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Fishing With Lee

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by Henderson Downing, for outsideleft.com
originally published: April, 2005
The true story of the Sons of Lee Marvin and the missing Colt .45

Lee Marvin once told a reporter 'I only make movies to finance my fishing'. For him, big game fishing was a spiritual and psychological obsession. His tally of thousand pound marlin ran into double figures. But before falling for the serious extremes of Australian waters he often fished off Hawaii. He had a complicated personal history with the islands that stretched back to the Second World War. A few years ago I spent some time on Maui often drinking with a septuagenarian hippie called Tom who claimed to have worked on a boat that Lee Marvin used to charter.

Tom was taking part in the Onion festival at Whalers Village. He told me that some of his rivals in the competition had tried to steal his secret onion recipe by cutting off his Gandalf-like beard while he slept on Dig Me beach. They thought the ingredients could be deciphered by the stains and remains trapped in the long white whiskers. Tom also told me that he had taken many film stars out fishing but none matched Lee for skill and dedication. The man was a professional, he said, on every possible level. I told him that I remembered hearing that Jeanne Moreau had had an affair with Lee Marvin because she had never met anyone more masculine. I also remembered a quote from Jean Seberg who said that Lee had a voice like rainwater gushing down a rusty pipe. Tom smiled at these descriptions and gave a short laugh that betrayed its own mixture of rust and alcohol-soaked blood.

One afternoon in Lahaina, loaded on another lunchtime spent in Cheeseburger in Paradise, I strolled down Front Street past the gecko merchandise stores and clipboard wielding haoles trying to drum up business for various rainbow valley helicopter tours. I met Tom watching a trad jazz band on a scrap of grass between the Pioneer Inn and the massive tentacles of the banyan tree near the courthouse. Between tunes Tom told me that Lee Marvin used to stay at the Pioneer Inn. We headed inside for a beer and he began a rambling story about a gun that once belonged to Lee's father. Lamont Marvin, he said, known as Monty, was an expert marksman. He won many competitions and exhibition bouts. An advertising executive, he worked for Kodak where he made a short 16mm film of himself, stripped to the waist, firing his favourite Colt .45. The film was intended to aid his shooting technique. In an interview with Time Out, Lee noted that when watching the slow motion replay of his father, he saw how the ripple 'travels up and down the arm three times before the hand moves with the recoil . . . no one can fire it straight, but my father showed me how'. It was a regular Kodak moment providing part of that awesome authenticity whenever Lee later fired a gun on screen.

Before his son left for combat duty in the Pacific, Lamont gave him the .45 and warned him not to lose it. In 1944, Saipan was the headquarters of the Japanese Fleet. Naming the surrounding ocean the Pacific seemed even more cruelly ironic during that violent year. Some of the blood spilt in the island's death valley belonged to Lee, then a twenty-year old marine. With both buttocks shredded by Japanese machine-gun fire he crawled through the bullet-torn brush past the broken bodies of his dead comrades, helped by Richard Scheidt, a fellow marine, who was later awarded the Silver Star for bravery. These guys were blood brothers so when Scheidt asked to borrow the .45 there could be but one answer. But before Scheidt returned to the frontline Lee asked him to take great care of the gun because not only had it already saved his life in a foxhole during a fire-fight but it belonged to his father. Moments later a nearby ammunition dump exploded. In the resulting chaos Lee was stretchered onto a jeep and driven away. He passed in and out of consciousness. His wounded universe grew hazy. Space and time blurred. A red crayon mark on his forehead indicated that he'd been dosed with morphine. When he next woke up he heard Glenn Miller's 'Moonlight Serenade'. He was on the 'Solace', a hospital ship where a nurse asked him if he wanted ice cream.

Lee Marvin was awarded the Purple Heart for his role in the battle of Saipan. Richard Scheidt was wounded in the same battle and later evacuated to a hospital ship where all his belongings disappeared, including the Colt .45. After the war, he spent years searching for the gun but he never found it. Tom explained to me that the gun was supposed to have circled back to Maui with the returning wounded soldiers. The marines had initially trained on Maui before heading towards the Marshall Islands as an advance force.
Shortly after he had starred with Toshiro Mifune in John Boorman's anti-war film Hell in the Pacific Lee chartered the boat that Tom was working on and kept the crew entertained one quiet afternoon with the story about the missing gun. Lee and John Boorman were close friends after working together on Point Blank. During the filming of Hell in the Pacific they visited Saipan with Mifune, who had served for seven years in the Japanese army. Deeply impressed by Lee's inner courage at revisiting his personal hells, Tom vowed to chase up any leads regarding the gun that presented themselves. Down the decades he remained true to his word but nothing came of any of the increasingly rare investigations until the early 1990s when through a friend of a friend Tom met a Californian surfer with film industry connections who claimed to have met a director in possession of a Colt .45 with the same serial number as the missing gun. Tom tried to find out the director's name but the surfer could not remember the details, except that it sounded Polish. I asked him to quote the serial number but of course the little stoner couldn't remember that either, said Tom. And that was the last time I heard any new information about the gun. I asked Tom if he knew the gun's serial number. He unhesitatingly stated C 98688.

War stories and war movies, ice cream and Purple Hearts, missing guns and fishing rods, my head was full of flashbacks and parallels. Lee Marvin shooting his treacherous wife's empty bed in Point Blank, a slow motion echoing of his father in the Kodak film. I kept thinking about Jim Jarmusch roleplaying a director in Blue in the Face. He had a monologue about how stupid it was in films when someone throws away their gun just because it's out of bullets. Those things are expensive, he says . . . was it possible that somehow Jarmusch had acquired the gun that belonged to Lee Marvin's father? In a Rolling Stone interview back in the ice cream days of Down By Law Tom Waits confessed that he had first met Jarmusch at an annual meeting of an organization called the Sons of Lee Marvin. Jarmusch elaborated on this confession saying that to join you 'have to have a facial structure such that you could be related to, or be a son of, Lee Marvin. There are no women, obviously, in the organization. We have communiques and secret meetings. Other than that, I can't talk about it'. Still, stories about the quasi-mythical brotherhood occasionally resurfaced. Nick Cave was rumoured to be undergoing initiation. John Lurie was also said to belong. In his show 'Fishing with John', Lurie took several members of the organization on a series of fishing trips as another homage to their collective Father. Could the missing Colt .45 really be in their hands? A profane icon of destruction used as an object of clandestine reverence by the Sons of Lee Marvin? Maybe it was the powerful talismanic force hidden at the heart of the brotherhood (which, with reference to Point Blank, they always spoke of as an 'organization')?

Such questions came back to me recently when I watched Coffee and Cigarettes. Had Jack White joined the Sons of Lee Marvin? Maybe Jim Jarmusch made him an honorary Grandson. That's the paranoid explanation for the junkstore portrait of Lee (circa Point Blank) hanging over Jack and Meg during their routine about a Tesla Coil. But does Jack really fit the bill? If not, why didn't Jarmusch hang the painting above the booth where Tom Waits sat in the same movie? And what does Iggy Pop know about any of this? The answers to all these questions are currently buried in a conspiracy of silence. But they are bound to surface soon if we remain sufficiently vigilant, poised to reel in the real story of Lee Marvin and the missing gun.

see more stories from outsideleft's Screen archive »»

Henderson Downing

Henderson Downing has written for various literary journals and small press magazines, he lives in London

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