Make the Case: 7 Best David Warner Movies

best David Warner movies
best David Warner movies

When David Warner died on July 24th, 2022, just five days shy of what would have been his 81st birthday, I finally fired up the 2018 Disney effort Mary Poppins Returns. The movie was mostly crap, but I watched it mostly for the fact that David Warner was in it. The 1962 original featured Reginald Owen in the role of a lunatic naval officer who lives next door to the Banks family and fires a cannon from his roof twice a day. Owen was extremely dead by 2018, so they got David Warner instead. I remember the news and remember thinking it had been a long time since I had seen him in the cast list for a film.

A look at his career, which began the same year Mary Poppins was released by Disney, shows that from the 60s to around the end of the 2000s, he worked at a constant and prolific pace. He would log over 220 film and TV appearances, often playing villains, and finding many of his best roles in film during the 70s and 80s, and then a plethora of television and voicework from the 90s to the end of his life.

He’s been a favorite actor of mine since I saw him in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze. He was a welcome addition to dozens and dozens of things I watched growing up, well into adulthood. It was easy to come up with 7 film performances for this unranked list.

His role in Mary Poppins Returns was a highlight. He was enthusiastic, surprisingly sweet, and funny as a man mentally lost to time, indulging in a routine more powerful than reality itself. That’s a lot to convey in maybe 8 minutes of screen time, but David Warner was really that good.


1. The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)

Director: Sam Peckinpah

The Ballad of Cable Hogue isn’t just one of my favorite David Warner performances. It’s also an affecting showcase for Jason Robards as a man whose meager life is wiped out by the march of progress. Warner is there as a man who comes to befriend and help Cable Hogue wherever possible. There’s an early indication here of Warner’s ability to work well with anyone.

It’s tempting to spotlight David Warner’s winning-or-better performances in films like Waxwork, Body Bags, Quest of the Delta Knights (come on, he’s a blast in it), or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (which would probably be how I first encountered him). However, we’re setting those aside as movies you should probably also watch, after you’ve cleared these. This includes the many brilliant performances he turned in at the start of his career, which included collaborations with gifted and iconoclastic filmmakers like Sam Peckinpah.


2. The Man with Two Brains (1983)

Director: Carl Reiner

It says a lot about David Warner’s talents and intensive, very British charisma that he isn’t upstaged by everything packed into The Man with Two Brains. You’ve got the great Carl Reiner directing a slapstick science fiction black comedy with a cast that includes Steve Martin as a neurosurgeon desperate to get away from his sadistic femme fatale wife (a hysterical Kathleen Turner). Obviously, getting into the business of brain switching is the only way everyone’s going to find peace. It’s so simple.

David Warner in The Man with Two Brains is the mad scientist who offers his services to Martin’s Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr (yes, that’s his name) at the worst moment of his life. Martin was arguably never funnier than he was in this period, and it’s a treat to watch David Warner keep up with him every time they’re on screen together.


3. Time After Time (1979)

Director: Nicolas Meyer

Time After Time is the sort of movie that makes you glad you were alive to watch it. The basic premise of H.G. Wells (one of Malcolm McDowell’s best) chasing after Jack the Ripper in late 1970s. The Ripper is played by Warner, who meets this lighthearted premise with some serious and even frightening menace. Warner often excelled, and was perhaps even typecast as time went on, when playing villains. Jack the Ripper is one of his best because it seems to operate on a different plane of existence from the rest of the film, but in a way that works well.

Time After Time goes hard on Wells as a fish out of water, being shown around a gorgeous vintage San Francisco by a beautiful, empathetic bank teller named Amy (Mary Steenburgen), but doesn’t forget to create actual tension in Wells’ pursuit of David Warner’s pitch-perfect Jack the Ripper.


4. Time Bandits (1981)

Director: Terry Gilliam

For many people, David Warner in Time Bandits is the definitive David Warner bad guy performance. That might be fair since his character is literally named Evil. Like all gifted actors who get a lot of villains, Warner was an actor who could mold his voice and presence to any variation of a real bastard, and no one is going to confuse Evil with Jack the Ripper anytime soon.

While Time Bandits is a dizzying existential crisis disguised as a freewheeling adventure film, with a top-to-bottom cast of some of the best English actors of the day, Warner’s personification and droll performance as Evil is perhaps the most enjoyable highlight. In a movie where John Cleese is playing Robin Hood, Ian Holm is Napoleon (wouldn’t be the last time either), and Sean Connery is Agamemnon, that’s saying something. David Warner proves in Time Bandits that he could make you laugh by simply staring at you with utter disdain.


5. Tron (1982)

Director: Steven Lisberger

Not only did David Warner play the cruel Sark, the second-in-command to a rogue A.I. system known as the Master Control Program, but he also did the voice of the MCP itself. It’s worth watching Tron just to see two different performances by Warner interacting with each other. He also shows up in the film’s real world as an evil businessman.

Tron embraced the future a little too early in 1982 by being one of the first films to extensively work with CGI. The result is something that undoubtedly looked bizarre on the 1982 movie landscape, but which today is appreciated for its aesthetics and other design choices. Tron is also one of the first movies to seriously look to video games for inspiration. This makes for a movie that doesn’t have a whole lot of depth, but which gets by just fine on visuals and performances by Jeff Bridges and in particular David Warner.


6. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

Director: Nicholas Meyer

Making his 2nd appearance on this list, Nicholas Meyer and David Warner worked well together once more for the somber, riveting Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. This would be back-to-back Star Trek movie appearances for Warner, who had played a human in Star Trek V. He’s fine in that, but The Undiscovered Country is where he particularly shines as a dramatic actor who could generate tremendous strength and sympathy at the same time.

Playing a Klingon Chancellor of the High Council (I’m not fully clear on what that means, but it seems important), Warner is a striking opposite to his crazed advisor General Chang (extraordinary scenery-chewing by Christopher Plummer). He is a distinct, tangible hope for peace between the Klingons and the United Federation of Planets. And then he is killed in a moment that has meaningful and surprising weight, given how little time we actually spent with him.


7. Straw Dogs (1971)

Director: Sam Peckinpah

David Warner would work with Peckinpah one more time in 1971 for Straw Dogs, considered by many to be one of Peckinpah’s singular, vicious masterpieces. As a character study administered under an oppressive atmosphere for cruelty, violence, and extreme psychological horror, this film is one of the most disturbing of its day. Not much of that shock has been lost to time either. Straw Dogs is still an uncomfortable look at mob mentality, the breakdown of the psyche under extreme duress, and the ways in which supposedly peaceful people can really surprise you.

Amidst all of that, and with a cast that includes Dustin Hoffman and Susan George as a couple who experience dangerous hostility from the locals when they move to the English countryside, David Warner plays a mentally deficient man who is loathed by his neighbors. He soon becomes their target after a horrifying accident, and Warner is pitiable and moving as a man who doesn’t deserve a single thing that’s happening to him. It’s further evidence that David Warner could play almost anyone, and he was a far more versatile actor than he often got credit for in his remarkable life and career.

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