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Ballad of a Soldier: Lee Marvin

The Hollywood icon who took no prisoners

Lee Marvin liked to fight the Second World War. He fought it all the time! He fought it killin’ everyone that was coming up the highway. But then when I got in the picture he started just starin’ at me. And he stared at me and he stared at me. I knew something was gonna happen to me bad right then. And then he would jump right at me, jump right over to the sideways at me and there I was, fighting the Second World War. I’d go sideways over the couch, he’d go sideways over the couch. I’d jump over behind the couch and here he’d come Ku-thud, Ku-thud, Ku-thud so I couldn’t quite get away from him.—June Carter Cash

Cash reminisces on her most recent record as if she never did quite get away from Lee Marvin, as combative offscreen as on. One thing’s for sure: he earned his place in silver screen history as honestly as his burial plot at Arlington.

Legend has it that he caught the acting bug when a local theater production lost their leading man and asked the guy fixing the toilets to fill his shoes. An acting amateur, perhaps, but this wolfish plumber had experienced the primitive disappointment of failing to secure the souvenir teeth of a dead Japanese soldier he’d shot with his father’s .45 (someone beat him to it) and the humiliation of his evacuation from the front lines due to a buttock wound, which, years later, would be self-deprecatingly reduced to an interview punchline. Small wonder his hair had turned completely white by his fourth decade. At the age of 21 Marvin knew enough of humankind’s cruelty; he knew its horrors as well as its seductive draw. He knew what real violence looked like, and this knowledge seemed to haunt his every move. As one of only three to escape slaughter in his marine platoon’s ambush, he was all too attuned to the absurdity and guilt of survival. “You’ve only got one thing to lose, your life . . . But what’s that?” he tells Burt Lancaster in The Professionals (66) in a prototypical Marvin (anti-) recruitment speech. When it’s your turn to go, it’s your turn to go, and so when Angie Dickinson attempts to sidestep her well-earned fate in The Killers, Marvin effortlessly barks, “Lady, I just don’t have the time.”

He was just as no-nonsense in the real world: a guy who tossed a prankster roommate out of a second-story window with the same nonchalance as he did the initial script of Point Blank. No, Hollywood didn’t change Lee Marvin much, it just gave him a playground within which he could wage internal battles with himself over his cowardice, failure, masculinity, violent inclinations, and quest for a reason to crawl out of bed every morning. “To show my strength is nothing,” he once said of his acting. “To show my weakness is everything.”

It’s not hard to view the reception June Carter Cash was met with as anything other than a hazing of sorts, a mandatory test Marvin would lay on anyone wanting to get in the ring with him. (See the sequence in The Dirty Dozen (67) in which Marvin visits each of the human time-bomb candidates for his suicide mission, employing a variety of psychological and physical tactics to identify their strengths and weaknesses. He struts off with everyone’s trust—and everyone’s number.) In Point Blank (67), Walker’s courtship of his future wife entails the two bestially circling each other, and later, in the ultimate Eros-and-Thanatos cocktail, Angie Dickinson breathlessly tries to beat some feeling back into Marvin’s rock-solid chest, knocking him semiconscious with a pool stick, and only then breaking through to the shriveled heart inside.

If distinguishing the maneuvers of war from those of everyday life was hard for the man named after General Robert E. Lee, it was equally difficult for others to separate the real Lee Marvin from his movie persona. “I thought if I got out of there merely disfigured I’d be lucky,” remarks Candice Bergen of her anxious meeting with him. In Lee: A Romance, a sunset-strewn ode to the gentleman behind the roughneck, Marvin’s widow Pamela notes that he “exploded into a room.” A Marvin interview is chock full of italicized phrases and enunciations, sprinkled with many a “baby” as he tells it like it is. Journalists often noted the charming difficulty of following this Ultimate Drinking Buddy’s stream-of-consciousness conversational style. His performances onscreen and off are laden with punctuation in all the right-wrong spots, in a singular mode of elocution—improvised or carefully premeditated, it doesn’t matter. He’s also, however, quite the ruminating man of the world, all too self-aware of his work, his stardom, and the complexly mirrored relationship between a film’s content and its audience. He’d entered at the bottom of the Hollywood food chain and risen during a time of upheaval in both America and the film industry. Movie Star Marvin walked a sublime line between old-school masculinity and new-school subversive spirit, most famously capitalized upon in The Dirty Dozen. During this transitional period, armed with barely disguised and irresistible contempt, he does exactly what The Man tells him to, but still somehow does what he least expects or intends; as the box-office grosses indicated, there was something nearly every American could love about that.

Even to the TBS-raised boys of my generation The Dirty Dozen was a yardstick for masculinity. But for Marvin, it opened up riskier career opportunities than came his way in his early days as the go-to guy for boo-hiss stock characters. Even playing second fiddle to one of Hollywood’s elder statesmen, pre-prematurely graying Marvin’s lithe frame commands the CinemaScopic corners of Bad Day at Black Rock (55), a physical embodiment of the deep-rooted bigotry Spencer Tracy’s liberal-humanist crusader takes on. Although he’s not even the leader of the bank-heist trio in Richard Fleischer’s underrated Violent Saturday (55), he’s given the standout powder-blue suit and the character shading of a Regular Joe monologue about romance and life within the law, plus a most distinctive demise by pitchfork. In Seven Men from Now (56), Budd Boetticher accessorizes Marvin with an emerald-green ascot, visually linking him to its ubiquitous saloon poker tables and to Gail Russell’s dress as she trades a cup of coffee for insinuations regarding her adulterous feelings toward the vulnerable avenger played by Randolph Scott—with all implicated parties claustrophobically present. Boetticher’s film establishes a rocky moral terrain in which adultery is as much a crime as robbery or murder, and Marvin epitomizes those willing to overstep anyone or anything in the name of immediate gratification and release.

In 1962, Hollywood’s popular kids inducted a new member into John Ford’s ongoing exploration of Western mythologies in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Whip held ready, Marvin looms over Jimmy Stewart’s Apollonian good intentions, barking “Stand and deliver!” The embodiment of evil is echoed in every leather-clad Marvin swagger, questioning the who, what, when, where, and why that makes a Hero.

Marvin could go from a snarl to a laugh in a split second, and mean both of them equally. In fact, sneers and laughs generally went hand in hand. All along, the actor had been snickering at everyone for thinking things were so black and white until Cat Ballou (65) supplied him with the right vehicle to show us what was so funny. The Heroic Gunslinger may have been adequate for the pages of the serials, but the tumultuous Sixties had arrived, and it was time to see Liberty Valance gunned down . . . by Liberty Valance. Marvin’s Kid Shelleen, formerly the righteous deliverer of justice, has lapsed into drunken disillusionment over his own uselessness. Meanwhile, Kid’s bad-egg brother, Marvin again, makes his living as a killer-for-hire. Victim, clown, executioner—all are bred from the same man, it was time for simplistic archetypes to go. His point made, Marvin slumps out of the frame and rides off into a decidedly more nuanced career.

Even if audiences didn’t quite grasp the tongue-in-cheek comment on generic oppositions, they were certainly amused. Cat Ballou (with perhaps the manliest makeover montage ever committed to celluloid) won Marvin the Oscar—in a rare Academy celebration of comedic achievement—and advanced him to the front ranks of a post-Code, postwar industry nearing the antihero renaissance in the Seventies. If he had been our villain in the Fifties, he was our hero (not to mention the new ugly-beautiful) in the Sixties, when the Good and the Bad were less superficially differentiated and ¬violence was an undeniable fact of life. In the hands of the new inheritors of machismo—Don Siegel, Robert Aldrich, John Boorman, Samuel Fuller—Marvin was turned outside in. As he told character actor Strother Martin, “We play all kinds of sex psychos, nuts, creeps, perverts, and weirdos. We laugh it off saying what the hell, it’s just a character. But deep inside, it’s you, baby.” All these conflicting impulses and inclinations are left to seethe within the Marvin oxhide physique.

To offset some of the strain, his career-peak filmography is laden with doubling—the Great White Marvin vs. the Great Warrior Mifune, the Great American Hero vs. the chiseled Aryan doppelgänger in The Big Red One (80). In a touch hard to imagine as unintentional, his partner in The Killers (64) is named “Lee.” Clu Gulager’s cackling fresh-face is entirely in it for the fun; he doesn’t need a scotch and water to wash away the aftertaste of the day’s misdeeds, and his callousness conjures the nonchalantly destructive Marvin of yore. But his elder partner’s motivation remains enigmatic—a precursor to that of Walker, the shadow figure and driving force of Point Blank. Neither of these characters is after the payoff, which has been reduced to the only spot on the horizon left to head toward. Point Blank’s Walker is one of cinema’s most captivating machines. Betrayal and loss have induced a numbing regression of the soul, as in many of Marvin’s characters, but Walker poignantly sets out on a disconnected march through the film’s monochromatically vacant and venal world. Whether ghost or mere mortal, his gracefully focused Neanderthal methodically works his way through his laundry list of targets—an undeniable presence yet simultaneously a vaporous embodiment of bitter vengeance barely clinging to Boorman’s variegated frames.

Siegel said Marvin could move like a cat or a ballet dancer; he was so skilled at maneuvering his ivory-maned heft across the screen you almost never noticed how calculated every gesture was. His agitated and volatile energy functioned as a counterweight to Brando’s high-viscosity aloofness in The Wild One (53), but Marvin eventually learned to incorporate the latter’s brooding into his own staccato restlessness, resulting in many a show-stopping study of the Soulful Man of Steel. He achieved what enamored Gorky Park co-star William Hurt referred to as “a grandiose intimacy,” and it is this captivating essence that distinguishes him from Mitchum and Bogart, fellow masters of the coolly intense.

Its title supplying the loose motivation for its protagonists, Pocket Money (72) showcases Marvin’s unexpected ability for projecting charming awkwardness and compensates for its lack of narrative momentum with the subversive sight of two of the Hollywood’s smoothest leading men—Marvin and Paul Newman—awkwardly perched atop mules. A portrait of masculine ineffectuality, the film gives us Marvin in a cheap suit and dusty fedora he never seems to take off, with a first hour that continually cuts on our inept hero mid-punchline or comical reaction shot, subtly deriving cohesion from his termite jesting.

But the post–Dirty Dozen era also brought Marvin into a series of more memorable antagonisms, duked out in richly drawn auteurist microcosms. Underlying each of them is a sense of virility on the brink, every showdown a demonstration of testosterone-fueled bravado at its most nugatory. First round: Marvin meets Mifune, a personal hero he was apt to impersonate while intoxicated, in John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific (68). As the two sole cast members, their language barrier reducing communication to its most primitive, they fight out WWII in allegory to the bitter end. Marvin was right at home in Michael Ritchie’s Prime Cut (72), a metal grinder of a flick. His weathered Chicago mobster is called back into action to take on improbably named lifelong nemesis Mary Ann (Gene Hackman), a freewheelin’ purveyor of dope, pork, and flesh. A perfectly compact (80 minutes, baby), absurd, and unapologetic carnival of mayhem, Prime Cut pits Marvin’s sly smiles against Hackman’s (guess who wins?). He similarly squares off against the bulging eyes and hammer-wielding sadism of Ernest Borgnine’s railwayman in Robert Aldrich’s Emperor of the North (73), as sinewy freight hopper “A No. 1.” But Marvin’s inconclusive conquest of the train is just another confirmation of the futility of man’s atavistic instincts. Sure, he can talk the talk and walk the walk, but his solitary figure disappears from view behind the mountain, ultimate victor of nothing, to no one.

For moviegoers the 2004 release of The Big Red One: The Reconstruction was a posthumous reintroduction to the cracked and crater-riddled face that David Denby pronounced “a movie all in itself.” Over the decades it took to get his autobiographical pet project made, Fuller held on to Marvin as his first choice to play the wizened sergeant. By 1980 Marvin was a grandpa who had returned to his childhood sweetheart, and was now dividing his time between Tucson and the open seas. The serenity he’d found in a lifetime of experience brought much to his performance. As the squad’s Belgian hostess plays piano and entertains the privates celebrating their most recent victory, Marvin sits beside her in a classical pose of contemplation, processing and putting away the trauma of the day.

The Big Red One derives its power from the textured asides Fuller employs to cinematically define the war experience: a recurring cut to a limp arm in the Normandy surf, the waves washing up over the wristwatch documenting the passing of time for the soldiers on the beach; a boy freed from a concentration camp chewing an apple as he sits with Marvin under a tree, pawing the dirt and grass of liberated ground; a little girl running her hands over Marvin’s battered helmet, and returning it to him with flowers woven into the netting. The boy dies on Marvin’s shoulders shortly after he lifts him from his peaceful streamside spot, and the girl is cut down by a sniper’s bullet. In Fuller’s film, Innocence and Experience magnetically attract, and the war’s young victims are wordlessly drawn to Marvin. As the sarge with no name who has survived not one but two wars and who can only paternally watch over his soldiers as they learn their lessons, he finds fleeting tranquility with the children.

Marvin’s posthumous encore came on the heels of the new generation of reservoir dogs who savor the transubstantiating fusion of Marvin and Magnum. The fully realized Big Red One helps to prove that the fetishization of gun-toting, fast-talking badasses sells the man short. It’s not easy to imagine what Marvin would make of the post-Brokeback cultural climate (rescuing the cowboy from anachronism with a new streak of sensitivity and a sob-story lifetime of repression) and worse, the relegation of putative carrier of the torch Samuel L. Jackson to a whole new tier of Snakes on a Plane camp. Such a fate is foreshadowed by Marvin’s final appearances in films like the Chuck Norris actioner Delta Force (86) or even Gorky Park (83), where Marvin reverts to his nefarious roots, gallivanting around as the most perverse of the powerful in spa robe or sable fur hat, lackadaisically waiting for everyone else to catch up. His embarrassment showing, he doesn’t even waste a snarl on Hurt’s virtuous cop because at the end of the day he knows “corruption is part of us all, the very heart of us.” It only comes down to who can gracefully embrace it. And, oh yeah, he notes, “there’s a sliver of food on your lip . . . and it’s not even caviar.”

Homer Simpson may have been traumatized by the sight and sound of Lee and Clint carrying a tune (and in Marvin’s case, proudly walking away with an honest-to-God gold record), but Paint Your Wagon director Joshua Logan testified that the actor’s image remained untarnished: “Not since Attila the Hun swept across Europe leaving 500 years of total blackness has there been a man like Lee Marvin.” Walker’s projectile stride down Boorman’s purgatory corridor near the beginning of Point Blank is one of the greatest surreal shuffles to Judgment Day in all of cinema. Those resounding footsteps set the pace for his eerily sedate existentialism masquerading as a bat-outta-hell revenge mission. A renegade lock of hair bounces atop his wide forehead, a reminder of his new vulnerability and the wounds that cash rewards and gunplay can never heal.

Marvin’s preferred onomatopoeia was ka-voom rather than Cash’s ka-thud. In a verb-laden interview (you can’t reproduce a Marvin maxim without his accompanying pantomime) with Grover Lewis in 1972, he explains why he passed on Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch: “It had all the action and all the blood and all that shit but it didn’t have the ultimate ka-voom, you know? It didn’t have the one-eye-slowly-opening aspect it should have had.” Marvin wanted the audience to grimace and stiffen, but he always wanted them to look back, captivated by what they had seen, gradually finding poignancy in human nature’s initially repellent capacities. Hollywood was founded on making the facts of life palatable, and then along came Lee Marvin to help us swallow human cruelty a little more easily, publicly embodying our demons with a touch of humor and panache so that we can all sleep better at night. Someone notes his bloodshot eyes at the end of Cat Ballou and Marvin retorts, “You ought to see ’em from my side.”