The recent events dominating the news out of places like Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland, got me to thinking about Lee Marvin’s 1974 film The Klansman. While it is of course axiomatic that nobody sets out to make a bad film, certain ones, with even the best intentions, have no choice but to turn out that way.
In the case of The Klansman, Marvin was not necessarily drawn to controversial subject matter but what he read in Sam Fuller’s adaption of William Bradford Huie’s novel got him to change his mind. While the reasons for The Klansman’s embarassing failure is well documented in the pages of Lee Marvin Point Blank, Fuller’s original script was anything but cliche’ and Marvin signed on for it. Fuller’s friend and neighbor, John Cassavetes read it first and told Fuller, “It’s a pisscutter of a script.” Want proof? Here’s just one sequence in the film Fuller wrote involving Marvin’s character, southern sheriff ‘Big Trak’ Bascomb and his free-thinking college age son, Alan…..
Can you imagine what the reaction to that would have been in even more open-minded 1974 America? There had been other films in which redneck sheriffs were lead characters but there was always some sort of redemption in the end. In the Heat of the Night comes to mind and was certainly the best of the lot but there, too, the characters played by Rod Steiger and Sideny Poitier came to respect each other by film’s end, and there was certainly no sequence in it as shown above.
The script Marvin read had him playing a character who actually got WORSE as the film went on and Marvin liked it. No excuses for his behavior was originally written other than what he had displaying onscreen all along except it simply got worse for the audiences to gasp at, expecially Fuller’s ending! In short, racially motivated violence by police, as we’ve seen alot of lately, would have fit the mould of The Klansman if the filmmakers had the courage of their convictions. When the film was about to start production, Marvin had this to say to the publicist….
The changes that were made disgusted the actor and his drinking naturally escalated, although not as much as his strangely cast costar Richard Burton. After the film’s release and the behind-the-scens debauchery had made front page news, Marvin said this in an interview with a short-lived magazine called Girl Talk (!)
Sadly, Marvin would never again commit to a film with a controversial social commentary. Not because he didn’t want to play an unsavory character, as some actors would. He had no problem with that. He clearly didn’t want to run the risk of seeing the message he was trying to convey become diluted. A shame really, as he did look good in the costume, though….