There are more than enough tributes to Ernest Borgnine up on the internet since the announcement of his death yesterday, 8 July; but I wanted to add in my two-cents.
Borgnine had been acting in movies since 1951, I didn’t that he would ever go. He took up acting in 1945 after 10 years in the Navy. He made a film appearances as late as last year. According to IMDB, he has 203 film and television credits and a completed film in the can that hasn’t been released yet. A working actor, is certainly what Ernest Borgnine was. He made a lot of films–a lot of them not particularly good. But he kept on working. I just want to mention a few:
From Here to Eternity (1953)
As Sgt “Fatso” Judson, in Fred Zinnemann’s film adaptation of James Jones’ From Here to Eternity, Borgnine had his breakout role. He didn’t have a lot of screen time, but he made a huge impression. He created a quiet, explosive portrait of sadistic malevolence. The confrontation of Borgnine’s chief of the stockade and Frank Sinatra’s Maggio is the inciting incident that leads to the ultimate tragedy for some of the main characters.
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
In John Sturges’ classic Western Noir, Borgnine tag teams with Lee Marvin as Robert Ryan’s ruffian underlings to torment stranger in town Spencer Tracy. The scene in the diner which ends with Ernie getting beaten by the one-armed Tracy and knocked through the diner door is justifiably famous. The glee in his face as he pushes Tracy’s character, who keeps retreating is quite threatening, so when the turnabout comes, it is a satisfying relief. This was released in the same year Borgnine won his Oscar for Marty.
Emperor of the North (1973)
Borgnine made 6 films for Robert Aldrich, beginning with the classic Western Vera Cruz in 1954. In 1973 he made the depression era action-adventure Emperor of the Northfor Aldrich co-starring with Lee Marvin.
The plot is very simple. It is 1933 and there are a lot of hobos, and hobos riding the rails. Shack (Borgnine) is a viscous conductor who vows that “no ‘bo” is going to ride his train. Lee Marvin is “Number One” of the hobos and of course he vows to rides Shack’s train. There is nothing subtle about the film, the brutality and full-force violence of his Aldrich’s vision is in the forefront, it’s believable, and almost gleeful. The same could be said for Borgnine and Marvin. Not for all tastes but it is one my Borgnine highlights.
The Wild Bunch (1969)
I leave my favorite to the last: Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. That’s Ernie from The Wild Bunch in the image at the top.
Borgnine’s “Dutch Engstrom” is about as close to a moral/ethical center as the Bunch got. He gets to utter what may be one of the few moral tenets of the story. When Pike (William Holden) explains that his former partner, now turned tracker for the railroad gave his word, Engstrom shouts, “That ain’t what counts! It’s who you give it to!” Peckinpah’s film is one the best films of the 1960′–one of the best Westerns ever.
By all accounts Ernest Borgnine was a quite nice fellow, and he played some quite nice people in his long career. But he was an actor, and the parts I find most memorable are often, not so nice. At any rate: Peace to you Ernie, you will be missed.