The Westerns of Lee Marvin
Updated: Feb 6
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Western tough-guy par excellence
The other day we were talking about how good Lee Marvin was in a Randolph Scott oater. It’s time for a Marvinorama, a Lee Western-career retrospective. It will do nicely as the first of our projected series The Westerns of…
ID the Western
Lee Marvin’s natural-born toughness and wartime experience in the Marines made him well suited, once he went into movies, for parts as heavies, killers and soldiers. He will probably be most remembered for roles in war films such as The Glory Brigade (1953), Attack (1956), The Dirty Dozen (1967), Hell in the Pacific and Sergeant Ryker (both 1968) and The Big Red One (1980). But he also had quite a line in Westerns. In fact if you rank his pictures by ‘popularity’ on IMDb, for what that’s worth, three of the top four are in that genre (Paint Your Wagon, The Professionals and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance).
Lee's first Western role was in 1952 when he featured as the saloon thug Tinhorn (his poker game with Audie is superb) in the Don Siegel-directed Audie Murphy oater The Duel at Silver Creek, for Universal.
He played poker with Audie in Silver Creek
Two months later he got another part in Columbia’s top-notch Randolph Scott picture Hangman’s Knot. It’s one of those ‘tail-end of the Civil War’ stories. CSA Major Matt Stewart (Scott) and his men attack a shipment of Union gold being escorted by Nevada Volunteers. They succeed, with Lt. Bainter (Marvin) gleefully shooting down the boys in blue.
"What's happened to you?" the major asks Bainter. "Is it that easy to kill a man?"
"Well, isn't it?" the lieutenant replies. "What else have we been doing for the last five years?" Classic Marvin, in a war film by any other name.
Marvin was back with Randy the following year in Columbia’s The Stranger Wore a Gun, a Harry Joe Brown production directed by André De Toth. He was good as a henchman (with co-worker Ernest Borgnine), though the picture was not one of Randy’s or André’s best. Marvin is about the best actor on the set after Scott. Randy and Lee have a proper quick-draw showdown (you may imagine who wins).
Bad guy for Randolph Scott to shoot
Marvin would do two other Westerns in ‘53, both with Rock Hudson: Seminole, helmed by Budd Boetticher and released by United Artists in March, and Gun Fury, a Raoul Walsh picture released by Columbia in November. So he was certainly getting directed by some Western experts.
1953 Westerns with Rock Hudson
Seminole was not too bad as a Western, if a bit plodding, and Marvin was a hard-bitten army sergeant - he was in danger of becoming typecast – while in Gun Fury he and Neville Brand are outlaw gang members. Lee has an eye for the ladies and is rather bolshie, to gang boss Philip Carey’s annoyance. It was shot as a 3D picture so Marvin gets to fire his Winchester directly into the camera.
So far, though, Lee Marvin had had little more than quite minor roles in Westerns. That was about to change.
Fox’s The Raid (1954) was another Civil War story, not so much a cowboy movie as a war film. Written by Sydney Boehm from the Herbert Ravenal Sass novel Affair at St Albans, it tells of the Confederate raid on St Albans, Vermont, in October 1864. The picture starts with the usual mendacious ‘This is a true story’ claim and proceeds to play havoc with history, but that’s par for the course. Van Heflin leads the raid, Peter Graves is the captain, James Best and Claude Akins are lieutenants and Marvin is the unreliable, violent soldier who nearly blows the whole thing. The picture has an almost Dirty Dozen vibe to it, with the dangerous raid behind enemy lines, so maybe Lee was practicing.
With fellow-Rebs Van Heflin and Peter Graves
The following year Marvin added John Sturges to his list of top Western directors and landed a great part in MGM’s A-picture Bad Day at Black Rock (if you call that a Western). It’s a superb movie, Western or not, and Marvin excelled in it. In a way it’s a reverse High Noon because the scared but gritty lone good guy (Spencer Tracy) comes in on the train and finds a whole town of bad men. It’s an anti-Western in the sense that the good guy wears a suit and is from the city, while the country-town Westerners are the corrupt ones. Marvin is (obviously) one of those. He is made sheriff at one point and straps on a revolver which he attempts to twirl. He is playing at cowboys. He and Ernest Borgnine are (again) a pair of lowlife thugs who act as henchmen to ruthless and menacing town boss Robert Ryan.
Fine film: Black Rock
In 1956 Marvin teamed with Randolph Scott for the third time, and was cast (very well) as Masters, the charming, nasty, clever villain, in his flamboyance the antithesis of Scott’s character, in Seven Men from Now, the first of that great series of Westerns that Budd Boetticher and Scott did together at the end of the 1950s. They all featured a charismatic villain, though few were as good as Marvin’s. It was a great role and very well handled.
Another quick-draw showdown with Randy
He won't do any better
Just the following month (Warners released Seven Men in August ’56) Universal came out with Pillars of the Sky, also featuring Marvin, though he has a more minor role in this one, as an Irish sergeant (what else?) who dies gallantly. In fact one of the better scenes of the movie is the carousing of Marvin, Ward Bond and Jeff Chandler on a hilltop as their comrades slip away in the night and they remain to convince the Indians that the camp is still occupied.
Westerns were put on pause for a bit now. There were two semi-Westerns, or movies with Western tinges, Raintree County (1957) and The Missouri Traveler (1958), and he did a couple of Wagon Train episodes, but the next ‘true’ Western was John Wayne’s The Comancheros in 1961.
Just briefly, Raintree County was a plush MGM picture directed by Edward Dmytryk, a slightly soapy romance/war drama with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, in which Marvin was entertainingly cast as Orville 'Flash' Perkins. The Missouri Traveler was a syrupy Disney picture which was Brandon de Wilde’s last ‘Western’ (vaguely) as a child star (he was noted for Shane, of course). Marvin? Rarely has such a good Western actor been so weak, but it was a poorly written and directed picture which gave him little scope.
As for the Wagon Train episodes, that was a quality show and Marvin’s ones are very good.
The Comancheros was a pretty formulaic early-60s John Wayne Western but Marvin had the best part, as the partially-scalped Tully Crow. Most regrettably, though, Duke is obliged to shoot him after only one reel, just when his character was getting interesting.
Lee is the semi-scalped Tully Crow
But he was back with Wayne the following year and this time under John Ford, when he was cast as the eponymous outlaw in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Although it has its flaws, this is one of the ‘important’ Western movies, a somber tale of myth and the ‘end-of-the-West’ – as discussed in the first post on this blog. Marvin was splendid as the charismatic villain, essentially a bully. Of course the title already told his fate, but as the bad guy he had to perish anyway; no surprises there. Ford took to Marvin immediately. The two had much in common – periodic alcoholism, a passion for the sea, notable service in World War II, as well as quite liberal politics. And, as Scott Eyman says in his biography of Ford, “the fact that Marvin was descended from a brother of George Washington didn’t hurt either.”
One of his most famous roles, as Liberty Valance
There was more TV that year, an episode of The Virginian and a Bonanza one.
In 1965 Marvin scooped the awards for his double performance as Eli 'Kid' Shelleen and Tim Strawn in Cat Ballou. He got the Best Actor Oscar, Best Actor Comedy or Musical Golden Globe, Best Foreign Actor BAFTA and National Board of Review Best Actor prize, as well as Best Actor at the Berlin International Film Festival. Not a bad haul. And in fact he showed a considerable gift for comedy (though he said that they really ought to have awarded the prizes to his horse). It is indeed a highly entertaining performance, as both the drunk who cleans up to fight the sinister false-nosed gunslinger killer, and said killer.
Two for the price of one
Another comedy Western (though less successful) would follow in 1969 but first, in 1966, Marvin led the team of The Professionals (though in fact Burt Lancaster got top billing) as they went south of the border on their dangerous mission – again with tinges of The Dirty Dozen. It was Richard Brooks’s best Western (not that he did that many) and he was Oscar-nominated for it; it was one of the best pictures the genre gave us in the mid-60s, probably the best. Marvin is tough as all get out as the gritty soldier leading the platoon, and there are enough plot twists and stirring action to make this one of his best Westerns.
Lee led the professionals
Non-Westerns The Dirty Dozen and Point Blank then made Marvin into a major Hollywood star. Afterwards, although Paramount’s big-budget comedy musical Paint Your Wagon in 1969 was not received kindly by the critics, nor did it do well at the box-office, it did mean that Lee Marvin’s (wandrin’) star rose because his ‘song’ (I think even his fans will understand the inverted commas) stayed at No. 1 in the UK charts for three weeks in March 1970, one of the unlikeliest hits ever. Clint Eastwood was hardly Pavarotti either. Once again Marvin was nominated for a Golden Globe - Best Actor, Comedy or Musical – though this time he didn’t win.
A much better Western followed hard on its hooves when the rather charming picture Monte Walsh came out a year later. Adapted from the episodic novel of Jack Schaefer, it was an elegiac end-of-the-West account of cowpokes out of place in the new world with Marvin in the title role, Jack Palance as his pard Chet Rollins and Jeanne Moreau as the whore-with-a-heart-of-gold Martine. It was very well done. Marvin, still under 50, was great as the aging puncher who can’t bring himself to believe that the Old West is no more.
Pocket Money in 1972, a present-day story in which Marvin co-starred with Paul Newman, had Western touches. Marvin and Newman did well opposite each other in a tale about a naïve Newman and rather slow-witted Marvin who get mixed up in a cross-border cattle smuggling scheme, with Strother Martin entertaining (as ever) as a crooked rancher. But the next ‘proper’ Western came in 1974 in the rather endearing The Spikes Gang, with Marvin as grizzled old outlaw Harry Spikes, who takes under his wing some green youths. The picture, fashionably shot in Almeria, Spain, wasn’t terribly well received, and it got nowhere at the box-office, but Marvin entered into the spirit of it with gusto.
He mentors young boys. Badly.
Marvin’s last Western (unless you count the 1930s Yukon action/adventure yarn Death Hunt in 1981 with Charles Bronson) came in 1976 when he led the cast in yet another comedy, The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday, an unfortunate farewell with a miscast Oliver Reed as co-star. In fact Marvin saved it from oblivion. The role was written with James Garner in mind, which one can understand, but Marvin did it as well as the script allowed. During filming he and Reed had a drinking contest, which Reed won after ten hours when Marvin fell unconscious.
It was the end of a fine career in the noble genre. For me he was best as the villain, especially the charming-rogue kind. He worked with some of the greatest Western directors and opposite some of the greatest Western actors, and he was one of those people the camera seemed drawn to. Certainly the viewer always is, when he is on screen, even to the point of eclipsing the good guy star.
Great Western actor