Today is Steve McQueen’s birthday and I wanted to say a few words about his life and legacy that might be of interest to SOFREP readers. He was definitely one of the coolest guys ever to step onto a stage. While I liked just about every character he played, the movies I most enjoyed seeing him in were military ones. But if you pay close attention you will find that these characters he played tended to mirror his actual life in the military. You see, following a very difficult childhood, Steve McQueen became a Marine.
Living on the Streets
McQueen had a very difficult childhood, with an alcoholic mother who’d abandon him and marry bad guys over and over again, men that tended to drink and beat her and her son Steve. In his first years, he was given away to his grandparents and then returned to his mother. By the time he was nine, he ran away after a particularly vicious beating by his new stepdad. Steve was now living on the streets and getting by committing petty crimes with other street kids to feed himself. Rounded up by the authorities he was returned to his aunt and uncle in Slater Indiana where he stayed until he was 12 and his mother asked to again have him back. By that point, she had a new husband, her third. This new husband didn’t like Steve much either and another cycle of abuse ensued. It wasn’t long before McQueen was sent back to his aunt and uncle for the second time.
McQueen was not a good student in school suffering from both partial deafness and dyslexia. By the age of 14, he decided to run away and join the circus, which offered acceptance, travel, and adventure to a young boy desperate to fit in.
Not much is known about this time in his life but he soon drifted back to Los Angeles and his mother and stepfather. There, McQueen took to the streets again, running with gangs of boys, and getting into trouble. Caught stealing hubcaps by the police and returned to his mother and stepfather he endured a final beating that saw him thrown down a flight of stairs. McQueen told his stepfather that if he ever touched him again, he would kill him.
An Incorrigible Delinquent
The response from his mother and stepfather was to have Steve declared an incorrigible delinquent and sent to the California Junior Boys Republic in Chino, California. While there McQueen found himself in trouble again. That passive-aggressive, rebellious streak in McQueen now got everyone in his housing unit in trouble and he found himself on the receiving end of beatings from the other boys too. But something began to change. Perhaps in finding himself among boys with similar family problems, Steve began to identify with them and conform to the rules and structure so missing in his life with his mother. It was not very long before McQueen was considered a model of good conduct and was elected to the governing Boys Council by his peers.
Leaving when he was 16, McQueen joined his mother who was living in Greenwich Village in New York City. After a brief time there, Steve joined the Merchant Marine (probably lying about his age) and crewed a vessel to the Dominican Republic. There he deserted the crew and worked in a brothel. He returned to the U.S. and held various other odd jobs. He also spent 30 days on a chain gang in Texas for being a vagrant. In a final bid to get away from everything in his past, McQueen got his mother to grant permission for him to join the Marine Corps. He was just 17 and the year was 1947, just two years after the end of WWII.
Busted Down to Private Seven Times
McQueen did well at Paris Island under a regime of tight discipline, which makes it pretty hard for trouble-makers to get themselves into trouble, and was promoted to PFC upon graduation. But almost as soon as he was out from under the tight supervision of the drill instructors he reverted to his prior habits. McQueen managed to get himself busted back down to private seven times. Given a weekend pass he took a two-week Unauthorized Absence until the Shore Patrol found him. McQueen decided to try to resist arrest and did 41 days in a Navy Brig. It is important to mention here that Navy Brigs are actually staffed and run by Marines who are notoriously hard on fellow Marines unfortunate enough to get sent there. McQueen would live on a bread and water diet for 21 of his 41-day sentence.
While in the Brig McQueen seemed to revert back to his behavior at the Boys Republic in Chino and attempted to remold himself as a good Marine. In the Marine Corps of the late 1940s, a sailor or Marine doing some time in the Brig was not really a career killer as it might be today. It is hard to imagine any Marine getting busted seven times and going to the Brig for 41 days not being processed out in today’s Marine Corps, but McQueen stayed in uniform. Rehabilitated after his stay in the Brig, McQueen went on to have a very good service.
Assigned to a tank unit, McQueen was aboard a craft carrying tanks that hit a sand bar on the way to a beach landing exercise in arctic weather conditions. The vessel heeled sharply over and tanks slid off into the water with their crews still inside. McQueen dove into the freezing water and was credited with the rescue of five of his fellow Marines. Others were not so fortunate and drowned. As a PFC, McQueen would have been assigned to just about every shitty job you can imagine on a transport ship, including cleaning heads, mopping compartments, and some of the more unpleasant tasks in the engineering spaces like cleaning oil bunkers, steam boiler jackets, and stripping off and replacing the asbestos insulation off piping in the engine spaces.
Now apparently well “squared away” as a Marine and being recognized for bravery in rescuing his fellow Marines, PFC McQueen finished his enlistment as part of the Color Guard for the Presidential Yacht while Harry Truman was in the White House.
McQueen was Honorably Discharged in 1950 after a little over two years of service. As was the practice at the time, the 41 days he spent in the Brig would have been added to his term of enlistment.
McQueen used the GI Bill to study acting and went on to make some 14 television appearances between 1955 and 1960. He then went on to make some 29 films including, what I think are two of the most iconic war movies of all time, The Great Escape and The Sand Pebbles. Fans of Steve McQueen, who know parts of his story, might be able to tell why the characters he played in the movies were so attractive to him: In many ways, he was playing himself.
The Honeymoon Machine
In the 1961 film, The Honeymoon Machine McQueen plays a naval officer, Lt. Ferguson “Fergie” Howard who convinces a civilian scientist running a computer on a Navy Ship that it can be used to predict the winner at the roulette table at a casino in Venice, Italy. McQueen’s character manages to ward off both a confrontation with the Russians and a court-martial by marrying the daughter of Admiral Fitch.
Hell Is for Heroes
In 1962 he stared in Hell is for Heroes as Army Private John Reese, who was busted down to the lowest rank from master sergeant. Reese is a loose cannon that leaves his post to get drunk and chase girls but is returned to the line because he’s a good soldier in a fight and his unit is thinly spread out before German lines. He ends up probing enemy lines on his own initiative which gets two of his fellow soldiers killed. Promised another court-martial for this by an officer, Reese redeems himself by a great act of heroism and self-sacrifice at the end of the movie.
The War Lover
The 1962 English film The War Lover finds McQueen as Buzz Rickson a captain in the Army Air Corps. Rickson is an aggressive B-17 bomber pilot who revels in combat and walks a fine line between hero and psychopath. Like Private Reese in Hell is for Heroes, Capt. Rickson is arrogant and insubordinate but his conduct on the ground is tolerated because he takes to the enemy even if he has to do it alone. As Rickson approaches the end of 25 missions, which means a rotation back to the states, he is determined to keep fighting and do a second tour. On his final mission, Rickson reaches the target in Leipzig and drops his bomb, yet his plane is badly shot up and smoking. Over the English Channel and losing altitude Rickson fights to keep the bomber in the air long enough for his crew to bail out. Now alone in the aircraft, Rickson attempts once more to prove he is the best pilot in the Group without having to look after anyone but himself, but his ship cannot clear the high cliffs of Dover and crashes. Rickson is hailed as a hero for saving his crew and sacrificing himself.
The Great Escape
In The Great Escape, McQueen is again cast as an Army Air Corps pilot, Captain Virgil Hilts. Captain Hilts is insubordinate and a constant source of irritation and frustration to the German guards of a Luft Stalag in Germany during WWII. He has been placed in solitary confinement so often he’s earned the moniker “The Cooler King.” Hilts is desperate to escape and makes several solo attempts around the larger and more organized escape plans of the British flying officers. The British finally convince Hilts to stop trying and join them. Hilts is instrumental in the success of the escape plan. Now on his own again, Hilts leads the Germans on a long and epic motorcycle chase (no, he didn’t do the fence jump).
The Sand Pebbles
And finally, in the 1966 film The Sand Pebbles, an adaptation of a novel about U.S. Navy gunboat sailors on the Yangtze River in China in 1926, McQueen plays Machinist Mate Petty Officer First Class, Jake Hollman. PO1 Hollman has come from the battleships of the Asiatic Fleet with the hope of being able to have his own engine all to himself. Arriving on the USS San Pablo, Hollman finds a system in place whereby he is to supervise Chinese “Coolies” running the engine but cannot run it himself. Hollman rebels against the rules and finds himself at odds with the rest of the crew for upsetting the long-established order of things. But like other characters he played, his technical competence and events save him from retribution. Hollman doesn’t want to get caught in the drama the rest of the crew gets in but finds himself unable to sit idly by when he sees bad things happening. In the end, McQueen’s character must once again sacrifice himself trying to save what he loves.
Steve McQueen was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for his role in The Sand Pebbles; he was also nominated for four Golden Globe Awards. Although he didn’t win the Academy or Golden Globe Awards, he did win a Best Actor Award at the Moscow Film Festival for Best Actor as Captain Hilts in The Great Escape.
Steve McQueen, oddly enough, never portrayed a Marine in any of his films, which seems odd to me now. He was said to fondly remember his time in the Marines Corps, saying, “The Marines gave me [sic] discipline I could live with. By the time I got out, I could deal with things on a more realistic level. All in all, despite my problems, I liked my time in the Marines.”
If we look at his roles, at his art, they were an imitation of his early life. Steve McQueen was a loner who didn’t like to go by the rules. He screwed up and redeemed himself while trying to find something to love and believe in.
In 1979, McQueen was diagnosed with mesothelioma. He died in less than a year at the age of 50. The most likely explanation for his mesothelioma was his exposure to asbestos while doing some of that shit work Marines in trouble have to do to redeem themselves. It is said that life is pain and glory which certainly seems true in McQueen’s case. It is also said that all glory is fleeting, which is not true in McQueen’s case.
He never won any major awards, but some 27 years after his death, he remains in the top 10 earners among deceased actors.
Happy Birthday to the “King of Cool” from all your friends at SOFREP, Mr. McQueen, wherever you are.