Charles Bronson mostly played tough guys. After years of toiling in supporting roles he became a star in middle age, same as fellow actors Lee Marvin, Leslie Nielsen and Walter Matthau. Like Clint Eastwood, Bronson had that cool, steely silence. While Bronson lacked Eastwood’s leading man looks, he transitioned from villains to become one of the most popular anti-hero ever on the big screen.
Bronson came from humble roots of Lithuanian descent, in the mining country of Pennsylvania. He was drafted during World War II, which got him out of the mine, and after the war, gradually drifted into acting, first in New York and then relocating to Hollywood.
Bronson’s films are often lumped into the same bin like interchangeable products: tough guy shoot’em up films. Only late in his career was that generally true, his Death Wish sequels and 1980s cop/vigilante films lacked originality and quality. During the peak of his popularity, Bronson did try to vary his role and to establish himself like Steve McQueen in more diverse characters.
In the 1950s, Bronson started in bit parts and by the end of the decade became an in-demand character actor, mostly as a villain or playing dark characters. He starred in his own television series, Man With a Camera, which lasted two years.
In 1960, he was one of the Magnificent Seven, and then had a featured role in The Great Escape (1963). He moved between television and films, scoring better parts as the decade progressed, including The Dirty Dozen (1967). In 1965, he had the lead in Guns of Diablo, but that didn’t make his a star. He worked steadily and went to Europe, like Eastwood did, to star in films. In the late 1960s, Bronson finally broke through with a lead role in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), which gave Bronson his name above the title in a meaningful film. He wasn’t just an action star, in that film he was the hero, although a dark one.
As busy as the 1960s had been for Bronson’s career, the 1970s was Charles Bronson’s decade. He proved to be one of the most reliable action stars. Westerns and crime films became his staple. Most of his films had a high degree of violence, but as his films earned money, the films became more stylish and he even took some lighter roles, trying to broaden his career. He could fit comfortably into the anti-hero role, a genre Eastwood nearly invented himself, but proved broad enough for Bronson, and then later, Burt Reynolds, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Swartzenegger and many others.
In Once Upon a Time in the West, Bronson is one of four main stars but he stands equal to Henry Fonda, Jason Robards and Claudia Cardinale. In this film, Bronson established his persona as quietly determined, a step ahead of the action, few words, and a long stare.
Leone fills the screen with Bronson’s eyes, holding onto that shot and then cutting from it with flashbacks, but returning to Bronson’s pained stare. Bronson’s character could be described as heroic but his motivation was decidedly his own. He walks away from the Cardinale character and a vast fortune at the end of the film. How can that be heroic? His character was powered by some deeper drive. You get that in other Bronson films, he ends up doing something very different than you might assume.
In the early 1970s, while getting his leading man legs under him, Red Sun (1971) and The Valachi Papers (1972) gained him notoriety and success, and led to a series of films for United Artists that would lay the foundation for his films that followed. Next up was Chato’s Land (1972), a film where Bronson plays a half-Apache, who kills a white sheriff. This sets in motion a game of cat and mouse between his pursuers and Chato. The film brought suspense and taunt action, with Bronson playing a man who used his wits and used his own justice. Sound familiar?
In a deal with United Artists, The Mechanic (1972), Chino (1973), The Stone Killer (1973) and Mr. Majestic (1974) followed. Each was successful and cemented Bronson’s career arc. Bronson chose his roles carefully; he didn’t over-step his ability or misjudge the audience’s taste. He also chose his directors well. He had made several films with John Sturges, mostly in the previous decade, and would form a partnership with the British director Michael Winner for numerous films in the 1970s, and J. Lee Thompson in the 1980s.
The Mechanic was a stylish crime film, which found Bronson as a pipe-smoking, classical music living international hitman who lived lavishly and traveled the world for his targets. Mr. Majestic, from a story by crime novelist Elmore Leonard and directed by Richard Fleischer, had Bronson as a reclusive melon farmer, who tried to mind his own business, until the local mob tried to muscle in on his operation. Wrongly accused of assault, Bronson escapes with the mob’s major hitman to barter his freedom. Bronson is placed in a difficult situation and must find a way to solve the problem and clear his name. Again, his own motivation and justice. Mr. Majestic is a tough film, like Don Siegel’s films with Clint Eastwood. Fleischer, had a sensitivity for character and forging empathy with the audience. Bronson should have stayed with directors like Fleischer.
And then came Death Wish (1974). The film, about out-of-control crime and one man fighting back, was tremendously popular and hit a chord in society’s psyche. Dirty Harry, of a few years earlier, had done the same thing, but Bronson was not a cop in this film, he was an architect and family man. He could have been anybody. At the time, New York City was viewed as a crime-ridden cesspool. In the next decade, city leaders would work to change that, but the backdrop played beautifully into the storyline. Death Wish spawned an industry of vigilante films that continues today.
Bronson now entered his most lucrative period of his career; he rose to the number four box office star in the mid 1970s. The films he made during the next five years were a mixed lot. While generally popular, his films would fail to capitalize on his new stature. There was also a wave of younger action stars lined up behind him, who would overtake Bronson at his own game.
His next films were: Breakout (1975), Hard Times (1975), Breakheart Pass (1975), St. Ives (1976), From Noon Till Three (1976), Raid on Entebbe (1976), The White Buffalo (1977), Telefon (1977) and Love and Bullets (1979). These were mostly Westerns and detective films, his staple, but most of them were not very good.
Breakout was a story about a helicopter pilot who is hired to get someone out of a Mexican prison. It was a very profitable film based on a true story, but it should have been a better film. More Bronson, and a tighter script would have helped.
Hard Times is a tough, brutal film. Directed by Walter Hill and with a solid supporting cast, Bronson portrays a Depression-era boxer. While well-made, and positive reviews when it was released, it seems to have limited appeal forty years later.
Breakheart Pass is based on an Alistair MacLean novel. It is a Western, but also a murder mystery. It has a terrific cast but the story seems dull and the film never develops any energy. Another film that should have been better. Years later, the film found a second life on cable.
St. Ives is a stylish crime mystery. Bronson is cast as a writer pulled into mystery. It has a great cast and production values, but it must have read better on paper. A missed opportunity for Bronson to branch out into another believable persona.
From Noon Till Three is a comedy Western, where Bronson plays an outlaw whose reputation far surpasses his actual life. This film was another chance for Bronson to stretch and play a romantic lead, abet a comedic lead. It is a film that has charm but audiences did not know what to think of it and stayed away. Bronson was making an increasing number of films with his second wife, Jill Ireland.
Raid on Entebbe was a big production television film based on a real event. The film was praised for realism and drama, and directed by skilled film veteran Irvin Kershner. Bronson had a lead role and received generally positive remarks but the film’s daring rescue is the focus.
The White Buffalo has Bronson playing an ill Wild Bill Hickok in pursuit of an almost mystical white buffalo. This film is interesting and has moments of effectiveness but failed to advance Bronson’s career. Bronson would team up with J. Lee Thompson for many later films, unfortunately for some of the worst of both their careers.
Telefon, based on a popular book, and directed by veteran Don Siegel, had a great opportunity to be one of Bronson’s biggest films. A Russian agent is sent to the US to stop another Russian from waking up sleeper agents planted in the US. Competently directed, with a fine cast, the film is good, but not great.
Love and Bullets, another stylish crime film that totally implodes. Originally to be directed by John Huston, early in production it was taken over by Stuart Rosenberg who tried but couldn’t make much out of this.
Most of his films to end the decade were missed opportunities. Even his best films under-performed. In the 1980s, new stars would grab the best films, and aging stars like Bronson would be stuck in tired genres.
Going forward, Bronson was approaching age 60. The films he was offered were routine, and unoriginal, but he still had a name that was valuable in the international market. Cannon Films, an independent production company, financed most of Bronson’s remaining films. He made four additional Death Wish films, each one declining in quality, mixed in with some other crime genre films. His last roles were a series of television films based around the same character.
Recently, I was watching a Liam Neeson film, where at age 60, he was still making physically touch action films. I thought of Charles Bronson, who until his later years, was a physical presence in his films. I wish that Bronson had been offered some of the same scripts as aging action stars Neeson, Stallone, Willis and Swartzenegger. Bronson found himself typecast and tied himself to production deals that guaranteed money but not quality films.
For me, it was Bronson’s films and television appearances of the 1960s that defined him. His film appearances: Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Four For Texas, The Dirty Dozen, and Once Upon a Time in the West; and television appearances in The Twilight Zone, The Virginian, The Fugitive, Combat!, Rawhide, Bonanza, Alfred Hitchcock and many others. Bronson often played dark, tormented and struggling characters, sometimes heartless, other times overcome with guilt. These roles required him to emote and outwardly project the character, something that his later roles would dial down. By the time he played the character Harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West, the Bronson person was very different. He was ready for his close-up.