One of the main purposes of this blog is to supplement Lee Marvin Point Blank, as well as shed light on some of the actor’s lesser known work, and a perfect example of that is the 1956 Paul Newman vehicle, The Rack. Based on a teleplay by Rod Serling with an expanded screenplay by Stewart Stern, the film was based on the high number of U.S. soldiers that collaborated with the enemy during the Korean War. At the time of the film’s release that number was more than three thousand.
To shed light on the problem, Serling and then Stern fashioned this tale of how one solider (Paul Newman) broke under pressure as a P.O.W. and the effect it has on his martinet father (Walter Pidgeon), widowed sister-in-law (Anne Francis), and his court-martial that takes up the bulk of the film. The lawyers battling the case are prosecutor Wendell Corey and defense attorney Edmond O’Brien.
See any mention above of Lee Marvin in that summation? Well, there’s a reason for that…..
Marvin’s contribution to the film is important enough to rate the billing he received but not enough to be included in the advertising. Why is that? Mainly due to the fact that he has only two short scenes in the film, but they are two of the best the film has to offer. He plays a fellow P.O.W. who early on sets the tone of the films’s seriousness when he commits an act of symbolic assault on Newman….
Later, during the extensive court-martial sequence, Marvin’s character gives testimony that proves that not every soldier who endured torture at the hands of their captors broke under pressure…..
Despite his limited screen time, Marvin added that necessary realism to the proceedings the overwrought melodrama desperately needed. Newman and company were up to their task but it’s Marvin’s character, based on a real P.O.W. screenwriter Stewart Stern read about, that gives the film it’s all-important ‘other-side-of the coin’ point of view. Stern had learned of some of the incredibly inhumane torture this particular soldier had gone through, but it was far too intense for studios and audiences of the 1950s. For example, as he told Roger Ebert in a late life interview: “The Marvin character was partly based on that prisoner I’d read about. The Chinese had done everything they could in terms of physical torture. They tossed Army helmets full of urine in his face, they put cigarettes out on his skin…and when this didn’t work they peeled the skin from his penis and tossed him into solitary confinement in a tiny shed with corrugated iron across the top. And he still wouldn’t talk. There was a nail-hole in the corrugated iron, and every day at the same time, a tiny ray of sunlight would shine through the nail-hole, and he would hold his penis up into that tiny ray of sunlight so it would heal faster. The Chinese never broke him, and that was one of the reasons they turned to psychological abuse as a means of torture.”
Naturally the above horrors could not be depicted in 1956 so another way of emotionally affecting the viewers were used and Marvin was more than up to the task. The scene still packs a wallop but will not be described here as it must be seen intact for its full emotional effect. Besides, I loathe spoilers!
Did Marvin know of what Stern had researched? Probably not. Did he see his own version of war’s horror inflicted on humanity? Absolutely, which is why his performance, although brief, is ALWAYS worth watching.
– Dwayne Epstein