Through Ernie's Eyes
Raymond Massey and Jack Elam forged distinctly different acting careers, but it could be said that both converged in one unique way: each contributed to the interpretation of two distinctly different but action-spiked roles in the Twilight Time library – both alongside long-time pal and Lee Marvin – offered by today’s birthday honoree, the late, great Academy Award® winner (for the decidedly gentle character piece Marty) Ernest Borgnine (1917-2012), who would have turned 100. Though they were together as equally tough bad guys in The Stranger Wore a Gun (1953) and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and battle-hardened World War II officers in The Dirty Dozen (1967), Borgnine and Marvin played antagonists in these two particular projects, and each scenario alternatively offered one to get the upper hand on the other in final reel. Richard Fleischer (later to use Borgnine quite effectively in 1958’s The Vikings) directed the ticking-clock heist thriller Violent Saturday (1955), in which the sordid lives of the denizens of a sleepy southwestern town are shatteringly upended when a criminal gang executes a bold daytime bank heist. Marvin plays the most vicious of the crooks and Borgnine was cast as a pacifist Amish farmer whose homestead outside the burg is commandeered by the fugitive badmen, who take the family hostage. Here’s where the Massey connection comes in: one of the revered Canadian-American actor’s signature roles on screen (in 1940’s Santa Fe Trail and 1955’s Seven Angry Men) and stage (in Charles Laughton’s august 1953 touring production of Stephen Vincent Benet’s John Brown’s Body) was the fiery orator and abolitionist/insurrectionist John Brown, who carried out a bloody, anti-slavery campaign in the pre-Civil War years; though his portrayal carried elements of wide-eyed fanaticism, he also tried to depict the pacifist core of the man’s underlying mission, driven only to brute force under extreme duress. Could Borgnine have had Massey in mind when he recounted (in Ernie: The Autobiography) this climactic sequence of ferocious reprisal? “In one dramatic scene I was supposed to stab Lee Marvin in the back with a pitchfork. While we were rehearsing, they put a big X on his back. When we were rehearsing I was supposed to put the tines of the pitchfork right on the X, which was padded underneath so he wouldn’t be hurt. We rehearsed it fine, but when it came time to shoot, they’d removed the X so it wouldn’t show.” The actor was instantly nervous, but Marvin reassured him that all would turn out fine, which it did. “‘Just out of curiosity,’ he [Marvin] said. ‘What were you thinking about when you did that?’ ‘ Well,’ I said, ‘I caught sight of myself in the beard and overalls and I imagined I was John Brown – a fellow Connecticut native, as it happens – at Harpers Ferry fighting off the soldiers or Robert E. Lee. ‘My’ Lee, Lee Marvin, said he was glad I hadn’t told him that before or he’d have been scared stiff.” When The Dirty Dozen’s Robert Aldrich matched Borgnine and Marvin as bitter enemies Shack, the brutal, murderous conductor who’ll have no nonpaying riders on his Depression-era Pacific Northwest train route, and the wily, defiant hobo A-No. 1, in the Jack London story adaptation Emperor of the North (1973), the battles between the two were no-holds-barred, and Borgnine had a specific model in mind. Emmet Sweeney on Streamline: The Filmstruck Blog writes: “Borgnine’s Shack is wound as tight as his trusty stopwatch, from his death-rictus grin to his face-stompin’ boots. He is a Fascist figure whose role is to keep the trains running on time. As described in his autobiography, Borgnine ‘developed a character based on the actor Jack Elam, who I’d worked with on Vera Cruz and Hannie Caulder. Jack was walleyed. Imitating him, I tried to keep one eye looking straight ahead and the other eye down on the ground.’ This explains how pop-eyed he looks throughout the movie, as if his pupils were straining to escape his sockets. But the technique is appropriate for Shack’s high-strung violence, his eyes looking to attack as much as the rest of his body.” This time, it would be Borgnine who would be bested in “the fight of the century,” but in Aldrich’s hands, the outcome is uncertain down to the film’s tension-packed finale. What’s not uncertain is the energy and empathy Borgnine brings to all his screen creations, both outrageously evil and bedrock decent, wherever his inspirations originated, and eminently worthy of centennial commemoration tribute to the star of the rousing TT Blu-rays Violent Saturday and Emperor of the North.