In the midst of this blogospheric firestorm revolving around Inglourious Basterds, one relatively mild concession we can all make is that, for one reason or another, the movie (like all of Tarantino’s work) certainly inspires people to watch other movies. One old favorite I found myself attracted to after seeing it was The Dirty Dozen, which, despite the confident comparisons made by dozens of reviewers I’ve read, barely resembles Inglourious Basterds at all. Perhaps the difference can best be summed up as the difference between Lee Marvin and Brad Pitt, the two films’ biggest American stars.
By pure coincidence, the day I re-watched The Dirty Dozen was the 22nd anniversary of Marvin’s death. To me, Marvin has always been one of the most utterly masculine movie stars to ever grace the screen. He had the face of a Great Dane who’s been kicked around by an abusive owner, with a rusty, dragging voice. When he smiled – which wasn’t often – he invariably looked devious. Even when he was young, he looked old, and even when he was clean-shaven, he seemed to have the aura of a beard about his face, commanding attention and respect. Yet he was charming, powerful, and – yes – sexy.
Pretty boys like Pitt simply disappear into the scenery when they share the screen with such a dynamo (the exception being the magnificent Burt Lancaster, who was, to use a horrible cliche, far more than just a pretty face). Marvin supposedly couldn’t stand the scene in The Dirty Dozen where he purposely provokes Clint Walker’s character, Posey, into attacking him with a bayonet, only to wrest it out of his hands and knock Walker flat on his ass. It was too phoney, Marvin said, and, had it been another man in the scene with Walker instead of him, he would have been right. Walker was quite possibly the manliest-looking actor in Hollywood, then or now, but Marvin makes him look like a school yard pansy.
It’s something of a small miracle that someone like Lee Marvin was allowed to become a fully fledged movie star in an industry that rarely allows people with his ugly mug, bad attitude, and general sourness from ever rising above the level of “that guy” character actor. The only other movie star I can think of in the same vein is Humphrey Bogart, but he at least had the benefit of playing, for the most part, romantic leads. Marvin was too tough for romance, too cool, and too tough for Hollywood – which is, no doubt, why America loved him so much.
Now, the near-masterpiece of a crime thriller Point Blank has been remade into a limp Mel Gibson vehicle, and Spielberg’s pseudo-epic Saving Private Ryan has far eclipsed any exposure that The Big Red One ever had. Film students, having taken their prescribed dosage of John Ford with The Searchers, Stagecoach, and The Grapes of Wrath, move on with their curricula without every looking at The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Hell in the Pacific is all but forgotten. Worse yet, in a sad twist of irony, many young people of my generation were first exposed to Lee Marvin through a line of dialogue in Reservoir Dogs.