Ernest Borgnine: Five Films for Newcomers
It has already been seven years (believe it or not) since we lost the great Ernest Borgnine. He was just shy five years of cracking the big one hundred, yet he left us with decades of nuance within his ninety five years. For many people that may not dig too deeply into classic cinema, Borgnine is likely the loveable tough guy you found in films like Escape from New York or Gattaca (when he wasn’t stopping “eviiiiiiiiiiil” as Mermaid Man in Spongebob Squarepants). If this is the majority of what you know about him, you are in for a treat. Borgnine was never overlooked (his huge heart always resonated in Hollywood), but it never hurts to revisit some of his noteworthy works. Having served in the Navy before his major turns in acting, Borgnine knew how to embrace grit with compassion. Here are five films for newcomers to the works of Ernest Borgnine.
5. Johnny Guitar
You will quickly realize that Borgnine left a mark in the western genre, so it’s only natural that one of his earliest breaks is in an iconic film of said style. Johnny Guitar was far from a normal western flick, and Borgnine was perfect as the villainous Bart. His determination made him ruthless, yet he also knew how to roll with Nicholas Ray’s visions of hyper stylization (the climax is all you need to know about). This proved Borgnine didn’t just understand acting, but he understood cinema; this is how one contributes to the greater whole, as opposed to just doing character work.
4. From Here to Eternity
Perhaps Borgnine was reflecting on the kind of unrelenting toughness he had to deal with when he served for the Navy, but his hard headed turn in From Here to Eternity is one that makes sense in the grand scheme of things. Was he a particularly kind character? No, but his brutish and stubborn ways prove years of serving made him the way that he is. As a staff sergeant, Borgnine provides a certain edge to the romanticized film that truly replicates the frictions caused between members of the same troop.
This is more like it. Further down Borgnine’s career, the actor began to find some more complex work. In Jubal, we see his character (cattleman Shep Horgan) go through the motions. He is full of love, but the world around him turns him cold. It’s a great arc to see, especially during a time where mainstream films were more welcome with experimenting with morality. A likeable person who experiences a maddened downfall that doesn’t end well? Borgnine could do it, and he did so with flying colours.
2. The Wild Bunch
Another western, and another notable Borgnine turn. Sure, The Wild Bunch is William Holden’s circus to boot, but Borgnine plays an incredible next-in-line outlaw. At the start of Sam Peckinpah’s iconic western, we are greeted with generosity and kindness: the helping of an elderly woman who drops her belongings. Seconds later, the film gets filthy. Here we have criminals capable of doing the right thing, feeling the necessity to go out with one last bang. Of course, Borgnine makes sense, as his ability to dip into both worlds is exactly what this film calls for.
This is almost a no brainer. Let’s forget that Marty won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Let’s forget that Borgnine himself won Best Actor. Let’s forget about the Palme d’Or win. At its essence, Borgnine’s performance in Marty (as the titular character) is so heartbreaking. It almost encapsulates who Borgnine was in the industry, especially being typecast early on. This was a loving butcher who has been shunned by the world, stymied by his mother, and just wanting to be taken seriously. The amount of radiance that Borgnine exudes as this character is enough to melt you. You feel everything for this character. You get high off of his joys. You feel so gloomy during his daily battles. This is one character that you want to succeed more than so many in the history of cinema, because you feel like he was dealt so many bad cards in life. Borgnine made this all possible. This role is what made the industry realize that there is much more behind his stature and toughness. He had a heart, and it was unlike most in cinematic history.
Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.