Charles Bronson Centennial

3 Nov

He was an iconic action star who was one of The Magnificent Seven, one of The Dirty Dozen and one of three who made good The Great Escape. He was Charles Bronson and November 3, 2021 marks his centennial. (He died in 2003 at the age of 81 after a 48-year acting career.)

I first saw Bronson on the big screen in John Sturges’ THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963), where he was among the 76 POWs in a German prison camp during World War II who made a dramatic prison break in 1943. He played Danny, the “tunnel king,” whose background in coal mining propelled him to take a major role in digging the escape tunnels. Bronson himself had worked as a coal miner in Pennsylvania before military service in WWII. In the movie his character was one of the three who successfully reaches neutral territory without being recaptured. The other two were played by James Coburn and John Leyton.

Over the next few years, I’d see Bronson on the big screen in THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE (1965), THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967), ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1969) and a revival of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960).

In John Sturges’ THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, Bronson played Bernardo O’Reilly, a half-Mexican gunfighter who joins a ragtag band of seven unemployed gunmen hired to help defend a Mexican village from bandits. The boys of the village adopt Bronson as the one to hero-worship and they promise to leave flowers on his grave after he dies. Among the other members of the seven are two actors who would also appear with Bronson in THE GREAT ESCAPE, Steve McQueen and James Coburn. It was a western reworking of Akira Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI (1954).

I saw first saw both THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and SEVEN SAMURAI at Times Square theaters on the same block within a few weeks of each other in 1971. I wrote about the experience here.

In Robert Aldrich’s THE DIRTY DOZEN, Bronson plays Wladislaw, a former sergeant imprisoned for shooting an officer who was trying to flee the battlefield with a supply of much-need ammunition. He becomes one of 12 prisoners assigned to undergo training for a suicide mission to slaughter a gathering of top-ranked Nazi officers at a resort villa behind enemy lines. In the course of training for the mission, Wladislaw allies with Jefferson (Jim Brown) to become the unofficial leaders of the Dozen, mediating between them and Major Reisman (Lee Marvin), their commander. Wladislaw is the only one of the Dozen to survive the mission.

I wrote about THE DIRTY DOZEN for my Robert Aldrich Centennial.

In Sergio Leone’s fourth Italian western, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, Bronson plays “Harmonica,” an enigmatic gunslinger who plays the harmonica and has sought out the railroad’s hired killer, Frank (Henry Fonda), for reasons revealed only after their epic showdown near the end of the film. Leone’s extreme closeups of Bronson’s rugged face cemented Bronson’s move from supporting actor to international movie star.

I would go on to see Bronson in his starring roles in Rene Clement’s RIDER ON THE RAIN (1970) and Terence Young’s RED SUN (1971). After starring in these and other European films, Bronson returned to Hollywood a bankable star and began starring in a series of action vehicles that would keep him employed for years. I would see him on the big screen in most of them throughout the 1970s, including CHATO’S LAND, THE MECHANIC, THE STONE KILLER, MR. MAJESTYK, DEATH WISH, BREAKOUT , HARD TIMES, TELEFON, LOVE AND BULLETS, and several others. DEATH WISH (1974) was the film that made him a superstar. In it, he plays Paul Kersey, a mild-mannered New York architect who is propelled into vigilante violence after his wife dies from an attack by home invaders and his daughter seriously disabled. An Arizona client gives him a gun and he learns how to use it and begins going out at night to attract muggers and deliver swift and lethal justice to them. Public support for the mysterious vigilante embarrasses the police and prompts them to step up their efforts to find him and get him out of town.

As much as I like the film (and consider a great improvement over Brian Garfield’s novel), I tend to think that actual muggers in New York of the 1970s would have steered clear of someone of Bronson’s demeanor. More sensible casting would have been someone like Jack Lemmon, who was considered for the role at one point.

RED SUN deserves special mention because it is the first film to unite onscreen a member of the original Seven Samurai, Toshiro Mifune, with a member of the Magnificent Seven, Bronson. Mifune would go on to make other films with members of the cast of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, but would share no scenes with them as he does with Bronson in RED SUN. I wrote about RED SUN for my Toshiro Mifune Centennial.

RED SUN also reunited Bronson with Alain Delon, his co-star from one of his first European films, ADIEU L’AMI (1968).

Even though I didn’t see it in a theater, another film from this period that deserves singling out is VIOLENT CITY (CITTA VIOLENTA, 1970), which was released in the U.S. as THE FAMILY. Directed by Sergio Sollima, it’s a solid crime thriller starring Bronson as a professional assassin who gets double-crossed and decides to fight back. His DIRTY DOZEN and BATTLE OF THE BULGE co-star, Telly Savalas, plays a New Orleans crime boss trying to hire Bronson for his organization after the double-cross. It turns out that his wife is Bronson’s former girlfriend, the one who had set him up for betrayal, which makes Bronson’s mission all the more personal. The wife is played by Jill Ireland, Bronson’s then real-life wife, who co-starred in several films with him and would remain married to him until her death from cancer in 1990. (Interestingly, Ireland’s previous husband, David McCallum, had co-starred with Bronson in THE GREAT ESCAPE and she and Bronson met during that film’s production.) VIOLENT CITY is enhanced by a crackling music score by Ennio Morricone. This film is one of three Bronson films scored by Morricone, the other two being GUNS FOR SAN SEBASTIAN and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.

In the 1970s, I also began to discover Bronson’s older films on TV and in revival theaters. They were mostly westerns and crime thrillers where he usually played heavies, but he also played a much wider range of characters when he was a supporting actor, including comic (PAT AND MIKE) and dramatic (THE SANDPIPER) roles.

My favorite of his 1950s work is Robert Aldrich’s VERA CRUZ (1954), the spiritual predecessor of so many Americans-in-Mexico westerns, including THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, MAJOR DUNDEE, THE PROFESSIONALS and THE WILD BUNCH. Bronson plays one of a motley crew of American gunslingers taking advantage of civil strife in 1860s Mexico by hiring out to the highest bidder, in this case the government of Emperor Maximilian whose French officers hire the gunmen to escort a French countess to Vera Cruz for a ship back to France, who is secretly carrying a shipment of gold to take back with her. The stars are Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster and the other Americans along for the ride include Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam and Archie Savage. Bronson plays the harmonica during a party scene in a Mexican village, foreshadowing his role in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, in which he’s called “Harmonica” simply because he announces his presence in every scene he’s in by performing some eerie Morricone-composed strains on the instrument.

At one point, a beautiful Mexican girl, Sarita Montiel, secretly working for the Juaristas, accompanies the caravan and is taken under the wing of Cooper, a former Confederate colonel who’s fallen on hard times. When the other men get Montiel  alone, Bronson is the most aggressive as he assaults her and declares, “I like it when they scream,” before he’s stopped by Savage.

I wrote about VERA CRUZ for my Burt Lancaster and Robert Aldrich centennial pieces.

Bronson’s also quite memorable in HOUSE OF WAX, CRIME WAVE, Robert Aldrich’s APACHE, Delmer Daves’ DRUM BEAT, TARGET ZERO, Delmer Daves’ JUBAL, Samuel Fuller’s RUN OF THE ARROW, and John Sturges’ NEVER SO FEW. He played the leads in three B-movies in 1958, two as the hero, SHOWDOWN AT BOOT HILL and GANG WAR, and one as MACHINE GUN KELLY, a Depression-era bandit in a thriller directed by Roger Corman. I wrote about CRIME WAVE here.

He was also in dozens of TV roles in the 1950s and ’60s, in several memorable series of the time, including “M Squad,” “Laramie,” “The Twilight Zone,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Have Gun Will Travel,” “Bonanza,” “Combat!,” “The F.B.I.,” “The Fugitive,” and “The Virginian.” He even starred in his own series, “Man with a Camera” (1958-60), in which he played a roving news photographer who winds up solving crimes.

He played Butch Cassidy in a memorable episode of “Tales of Wells Fargo,” which was the first time he appeared onscreen with future movie co-star James Coburn.

Bronson’s popularity in the 1970s led to a series of action potboilers, including four increasingly ridiculous DEATH WISH sequels, usually for Cannon Films and usually directed by either Michael Winner or J. Lee Thompson, British filmmakers who’d made some prestigious films early in their careers but then became, essentially, hacks. Of these films, the ones I’ve seen at least, the only one that impressed me at the time was Thompson’s THE EVIL THAT MEN DO (1984), which had a bold and timely political theme not usually found in Bronson action films, in that it addressed atrocities committed by military dictators in Central America, often with the assistance and/or tacit approval of the CIA. Bronson plays a former hitman recruited by a human rights group to track down and bring to justice a notorious torturer, Molloch, known as “El Doctor.” In the process, he crosses paths with the CIA. Set in Guatemala, the scene of numerous massacres of indigenous people by the military government at the time, it was shot in Mexico and has quite a provocative twist ending, which evokes Tod Browning’s FREAKS.

Interestingly, Bronson shares a birthday with Brigitte Lin, the Taiwan-born star of Hong Kong films (PEKING OPERA BLUES). In one of Lin’s early films, RUN LOVER RUN (Taiwan, 1976), she plays a college athlete who is a big fan of Charles Bronson and has his poster on her wall (along with one of Bronson’s sometime co-star Steve McQueen) and at one point even shows her suitor (Alan Tang) the Bronson poster and declares to him that that’s her boyfriend, a “real man.” Tang later dresses up as Bronson, complete with little moustache and acts “rough” with Lin to teach her a lesson. I posted my review of this film on IMDB on July 7, 2003. Bronson died the next month, on August 30.

I’ve still got a few Bronson films in my collection that I haven’t seen, including LOLA (1970), SOMEONE BEHIND THE DOOR (1971) and THE WHITE BUFFALO (1977), but I’m more eager to re-watch one of his classics. In any event, I’ve been enjoying his performances now for 58 years and will continue to do so.

One Response to “Charles Bronson Centennial”

  1. mikestakeonthemovies November 3, 2021 at 7:41 PM #

    Nicely done. I’m on a Bronson kick as well this month but then I’ve been a fan all my life. Cheers.

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