WolfmanOz at the Movies #54

A real tough guy

Born Lamont Waltman Marvin Jr. on February 19th, 1924, Lee Marvin, known for his premature white hair and bass voice, grew from playing hard-boiled vicious tough guy characters into one of the leading movie stars of the 1960s, and one of my favourites from this era.

His childhood was tough. His father was abusive and he suffered from dyslexia and ADHD but in 1942 in enlisted in the US marine Corps where he served as a scout sniper in the Pacific Theatre during WWII and participated in 21 Japanese islands landings.

He was badly wounded at the Battle of Saipan in 1944 and after over a year of medical treatment in navy hospitals he was given a medical discharge with decorations including the Purple Heart, the Presidential Unit Citation, the American Campaign Medal, the WWII Victory Medal and the Combat Action Ribbon. This was one serious guy who served with outstanding distinction in some of the most brutal battles of WWII.

After the war he sort of accidentally fell into acting in upstate New York and by the early 1950s he was starting to appear in films, invariably as a supporting villain.

He became noticed with 2 roles in 1953: as the vicious hoodlum in The Big Heat who threw boiling coffee into the face of his girlfriend and opposite Marlon Brando in the motorcycle gang film The Wild One.

Throughout the 50s he would alternate between films and TV, often playing the heavy, and by 1957 he debuted as the leading man in the TV series M Squad as a Chicago cop.

For me, his breakout film role was as the title character in 1962s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Here he was cast opposite two of Hollywoods greatest superstars in John Wayne and James Stewart and he more than held his own as the terrifyingly vicious outlaw. It’s my favourite John Ford western.

Another top villainous role was as the efficient professional assassin in 1964s The Killers, but in 1965 he finally became a top star for his totally offbeat and marvellous comic dual role in the spoof western Cat Ballou.

I have always found Cat Ballou rather uneven but whenever Marvin is on screen the film lights up. He cleaned up nearly all the major best actor awards in 1965 including winning the Academy Award.

Now Marvin was in the major league and followed up with Ship Of Fools and another favourite of mine in Richard Brooks western The Professionals with Burt Lancaster.

He had the biggest hit of his career in 1967 with the extremely popular and entertaining The Dirty Dozen where he plays a major assigned to lead a group of army misfits to perform an almost impossible and suicidal mission just before D-Day.

At the end of decade he even appeared in a western musical, Paint Your Wagon with Clint Eastwood. Although overlong and tedious in stretches; and, despite his extremely limited singing ability, he had a number one hit with his rendition of the song Wand’rin’ Star.

In the 1970s Marvin had a more variety of roles but the quality of the films he was appearing were not of the standard of his films of the 1960s.

He did have one last top leading role as the sergeant in Samual Fuller’s excellent 1980 war drama The Big Red One about the experiences of a US infantry unit in North Africa and Europe.

A heavy drinker and smoker throughout his life, Marvin died of a heart attack on August 29th, 1987, aged only 63.

He was buried with full military honours at Arlington National Cemetery.