The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Lee Marvin

Last week, we took at look at the career of actress Charlize Theron – one of the great modern action heroines. This week’s subject is another action superstar, albeit one from a very different era…

Lee Marvin

I wonder if we’ll ever see the likes of Lee Marvin again. Sure, every generation has its action icons, but there are very few modern guys who personify cool and machismo like Lee Marvin did in his time. While not the most imposing figure (he was tall and wiry) Marvin had an intensity about him, a kind of wildness behind the eyes, that made him such an irreplaceable icon. Prematurely white-haired, Marvin only really became a star once he hit early middle-age. Not conventionally handsome and rather mean-looking, Marvin typically played sadistic bullies in his early days in movies like VIOLENT SATURDAY or THE BIG HEAT.

Things started to turn around for him when he played the evil Liberty Valance in one of John Ford’s last great films, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, where he squared-off with two Hollywood greats, John Wayne and James Stewart. While that role won him lots of fans, his big break really came a few years later when he sent up that part and won an Oscar for CAT BALLOU, where he played both the main baddie (a gunman with a fake nose) and the drunken, cowardly hero (the baddie’s twin brother). While a goofy film, that movie really showed off a range people didn’t expect, and with his new clout Marvin started getting lead roles in action movies – and as the good guy to boot.

Embodying a cynical edge that was so perfect for that era, Lee Marvin became both a hero of the counter-culture and the old Hollywood guard, being able to move back and forth between old-fashioned westerns like MONTE WALSH and cutting-edge movies like John Boorman‘s POINT BLANK (based on the “Parker” novels and remade by Mel Gibson as PAYBACK). Despite having a bad problem with the bottle that made him old before his time, Marvin managed to carry his stardom forward right until the day he died, with his services being in such high demand that he was able to share top-billing with Chuck Norris in THE DELTA FORCE despite having a relatively small part. While he made a few missteps in his career, such as turning down the part of Quint in JAWS (not that anyone but Robert Shaw could have played it so well), Marvin’s still considered one of the absolute toughest hombres to ever hit the silver screen and if by chance you don’t know his work, I hope this article will inspire you to rundown a couple of his flicks. You can’t go wrong.

His Best Work

Robert Aldrich‘s THE DIRTY DOZEN is one of the landmark movies of the sixties but it rarely gets its due. Consider the fact that it really fell in-between two distinct generations in Hollywood film-making– the conservative golden age and a more liberal “new Hollywood” that shook up what was deemed accessible or not on the big screen. At the time, THE DIRTY DOZEN was a war movie unlike any that had ever been seen. It was a far-cry from the gung-ho, patriotic John Wayne-style war movies that were still popular at the time, showing war to be an ugly thing full of shades of grey where our “heroes” are actually a gang of unrepentant criminals forced on a suicide mission to redeem themselves. Perversely, their climatic redemption involves wholesale slaughter that’s arguably worse than the crimes they’ve been imprisoned and condemned for. Lee Marvin, as the no-nonsense military man in charge of the dozen, became a megastar on the merits of this film and he cuts an imposing figure. A deeply cynical hero but also one that’s wholly devoted to doing his duty without questioning the brass (who he despises) that sent him on this mission as a kind of punishment, Marvin captured something that resonated deeply with turbulent time, and it’s a film that holds up beautifully today.

His Most Underrated Film

While THE DIRTY DOZEN was a deeply ambivalent look at war, THE BIG RED ONE was something else. Marvin himself was a vet (a former Marine who was wounded in the Battle of Saipan in WW2), and as such he tapped into something really deep with his part as a grizzled Sergeant doing his best to get his squad through the the second world war without getting killed. Sam Fuller was a director that pushed the boundaries throughout his Hollywood career, and this was his kind of last hurrah. Barely acknowledged at the time of its release (despite a co-starring part for the then red-hot Mark Hamill) THE BIG RED ONE got re-examined critically after the late Fuller’s director’s cut – which runs a full forty minutes longer than the theatrical cut – got restored. What was once little more than an action-heavy war film is now a lyrical, intentionally episodic war epic that captures the brutality of war (including a heavy scene set in a liberated concentration camp) and the absolute insanity of it all. It’s one of Marvin’s best performances and inconceivably, despite the all the money they put into the restoration, Warners has still only put the theatrical cut on Blu-ray (although the director’s cut is available on DVD). A few other less-talked-about Marvin gems include PRIME CUT (with Gene Hackman as the memorably named villain Mary-Ann), EMPEROR OF THE NORTH and the western MONTE WALSH.

His Most Overrated Film

Most fans of Lee Marvin‘s point out THE KILLERS as one of his best films, but to me Don Siegel‘s film (which was actually intended as the first ever TV-movie before being sent to theaters as it was too violent for the small screen) is not as good as the 1940’s film noir it’s a remake of. Sure, it’s not a bad movie (at all) but I think a good deal of its popularity comes from the fact that Ronald Reagan’s part in it as a cold-blooded baddie made it a cult-classic during his presidency, and maybe led to a somewhat over-inflated reputation. That said, it’s still worth checking out and it should be mentioned that PULP FICTION’s Jules and Vincent are somewhat modeled on the characters played by Marvin and Clu Gulager here (especially the black suits).

His Best Scene

It takes a pretty tough SOB to be able to walk into a room with guys like John Cassavetes, Telly Savalas, Charles Bronson and Jim Brown and still be the toughest one there. That’s something really only Lee Marvin could pull-off and this briefing scene is a good peek at the majesty of THE DIRTY DOZEN if you’ve yet to see it.

His Five Best Films (as a lead)



Up Next

Despite having passed away almost thirty years ago, Lee Marvin‘s reputation as a tough guy is as intact as ever. Every real film fan owes it to themselves to dig into his filmography and see just why this guy is so beloved by movie-lovers and especially action fans. He’s one of the giants.


About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.