STEVE McQUEEN: A PERSONAL APPRECIATION

Steve McQueen was born March 24, 1930. It’s a date I remember better than some other important dates that I should remember and with reason. Readers of this blog and personal friends who know me well, know what a fan of Steve McQueen that I am. In fact, it was my adoration of the actor that led in a roundabout way to my writing Lee Marvin Point Blank via my friendship with Marshall Terrill, as explained here.
What I’ve never discussed here is what it was about Steve McQueen that made me such a fan, although I’ve threatened to do so previously. Since he would have been 91-years old on the 24th, I figure this to be as good a time as any.
It began when I was 13-years-old and saw Papillon (1973) in the theaters for the first time. I was aware of him beforehand and seen some of his other films on TV and at the movies but Papillon changed everything. I have to word this carefully but when I was very young I was..how shall I say this….the victim of bullies, to the point in which I figure I may have suffered some mild form of PTSD. I was constantly being picked on and in fights in school and elsewhere. I’ll just leave it at that.
Well, when I saw Papillon, everything changed for me psychologically. I had never experienced anything like it. Beside the fact that Steve McQueen gave a towering performance throughout the movie, it was when he uttered the words, “Hey you bastards! I’m still here!” that effected me the most. It had never occurred to me before that you could take whatever abuse is dished out and manage to rise above it; hell, even be better for it! Yeah, I know it seems obvious and has been said a million times but the visual example of McQueen in solitary, eating the rancid food given to him and then jumping up on the bars and angrily whispering those words to passing guards, drove it home to me. It was an epiphany!

Steve McQueen in solitary watches the guards pass his cell above him in PAPILLON.

Later in the film, he does it again and to even greater effect which I won’t give away if you haven’t seen the film. Suffice to say, I saw the film over and over again that year and believe it or not, a few days after I saw it the first time, The Great Escape (1963) was aired on TV. Talk about your one-two punch! Everything about the film, and especially McQueen’s performance, was exceptional.

The look Steve McQueen gives the Nazis after crashing his motorcycle in THE GREAT ESCAPE.

However, the scene after he gets hung up in the barb wire trying to jump the fence into Switzerland and the look he gives the Nazis who caught him, was priceless! That did it for me. I was hooked. I hate to admit this but I even got a a pair of khaki pants and a light blue sweatshirt, cut the sleeves accordingly, and wore them to school. Gimme a break, I was thirteen!

From that moment on, I could not get enough Steve McQueen: collecting the posters to all of his films, magazine articles, maintaining scrapbooks, soundtracks, biographies, you name it! I remember at one point my grandmother said to me, “What’s the big deal about Steve McQueen? Did he ever cure a disease? Help humanity in any way? He just made movies, for crying out loud!” I tried to explain to her what he meant to me, but again, I was only thirteen. I wished I had the moxie then to really explain it well.

I should emphasize that I was not some kind of weirdo about it, trying to contact him, or stalking him, like some fans do with favorite performers. I just found everything he did fascinating. Being a movie lover, I admire many film stars, in fact, to me the holy trinity of favorites are James Cagney, Burt Lancaster and Steve McQueen. Here’s the exception: I like almost all of the films of Cagney and Lancaster but their output was so prodigious, some of their films were not as worth watching over and over again. Not so with Steve McQueen. Granted, he did not make as many films, only 30 in total but, with the possible exception of Le Mans (1970), I found everything he did revelational. Seriously. His choice in projects from the very beginning of his career were amazing to me, whether they were any good overall, or not.

Steve McQueen as Boon Hoggenbeck about to convince young Mitch Vogel with an important life lesson in THE REIVERS.

The Reivers (1969) is a good example. I know for a fact he himself did not care for his performance in it as he hated doing comedy. Not only was he appropriately funny in it, the film contained another revelation in it for me. In order to convince young Lucius (MItch Vogel) in the film to steal his grandfather’s new-fangled automobile, he tells him, “If you ever wanna reach your manhood, you gotta say ‘goodbye’ to the things you know..and ‘HELLO!’ to the things you don’t!” I don’t condone grand theft auto, but the message in the dialogue is something all adolescences should heed in the right context. I know I did.

Naturally, his untimely passing at the age of 50 in 1980 was devastating to me. Luckily, I have some very good friends I was able to confide in and one in particular had the intestinal fortitude to stay on the phone with me that night for hours as I poured my heart out to him. Talk about being blessed!

In the years since he shed his mortal coil, some pretty off-putting things had been revealed about the man. I won’t lie to you, it did change my opinion of him. The worst was the revelations concerning his abusive attitude toward the women in his life. “The King of Cool” was not always cool. I discovered these aspects of his persona when I was older and more mature so I was able to deal with it.

Bottom line, I still love his films and watch them whenever I can, I’ve never been fascinated with his personal love of speed like many other fans, which is why I didn’t care for Le Mans. Everything else he did? Hell, I even prefer some of his lesser know films maybe more than his bigger hits, like Soldier in the Rain (1963) Baby, the Rain Must Fall (1965), and An Enemy of the People (1978).
It’s the films that last. Nothing else matters as much. It’s been over 40 years and it’s as if he still telling us: “Hey, you bastards! I’m still here!”

– Dwayne Epstein

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FIGHT SCENES: PART 3 OF 5

Continuing on into the groundbreaking decade of the 1960s, below is the next five films in my list of personal favorite movie fight scenes……

11. SOLDIER IN THE RAIN-1963
Rarely scene and hardly liked by most Steve McQueen fans, Soldier in the Rain was made fresh off his blistering success of The Great Escape. It may seem like an odd choice to most McQueen fans as it’s an odd film to begin with but along with Baby, The Rain Must Fall it is in dire need of rediscovering. Based on a novel by the prolific WIlliam Goldman, and directed by the criminally underrated Ralph Nelson, the offbeat tale is mostly a comedy about the peace-time shennigans of Supply Sgt. Eustis Clay (McQueen) and Master Sgt. Maxwell Slaughter (Jackie Gleason), and their unlikely yet beleviable friendship. The moody tone of the latter half of the film is hinted at during the opening credits via Henry Mancini’s meloncholy main theme. Tuesday Weld heads up the equally offbeat supporting cast of Ed Nelson, Lew Gallo, Tony Bill, Adam West, Tom Poston and Rockne Tarkington.

Jackie Gleason takes Ed Nelson for a spin.

Jackie Gleason takes Ed Nelson for a spin.

The black and white film is shot bright and sunny throughout most of the proceedings but once the film’s mood changes, so too does the lighting, to a darker tone that is neither inappropriate nor jarring. It all works, and brilliantly at that, especially during the barroom brawl that remains a favorite if spooky reminder of how great this film is. The viewer is right in the thick of the fight scene as McQueen and Gleason versus Gallo and Nelson reaches a most believable conclusion, as does the film itself, in which all loose plot developments are poignantly tied up. The pairing of Gleason and McQueen in an early ‘Buddy Film’ may seem odd at first glance but the chemistry between them is there and quite touching at times.

Steve McQueen (right) consoles Jackie Gleason (left) following their barrom brawl.

Steve McQueen (right) consoles Jackie Gleason (left) following their barrom brawl.

In a moment that sounds like a scene right out of the film, rumor has it that Gleason gave McQueen a pair of cufflinks depicting one of his own favorite recreations, playing golf. Supposedly, McQueen thanked him for the gesture but told The Great One he didn’t wear cufflinks when indulging in his favorite recreation: riding motorcycles.

12. DONOVAN’S REEF-1963

When I interviewed Betty Marvin for Lee Marvin Point Blank she was not only forthcoming in her memories of her ex-husband, she proved to be extremely insightful of his screen persona. In comparing Marvin to frequent costar John Wayne, she used a wonderful metaphor, describing Wayne as a big lumbering, yet to her mind, lovable bear. Lee, on the other hand was a panther, sleek, muscular and ready to pounce at a moment’s notice. No where is that analogy more true than in Donovan’s Reef, which opens with a wonderful comic brawl between the two that makes almost the entire remainder of the film anti-climatic by comparison.

Marvin and Wayne temporarily abide by Jack Warden's orders to heed their annual birthday brawl in Donavan's Reef.

Marvin and Wayne temporarily abide by Jack Warden’s orders to heed their annual birthday brawl in Donavan’s Reef.

13. WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS-1966
Why is a Toho monster film on this list? I say, why not? Besides, when I was a kid I LOVED this movie. Watching it now it commands an amazing amount of camp value that rivals anything Ed Wood ever did! The premise is simple enough. Two incredibly ugly behemoth brothers battle it out over bragging rights to destroy Japan, while destroying Japan in the process. You want camp? Try this, when a lounge singer warbles out the film’s love song  on a crusie ship (“The Words Get Stuck in My Throat”), a Gargantua, skilled in music criticism, promptly picks her up, eats her, and spits out her clothes like a sunflower seed shell.
The Brown Gargantua is ‘the good one’ and the Green is ‘the bad.’ Naturally, I was rooting for the green. Along for the ride is a slumming Russ Tamblyn as a hip talking scientist. All in all one of the best — albeit longest — fight scenes in movie history. Their faces and body language alone is worth the price of admission!

No it's not Whoopi Goldberg and Sharon Osborne. It's the title characers of WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS in mid-brawl.

No it’s not Whoopi Goldberg and Sharon Osborne. It’s the title characers of WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS in mid-brawl.

14. THE SAND PEBBLES – 1966
As a 1960s roadshow engagement film and the only time Steve McQueen ever got an Oscar nomination, the overblown production of The Sand Pebbles is dying for rediscovery, if only for the bizarre fight scene between diminutive Mako and slovenly giant Simon Oakland. The film revolves around a U.S. gunboat mired in the quagmire of 1920s China’s political upheaval. The many analogies to Vietnam become a little annoying after a while but the relationships of the characters (especially the crew of the San Pablo), is the heart of the film. The fight scene between Oakland and Mako is a standout as the viewer doesn’t think there’s any way Mako can possibly triumph. He’s a ship’s Coolie fighting for his right to stay on the ship in a bet made by McQueen’s Jake Holman character (who incidentally proves he  can take Oakland himself by a couple of quick body blows). Oakland is fighting for the right to break in a virginal Chinese prostitute. What unfolds in the sequence is not only good ol’ fashion underdog heroics, but a rousing yet believable fight scene climax.
One little known footnote: When Francis Ford Coppola was filming Apocalypse, Now! he had his cast & crew watch The Sand Pebbles first in order to see what kind of superior filmmaking can emerge in the midst of difficult location shooting. Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles proved to influence films more than he ever realized.

Slovenly Simn Oakland seems destined to pummel minute Mako in The Sand Pebbles. Viewers of the film know better....

Slovenly Simon Oakland seems destined to pummel minute Mako in The Sand Pebbles. Viewers of the film know better….

15. POINT BLANK– 1967
“Taut thriller, ignored in 1967, but now regarded as a top film of the mid-60s,” is how film historian Leonard Maltin aptly described director John Boorman’s ‘arthouse action film,’ Point Blank. How could I possibly write about my favorite fight scenes and not include this Lee Marvin movie? There are of course several to choose from, but I chose the battle between Marvin’s Walker and a couple of thugs hired to beat him up behind the movie screen of Angie Dickinson’s posh strip club, covered by the wailing of an onstage soul singer. Why was it chosen? This film is chock full of innovations: the first film shot at Alcatraz after it was shut down; the first film in which the actors were each individually miked for sound; the stylized jump cuts, camera angles, visual effects; but more than anything it’s the fight scene. Speaking of firsts, witnessing Marvin grab stuntman Jerry Catron by the crotch –the way someone would grab an opponent’s lapels to punch him in the face, and then doing just that, to his CROTCH — is an innovation in itself, for better or for worse. I defy any man to watch that moment and not reflexively bend over, cross his legs and wince after witnessing it!
– Dwayne Epstein

Lee Marvin's Walker surprises mob goon Jerry Catron with a beer bottle to the kisser, and that's just for starters!

Lee Marvin’s Walker surprises mob goon Jerry Catron with a beer bottle to the kisser, and that’s just the start of the fight scene!

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