Victor McLaglen remains one of the most loved character actors of all time. Huge in every respect, he is known to us as the consummate sergeant from John Ford's cavalry trilogy, busting out of his uniform, barking orders, grinning like a devil at new recruits, as quick with a laugh as a tear, brawling, hard drinking, loving all that is Irish.
Victor McLaglen was born in Tunbridge Wells, near London, on December 11, 1886. Victor's mother was of Irish descent whilst his father, Scottish. There were eight brothers, all big strapping boys, and a little sister. He worshiped his elder brother Fred so much that when Fred left home to join the army and fight in the Boer War, Victor followed. He was 14 but passed for 19, and joined the Life Guards. It was here that boxing won him several service titles and a tour of exhibitions. It was his passion and the profession he felt best suited for. It was going to be his future and his fame.
After leaving the army, Victor sought to pursue a boxing career but his father intervened and found him a job in a solicitor's office. After a week, he was on a ship to Canada.
McLaglen worked all over the Canada, searching for adventure. He tried farming, fishing, gold and silver prospecting and served as a policeman and fitness trainer. The talent that always guaranteed a few dollars in his often-empty pockets was boxing. The northern frontier mining towns and camps were short on entertainment and always welcomed a "bit o' rough an tumble". Pounding your fist on a bar and declaring, "I can lick any man in the world" was the basic promotion technique in those days!
During his wanderings Victor visited Happy Land Park in the sporting quarter of Winnipeg, here big wrestler named Hume Duvel offered $25 to any man, who could last 15 minutes with him. Victor, who had had some wrestling experience by that time, came away from the match with $25 in his pocket. The park offered him Duvel's job, which he accepted reluctantly. Wrestling, he felt, "could never work on my imagination like boxing. I always loved the flicker of the gloves, the tap of feet on the canvas, the snort of breath as the punches beat home. There is merely a clash of forces in the wrestling ring." McLaglen stayed at the Park for some time, taking on up to eight challengers in one night and never loosing. His final match at Happy Valley was a crazy "all in - big ballyhoo affair", which he had to beat an entire football team within one hour. The tactics were, he admits, pretty ugly, but he finished them off with four minutes to spare. The exhausting battle became part of the local mythology, a testament to raw power and brutality.
McLaglen and Duvel became great pals and went on the carnival circuit as a team offering the requisite $25 to anyone who could last 15 minutes on the mat with Duvel or three rounds of boxing with McLaglen. Later they even put together a rough vaudeville routine, coating themselves with silver cream and recreating famous statues and fight scenes.
McLaglen could have been a contender, but events never aligned themselves properly to let that happen. His venues were crude but he was no ham 'negger. One encounter he had was his fight with then reigning heavyweight champ Jack Johnson. Boxing rules were often a tangled mess, and stipulations for this exhibition bout at the Vancouver Athletic Club represented a perfect example. The rules called for a six-round, no decision match, which meant there would be no winner except by knock out. McLaglen went the distance without a single count but was clearly impressed with the champ. He describes the fight: "I do remember how I tried my very best to rattle him during the last two rounds, conscious of the fistic immortality that would be mine were I lucky enough to slip a' sleeper." But his grinning face (a characteristic that often rattled Johnson's opponents) darted in and out behind the thud of his gloves ".... my best leads frequently pawed the air altogether, for that amazingly supple body of his weaved and pranced around me....Johnson was undoubtedly the hardest man to hit whom I ever met.... He was certainly the greatest boxer I ever saw in action."
McLaglen's amazing wanderlust found him in India in service to a raja, lion hunting in Africa and shipwrecked in the South Seas while pearl diving. As he put it: "A man had one life to live and one world to live it in. The most he could hope to do with it was to sample that world and its sensations to the full knowing that every new country and thrill he struck was another tweak to the beard of time. " Boxing kept calling him back, and he decided to have a final shot at a career but World War I intervened and all eight of the McLaglen boys rallied round the cause. Victor served as a captain with the Irish Fusilier fighting against the Turks and Germans in Mesopotamia and also acted as the provost marshal of Bagdad. His boxing reputation had preceded him homeward and he became a highly successful recruiting officer. It's easy to imagine how effective he was with his imposing uniformed figure standing before a crowd, bellowing out the call like the barker he had been.
After the war, a producer friend suggested that he take a stab at acting, McLaglen shrugged at the odd notion but, with no other immediate prospects, decided to have go at it. His first appearance was in 1920. The camera liked him, and a steady contract put money in his pockets, but his impression of the business and the people was typical - he found it all pretty dam silly. "Acting never appealed to me, and I was dabbling in it solely as a means of making money. I rather felt that the grease paint business was somewhat beneath a man who had once been a reasonably useful boxer."
He made a string of silents until 1924, when Hollywood called him for an aptly named production called 'The Beloved Brute'.
By 1934 McLaglen was an established star in America. He had appeared in about 50 films. He made his first film with John Ford, 'The Fighting Heart', in 1925. His success came in 1926 with the silent film role of Captain Flagg in 'What Price Glory?' - an odd brawling combination of comedy and drama set during World War I and directed by Raoul Walsh. Captain Flagg and his sidekick Sgt. Quirt (Edmund Lowe) were so popular that McLaglen and Lowe played the characters in a series of film adventures
Victor became a favourite of director John Ford, who used him to advantage in many of his films, often as a tough-soft cavalry sergeant. In 1928 he played Citizen Hogan in 'Hangman's House', that also had as a spectator a fledgling actor by the name of John Wayne. It was not until 1948 when John Ford directed "Fort Apace" that Wayne and McLaglen were to act together again. Victors next three films were directed by John Ford - "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon", "Rio Grande" and the incomparable "The Quiet Man".
The highlight of his acting career came in 1935 when Victor won an Academy Award for best actor playing the title role of Gypo Nolan in Ford's 'The Informer'.
Five of McLaglen's brothers - Arthur, Clifford, Cyril, Kenneth, and Leopold - were also actors and at least Arthur and Cyril had small roles in a number of Ford/Wayne films.
Victor passed away in 1959, leaving one son, the director Andrew V. McLaglen, who was born July 28, 1920, in London.
Andrew was a capable director, mostly of westerns. Among his better westerns are McLintock! (1963), with John Wayne, and Shenandoah (1965), starring James Stewart. Andrew also directed a number of TV movies and hundreds of episodes for TV shows such as "Perry Mason", "Have Gun-Will Travel" and "Rawhide".
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