Tag Archives: World War II

Godzilla featured

Godzilla, Whitewashed: A Special Report

As a new Godzilla (2014) is unleashed upon the world’s multiplexes this week, there is poetic justice in the fact that Ishiro Honda’s 1954 Japanese monster ur-text Gojira is, at the same time, quietly touring U.S. art-house cinemas in commemoration of its 60th anniversary. The Honda film is a reminder of Godzilla’s highly politicized origins, rooted in Cold War tensions and the conflicted postwar relationship between Japan and America. As most everyone now knows, the monster became a simple and crude metaphor for Hiroshima, but GOJIRA was really a clever and restrained indictment of the doomsday scenario that Harry Truman set in motion. Without ever mentioning the United States, Honda spoke truth to superpower.

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But now that Hollywood has, for the second time, spent hundreds of millions of dollars to refashion Japan’s celebrated low-tech monster in its own image (an ironic proposition to begin with), it’s clear that America is incapable of making an honest Godzilla. Consider the ways in which the new movie contorts and distorts history in order to avoid confronting the uncomfortable facts of American culpability in the monster’s origin: It offers a vague scenario in which Godzilla is an ancient sea creature that began appearing after World War II to feed on radioactive material; in footage made to look grainy and faded, the huge beast swims ashore at the Marshall Islands just as a hydrogen bomb is gloriously detonated on a beach. We subsequently learn that the nuclear testing program at the Pacific Proving Ground (comprising 105 atmospheric nuclear explosions from 1947 to 1962, with a total yield of roughly 210 megatons, equal to thousands of Hiroshimas) wasn’t intended to prove the killing power of the world’s most deadly weapons of mass destruction, but “they were trying to kill it”: the whole operation was just a big, unsuccessful Godzilla extermination project. And what of the hundreds of tests performed by the Soviets, British, French, and Chinese during this period? Would the filmmakers have us believe they were trying to kill their own Godzillas?

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Perhaps it’s debatable whether Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. have an obligation to honor Godzilla’s origins after paying untold millions for rights to the character. But given Gojira‘s basis in actual events of the war and its aftermath, the brazen mendacity of the new film’s revisionism is rather astounding. It is not only an affront to the legacy of Honda’s Gojira, but it relies on the audience’s ignorance of and apathy toward history. Its inherent function—one that the screenwriters probably never paused to consider—is to maintain the American historical narrative about the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, events that needlessly killed nearly 250,000 Japanese civilians yet continue to be falsely remembered as necessary and justified actions to hasten the end of World War II and prevent an invasion of Japan, saving untold thousands of American lives. This narrative began with the U.S. military nearly 60 years ago and has prevailed with the cooperation of the education system and the media, including motion pictures. There have been great antinuclear films such as Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe, but these assailed the madness of the Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine while avoiding questions about the legitimacy of Hiroshima. Hollywood’s only meaningful challenge to the narrative was the 1983 television film The Day After, which showed Americans being flash-incinerated by a Soviet nuclear attack, and used a doctored photo of the Hiroshima ruins to depict the post-World War III remains of Kansas City. The film was loudly protested by conservative groups, who feared it could endanger President Ronald Reagan’s nuclear arms buildup; the ABC network capitulated by cutting certain scenes and following the broadcast with a panel discussion of Washington right-wingers, who concluded that the film’s true message was that America needed to beef up its arsenal.

The new Godzilla is just the latest effort to negate the monster’s politics for American consumption, a whitewashing that began when Honda’s film was first imported to the U.S. in 1956. The images of death and destruction in Gojira, made nine years after the war, are harrowing references to not only the atomic bombings, but to the fire raids of Tokyo in 1945 and the Lucky Dragon incident of 1954, in which a Japanese trawler was contaminated by the worst nuclear fallout accident in U.S. history. The film shows vast swaths of Tokyo engulfed in flames, and the aftermath of the monster’s attack is a smoldering ruin, resembling photographs of the flattened Hiroshima. A makeshift hospital overflows with the wounded and dying, their skin scorched with radiation, and a doctor waves a clacking Geiger counter over a small child, the most innocent of victims. Godzilla itself was not an animal but a soulless killing machine, a manifestation of the bomb that created it; unlike King Kong or the Beast from 20,000 fathoms, it did not prowl the city looking for its mate or a place to spawn—its purpose was simply to destroy. A Hollywood distributor repackaged the film as low-budget, atomic-age science fiction film of the type so popular at the time, and Godzilla, King of the Monsters! famously included new scenes with Raymond Burr playing a journalist trapped in Godzilla’s path. By placing a bloodied and bandaged Burr in that hospital, this version portrayed America as the monster’s co-victim and thereby blurred references to Hiroshima. The movie was heavily re-edited, and most significantly, a closing speech by a disillusioned scientist (Takashi Shimura, star of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) was cut entirely: “If we keep on conducting nuclear tests, it’s possible another Godzilla might appear, somewhere in the world, again.” Certainly the world’s biggest practitioner of such tests wasn’t about to be lectured by a country it had just conquered and turned into a client state.

Then, 30 years later, Japan’s Toho Studios rebooted the franchise in 1984 with a new film, also titled Gojira, which ignored all the sequels, none approaching the import of the original, that had come in between. Godzilla was resituated in a world of heightened Cold War tensions and Reagan’s “peace through strength” mantra; in this outing, an American diplomat pressures Japan’s Prime Minister to abandon the country’s nuclear-free principles and allow the U.S. to attack Godzilla with atomic weapons. A Hollywood distributor with right-wing leanings got hold of the film and again re-cut it, this time with the effect of portraying the Soviet Union as the nuke-happy villains. And finally, there was Hollywood’s first attempt at adapting Godzilla in 1998, a mostly forgettable big-budget film directed by Roland Emmerich and starring Matthew Broderick. This time, the legacy of Hiroshima was sidestepped entirely, as the filmmakers tied the monster’s appearance to a series of controversial French nuclear tests in Polynesia.

Legendary’s Godzilla is the most egregious of all because, intentionally or not, it manages to turn Honda’s antiwar symbol into a spokes-monster for the nuclear status quo, all the while feigning an interest in the legacy of Hiroshima. In it, the military’s plan to exterminate Godzilla and its foe, the laughably named M.U.T.O. (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism—pity the fine actor David Strathairn, who had to utter those words without chuckling) involves—wait for it—nuclear weapons. Much of the film’s run time involves an inexplicably difficult operation to transport a single warhead, one out of the U.S. arsenal of roughly 4,800, to the desired location. There follows shopworn dialogue, straight out of a 1950s sci-fi flick; actor Ken Watanabe, as a scientist who divines Godzilla’s motives (because, we must assume, he’s Japanese), urges Strathairn’s brass buttons to reconsider the nuclear option. “We tried that before!” Watanabe pleads, and Strathairn retorts emphatically, “Millions of lives are at stake!” The climax has the monsters destroying San Francisco, while the assortment of uninteresting characters face a third-act screenwriter’s device borrowed from the 1997 Nicole Kidman-George Clooney actioner (!) The Peacemaker: the nuclear bomb with a ticking timer that can’t be disabled. The hero, a handsome young soldier and family man, gets the nuke onto a boat and out of San Francisco Bay before it detonates just a few miles offshore. We’d been told earlier the bomb is a massive one (“We’re talking megatons,” a commander says), yet the next morning the city’s residents are out and about, rummaging through the wreckage of the Embarcadero, not a speck of fallout anywhere. There was a teachable moment here, but that would have spoiled the happy ending. Instead, the world’s most deadly weapon is just harmless fireworks.

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“When the atomic bomb was dropped over Hiroshima, Americans felt both deep satisfaction and deep anxiety, and these responses have coexisted ever since,” write scholars Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell in the introduction to their landmark study Hiroshima in America: A Half Century of Denial. “Americans continue to experience pride, pain, and confusion over the use of the atomic bomb against Japan … It has never been easy to reconcile dropping the bomb with a sense of ourselves as a decent people. Because this conflict remains unresolved it continues to provoke strong feelings. There is no historical event Americans are more sensitive about. Hiroshima remains a raw nerve.” In our reluctance to prick that nerve, the authors observe, we have accepted a world where thousands of nuclear warheads are aimed at us, where we live in ever-present fear of extinction yet look to those same weapons for safety and survival. The likelihood of another Hiroshima, or many of them, grows.

Shortly before his death in 1993, Ishiro Honda said it had once been his hope that through the metaphor of Godzilla he might provoke a discussion about ending nuclear proliferation, but lamented that he had failed. His pessimism was understandable, and perhaps it was naive to think a monster movie featuring a man in a rubber costume trampling through miniature cities might inspire a serious debate about the dangerous precipice on which we all stand. Still, Honda—a soldier in the Japanese Imperial Army, who often told of passing through a decimated Hiroshima on his way home from the China battlefront—should be remembered for his willingness to challenge the prevailing Hiroshima narrative. By contrast, Gareth Edwards, the British director of Legendary’s Godzilla, does the opposite, offering a trite moment wherein Strathairn’s general and Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa (whose father died at Hiroshima, pegging Serizawa at 69 years old; he looks maybe 50) share a hope that it never happens again, tacitly accepting the gospel of Hiroshima as necessary evil. Edwards has claimed that his film’s disaster pornography—digitally realistic images resembling Fukushima, the Indian Ocean tsunami, Katrina, 9/11—contextualizes the story for our dangerous modern world. But his film does not comment on those images or what they might mean, and so they unspool as hollow exercises in technical prowess. Godzilla is said to be a force of nature reawakened, but by what? Without that answer, the latest Godzilla reboot is about nothing.
Steve Ryfle is author of Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star, a history of the Godzilla film franchise. His writing has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Cineaste, and other publications. He lives in Los Angeles.

Admiral Yamamoto 4

DVD Review: “Admiral Yamamoto” (1968)

Admiral Yamamoto 1

 

Admiral Yamamoto (Rengo kantai shirei chokan – Yamamoto Isoroku, or “Combined Fleet Admiral – Isoroku Yamamoto,” 1968) is one of a long line of war epics produced by Japan’s Toho Studios featuring elaborate miniature special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya, the man behind Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, et. al. This one, directed by Seiji Maruyama, is a bit different, functioning partially as a biopic of one of the few Japanese “heroes” of the Pacific War, a man whose reputation, at least among the Japanese, remains unimpeachable. Yamamoto, played in the film by the great Toshiro Mifune, vehemently opposed Japan waging war against the United States and the other Allies, recognizing America’s vastly superior industrial might against a Japan notably lacking in natural resources. Nonetheless, he was one of the architects behind the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and Japan’s early victories in late 1941 and early ’42.

Postwar Japanese movies about World War II generally fall into one of four categories. A tiny number, mostly confined to a handful of movies produced by Shintoho in the late 1950s and into 1960, whitewash Japan’s militarists and their culpability. Others, such as Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition (1959-61) trilogy, uncompromisingly depict the war as it truly was, a great tragedy during which Japan inflicted unimaginable harm on both foreign peoples and its own citizenry. A third type, exemplified by Kihachi Okamoto’s Desperado Outpost (1959) and The Human Bullet (1968), are grimly comical and cynical.

Toho specialized in the fourth type, large-scale epics full of romanticized action and spectacle similar to concurrent American-made war movies like The Longest Day (1962) and Battle of the Bulge (1965). However, these films temper iconography recognizable to western viewers with equal sobering doses of bitter reality, through protagonists recognizing the great folly that ultimately leaves Japan in ruins and a generation of men wiped out for nothing.

That particular sub-genre peaked with Shue Matsubayashi’s marvelous Storm Over the Pacific (also known as I Bombed Pearl Harbor, 1960), the biggest of these big-scale productions, and which co-starred Mifune. In that film he played a real-life admiral named Tamon Yamaguchi, though Mifune’s characterization was virtually indistinguishable from his later portrayal of Isoroku Yamamoto, a role he’d go on to play twice more (in Toho’s The Militarists, 1970, and the American film Midway, 1976). Matsubayashi had himself been an officer in the Japanese Imperial Navy, and brought to Storm Over the Pacific and his other war movies a verisimilitude lacking in almost all other films of this type. He’d been there, even aboard a ship sunk by Allied fighter planes. He saw these films as sad memorials to his fallen comrades.

By 1968, when Admiral Yamamoto was made, domestic box-office figures were plummeting fast industry-wide, mainly due to the growing popularity of television, in virtually every household since tuning in for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Undoubtedly Admiral Yamamoto was prompted partly by Akira Kurosawa’s widely publicized deal to co-direct the 20th Century-Fox financed Tora! Tora! Tora!, a long-in-gestation multi-million-dollar epic from which Kurosawa was notoriously fired shortly after filming began, and which, unfortunately for Kurosawa, brought the controversial production even more press.

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Toho’s decision to make Admiral Yamamoto amidst all this couldn’t have pleased Kurosawa, especially with longtime muse Mifune in the title role, to say nothing of the myriad other actors (Yoshio Tsuchiya, Masayuki Mori), writers (Shinobu Hashimoto) and others (composer Masaru Sato) with which Kurosawa was so closely associated.

Dramatically, Admiral Yamamoto is a mixed bag. It’s so damn reverential Mifune has little opportunity to be anything more than a God-like pillar of stoic and savant-like wisdom, but there are many nice moments throughout. The picture opens well, in 1939 Japan where Yamamoto, back in his hometown of Nagaoka, enjoys a leisurely boat ride along the local river at the height of cherry blossom season. He challenges the skilled boatman (Ryutaro Tatsumi) punting him downriver to bring him to shore while Yamamoto stands on his head. This attracts a lot of attention and the two men eventually end up in the drink, much to Yamamoto’s delight. This is neatly bookended late in the film when Yamamoto encounters the boatman’s son on the battlefield.

The movie integrates facets of the historical Yamamoto’s personality well: his love of gambling, his passion for (Japanese) calligraphy, in addition to his various successful and (mostly) unsuccessful naval strategies. What it does not show or ever even vaguely allude to is any aspect of Yamamoto’s private life. His wife and four children are never mentioned once, nor the Geisha mistress he reportedly kept (according to the wife). Quite possibly this was a deliberate decision for legal or other reasons (the film, after all, was made barely 25 years after Yamamoto’s death) but their absence hinders Mifune’s and the screenwriters’ efforts to humanize the character.

In other respects the movie soft-pedals Yamamoto’s personal contributions to Japan’s militarism. In one fascinating scene, it is Staff Officer Kuroshima (Yoshio Tsuchiya), one of Yamamoto’s adjuncts, who delivers and makes the case for Yamamoto’s proposal to attack Pearl Harbor rather than the admiral himself. This might be historically accurate, but it also seems a deliberate attempt to downplay Yamamoto’s culpability for what was a tremendously successful sneak attack with disastrous long-term consequences for Japan.

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As with virtually all other Toho war movies of this type, a significant amount of screen time is allotted to a younger supporting character, always played by a rising Toho star. In Storm Over the Pacific the role of the idealistic young pilot was played by Yosuke Natsuki; in Matsubayashi’s Wings Over the Pacific (also known as Attack Squadron!, 1963), also starring Mifune, it was Yuzo Kayama; and here it’s fresh face Toshio Kurosawa as 1st Lt. Kimura, a poor farm boy Yamamoto helped get into the Naval Academy. Here, with the focus squarely on Yamamoto, more than ever this subordinate character seems to exist solely because there had always been one like it in Toho’s past successes, and that the studio was loathe to tamper with a proven formula.

And, as in past Toho war films, virtually every male actor under contract to the studio, along with a few big independent names, appear in Admiral Yamamoto: Daisuke Kato, Yoshio Inaba, Seiji Miyaguchi (that’s three of Mifune’s Seven Samurai co-stars), Yuzo Kayama, Makoto Sato, Masayuki Mori, and Susumu Fujita, as well as talent familiar to kaiju eiga fans, including Akihiko Hirata, Akira Kubo, Kenji Sahara, and Yoshio Tsuchiya. Yoko Tsukasa and beautiful Wakako Sakai turn up in token female roles, and Tatsuya Nakadai narrates.

Declining attendance figures seems to have impacted the film’s budget. This may be the first Toho special effects feature to utilize extensive stock footage from earlier successes. Toho was already doing this to a lesser extent in its giant monster movies, but never to this extent. For Admiral Yamamoto, nearly all of the attack on Pearl Harbor and much of the Battle of Midway are special effects lifted from Storm Over the Pacific while footage from Wings Over the Pacific turns up elsewhere.

However, Eiji Tsuburaya and his Toho Special Effects Group team still came up with several impressive effects sequences. The first is involves an effort to drop barrels containing food, presumably rice, off the coast of Guadalcanal, hoping it will reach the starving Japanese soldiers marooned there. As the stranded men desperately swim toward the dropped barrels, enemy fighters arrive and begin strafing and bombing the light cruiser transporting the food, eventually sinking it while the doomed men frantically try to swim back to shore and the relative safety of the jungle. The effects shots are a complex mix of miniatures and well-executed mattes and represent some of the department’s best-ever work in a Toho war movie.

(Spoilers) For the film’s climax, Tsuburaya’s team recreated the downing of the bomber carrying Yamamoto over Bougainville. The sequence matches historical records of Yamamoto’s death pretty closely, and yet the miniature effects are almost poetic in the way they are photographed. Indeed, they’re more stylized and cinematic than all but a few of the live-action scenes.

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Admiral Yamamoto arrives on DVD from an unexpected source: Spain’s Tema label, which also released Storm Over the Pacific, Wings Over the Pacific and a few others simultaneously. The DVD is a real deal, just 8,25 Euros (USD $11.23) versus the usual $50-$65 Toho Video typically charges for its own domestic DVDs, and those are without English subtitles. Here, Admiral Yamamoto is presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital mono in both Japanese and Castilian Spanish, supported by Castilian Spanish and English subtitles. The English subtitles aren’t great, with their share of typos (e.g., “Scared War Unit” instead of “Sacred War Unit.” “Ensing Kimura” instead of “Ensign Kimura”) and a few lines of dialogue here and there aren’t subtitled at all, but overall it’s a decent job.

The region 2/PAL video transfer, 16:9 enhanced and thus preserving the original CinemaScope aspect ratio of 2.35:1, is surprisingly good. Extras include a photo gallery and original trailer.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Admiral Yamamoto rates:

Movie: Very Good

Video: Very Good

Sound: Good

Supplements: Photo gallery, trailer.

Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English and Spanish

Tema Distribuuciones

1968 / Color / 2.35:1 CinemaScope / 130 min. / Street Date April 9, 2013 / Euro 8,25

Starring Toshiro Mifune, Yuzo Kayama, Yoko Tsukasa, Toshio Kurosawa, Makoto Sato, Daisuke Kato, Masayuki Mori, Wakako Sakai, Koshiro Matsumoto..

Cinematography Kazuo Yamada

Art Director Takeo Kita

Music Masaru Sato

Written by Shinobu Hashimoto, Seiji Maruyama, and Katsuya Susaki

Produced by Tomoyuki Tanaka

Special Effects Director Eiji Tsuburaya

Directed by Seiji Maruyama

 

Lee Marvin Point Blank

Lee Marvin – Point Blank: “These Horrible, Animal Men”

An abridged book excerpt of Lee Marvin: Point Blank by Dwayne Epstein

Lee Marvin Point Blank

As a civilian, mustered out from the Philadelphia Marine Barracks on July 24, 1945, Lee Marvin could not shake off the intense mixed feelings he was experiencing: anger, frustration and worst of all, survivor guilt as the war stubbornly wore on. On the bus ride back to his parents’ Manhattan apartment an old woman angrily tapped his shoulder with a cane and asked why such a healthy looking young man was not in the military fighting for God and country. Acting on reflex, Marvin turned and barked at her that he was physically unfit. Years later he told a reporter, “I won’t repeat exactly what I said to her. Hell, I wanted to drop my trousers and show her exactly what I did for a legitimate 4-F classification!”

Lee’s celebratory homecoming was short-lived, at least as far as his family was concerned. His mother, Courtenay, was extremely glad her son was home safe and sound, but his war experiences made it extremely difficult to talk to him. She wrote in a letter to Robert, “Your brother is quite a man…. I hear many strange and some horrible stories about his adventures, and at first it took a strong stomach to sit quietly and listen.” As for Monte, Lee quickly discovered his father was finding the adjustment to civilian life even more difficult than he was. If Lee was damaged by the war, he said of Monte years later, “It ruined him. He came home from that half dead, totally broken. He was never the same.” During the war, First Sergeant Monte Marvin received a military citation from the British Government. However, as a civilian, he was unable to find gainful employment.

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After another disheartening day of job hunting, Monte entered his 79th Street apartment building barely able to muster a businesslike smile for the doorman. He went in and ran hot water for a bath. The family maid found him. She immediately dressed his sloppily cut wrists and called the police. The police then contacted Bellevue, where he was transported in a siren-blaring ambulance for several days’ observation. Unable to afford a private room, he was placed in a public ward where the rest that Monte desperately sought was impeded by the screams that went on through the night. He survived the suicide attempt and the family never spoke of it while he was alive.

Through an old friend Monte secured a sales job with the Chicago Tribune and the entire family moved to the ‘Windy City.’ At his father’s urging, Lee enrolled in night school to get his high school diploma, but his heart was clearly not in it. He still had no plan for his future as the following excerpted letter to his older brother Robert illustrates:

 Boy just wait until you get out and see all the shit they hand you.

Well, as you know I am now going to school and brother, that is a task, and I don’t mean maybe. At the present I am taking English, Geometry, Physics and History. I just don’t have any interest in the stuff but I am doing it for Pop.

Funny thing, my feet are getting itching again and I want to be on the move. Where I don’t know but just some place that I haven’t been before, like the Yukon or some other desolate place.

I just want to strike out and do something constructive with myself. In fact, I have often thought about going back into the Corps but I know that is just a way of trying to get back with the real friends I had. I mean real, because as you know when death is close at hand you don’t do anything that you don’t want to and the same with your friends. Boy, that was a real crowd and their only thought was to be happy while they could. So here I am still trying while the rest of them are dead. The main thing that I regret is that there is no longer any frontier to work on which is just my speed. Therefore I must conform to convention which I have a very deep-set distaste for.

Lee struggled with his classes, but said years later, “It made no sense. After committing murder, it was hard to find sense in peace. How could a guy all mixed up in murder get an education? The two didn’t make sense…I had to do something, though. They gave me a typing test and I couldn’t spell half the words. I looked around and saw all those frivolous chicks and guys…what was I doing there? So, I quit.” Forty years later “The Sergeant,” his character in The Big Red One (1979), would tell one of his charges, “We don’t murder. We kill,” a distinction that was not yet clear in young Lee’s mind.

The day he quit class, he walked right into a Marine Recruitment Center. The officer in charge sympathetically responded, “Thank you for your offer and prior service, son, but due to your disability status…” Lee shook the officer’s hand and proceeded to laugh it off at the nearest watering hole. As to his disability, a physical later that fall spoke the final word as only the military could: His sciatic wound disabled him exactly 20%. He received a check of $27.80, and would continue to do so each month for the rest of his life. Monte’s job in Chicago was short-lived, forcing the entire family to move back to New York. When the family returned to New York, the postwar housing shortage made it impossible to find worthy accommodations in the city. The Marvins decided on the Woodstock area since they had summered there often when Lee and Robert were boys. They purchased a home, and Monte eventually found work nearby with the New York and New England Apple Institute. He periodically attempted other employment, but, like an over-the-hill athlete dreaming his time would come again, he never saw the better employment materialize and stayed with the Institute until retiring in 1965. Through it all, Monte got by on the two things he could always rely on: his undiminished Puritan ethic and large quantities of alcohol.

Nestled in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, the Woodstock community had long been a sanctuary for many of the colorful avant-garde artists and intellectuals of the day, decades before the eponymous historic rock concert that would take place in a nearby town. The small community even maintained three legitimate live theaters at the time: The Woodstock Playhouse, The Valetta Theater and the 1,000-seat Maverick Theater.

Lee took classes at Kingston High School to finally get his diploma around the time that Robert mustered out of the service. As he had done many times as a child, Lee frequently cut class to fish or hunt. Monte had hoped Lee would get his diploma and use the G.I. Bill to become an engineer. Lee had contemplated several other careers, including forest ranger and car salesman, but when requirements like geometry became insurmountable, he again disappointed his father by dropping out of school altogether.

Marvin - Seahorse

In Woodstock, Lee could often be found at a favorite hangout: The S.S. Seahorse. One longtime resident referred to it as “The greatest dive I’ve ever seen in my life. People used to line up in the summer just to get in to it.” The oddly shaped tavern resembled a landlocked ship, complete with appropriate decor and portholes for windows. The local artisans and bohemians welcomed Lee as the most popular reveler in their midst. The music and laughter offered only a fleeting refuge from the nightmares. According to Robert, “When Lee would come home, he was a little disturbed at night. He had a lot of nightmares. He wasn’t exactly yelling but the poor guy would go through all kinds of convulsions.” In rare moments of candor, Lee confessed to his brother he saw snipers in the trees just as he drifted off, or that he had relived the battle that decimated his outfit.

On occasion, he would drink at home with his family. The evening would start innocently enough, but would spiral out of control at the slightest provocation. Courtenay would sneak off to safer grounds when the dark clouds began forming. Inevitably, as the night and alcohol wore on, Monte would declare, “You Marines are a lot of bullshit!” or “My outfit in the artillery can do anything the goddamned Marines can do!” Sometimes Lee would be the provocateur, making the same pronouncements about the Army. Whoever started it, the end result was often physical. Even though Monte and Lee were both dealing with the same issues, the men were too polarized to reconcile with each other. The guilt Lee suffered the morning after a family brawl often kept him away for days at a time.

Sometimes he would inexplicably find himself in a bar somewhere in Brooklyn. Other times he’d wander down to Greenwich Village and hang out with the bums that drank through the night. They would string a rope across a building and hook their arms on to it so they could sleep standing up without getting arrested. The next morning, someone would untie the rope and send everyone sprawling. Marvin would then join the denizens in a concoction known as “smoke,” a powerful mixture of illuminating gas blown into a jar of water that resulted in a high akin to LSD. Whatever he did, Lee could never travel far enough or drink enough to escape his war-induced or domestic trauma.

When he would return, dutifully apologetic, the cycle would start up again, often at Courtenay’s subtle instigation. Her attempts at maintaining the facade of domestic bliss would result in Lee and the other Marvin men having to sit through meaningless social teas or Sunday afternoon art lectures. On one such occasion, the entire family made an appearance on local radio for a show based on “Thanksgiving in Strange Places.” The Marvin men discussed their war experiences while a Girl Scout Choir sang in the background. Unfortunately, no tape of the show exists, or of the drive home.

Monte had become fairly well known in the rural community, to the point he could get jobs for both of his sons. By early 1946, Robert was working for a printer and saving for college, while Lee became a plumber’s apprentice under the tutelage of Adolph Heckeroth.

To anyone willing to look, Bill Heckeroth–who now runs his father’s business–will gladly point out a treasured memento carved in the wood of his father’s wall-hung toolbox: “This is Adolph’s. Help yourself.” The engraver was, of course, Lee Marvin. Bill was just a child when Lee worked for his father, but he remembers with great affection the oversized young man with the booming voice who’d put his feet up on his father’s desk and tell fascinating stories to anyone within earshot.

Lee’s work consisted of digging septic tanks and hand-threading pipes for $1.25 an hour. Hard as it was, this work proved therapeutic. “A guy digging ditches or a plumber wiping joints, it solves problems, you know?” Marvin later said. “You have to dig this hole so wide, so long, so deep. You dig it and that’s it. You climb out and say, ‘Boy, I don’t know what it was, but I solved it today.’ Good therapy for my back.” Marvin found such comfort in this work that he maintained his union card even after his rise to cinematic stardom, and often worked on the plumbing in his Hollywood agent’s house.

Adolph Heckeroth genuinely liked Lee, who impressed the veteran plumber with his natural prowess for the job. Once, when Heckeroth wanted Lee to help him measure the depth of a well, Lee told him not to bother with the old knotted string and weight device. Lee boasted he would merely drop a pebble and could tell by its acceleration the exact depth of the well. Heckeroth was astonished when Lee’s measurement proved to be exactly what Heckeroth’s string registered. He never knew Lee had measured the depth the night before.

Lee’s off-hour pursuits in Woodstock were often spent in the company of another local, David Ballantine. The diminutive Ballantine may have seemed an unlikely partner in Marvin’s revelry, but the two shared many common interests. Ballantine had met Lee after his own discharge from the service in June of 1946. “I fought WWII in the Zone of the Interior, which is a euphemism for the United States. When I met Lee, I was in Woodstock on the 52/20 Club, the unemployment thing,” he jokes today. “He was quite strong, too. He would do things I think sometimes to show everybody he was Lee Marvin and they were not, like carrying Heckeroth’s big pipe-cutting tripod one-handed, or lifting up the front end of a car. When people ask me what was he like, I usually say, ‘Try to imagine a non-effeminate Clint Eastwood!’”

Studio biographies have said the Ballantines and the Marvins were good friends. “I knew Monte and Courtenay very, very slightly,” corrects David. “Children now will invite friends in for dinner and such. In those days, there was a separation. I was Lee’s friend, really. Not that they weren’t friendly to me. Courtenay was pleasant enough and Monte had a dignity to him. Lee told me, if someone went in a bar to give everyone shit, they’d walk a wide circle around Monte. Monte was pretty tough.”

David Ballantine did not often share his friend’s penchant for what he called “the gargle.” As he recalled, “A couple of times Lee was just snot-flying drunk. I remember many years later, when he came to visit, he was just causing shit in a bar. I took him aside and said, ‘You know what’s going to happen one of these days? You’re going to walk around the corner and there’s going to be a younger Lee Marvin and he’s going to pound the shit out of you. Stop pushing your luck!’ He understood. He wasn’t stupid.”

On a cool March night in 1946, Lee was sleeping off one such episode on a bench in the village green. At sunrise, children familiar with the sight of him in this condition as they passed him on the way to school, knew that even prodding the unconscious giant with a stick was a dare not worth taking. One local resident, either not aware or braver than most, disregarded the danger and proceeded to talk to the prone figure. When Lee’s vision came into focus and the buzzing in his head had sufficiently dulled, he saw a very proper young woman beside him discussing the virtues of community services.

Scanning the area and realizing she must be talking to him, Lee smirked at the irony when she asked him to appear in an amateur Red Cross Benefit at Woodstock’s Town Hall, titled “Ten Nights In a Barroom.” He had been in school productions as far back as grade school and, figuring it might be a similar kick, he shrugged his shoulders and proceeded over the next several weeks to rehearse the farce with his young fellow amateurs.

Marvin - Woodstock Red Cross

“Lee’s performance was the most hilarious I’ve ever seen,” a proud Monte recalled in 1966. “The mustache kept falling off. Everybody in the cast forgot their lines and Lee’s hands were very much in evidence pushing out scripts from the wings. Even then, he left them in the aisles.”

Like the tales of Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan, the story of Lee’s professional acting debut has become the stuff of legend that begins with a kernel of truth and grows with time into larger-than-life proportions. Marvin told several interviewers that it was while he had his head in the Maverick Theater commode that he heard his destiny beckon. As he recalled many times over the years, “The director needed a tall loudmouth to play a Texan. The actor who played the part was sick. I was standing in the wings after fixing the head, eyeing this redheaded actress. Later, the director looked at me and figured I was made for the part.”

When told of this, Monte Marvin later commented, “Nothing could be further from the truth since the theater had no toilet, only a one-holer outside.” David Ballantine also concurs on this point. However, the event that actually catapulted Lee Marvin into acting was just as good a story.

When David Ballantine turned twenty-one, his family held a celebratory birthday party in his honor. Lee always looked forward to any party but especially enjoyed the Ballantine family. David’s brother Ian was publisher of Ballantine Books and his mother Stella was a founder of Lee’s progressive school, Manumit. David’s father, E. J. ‘Teddy’ Ballantine, had an illustrious theatrical history, which included membership in Eugene O’Neill’s Provincetown Players and, most impressive to Lee, drinking bouts with the great John Barrymore. Teddy was also an integral part of the aptly named Maverick Theater. Also in attendance was Ian’s wife, Betty. A petite woman known for wearing long flowing dresses, even in the muggy summer, she eventually became a confidante to the young Lee Marvin.

Lee himself recalled the events that transpired that night when his tale-spinning talent was still in its infancy: “I got swocked. I was dancing with a girl named Joy, which is what she was: 145 pounds and all of it pink and beautiful. At the party I found out the leading man of the local theater had run out on an upcoming production.” It was just this fact E.J. Ballantine was discussing with the director when he noticed Lee jumping for Joy amid the other revelers.

“He was a very impressive character even then,” recalled Betty Ballantine. “First of all, there was his voice. His voice was absolutely amazing. Then, he had a real gift for telling stories with a great sense of humor. He used body language, since Lee had an extraordinary control of his physical presence. He was the kind of a person who comes into a room and you damn well notice him. The play they were preparing was called ‘Roadside.’ They wanted a loudmouth Texan. Teddy said, ‘We got a loudmouth right here. Hey, Lee! Come over here!’ Of course, we were all feeling no pain. Lee with that wonderful voice he had, read for the play. He got the part and Saturday afternoon and all of Sunday, I sat with him. Teddy and I both walked him through it. Well, he never really learned the script. How could he? He only had a day and half.”

Lee makes his professional acting debut as 'Texas' at the Maverick Theater's production of the Lynn Riggs' play, "Roadside."

Lee makes his professional acting debut as ‘Texas’ at the Maverick Theater’s production of the Lynn Riggs’ play, “Roadside.”

When Lee heard his cue opening night, “It grabbed me just like that!” he would say with a snap of his fingers. “Suddenly I felt…Expression!” After years of rebellion, masked fear and uncertainty, Lee stepped out on to the stage that rainy summer night and made it his own. Lee’s powerful voice rumbled through the Hudson Valley like a small earthquake to let one and all know that he had discovered his true calling.

The summer of 1947 saw Lee devoting all of his considerable energy to the Maverick Theater’s summer stock productions. He later reasoned, “It was the closet thing to the Marine Corps way of life I could find at the time–hard work and no crap.” The camaraderie was key, but acting also did something else for the combat veteran: it gave him an outlet to express his inner demons that had been frustrating him since the war. He quit his job at Heckeroth’s the very next day.

Lee no longer questioned what he was going to do with his life and decided to tell his parents. Monte’s reaction was swift and decisive. “Lee told my father he wanted to be an actor,” recalled Robert, “and my father almost went through the ceiling, naturally. My father told my brother, ‘If you become an actor, don’t expect any help from me. You’re on your own.’” Lee would have preferred his father’s blessing but the lack of it made him just as determined in his pursuit. As far as Lee was concerned, the war ruined his father, and he refused to accept the same fate. Acting was no foolhardy dream to him. “Acting is a search for communication,” he said later. “This is what I’m doing — trying to communicate and get my message across. I can play these parts, these horrible animal men. I do things on stage you shouldn’t do and I make you see you shouldn’t do them.”

Although many actors enter the profession as a means of expressing their sensitive nature, Lee Marvin chose acting to explore something infinitely more challenging: The cauldron of violence that simmered beneath the surface and was capable of erupting at the slightest provocation. When he did depict this darker side on stage and screen he did so in such a fashion as to change the face of modern American screen violence. This, above else, would make Lee Marvin one of the most consistent and fascinating actors of postwar American cinema.

Dwayne Epstein’s Lee Marvin: Point Blank was published earlier this year by Shaffner Press. It’s available as a hardcover, softcover, and as a NOOK. And be sure to visit his website: http://pointblankbook.com/