Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Ernest Borgnine

"I did [think it - The Wild Bunch - was a moral film]. Because to me, every picture should have some kind of a moral to it. I feel that when we used to watch old pictures, as we still do I'm sure, the bad guys always got it in the end and the good guys always won out. Today it's a little different. Today it seems that the bad guys are getting the good end of it. There was always a moral in our story." (1)

He doesn't look like an Ernest.

I must have seen Ernest Borgnine (Ermes Effron Borgnino 1917-2012) for the first time on his TV show, McHale's Navy (1962-66) when I was a kid. Once a week, there was Borgnine on his PT boat (#103) somewhere in the Pacific, still fighting the Japs. And it reassured middle-aged Americans that things hadn't changed that much since the end of WWII - even though they had.

You could tell Borgnine was a tough guy. But, like most heavy men, he never had to demonstrate it. I saw him regularly on the TV game show Hollywood Squares, with the host Peter Marshall calling him - who knows why - "Ernie Borganinny". Then a thoughtful neighbor couple took their son and me to the Starlight Drive-In in Columbia, South Carolina to see him in The Wild Bunch. I was just 12, but the R rating was evidently not enforced at drive-ins. The film's violence was so disturbing to me that I had to half-close my eyes in the back seat. (I opened them again for the nude scenes.)

Borgnine played Dutch Engstrom, old friend of Pike Bishop, played with unforgettable world-weariness by William Holden. Pike was the obvious leader of the gang of outlaws, but Dutch had to put him in his place now and then. In a late scene, as Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) and his scavengers can be seen gaining on them as they flee deep into Mexico, Dutch says: "Damn that Deke Thornton to hell!" Pike responds:

"What would you do in his place? He gave his word."
Dutch: "Gave his word to a railroad."
Pike: "It's his word!"
Dutch: "That ain't what counts! It's who you give it to!"

When Pike resolves to take himself and his three comrades out with a bang, Dutch is sitting outside on the ground, whittling on a stick. He looks up as Pike and the two others emerge from a cantina. The look in Pike's eyes ("let's go!") makes him laugh. It's the same laugh we hear when Dutch notices after they shoot General Mapache to death and his whole army raises their hands as if in surrender. It's Dutch's full-throated sawed-off shotgun you hear so prominently in the ensuing, magnificent mêlée. He's the last to go down. He speaks the last line of the scene, "Pike".

The last thing I saw Borgnine in was an episode of the film 11'09"01, September 11, a composite of eleven short films, from eleven directors, in eleven countries. Sean Penn directed the one with Borgnine. He's the only actor in the film, who walks around his Manhattan apartment, talking to someone who isn't there - his wife who has died but whose death he can't accept. Until the Twin Towers fall and his apartment is suddenly flooded with sunlight. A vase of withered flowers springs - literally - to life and Borgnine comes to his senses, weeping for his lost wife.

Borgnine was wonderful, despite the piece itself being sadly bad. Like so many great actors we've never met, his films will keep him alive as long as people watch them.

(1) "Features NFT Interviews Ernest Borgnine". BFI. October 10, 2007.

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