Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Lee Marvin - An Appreciation

Characteristically portrayed as a stoic hardman, Marvin is best remembered as a gruff, no-nonsense tough guy. But beneath that veneer, a big heart was beating.

To those of us who grew up in the seventies, he's probably best remembered for his role as the fearsome Major in The Dirty Dozen (1967), or for his gravelly warbling of 'Wanderin' Star' in the big-budget flop Paint Your Wagon (1969). Younger audiences may not know of him at all.

Which is a great shame, because he was a unique figure in Hollywood - not simply for his performances, but also his intelligence and outspoken views.

Marvin's Early Life

Born in 1924 in New York to working parents, Marvin had an auspicious pedigree, descending from the bloodlines of no less than Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

But as a youngster, he was often expelled from school, a distracted boy seemingly impervious to punishment. His disruptive nature in the classroom continued, even when the family relocated to Florida; there too, he was thrown out of school. Eventually, he enlisted in the US Marine Corps.

This was to be a turning point for Marvin. Enlisting at the outbreak of World War Two, he soon saw active service, sent into the Pacific Theatre.

Lee Marvin's War Experiences

Dispatched to a series of islands in the Pacific, Marvin experienced the full horror of war. Specialising as a sniper, he was often sent ahead of his platoon in a dingy. These raids culminated in Battle of Saipan , which saw heavy casualties on both sides. The severity of combat was alarming, concluding with the largest Japanese suicidal banzai charge of the war.

Marvin was wounded and almost killed when Japanese fire hit him in the backside, severing his sciatic nerve, ending his military career.

His experiences during war clouded the rest of his life. Marvin's later career as actor would define him as an on-screen tough guy, yet he was an outspoken opponent against screen violence. Having witnessed death first-hand (he tellingly described his own actions as 'murder'), he understood the nature of aggression better than most, voicing little tolerance for the fist-fights seen in John Wayne style of western.

An Unexpected Career 

After returning to New York, Marvin worked as a plumber's mate. In a bizarre twist of fate, he discovered a love for theatre whilst working a job in a local community hall.

Working hard to study the craft, Marvin soon progressed from local theatre to Broadway, then on to TV roles, catching the eye as a heavy. This would lead to significant roles in The Wild One (1953, opposite Brando) and The Big Heat (1953).

By 1965, Marvin became an international star, thanks to his double role as gun-slinging brothers in Cat Ballou, earning him an Oscar.

Big Screen Success

Interestingly, Marvin turned down the role of Colonel Douglas Mortimer in For a Few Dollars More (1965), the second in Clint Eastwood's iconic 'spaghetti western' trilogy directed by Sergio Leone, in favour of Cat Ballou - but would go on to star with Eastwood in Paint Your Wagon. He took that role over the lead offered in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969) - but this turned out to be a less wise decision.

Prior to Paint Your Wagon, Marvin arguably delivered some of his best work: as Major Reisman in The Dirty Dozen, as Walker in Point Blank (1967), and as the un-named pilot in Hell in the Pacific (1968).
By then, Marvin had become quite selective about the projects he would appear in. Once his status was established, he seemed to settle for less, declining many roles - perhaps most notably, that of General George Patton in Patton (1970) - a project he felt glorified war.

His strong anti-war feelings were best expressed in the role he chose in Sam Fuller's The Big Red One (1980), a visceral examination of the European Theatre through the eyes of American servicemen.

Lee Marvin - A Private Man with Public Views

A supporter of liberal democrats, Marvin was an early outspoken advocate for gay rights - his 1969 interview with Playboy magazine made his feelings on the subject clear, marking him as perhaps the first Hollywood star to publicly voice an opinion on this issue.

He was father to one son and three daughters with is first wife, Elizabeth Ebeling, whom he divorced in 1967. Marvin had a long-term relationship with Michelle Triola, ending in a landmark 'palimony' case that would grant future unmarried partners custodial rights (although it should be noted that Triola's attempts were actually unsuccessful).

Finally, he was married to Pamela Marvin (nee Feeley) and remained so until his death in 1987, following a sudden heart attack.

Lee Marvin was a unique force in cinema - a prematurely white mane of hair suggesting a man older than his years, he portrayed violent men obeying a certain code, and usually paying the price for it. Demonstrating a responsibility toward his performance in these roles, he sums it up himself when compared to Humphrey Bogart:

"When I hear our names linked, I feel almost a little embarrassed. Bogart was somebody and I'm somebody else. The only real parallel is that he started out pretty much as I did, playing bad guys and heels. As audiences warmed to him, he metamorphosed into a good-bad guy and finally became all good. The same thing seems to be happening to me - God forbid."

It's hard to know what kind of projects would suit a man like Lee Marvin in this current period of cinema. In an age where the target audience is ever younger, perhaps we're unlikely to see his kind again.

All the more reason to celebrate the legacy he left us with.

(Originally written for/published by Suite101.com)


  1. My fav LM role has to be as Walker in POINT BLANK. Made the guy he played in The Killers look like a piece of cherry pie.

  2. Yes I'd agree with that - it's a great movie and holds up to repeated viewings. (I've written about Point Blank on this blog; dunno how to link via this comment but you'll see it in the list of labels.)

    Thanks for checking in!

  3. my mind is blown that he turned down the role for Patton, and that he was a gay rights advocate. i love him 1000x more now