bumbling but lovable Asian-Indian actor creates havoc after accidentally being invited to a swanky Hollywood dinner party.


Easy Rider (1969). Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper. Two hippies experience the best and worst of America while riding cross-country on motorcycles.

“Oh, they’ll talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But if they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em.”


Woodstock (1970). Michael Lang, Artie Kornfeld. Award-winning documentary about the 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair Festival.


Little Big Man (1970). Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway. An aged white man reminisces about being adopted by Indians and his relationships with Custer, Wild Bill Hickock, and his elderly Cheyenne mentor.


Jeremiah Johnson (1972). Robert Redford, Will Geer. A disillusioned Mexican-American War veteran flees to the mountains and becomes a mythic figure to Crow Indians.


Gettysburg (1993). Jeff Daniels, Martin Sheen. Docu-drama of Union and Confederate armies clashing in an epic three-day battle in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.


And the winning actor is…envelope, please…character actor MARTIN BALSAM, who amazingly appears in four of these films (On the Waterfront, Twelve Angry Men, Hombre, and Little Big Man).

Never mind that you never snagged a lead role, Martin. Winning the Longitudes Lifetime Achievement Award is nothing to sneeze at!

20 thoughts on “Top 20 Desert Isle Films

  1. Great list, Pete. Hud is one of my all-time favorites. Patricia Neal and Melvyn Douglas take the cake for authenticity, in my opinion.

    • Right on, Tad. “Hud” is just so low-key yet real. Even the foot and mouth disease segments, it seems like no acting is involved. I also love the black-and-white cinematography, and Elmer Bernstein’s understated soundtrack.

  2. Pete, great list. You’ve included some of my favorites. Martin Balsam was a busy guy, he didn’t need a lot of screen time to make an impression. Glad to see The Train and 12 Angry Men, in addition to two of Newman’s best.

    • Neil, I’ll check out Room and There’s Something About Mary. The Miracle Worker is a powerful film, probably in my Top 30 (that water scene!!). And this is really weird, but I discovered Odd Man Out only today!

  3. Oh No!!!! Martin Balsam was in Psycho! Not the Birds. D-ohh!! Sorry. I am sure you were wondering if you had lost it out on the trail. My sincere apologies. Sorry Psycho wasn’t on your list!

    • No problem, Phil. Both movies are Hitchcock horror classics with attractive blonde leads. “Psycho” might make my Top 30 list, along with “North by Northwest” and “Rear Window.” I gave the nod to “The Birds” because I like its weirdness. (Also, Tippi Hedren was the actress in “The Birds.” The women that Hitchcock cast in “Psycho” were Janet Leigh and Vera Miles.)

  4. Longitude lists…Pure pleasure Pedro! I’m grabbing for the remote NOW! Take good care and I hope your feeling tops again soon.

  5. That is a solid list that i would be happy with for sure. I could suck on a few coconuts watching those. I would have a hard time doing twenty (So many good films). Something has held me back on ‘Gettysburg’, time to pull the trigger. ‘Hombre’ has been calling me lately.
    Martin Balsam (I call him Marty) is such a cool choice. What a pro he was. There was a bunch of actors who, like him just added so much to the films i watched. Getting tarred and feathered in ‘Big Man’ gets me every time. Thing is, his character still had a positive attitude. Real good stuff Pete. Quite a few of these I have mouthed off about. Common ground fella.

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