The years of being a major player in Hollywood were good to Ernest Borgnine. It shows not only in the rich roles he had in films like “Marty”, “The Emperor of the North”, and “The Wild Bunch”, but also through his 40-foot bus, The Sunbum, which he takes on a trip through the Midwest with his son Cris, and director Jeff Krulik along with Krulik’s crew, following along in a much smaller Winnebago.
Borgnine is not a man who complains about the roles he missed out on, about performances he could have done better, and he’s certainly not about trying to make himself look young enough to the point of crossing the illegal line. What’s found in this warm, engaging documentary is a man who’s always up for a good chat, whether it be about his movies, his bus, or past travels. Krulik is smart in not focusing on “The Poseidon Adventure” or “Marty”. They’re famous roles for him, but Borgnine has probably talked nearly to death about them. Instead, Borgnine reminisces about his part in a Michael Curtiz musical called “The Best Things in Life Are Free” and notes how some people are surprised when he tells them that he’s done a musical.
What’s even more remarkable than the wonderful stories he shares about such films as “Willard” and “The Devil’s Rain”, and TV shows like “McHale’s Navy” and “The Love Boat”, is how he’s genuinely excited about traveling cross-country in his beloved luxury bus. As he leads the camera through a tour of Sunbum, which no words can properly describe (though I’m sure some RV enthusiasts can find the right ones), he seems just as appreciative of his transport now as he probably ever was.
Borgnine may be an actor of many roles, but there’s no moment where it looks like he’s acting for the camera, save for a moment when he comes out of a bar near the Miller beer factory and feigns drunkenness as he seems to wobble down the steps, but it turns out not to be that way. The people that he meets along the way are very friendly, and who wouldn’t be friendly to such a man as him? On the one hand, they were probably impressed with his work in one way or another and on the other, he’s got this energy for travel, this energy for meeting people that’s mesmerizing in its own way.
In today’s world of soundbites, celebrities on the cover of People along with many tabloids, and constant media tracking of major stars, it’s remarkable to watch Borgnine just come up to people and introduce himself. Borgnine doesn’t force his credentials upon anyone, and doesn’t say, “You’ve got to remember me. I was in a lot of movies, goddammit!” Here, Borgnine is Borgnine and while his star doesn’t shine in Hollywood today, it’s a fine way to learn about parts of his life and loves straight from him. If people recognize him, that’s fine. And if they don’t (as it happens occasionally), then that’s fine too. It’s a perfect mixture of talk from him about roles of long ago and his visits to various small towns, factories, and food stops. More than anything, it’s a documentary that observes and notices above all that while Borgnine may not be noticeable in the Hollywood of today (looks like he’s doing some indie films here and there and that’s good enough for me), he loves the life he’s leading at this moment. The ability to travel in this monster of a bus excites him and it’s easy to feel that same excitement in getting this kind of access to him. This is a great effort and it’s one of my favorite documentaries.