With his strong brow, piercing eyes, and continental charm, Russian-born Yul Brynner captivated Hollywood during its Golden Age. His ambiguously Eastern European features, combined with his nomadic existence—he lived in Russia, China, Sweden, and the United States to name just a few countries—often saw him cast as everything from Russian officers and First American chieftains, to Prussian soldiers and French pirates.
His exotic je ne sais quoi eventually contributed to being cast in his two most famous roles as King Mongkut in The King and I and Ramesses II in The Ten Commandments. Though he would always be closely associated with gilded litters and sprawling palaces, Brynner was equally at home in the saddle of a horse starring in Westerns, showing comfort and ease across multiple genres. Yul Brynner was as enigmatic as the roles he took on, and the adventurous life he led was as robust as the movies he starred in, making him the most genuine and sensational of international stars.
10 Jean Lafitte (The Buccaneer) 6.5/10
Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner share the screen for the second time since The Ten Commandments as unlikely allies in The Buccaneer, a rousing historical epic set during the War of 1812. Heston plays Andrew “Long Shanks” Jackson and Brynner plays infamous Louisiana buccaneer Jean Lafitte, who assisted American soldiers in the defense of New Orleans against the British fleet.
Brynner is clearly enjoying himself as Jean Lafitte, the swaggering gentleman pirate and indelible figure in early New Orleans’ history who earns the respect of the future president of the United States despite his unorthodox strategies and his clear love of debauchery.
9 Dmitri Karamazov (The Brothers Karamazov) 6.7/10
Based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel of the same name, The Brothers Karamazov chronicles four very different brothers living in a small Russian town in the latter half of the 19th century. While each son is at the mercy of their hedonistic father for various reasons, it’s Brynner as the eldest brother Dmitri Karamazov -who is most like his father- who has to decide whether to be an honorable man or let fate run its course.
Brynner is perfect as Dmitri, the powerhouse of the book and so the smoldering core of this adaptation. Each brother represents a different extreme of character, and Brynner fully embodies depravity, tackling some solid psychological tenets that the movie sometimes bulldozers over in an effort to fit all the events of the novel into its running time.
8 Major Surov (The Journey) 6.9/10
During the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, a British woman tries to flee the country with a group of Westerners, one of them her freedom-fighting lover. To make it out alive, she must stay one step ahead of the violence in the streets and the charismatic Communist officer who has made her the object of his obsession.
Both Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner had previously starred together in The King and I in 1956, so it’s not surprising that their obvious chemistry was capitalized on just a few years later. Brynner was often sought after to play commanding, militant figures of authority who secretly harbored the souls of hopeless romantics, but rarely has a lonely soldier determined to find ways to feel again in the midst of war been so tragic and so inspirational.
7 Captain Mueller (Morituri) 6.9/10
Teaming up with cinematic titan Marlon Brando, who plays a German pacifist blackmailed into impersonating an SS officer, Brynner is the engaging captain of the cargo ship that ferries him from Japan to Germany. While the two men’s strong-willed personalities cause them to clash at first, begrudging respect emerges over the course of the movie bolstered by their anti-Nazi stance.
While Morituri is clearly a vehicle for two great thespians to work together, its subject matter makes viewers think about the ramifications of war, the folly of hubris, and the need for different perspectives to be given space to be explored. Few actors could go toe-to-toe with Brando.
6 The Gunslinger (Westworld) 7.0/10
In an homage to his role in The Magnificent Seven, Yul Brynner once again played a black-clad gunslinger in Westworld, about a futuristic theme park where every visitors’ fantasy can be fulfilled by interacting with androids in an old west setting. When one visitor accidentally runs afoul of The Gunslinger, he methodically hunts them through the frontier and the rest of the theme parks.
According to Rotten Tomatoes, Arnold Schwarzenegger based his performance in The Terminator off of Brynner’s android, which, imbued with Brynner’s powerful screen presence, evoked steely malevolence with barely any dialogue. The movie, which was written and directed by Michael Crichton, would inspire his other well-known work Jurassic Park, and The Gunslinger would make a cameo in the Westworld television series on HBO.
5 General Sergei Pavlovich Bounine (Anastasia) 7.1/10
The mystery surrounding Anastasia Nikolaevna, the eighteen-year-old Grand Duchess who was thought to have disappeared at the fall of Tsar Nicholas II, captured the fascination of the world throughout the 20th century. In the titular movie, Brynner plays General Sergei Pavlovich Bounine, an opportunist who tries to pass off an amnesiac woman as Anastasia with careful coaching.
As General Bounine, Brynner vacillates between wily conman and concerned mentor, and the rigors of the role, combined with his chemistry with actress Ingrid Bergman as the imposter Anastasia, are enough to make viewers believe that, like Bounine, she could be the real thing.
4 Vlado (The Battle Of Neretva) 7.2/10
The Battle Of Neretva is a fascinating war epic based on the heroic stand of Yugoslavian partisans against the German army in the mountains of Western Bosnia. Brynner plays Vlado, a crack demolition expert with the partisan forces who, when faced with no means of retreat by their enemies along the Neretva River, decides to press the attack despite being vastly outnumbered and protecting a large swathe of refugees.
In the biography written by his son, Yul Brynner: The Man Who Would Be King, Brynner’s ambiguous heritage—sometimes he claimed to be Russian, other times Romanian—meant he could believably portray characters from a variety of backgrounds. Rock Brynner explained that his father often liked to impishly “keep them guessing” when it came to where he was from.
3 King Mongkut (The King And I) 7.4/10
The King and I introduced the world to Yul Brynner’s most well-known role, the proud but vulnerable King of Siam whose royal children receive a Western education from a recently widowed English school teacher who travels to Siam to become their live-in governess. The king and governess gradually develop feelings for one another, and their clashing perspectives and cultural ideologies make the bond both passionate and dramatic.
Brynner had already played the King of Siam on Broadway to standing ovations since 1951, so it was only natural that the actor assume the role for the Rodgers and Hammerstein movie. The year The King and I came out in 1956, Brynner received the Academy Award for Best Actor, and he would return to the stage to play King Mongkut on and off until shortly before his death in 1985. All told, he performed the part 4,625 times on stage.
2 Chris Adams (The Magnificent Seven) 7.7/10
Before the remake of this classic Western, the 1960 version of The Magnificent Seven with Yul Brynner was one of the most bombastic and exciting action adventures around. The John Sturges movie featured a large ensemble cast including Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and Eli Wallach, but Brynner managed to stand out with a calm and magnetic performance.
Clad in all-black, Brynner’s Chris Adams cuts a striking figure as the gunsel that recruits six of his peers to help defend a small village from the dastardly Calvera and his band of marauders. For a mercenary, his values are surprisingly altruistic, and the sense of pragmatic honor he conveys is an inspiration to the other men, who are looking for a sense of self-worth and purpose at the fringes of society.
1 Ramesses II (The Ten Commandments) 7.9/10
It’s not hard to spot Yul Brynner, even among Cecil B. DeMille’s “cast of thousands.” Though the lauded director’s biblical epic might center on Charlton Heston’s stentorian performance as Moses, it’s the imperious pharaoh that steals his thunder.
Ramesses II is one of Ancient Egypt’s most famous historical figures, and Brynner brings him to life as a fully realized man with his own motivations, impulses, and moral failings. While he’s most assuredly painted as the villain, there are times when viewers catch a glimpse of a man whose hands fate has tied.