Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The ultimate avenger (1921-2003)

It has been noted that the past year has been tough on the cast of the classic 1960 western The Magnificent Seven. Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner have been dead for years. But since only last November, we have lost James Coburn, Brad Dexter, Horst Buchholz, and now Charles Bronson. (Robert Vaughn is the last cowboy standing.)

Bronson was in an impressive number of ensemble action extravaganzas. In addition to The Magnificent Seven, he appeared in 4 for Texas, The Great Escape, Battle of the Bulge and The Dirty Dozen. But the best of these would be Sergio Leone’s immortal ode to the western genre, Once Upon a Time in the West, arguably Bronson’s best role, even though he had precious few lines and, typically, played a blank-faced mystery man who was more eloquent with a gun that with his words. But the few lines he did have really counted. Like when a trio of hired guns closing in on him joke that they are short one horse. A chill goes up the spine when Bronson coolly and confidently responds that they have actually brought two too many. Bronson’s mystery man, called “Harmonica,” haunted the film, as the baleful tune of his eponymous instrument inhabited the movie’s memorable soundtrack. The man clearly had a face that was made for westerns, or any for action genre for that matter. He exuded toughness and even menace without even trying.

Consequently, Bronson was not particularly known for his acting range. His growth as an actor was basically to go from action ensembles to carrying an action movie on his own, e.g. The Stone Killer, Breakheart Pass, St. Ives, Telefon, etc. Still, he had the ability to surprise from time to time. One of his best and least-known films was a satire in which he co-starred with his wife Jill Ireland, From Noon Till Three. In what passed for Bronson playing against type, he portrayed an ineffectual robber, who has a brief but passionate tryst with Ireland. Believing him to be dead, she writes a book about their encounter, which becomes a major bestseller. In a turn worthy of Preston Sturges, the book makes him a huge legend. Even the author is so caught up in the hype that she doesn’t recognize him when he gets out of prison.

Inevitably, most of the accounts of Bronson’s career have focused on one movie in particular, which may be his best known. Seven years before John Carpenter satirized the perceived breakdown of civilization in urban America in Escape from New York, Bronson starred in a movie made by Michael Winner called Death Wish. The film immediately became etched into American popular culture and spawned four sequels. Indeed, 1994’s Death Wish V: The Face of Death was Bronson’s last outing on the big screen. (Trivial coincidence: Charles Bronson’s nemesis in Death Wish V was Michael Parks, who was the star of Then Came Bronson in 1969.) Death Wish clearly struck a chord with a lot of people. It was some sort of vicarious antidote for people who felt helpless in the face what seemed like rampant urban crime. Playing a bleeding heart liberal architect, Bronson undergoes a radical transformation when his wife and daughter are wantonly attacked by a pair of vicious goons (one of whom is Jeff Goldblum, in his movie debut). In a way, this Bronson character is not much different from Harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West, in that he is a man on a mission of vengeance. The main difference is that the avenging architect doesn’t even attempt to find the pair who committed the crime. He simply goes around setting himself up as decoy and blowing away the muggers who, without fail, always attempt to rob or kill him. In the end, the movie isn’t about revenge at all. It is about hate and blood lust. Interestingly, though, the basic plot isn’t too different from the average origin of a Marvel comic book superhero (cf. Spider-Man, Daredevil).

The legacy of Winner and Bronson’s film is to be one more landmark in America’s modern culture wars. For people on one side, it articulated a view of the U.S. as a place where courts and lawyers had tied the hands of the police to impose any order on society. For people on the other side, it glorified the worst possible view of America’s gun culture, where citizens still think they are living the wild west and can impose their own justice from the barrel of a gun. Because of this, from 1974 on Charles Bronson’s name became shorthand for a rightwing sensibility in American films. That’s too bad. Personally, when I remember Charles Bronson, I will prefer to remember him in films where his man of action persona was more at home, the westerns and the war movies. And chief among those will be the one where he played the mysterious man with the harmonica.

-S.L., 4 September 2003

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