February 19 would have been Lee Marvin’s 90th birthday. So says Dwayne Epstein, who ought to know, because he’s the author of an authoritative new biography, Lee Marvin: Point Blank.
Dwayne has asked me to dedicate today’s Beverly in Movieland blog post to his favorite subject, and I’ve been easily persuaded. Dwayne’s a deserving guy, and besides, I wouldn’t want the ghost of Lee Marvin coming back to beat me up, or dangle me from an upper-story window (as he did with poor Angie Dickinson in The Killers).
Dwayne insists Lee Marvin ushered in a motion picture era that’s still with us, what he calls the Cinema of Violence. A look at the many highlights of Marvin’s career – ranging from Bad Day at Black Rock to The Wild One to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to (yes) Point Blank – reveals a wide range of tough-guy roles. Even Marvin’s Oscar-winning performance in 1965’s Cat Ballou, though wildly comic, casts him as a mismatched pair of gunslingers. Marvin’s massive physique, coupled with his unmistakable whiskey croak, immediately signifies him as man who courts danger and meets it halfway.
In Dwayne’s telling, you have to look to Marvin’s own biography for the source of his dark power. There’s an odd episode that occurred well before he was born: his father’s beloved uncle and guardian, on an arctic expedition with the legendary Commander Peary, was murdered under mysterious circumstances, though for years the deed was hushed up. Says Dwayne, “The devastating effect this had on [Marvin’s father] was incalculable. For the rest of his days he kept his most vulnerable emotions in check as a result of this primal act. In contrast his son, a recognized international film icon, would spend his adult life exploring the emotional impact of violence, and its effect on the human experience.”
As a growing boy, Marvin constantly butted heads with his father and with school authorities. But the prime shaper of his own life was his experience in World War II. He left high school in 1942 to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps, and faced the enemy close-up on Saipan, during a battle in which most of his unit was killed. He himself was shot in the buttocks: later, on a hospital ship, he checked his wallet and discovered “a gaping, blood-soaked hole through a photo of his entire family.” He also brought away from the battlefield a letter he took off the body of a dead Japanese soldier. When he had it translated, he was startled to find that the soldier’s thoughts about war and life back home were hardly different from his own. The emotions this letter roused in him later contributed to a World War II film he made in 1968 opposite the great Toshiro Mifune, Hell in the Pacific.
Hell in the Pacific was hardly the first war film – or the last – in which he starred. In Stanley Kramer’s Eight Iron Men, he taught the rest of the cast authentic military behavior, including how to die convincingly. Much later, he led the cast of such classics as The Dirty Dozen and Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One. According to Dwayne, Marvin once told a friend that he was a trained killer with an unquenchable need for violence. He’d go into barrooms and deliberately pick a fight, coming home with bruises and black eyes. The current diagnosis would be PTSD: because Lee Marvin experienced violence for real, he brought that reality onto the world’s movie screens. Quentin Tarantino is only one of today’s filmmakers who identify themselves as Sons of Lee.
Happy birthday to Jeff, who was born one day before Lee Marvin, and a whole lot of years later. May Jeff’s life be far more peaceful than Marvin’s was.