Charles Bronson typified the macho action hero during the 1970s and 1980s, and his starring role in the Death Wish franchise confirmed his status as an international superstar. Ubiquitous readings of the film’s politics as leaning to the right (the extreme right, at that), led to a widespread critical uneasiness not only about Death Wish, but about Bronson’s career more broadly. But his is a complicated star persona, and his image is riddled with complexities that warrant unpacking beyond a simplistic American thug. His performances – even in some of his admittedly dumber films – often tackle a range of issues such as race, gender, and class, and sometimes from often surprising perspectives.
Bronson was over fifty years old when he starred in his most famous action films, and while his family were Lithuanian immigrants, he played Native Americans on three separate occasions. On screen, Bronson is simultaneously aggressive, accessible and politically challenging, but he always forces us to address our own relationship to the weirdness that circulates around representations of such extreme, over the top visions of masculinity.
This complexity is reflected in the details of his own life and the biographical legend that has grown up around this famous so-called ‘tough guy’. For example, one of my favourite rumours about Brosnon was that he supposedly attended his first day of primary school in a dress because his family were too poor for him to wear anything but his sister’s hand-me-downs. Born in 1921 in a coal-mining town in Pennsylvania, Charles Buchinksy was the eleventh of fifteen children. Despite speaking very little English, he was the first in his family to graduate from high school. By sixteen, Bronson was at work in the local mines before he enlisted in the Army in 1943. Emphasising his tough guy image, Bronson would often boast about his time as a tail gunner in World War II, but other versions challenge his story: its probably more likely that he drove a delivery truck in a mess squadron.
At the completion of his military service, Bronson studied art but grew increasingly interested in acting and moved to Los Angeles via a brief period in New York. He joined the renowned Pasadena Playhouse in 1950 and soon began making small
appearances in television programmes such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, and Colt .45. Bronson had a number of bit parts in feature films beginning with You’re In the Navy Now – supposedly because he was the only guy who auditioned who could burp on demand – and then landed small roles
in films like André de Toth’s House of Wax with Vincent Price in 1953).
His first lead role was in the title character of Roger Corman’s Machine Gun Kelly in 1958, establishing Bronson’s association with super butch action films. This was further confirmed via performances in a number of classic ensemble westerns and war movies such as John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, and in one of my favourite films, Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen in 1967where he appeared alongside John Cassavetes, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Sutherland and Telly Savalis.
Despite his increasing success in America, critics generally hated Bronson, even at this stage: his attempts to break away from his tough guy image failed to impress those who doubted his abilities, such as his bizarre performance as an artist in Vincent Minelli’s Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton vehicle, The Sandpiper in 1965.
This is in large part what drew him to Europe – a lot of people are surprised that Bronson made so many films there because he is so automatically linked to America, but his appearance in European films brought him greater international recognition in films such as Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in the West , the awesome Hitchcock-knock off Someone Behind the Door in 1971 and both Farewell Friend and Red Sun where he starred alongside legendary French hornbag Alain Delon.
Of these, my favourite was René Clément’s Rider on the Rain in 1970, and I’m not alone on this: it even won a Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film. This is an amazing film, and it’s of interest to us tonight because it instigated Bronson’s association with rape-revenge, that he of course revisited again in the western Chato’s Land in 1972. This was one of the many films Bronson made during his highly successful collaboration with United Artists, and brought him together with Death Wish’s director Michael Winner.
As one of the most successful and controversial films of the 1970s, Death Wish was savaged by critics for its apparently brazen fascism. But PC or not, audiences around the world still flocked to see it, particularly American audiences whose support locked down Bronson’s superstar status in the United States.
Michael Winner directed a second and third sequel (with later instalments by
directors J. Lee Thompson and Allan A. Goldstein), and the franchise has recently had its politics re-examined by critics such as Xavier Mendik and myself in the book Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (2011).
The first Death Wish film marked the pinnacle of Bronson’s career success and lead to his inclusion in top ten lists of top Hollywood box office stars for four consecutive years during the 1970s, alongside people like Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand.
Outside of Death Wish, he remained loyal to roles that were similarly fixated upon his image as a tough guy, such as Mr Majestyk in 1974 and his final film with United Artists, the western The White Buffalo in 1977 with J. Lee Thompson, who Bronson would work with again on the grossly underrated Death Wish 4: The Crackdown in 1987.
The 1970s and 1980s were both the peak of Bronson’s international success and the period where his status as one of the greatest action superstars of all time was firmly established. While his later career was notable for his continuing role as Paul Kersey, his final years on screen also provided some significant career curios and moments of outright weirdness. These include the children’s TV movie Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus in 1991 and a small but crucial role alongside Viggo Mortenson in the drama The Indian Runner, directed by renowned douche Sean Penn that same year. Bronson retired from acting when health issues prevented him from maintaining his career in 1998, and after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for many years, he passed away from pneumonia in 2003 at the age of 81.
Bronson’s tough-as-nails brutality may be too easily dismissed today as a relic from a bygone era, a long-gone monument to an image of masculinity no longer relevant. But when we think about Jason Statham in the 2011 remake of Bronson’s 1972 Michael Winner collaboration The Mechanic, Bronson often challenged the assumed heteronormativity of the male action hero figure when others simply didn’t have the guts to (George C. Scott famously turned down Bronson’s role because he was uncomfortable with its homosexual overtones – I’m a George C Scott fan, but clearly he didn’t have to wear a dress to primary school and was thus sadly perhaps a bit of a homophobic jerk).
So before tonight’s screening of Death Wish, I’d like to look a little more closely at it as a rape-revenge film. For reasons not wholly disconnected to director Michael Winner’s own widely known right-leaning political beliefs, many contemporary considerations of Death Wish still share a view typified by Vincent Canby from the New York Times upon the film’s release, who called it “a bird-brained movie to cheer the hearts of the far right-wing.” Candby said Death Wish “takes a very dim view of New York City, particularly of its muggers who, according to this film, could be easily eliminated if every upright, middle-class, middle-aged citizen got himself a gun and used it at least three times a week”.
Like many rape-revenge films, much of these sorts of interpretations hinge upon notions of identification: whose story is this, and what does their perspective mean to the film’s politics and morality. These debates therefore centre on how Bronson’s character, Paul Kersey, is constructed: how specifically are we encouraged to view him.
Adapted from Brian Garfield’s 1972 novel of the same name, Death Wish was shot on location in New York City in the winter of 1974, and the bleakness of the primary urban location contrast dramatically with the film’s two idyllic, non-urban spaces (the tropical Hawaii at the film’s opening where Kersey and Joanne holiday, and rural Arizona). This tension speaks of a return to another kind of America for Kersey, one that popular readings of the film suggest is overtly right wing.
For Canby, Death Wish “raises complex questions in order to offer bigoted, frivolous, oversimplified answers”. Critics Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner suggest the film predicted the shift in America from the liberalism of the 1960s to the conservatism of Ronald Reagan. As Xavier Mendik notes, from positions such as these “Death Wish appeared to strike accord with an increasingly militant and reactionary white, middle-class seventies America”.
But in his article “Urban Legend: The 1970s Films of Michael Winner”, Mendik emphasizes the importance of class to the film: one of the muggers tells Joanne before she is murdered that he “hates rich cunts”, and one of Kersey’s earliest attacks is symbolically not with a gun, but with a sock full of coins. From this perspective, Mendik argues that the ambiguous ethical space that is supposed to distinguish Kersey from the street criminals he rallies against—a distinction that right-wing readings of the film view as crucial—is deliberately framed by class, and by how much money he has. In short, he’s a good guy not simply because he fights bad guys, but because he’s a good rich guy who fights bad poor guys.
Winner himself has argued that the identification of Kersey as a cut-and-dried hero totally misses the point. He maintained that the way people understood the idea of good and bad had necessarily changed in 1970s America: they were pretty messed up in their faith of how these things were defined because of stuff like Watergate and the Vietnam War. The film therefore hinges upon how we relate not only to Kersey, but to the actions that take place around him and motivate him: and this is nowhere clearer than in the scene where Joanne is murdered and Carol is raped. As someone who can say they’ve seen over 300 rape-revenge films, I can say the rape scene in Death Wish is pretty diabolical—while not as explicit as many of the rape scenes that I discuss in my rape revenge book, the painting of Carol’s bottom with red spray paint is shocking and offensive for reasons that are hard to articulate.
This is a really vicious scene, but it makes literal the idea that to rapists, female bodies are nothing but spaces for male expression, objects be defaced: I won’t turn this into a history lesson, but historically rape only became legally considered a crime because it was viewed as a property dispute between men (for example, along the same lines of stealing cattle or burning down a house). There’s something about this scene and the way it’s put together that on some subconscious level acknowledges this history: the nastiest thing about this scene in a way is how determined her assailants are to reduce Carol to an object to be vandalised, rather than a person being violated.
It’s useful to ask what rape does in Death Wish, and the answer is pretty obvious: like some other famous rape-revenge films, it is solely there to justify the intensity of the vengeance that follows. Like Winner’s other rape-revenge films—like Chato’s Land—rape is a plot device rather than a serious attempt to tackle the trauma of gendered violence. I have to add here that this is probably not the case in one of my favourite Michael Winner films, the rape-revenge black comedy Dirty Weekend from 1993: this movie has been criminally neglected, but is remarkable: you should all track it down immediately. Interestingly, it’s the only rape-revenge film Winner ever made that is female-centred, too.
Death Wish might not be the most insightful and sensitive exploration of the trauma women experience at the hands of sexual violence, but the movie and the controversy around it are important. The weirdness of Death Wish is its strength, not its weakness. Death Wish is a powerful melodrama about masculine morality. It explores how hyper butch male bodies attempt (and more importantly, perhaps fail) to ‘play out’ distinctions between right and wrong, right and left, and hero and villain.
If this is ambiguous in Death Wish, it is spelt out spectacularly in the opening scene of Death Wish 4. Here, a woman walks to her car in a deserted parking lot and is attacked by three men. Kersey interrupts the attempted rape, shoots two of the men and chases the third after he escapes. Finally cornering him, Kersey shoots and bends over the body of this third man and removes the stocking from his head to reveal the rapist’s identity. Underneath the stocking, Kersey sees his own face. Cutting to a shot of him waking up in a sweat, this sequence is revealed to be a nightmare that makes explicit Kersey’s greatest fear: that the line that separates those capable of rape and murder and the self-appointed vigilantes who so violently and ruthlessly seek to avenge it, is not as clear cut as he had assumed. This idea that the lines between hero and villain are shaky is really fundamental to the whole franchise, and its worth keeping in mind when you watch the movie tonight.
As we now watch Death Wish, we therefore need to make a decision – when we cheer for Paul Kersey (which we all will, of course, because after all, it’s Charles Bronson), what is it exactly that we are cheering? Is the film really saying he’s a hero, or – as director Michael Winner himself has argued – is there something more complex going on?
There’s a kind of perversity I feel towards Bronson’s character similar to how I feel about Michael Myers or Jason Vorhees. Yeah they’re the bad guys, sure, I know that – but I still get a kick out of cheering these homicidal lunatics on. As Carol J. Clover put it, in these films we are allowed to be on the side of both Red Riding Hood AND the Wolf, to get a kick out of the good guys and the bad guys. Here, we get good and bad in the same character, and that’s what makes the movie so much fun. Death Wish is not a slasher film of course, but I can think of no better way to describe the sick thrill I get from watching it. Enjoy!