Lee Marvin: That Glorious Bastard

Only a tiresome poseur like Quentin Tarantino could think that the Hollywood pretty boys he cast in his soon-to-be released opus The Inglorious Basterds are convincing movie tough guys. Where is Lee Marvin when we need him?

You’ve probably experienced the Basterds publicity blitz. Brad Pitt looks like he stepped out of a Calvin Klein underwear ad. Folks I know who have been around him say he really is a pleasant and laid-back guy, and these are hardly the characteristics of a beady-eyed killer. Creepy Eli Roth, taking some time off from directing his degenerate torture movies, is just a leering clown – he looks like he should be squatting in the back of his Ford panel van offering Tootsie Rolls to passing tweens. And B.J. Novak? The guy is a hilarious writer and is really funny in The Office , but I’m not buying this cat as the scourge of the Third Reich.

In contrast, Lee Marvin’s tough guy legacy lives on despite the fact that his body rests with thousands of other heroes in Arlington National Cemetery. He earned that right when he was wounded fighting the Imperial Japanese Army in the Pacific as a Marine private. His Purple Heart is 100% USDA certified proof positive of his prime badassary. Who is the Hollywood tough guy of today who can dare step up to the Lee Marvin plate and take a swing?

Nobody.

Marvin got discharged from the Corps, came home and started doing crummy odd jobs to support himself – his willingness to work instead of freeloading off of others is itself an anachronism in today’s entitlement culture. He found acting and appeared in various supporting roles until he starred in a hit television series (M Squad) and moved on to bigger roles. He even won an Oscar for Cat Ballou. Serving his country, working hard, honing his craft and winning the recognition of his peers – Lee Marvin’s career had a lot in common with that of fellow all-American badass Ernest Borgnine.

How tough was the on-screen Marvin? He brawled with the Duke in Donovan’s Reef and stalked Chuck Bronson as a Mountie (!) in Death Hunt. His classic performance as the grizzled First Infantry Division squad leader in The Big Red One has inspired legions of American sergeants.

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Check him out in 1967’s Point Blank. As Walker, a single-minded human tsunami of violence, he smashes through the psychedelic Sixties’ Summer of Love with his .357 and mantra of “I want my money!” This flick works for me on several levels. As a soldier, I respect his character’s fearsome firepower choices; as an attorney, I find his character’s single-minded focus on getting paid inspiring.

Remade in 1999 as the tepid Payback, Point Blank was harder-core than any of the watered-down, focus-tested, suit-neutered, glorified filmstrips that limp out of the studios today and pretend to be edgy.

For sheer cinematic awesomeness, his performance in The Dirty Dozen as Major Reisman, leader of the cutthroat band of condemned convicts on a mission to solve the Nazi overpopulation crisis, is never going to be matched. It’s actually unfair to even use it as a standard against which to measure subsequent action films. In the teachable moment regarding action movies that accompanies the release of The Inglorious Basterds, The Dirty Dozen would be Sgt. Crowley’s Full Moon beer while Little Quentin’s movie would be the President’s Bud Light.

Marvin was totally fearless, including when he should have been afraid. He did a terrifying musical, Paint Your Wagon, and even had something of a hit song – Wanderin’ Star. Sadly, that little ditty sounds like a duet between Tom Waits and a drunken leaf blower, but it did lead to Marvin being paid homage to by The Simpsons – another great honor he shares with Ernest Borgnine.

In his personal life, his shacking up with his girlfriend led to a lawsuit that led to the creation of the legal concept of “palimony,” empowering a new generation of golddiggers. And politically, according to the always accurate Wikipedia, he was a liberal Democrat – hey, nobody’s perfect. But if you get shot fighting for this country, dude, for all I care you can vote for a transsexual Marxist cocker spaniel that buys into global warming.

Hollywood needs to look harder for its tough guys because the new ones just can’t cut it. All the fake blood and stylized mayhem in the world are no substitute for the hard edge of real life experience that WWII vets like Lee Marvin and Jimmy Stewart – I should say, Brigadier General James Stewart – brought to their roles. Today, the critics’ favorite director sends boy toys, torture pornographers and comedians to battle the SS. Yawn.

If Tarantino really wanted to kill Nazis, he could just bore them to death with his endless, pseudo-academic dissertations on so-bad-they-are-just-plain-bad B-movies. Too bad Eisenhower didn’t have a videotape of QT sounding off at Cannes about his personal artistic vision to use to soften up Omaha Beach. But fortunately for us, he had men like Lee Marvin.

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