I’ve got something you won’t see in any other tribute to the great character actor who died yesterday at the age of 95. But I’ll save that till the end and start with a more conventional remembrance.
I became aware of Borgnine first on the old sitcom, “McHale’s Navy” (1962-66), which drew on Borgnine’s navy experience, including a stint during World War II. But I’d first seen him on the big screen in DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS (1954) when it played on a reissue double bill with THE ROBE when I was five. At that age, the only actor in either film I knew was Victor Mature.
I next saw Borgnine on the big screen over a decade later–in ICE STATION ZEBRA, followed a few weeks later by THE WILD BUNCH, both in the summer of 1969. At that first screening of THE WILD BUNCH, I sat in front of a couple who’d brought a young child, a girl of about four or five. At some point during the film, there was a leering closeup of Borgnine on screen…
…which caused the little girl to shout out, in a gleeful burst of recognition, “McHale’s Navy!”
After that I saw Borgnine on the big screen in THE ADVENTURERS, THE DIRTY DOZEN, WILLARD, THE REVENGERS, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, EMPEROR OF THE NORTH, THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE, on up through HUSTLE, CONVOY, THE BLACK HOLE, SUPER FUZZ and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. In addition, I was catching up with older classics at revival theaters, including VERA CRUZ, JOHNNY GUITAR, BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, RUN FOR COVER, and THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, or on TV, where I first saw FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, MARTY, THE LAST COMMAND, JUBAL, THE VIKINGS, and BARABBAS, among many others.
In THE VIKINGS (1958), Borgnine plays a Viking warlord and father of Kirk Douglas, his obvious successor. Unbeknownst to him, he’s also the father of Tony Curtis, a slave of their tribe whose mother was an Italian noblewoman once raped by Borgnine. Late in the film, Borgnine, captured by the English with the help of Curtis, is about to be pushed, with hands bound, into a pit of hungry wolves. He demands of Curtis:
“I claim the right of a Viking to die with a sword in my hand. Cut my bonds and give me the sword.”
Curtis obliges, at great cost to himself, it quickly turns out, and Borgnine leaps into the pit with a Viking yell.
When THE VIKINGS’ 50th anniversary came up in 2008, I was hoping MGM (the current rights holder) would do a special DVD release with an audio commentary by all three stars. But, alas, it didn’t happen…
Borgnine won an Oscar as Best Actor for MARTY (1955), where he played a lonely, good-hearted butcher from the Arthur Avenue section of the Bronx, near where I grew up. When I first saw the film, I was living only a few blocks from a key location seen in the film, the RKO Fordham movie theater, where in 1976 I saw a low-budget Canadian thriller starring Borgnine, SUNDAY IN THE COUNTRY, where he plays a farmer forced to fend off a trio of desperate bank robbers. In the year he won the Oscar, his competitors were Spencer Tracy (BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK), James Cagney (LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME), Frank Sinatra (THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM), and James Dean (EAST OF EDEN). Interestingly, Borgnine happens to be in Tracy’s film, BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, and even loses a fight with him in one surprising encounter. That same year he also co-starred with another competitor, Cagney, in the western, RUN FOR COVER. And he famously beat up Sinatra in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, the film that won Sinatra an Oscar (Best Supporting Actor) two years earlier.
Borgnine had a great run as a villain for several years in the 1950s, usually in westerns, before becoming a sometime leading man and dependable character actor. Other heavies from those years who became leading men included Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson, both of whom acted with Borgnine several times each, and Lee Van Cleef. Borgnine was featured with Bronson in Robert Aldrich’s VERA CRUZ (1954), the prototype for THE WILD BUNCH.
Here he threatens Gary Cooper in a Mexican saloon in VERA CRUZ:
In the same scene, he’s got Charles Bronson just left of him and Jack Elam in the back, behind James Seay:
If I have to pick my favorite Borgnine performance, it would have to be his portrayal of Dutch Engstrom, the sub-leader of the title outlaws in THE WILD BUNCH (1969). He plays a killer and a criminal, but it’s a layered characterization. He’s the only one in the group outside of Angel (Jaime Sanchez) who speaks Spanish. He and Pike Bishop (William Holden) have some quiet moments of discussion. (“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”)
While Angel is sometimes cited as the group’s moral center, he’s really there only to further his own agenda and help out his village and family—a worthy agenda, to be sure, but not one that serves the interest of the group. I would argue that Dutch functions as the bunch’s true moral center, skewed though it may be. He’s the one who leaps up to intervene when Angel shoots the Mexican General’s woman (Angel’s former girlfriend). “Era su novia,” he explains to General Mapache (She was his sweetheart). It’s he who comes up with the idea to let Angel siphon off a case of rifles from the shipment they steal for the general, all so Angel can divert them to the rebels in his village. (“Why don’t you give him one?”) Later, after Angel is captured byMapache, Dutch is torn with guilt for not being able to stop it (“He played his string right out to the end”) and refuses to choose a woman from among the available prostitutes when the others avail themselves after getting their money for the guns from Mapache. Dutch sits by himself alone outside, brooding. When the others emerge, they decide to go in force to try and wrest Angel back from Mapache–“Let’s go.” “Why not?”–leading to the bloody slaughter at the end.
In the matter of outlaw ethics , Dutch and Pike have a memorable exchange earlier in the film when they debate their former colleague Deke Thornton’s decision to pursue Pike and co. for the railroad after being let out of prison for just that purpose.
Dutch: Damn that Deke Thornton to hell!
Pike: What would you do in his place? He gave his word.
Dutch (disparagingly): He gave his word to a railroad.
Pike: It’s his word!
Dutch: That ain’t what counts! It’s who you give it to!
Dutch has the distinction of being the last to die in the slaughter at the end.
Borgnine was also great in Robert Aldrich’s THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967) as General Worden, who sends Lee Marvin out on his assignment to train twelve military prisoners, most of whom were condemned to die, for a suicide mission in WWII to wipe out a gathering of top Nazi officers at a French chateau. When a TV sequel was made, Borgnine reprised his role and did the same in two additional sequels. Interestingly, Borgnine and many in the original cast, including Marvin, Charles Bronson, Richard Jaeckel, Robert Ryan (his WILD BUNCH co-star), George Kennedy, Robert Webber, and Ralph Meeker, were all actual veterans of World War II, which had ended 22 years earlier. This gave the film a certain level of authenticity, at least in the way the characters talked and moved and interacted, if not in the somewhat far-fetched story.
I can go on about all his great work, especially his other films for Aldrich: VERA CRUZ, THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE and HUSTLE. But I want to point out how far Borgnine’s reach extended and give you images of him you won’t get anywhere else on the web.
In the Japanese animated made-for-video series, “Crying Freeman,” there was an episode (#5) entitled, “Abduction in Chinatown,” from 1992, in which the title hero, a Japanese hitman heading a Chinese organization of assassins, is trapped on an island occupied by an army of mercenaries called the Kidnappers Organization which goes around abducting members of the Chinese mob. When Crying Freeman arrives on the island, we see that the man training and directing the mercenaries is an ex-Special Forces officer named Larry Buck. He is drawn to look like Borgnine.
He speaks in Japanese, of course. Too bad they didn’t get Borgnine for the English dub.
For more info, here’s a link to my IMDB review of “Crying Freeman 5: Abduction in Chinatown”: