Prime-era Mega-stardom Charles Bronson In Compelling Pair Of Screen Westerns, Released By Kino Lorber In Bronson’s Centennial Month.
STREET DATE: NOVEMBER 16, 2021/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSSICS
This November is the centennial birth month of one Charles Bronson!
Born Charles Bunchinsky on November 3, 1921, in the shadows of the Allegheny Mountains, Bronson went down into the Pennsylvania coal mines at the age of ten, enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1943, strafing Japanese-held islands in the Pacific as an aerial gunner, pursued acting after the war, becoming a dependable and sought after character actor both in film and TV, before breaking out as a leading man in European productions from the age of 45; Charles Bronson eventually became a Hollywood mega-star, at the age of 52, with the release of Death Wish. And while a long sentence may be able to suggest the highlights of an eventful life, it can scarcely describe the character of the individual who lived those hardships, adventures, and accomplishments. For that, in the case of Charles Bronson, we must turn to the movies.
Kino Lorber presents two prime-era screen westerns starring Charles Bronson, at the height of his mega-stardom, in separate deluxe Blu-ray packages during the Man of Few Words’ centennial month of November 2021. In his prime, no leading actor had a rougher face, harder physique, or made more of a blunt impact on screen, despite or perhaps because of that measured economy of words, than Charles Bronson. And what has long fascinated this reviewer in particular is how many words it takes to unpack that famously terse screen presence. Perhaps due to his lack of verbosity, the career and talent of this often underestimated and misunderstood performer is a good deal more complex than his unfairly narrow reputation would suggest, because Bronson, like the best silent actors, communicated through looks, gestures, and reactions rather than lengthy monologues or any put-on disposition broadly suggesting “acting”.
Thus the irony for the Bronson reviewer: wasting several paragraphs to express what is instantly apparent to any viewer and which has no need for any further explanation. As said elsewhere, Bronson simply was on screen, big or small, and the specificity of his performances simply transcend any reviewer’s ability to explain, describe, or analyze them. However, a pair of Blu-rays, one encoded with arid views of desert warfare and the other with snow-capped train adventures over treacherous mountains, sits before one, demanding some sort of comment.
In observance of Bronson’s centennial, then, one offers a further critical attempt to address/redress any narrow dismissal of an actor who simply didn’t need words – in fact demanded that scripts be altered or cut down so that he could instead “look” the character’s history – in order to reestablish appreciation for Charles Bronson’s undeniable if stubbornly resistant screen presence. A life journey from a hovel in Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania to a Bel-Air mansion was undeniably reflected in those squinting, steel-grey eyes, and Bronson’s ability to communicate that considerable lived experience certainly deserves a consideration equal to that of any other great American actor.
DIRECTED BY MICHAEL WINNER/1972
The historical Chato, renegade Apache confederate of Cochise and Geronimo, cut a burning and murderous swath through the New Mexico wilderness before being subdued and captured by the U.S. cavalry in 1883. Spending the next 51 years shuttling back-and-forth between various Southwestern reservations, the real Chato fatally drove his Model T Ford off a cliff, exact age unknown, during the mid-Depression. Our fictional Chato, exact fate unknown, straddles white and Apache culture with his mixed heritage but fully embraces the latter part of his ancestry when exacting revenge on a post-Civil War, Confederate-sympathizing posse pursuing the half-Apache into full Apache territory. Picking off his pursuers one by one (by one…), the pursuers become the pursued, and they are finished off not so much by a man, but rather the physical embodiment of the threatening landscape surrounding them.
The film opens past establishing shots behind the title credits of a dusty desert pueblo with “half-breed” Chato (Bronson) hoisting a few at the bar of the local saloon. Before the audience is aware of the inherent tension of the situation, the town sheriff has called out and drawn on the local outcast, and just as quickly is blown away by the armed, insulted, and threatened Chato. Disappearing beyond the town’s borders mere minutes after the sudden, fatal act has occurred, former Confederate Captain Quincy Whitmore (Jack Palance) dons his five-year discarded sabre and uniform, and proceeds to recruit an unsympathetically hard-bitten mob of vigilante ranchers, trackers, and ex-soldiers, including the Hooker brothers (Simon Oakland, Ralph Waite, Richard Jordan), Joshua Everette (James Whitmore), Nye Buell (Richard Basehart), and many unreconstructed others, to pursue the vanished Chato into the unforgiving wilderness.
This, of course, is the posse’s first mistake, among many to follow, and as the title suggests, the United States may claim the larger enclosure they are heedlessly entering as Territory, but the towering butte formations, sagebrush coverings, and deep valleys, high cliffs, and treacherous gorges remain the sole province of the Apache. Riding with hatred in their hearts through a strange and forgiving land, the unseen Chato – after witnessing his family and kinsmen brutalized, murdered, and desecrated – shows his pursuers the true face and harsh form of that hostile environment.
And what a face and form it is! Shot in Almería, Spain, doubling for New Mexican territory circa 1870, Robert Paynter’s camera-work vividly captures British director Michael Winner’s equally vivid vision of Gerald Wilson’s evocative screenplay, but it’s Bronson as Chato’s onscreen transformation, sartorially and behaviorally – one of Kino Lorber’s disc’s co-commentators Howard S. Berger estimates Bronson has maybe fifteen total minutes of screentime, and might say even fewer words than that – which nevertheless dominates the physical and emotional iconography of this violent yet beautiful, stark yet lush screen western.
Beginning an equal parts fruitful and combative actor-director relationship between Charles Bronson and Michael Winner that later resulted in The Mechanic (1972), The Stone Killer (1973), Death Wish (1974), and its first two sequels (1982, 1985), Chato’s Land remains the purest distillation of the later films’ vengeance-driven themes due largely to those evocative contrasts – violence and beauty, starkness against pictorial beauty – despite the later films’ greater (and in some cases more infamous) reputations. Taken (and intended) as Vietnam allegory on its release, the flaws, arrogance, and even humanizing fear of the gradually yet definitively decimated white invaders is portrayed in the film’s final series of shots with the grim inevitability of horse-mounted Chato pushing his final victim back back back into the desert. The cruelest fate is reserved for the last survivor, whose late compatriots have been merely shot, blown apart, castrated, scalped, and burned alive. Here, finally, Chato’s Land itself will finish the bastard off.
DIRECTED BY TOM GRIES/1975
Wintry Idaho doubles for the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevadas, this additionally 1870’s-set adventure western not so much commenting on the social and political landscape of one hundred years into the future, or revising any previous screen view on its historical setting, but rather propelling viewers up the twisty-turning rail-line of its plotting both in terms of its eventful journey and its surprising outcome(s). Climaxing at the title location, Breakheart Pass is from beginning to end a rip-roarer expressly designed to take viewers on a thrilling movie roller coaster of a train-ride, with several entertaining bumps, falls, and crashes along the way.
Wanted outlaw Jim Deakin (Bronson) is apprehended by U.S. Marshal Pearce (Ben Johnson) in the frontier outpost of Myrtle after found cheating at cards, which earn both the apprehended and the apprehender a one-way passage aboard a U.S. Army-requisitioned train carrying emergency medical supplies to its destination of Fort Humboldt, reportedly ravaged by a diphtheria outbreak. Also aboard is the territory governor Fairchild (Richard Crenna), the industrialist O’Brien (Charles Durning), a Reverend Peabody (Bill McKinney), one Dr. Molyneaux (David Huddleston), and the daughter of the Fort commander (Jill Ireland); the entire journey towards the Fort’s relief under the command of single-minded Major Claremont (Ed Lauter). However, when passengers and crew members alike begin to die or disappear under mysterious circumstances, the greater mystery surrounding the train’s remaining travelers intensifies along with the thinning atmosphere and higher altitudes as the train comes under attack by – or possibly rendezvous with? – notorious gang leader Levi Calhoun (Robert Tessier) and Paiute Chief Whitehand (Eddie Little Sky).
Because ::SPOILER ALERT:: the train isn’t carrying medicine. If paid close attention to the list of actors appearing parenthetically above – Johnson, Crenna, Durning, Huddleston, Lauter, and others – even viewers not able to immediately place names to faces will nevertheless recognize a canny casting agent holding several performing aces up their sleeve. Credited by Kino Lorber’s returning co-commentator Howard S. Berger to the directing hand of veteran TV director Tom Gries, who transitioned to feature film directing with the well-regarded Charlton Heston western Will Penny (1968), and who had just earlier directed his 1950’s and 60’s TV western confederate Bronson in the offbeat prison escape action comedy-drama Breakout (1975), Berger observes that Gries knew above all else how to stack an acting deck against a story’s action, comedy, adventure, drama, whathaveyou. Adapting Alistair MacLean’s scripting of his own 1974 novel to the screen, the plot convolutions and adventure heroics of The Guns of Navarone (1961), Where Eagles Dare (1968), and When Eight Bells Toll (1971) – among many both before and after during that prime MacLean-era – will in addition signal to careful viewers that this western, its plotline, and above all else its characters will hardly remain what they may have initially seemed.
By the end, Bronson as Deakin will have expectedly rail-leaped, ran atop, and hung mortally off many runaway train-related perils in Breakheart’s eventful 95-minute screen journey up-and-down the Sierra Nevadas, with equally expected fatal shootings and splintering explosions emerging from and diverging to the fateful and climactic Breakheart Pass, but what might not be as equally anticipated is master camera landscape-portraitist’s Lucien Ballard’s picturesque scenery and Jerry Goldsmith’s rousing score, carrying viewers, and listeners, effortlessly along for the ride. A notable box office failure on its release, Breakheart Pass deservedly found its audience on TV and home video, and can now be fully appreciated for the truly great Bronson vehicle it literally and figuratively remains.
Straddling both sides of the summer 1974 release of Death Wish, a game-changer in terms of Bronson’s career and, one might argue, American cinema itself, our unofficial Bronson centennial western double-feature of Chato’s Land and Breakheart Pass shows intriguing comparisons and contrasts to the shape and direction of Bronson’s screen persona that is both instructive and even profound. In the stark Chato’s Land, Bronson becomes the ghost-like avenger of four hundred years of exploitation and abuse; appearing not so much a person as a cultural symbol of environmental retribution. In the adventurous Breakheart Pass, Bronson’s character gradually reveals the hand that he was first caught cheating at; becoming heroic and determined where he initially appeared villainous and (literally) underhanded. The fact remains, however, that Bronson as Chato or Deakin has not essentially changed in terms of character – even as Chato discards his wardrobe or Deakin conjures up his credentials – but rather that the audience’s perception of that character has organically altered due to some unseen relational alchemy between the screen and the actor.
It’s called “presence”, and on might also argue, as this reviewer would, that few other actors in Hollywood history could be as physically, emotionally, and even spiritually present – as in the case of Chato specifically, where the actor himself is in fact unseen for well over half the film’s running-time – as Charles Bronson. It is tempting here to link an anecdote related by Burt Reynolds (it’s relevant, I promise) about the then neophyte actor meeting screen veteran Spencer Tracy for the first time, where the elder actor gave the young Reynolds a sterling bit of career advice: “Never let them catch you at it [i.e., acting].”
By a strange coincidence, one of Bronson as Charles Buchinsky’s first acting credits was in the 1951 Spencer Tracy trial-drama The People Against O’Hara, where Bronson appears in a few memorable scenes as the brother of a holdup suspect, and it is very tempting to imagine that the younger Buchinsky somehow absorbed the same advice from simply observing master non-acting actor Spencer Tracy that Burt Reynolds was later told. In terms of Bronson’s decades-long refinement of his own artlessly artful, non-acting acting, and non-style style, Bronson in his best roles – such as the existential hitman of 1972’s The Mechanic, or the Depression-saddled brawler of 1975’s Hard Times – made the screen almost disappear, virtually erasing any physical, emotional, or spiritual distance between himself and his audience. Charles Bronson simply is those characters.
But don’t take my word for it.
Kino Lorber’s slip-covered, reversible artwork-inserted, deluxe editions of these two prime-era Bronson westerns will certainly themselves erase any lingering doubts about that character-defining quality. In addition to the Blu-ray’s high-definition image, admirably preserving the masterful landscape views of cinematographers Robert Paynter (Chato) and Lucien Ballard (Breakheart), and their respectively speaker-thundering soundtrack and musical scoring, the latter from Jerrys Fielding (Chato) and Goldsmith (Breakheart), the discs come informationally, associatively, and interpretively loaded with expert commentary from Howard S. Berger and Steve Mitchell on Chato’s Land, with Berger and Mitchell returning on Breakheart Pass, where they are joined by Nathaniel Thompson. The seasoned duo and then trio ruminate at length on topics ranging from directors Michael Winner’s and Tom Gries’ lives, directing styles, and careers, their individual versions of the post-1960’s western, and, most relevantly, how and where Charles Bronson as actor and “presence” fit into these differing yet (considered together from a listener’s position) strangely complementing visions.
Also included on the Chato disc is a filmed interview with screenwriter Gerald Wilson, who worked an impressive six times with storied director Michael Winner. Speaking of his inspiration for Chato’s Land, Wilson describes his own survivalist background in the Canadian wilderness, and how these formative experiences informed his perspective on the American West, its artistic mirror the western, and the genre, landscape, and history’s (highly adaptable) relationship to ever-shifting, present realities. Along with the amazing cast assembled for the film – many of whom Wilson claims to have originally suggested – the film’s central image of a crouching Bronson with his loincloth, bandana, and raised rifle embodies these many views according to its scriptwriter.
In all, between two fully locked-and-loaded discs, a worthy tribute to Charles Bronson during his centennial month. Moreover, with the growing number of Bronson movies already released by Kino Lorber – including his seldom-seen Euro-thrillers Farewell, Friend, Someone Behind the Door, Cold Sweat, and Rider in the Rain; his once rare and difficult to find CaboBlanco; and most recently the restoration of Valdez Horses AKA Chino – one hopes the label will continue to single-handedly spearhead a reevaluation of the actor and his estimable contribution to American and international cinema.
Like Bronson himself, it would seem a natural act of true character recognition. One hundred years on, the evidence of the last few decades of filmmaking shows that there’s little enough of that.
Images used in this review are used only as a reference to the movies discussed and are not meant to reflect the visual quality of Kino Lorber’s Blu-rays. Only the cover image and the image for Breakheart Pass are captured from the Kino Lorber Blu-ray, and are credited to DVDBeaver.