Although Charles Bronson was in little danger of winning an Oscar for the Westerns he was in, or indeed those Westerns of winning one for Best Picture, he was still a top tough guy, and he featured quite a lot in the genre, on both big screen and small.
Probably best remembered for his lead part in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and his smaller but memorable role in The Magnificent Seven (1960), he started in feature oaters promisingly with four pictures in 1954, as one of James Millican’s henchmen in Warners’ Randolph Scott picture Riding Shotgun, released in March, then as a (very fictional) Modoc chief Captain Jack in the same studio’s Drum Beat, in April, and finally two Westerns released in December ’54, Apache, in which he was a bad-guy Apache policeman, and Vera Cruz, in which he was one of a trio of heavies with Jack Elam and Ernest Borgnine. Riding Shotgun was directed by André De Toth, Drum Beat by Delmer Daves and the other two by Robert Aldrich, so he was getting very useful experience in the genre.
He had actually begun with a six-gun a shade earlier, with a part as Willie Killer Conley in The Knockout, a December 1952 episode of The Roy Rogers Show on NBC.
He was already in his thirties then, having had a tough childhood in a poor Pennsylvania family, not speaking English at home, and working in the coal mines before enlisting in the US Air Force in 1943 and seeing action as an aerial gunner in the Pacific theater. After a series of dead-end jobs he moved to Hollywood in 1950 and took acting classes, securing a small debut part in Henry Hathaway’s You’re in the Navy Now in 1951. He was still Chas Buchinsky then. He wouldn’t be Bronson till Jubal in 1955.
His craggy face and tough appearance made him a natural for ‘ethnic’ parts and heavies. He was quite often an Indian, Hollywood tending to prefer Caucasian actors with strong-boned faces for those roles, and only rarely a good guy, though later parts, such as his Bernardo O’Reilly in The Magnificent Seven and Harmonica in Once Upon a Time, were good-badman parts.
Bronson’s next Western appearance was back on the small screen, as Texas killer John Wesley Hardin in an episode of Edgar Buchanan’s comic series Luke and the Tenderfoot aired in August 1955. But the following year came a part as a cowboy who helps out Glenn Ford in another Delmer Daves oater (a much better one than Drum Beat), Jubal. Bronson is actually rather impressive in this. His part is grossly underwritten and his chance to shine is very limited indeed but he does a good job, implying an air of mystery. The same year he was a psychopathic killer for Matt Dillon to deal with in an episode of Gunsmoke.
There was a lot of TV work in ’57, when he appeared in episodes of The Sheriff of Cochise (when he was the Apache Kid), Have Gun – Will Travel (outlaw) and Colt .45 (gunman). But he also got a goodish part that year sixth-billed as the Sioux Blue Buffalo in Samuel Fuller’s sensational (not to say lurid) Run of the Arrow. He did his usual strong-silent-type here, though he could easily have let rip a bit more because the lead was Rod Steiger, never one to hold back (to put it mildly).
1958 was important because as well as doing plenty of other Western TV shows – in fact he was quite in demand – he got to lead in a big-screen Western for the first time. You wouldn’t call Showdown at Boot Hill a major A-picture, far from it. In fact it was a rather dull low-budget 1958 black & white second feature made by minor outfit Regal Films and directed by Gene Fowler, an editor, but it was released by Fox (part-owner of Regal) and got a good airing in theaters. It was one of those townsmen-against-determined-lawman pictures, with Bronson as a tough deputy doing what a lawman’s gotta do. This deputy is supposed to be obsessed with his lack of height, though as Bronson wasn’t that small (he was 5’8” or 1.74m) this idea doesn’t work too well. It’s actually rather a preposterous plot, but that never stopped many Westerns, I guess.
After his John Wesley Hardin on TV he was now another famous Western badman, Butch Cassidy, in Tales of Wells Fargo. After Butch is released from the pen, Jim Hardie, who sent him to prison, is tasked with asking him to work for Wells Fargo. Plausibility wasn’t really this show’s strong suit either. It was fun, though. Written by DD and Mary Beauchamp, it also featured James Coburn. That year too he did another Gunsmoke and another Have Gun – Will Travel, as well as a couple of Sugarfoot shows too.
In 1959 he was tough-guy Rogue Donovan who escapes from jail and wants revenge on our hero Yancy Derringer, and he is also armed with a Gatling gun…, and also an escapee, who takes hostages this time, in US Marshal. So he was certainly getting the roles in TV Westerns.
But 1960 was of course the year of The Magnificent Seven. He was the gun-for-hire who once commanded very high fees but is now down on his luck, chopping firewood at a farm for his breakfast, who joins up with the other six under Yul Brynner to protect that Mexican village from bandits led by Eli Wallach. Half-Mexican himself, he comes to sympathize with the village folk, and is ‘adopted’ by some of the kids, to whom he tries to teach respect. He will be an occupant of one of the graves left behind. It was a strong performance that sticks in the memory and it made Bronson a star. As the sixties progressed he would become one of The Dirty Dozen and then Harmonica.
In fact Leone had wanted Bronson for the first of his Italian Westerns, For a Fistful of Dollars, but Bronson said it was the worst script he had ever read and declined, so Leone went to Clint. Once those Dollars movies had been a success in the US, though, Leone got his wish when he cast Bronson in his big-budget American spaghetti. Originally Eastwood, along with Wallach and Van Cleef, co-stars of the Dollars pictures, were to have been shot down at the train station by Bronson in the opening reel, and that would have been a good joke, but they didn’t want to play (spoilsports).
But before then, after episodes of Laramie and Riverboat, Bronson was a trooper in Raoul Walsh’s last Western, MGM’s cavalry picture A Thunder of Drums (1961), which was rather a damp squib, there being no thunder and hardly any drums, and Bronson having a less than stellar list of fellow cast members (Richard Boone and Slim Pickens were good, though). In fact rather as in Jubal, Bronson is one of the better characters, as a cocky womanizing soldier who learns respect. One might almost say he was ‘surprisingly good’ but that would perhaps be unkind. But in a stodgy picture he does stand out.
There was more TV that year (he was getting to be quite a regular on Laramie and Have Gun – Will Travel) and indeed soon he would be one of the fixtures, as Paul Moreno, in thirteen episodes of NBC’s Empire. He would also be Linc, the stubborn wagonmaster in ABC’s The Travels of Jamie McPheeters, and in fact in 1965 MGM cobbled together a couple of episodes and released it theatrically as a feature, Guns of Diablo. It actually wasn’t bad, or anyway no worse than many mid-60s Westerns.
There were plenty of other big-screen opportunities for Bronson. In 1963 he was fifth billed (after Ekberg and Andress) in the pretty trashy Frank Sinatra vehicle 4 for Texas, directed again by Aldrich (though as Sinatra wouldn’t do more than one take on any scene he didn’t get to direct much). As Brian Garfield said, “The contempt in which all concerned must have held their audience should not be encouraged by willingly viewing this drivel.” Bronson is the bad guy (or even-worse guy one should say because there aren’t any goodies) and his acting ability fits right in with that of the bigger stars – i.e. none was shown.
In 1964 Bronson was Harry Starr, a half breed Comanche hired by the Cartwrights to work on the Ponderosa, in The Underdog, and there would be appearances in a variety of TV Western shows, Dundee and the Culhane, The Virginian, The Legend of Jesse James, The Big Valley and Rawhide, for several years before he returned to the big screen in three Westerns in 1968.
Guns for San Sebastian, released in March ’68, was a spaghetti-ish French-Mexican picture, starring Anthony Quinn Magnificent Sevenishly defending villagers against the depredations of bandit leader Teclo (Bronson). Villa Rides, which came out in April, was to have been a Peckinpah film but it got pulled and Buzz Kulik directed it. It starred Yul Brynner in a wig as a highly unconvincing Pancho Villa, and Robert Mitchum doing his Nth gringo-in-Mexico role. Bronson was the loathsome private executioner of Villa, Rodolfo Fierro. It was a very bad film. Mitchum is on record as saying he couldn’t see why Bronson was famous.
But ’68 was of course the year of Once Upon a Time in the West, perhaps Bronson’s most famous role, though in fact Henry Fonda got top billing. It is probably not unfair to say that Bronson was better in parts where he had little to say, and Leone built on his ultra-taciturn man-with-no-name character with Harmonica, the gunman looking, as it turns out, for vengeance on the man who murdered his father (one of the oldest Western plots in the business). Bronson was good at looking quizzical and menacing without saying much, and he had the scope to do that in this movie. Though overlong, too slow and definitely ponderous, the film is admired by many and it is probably the pinnacle of Bronson’s Western career.
It was rather downhill from there on. There were seven Westerns in the 1970s but they ranged from the mediocre to the downright bad. The first was another Eurowestern, or action film with Western tinges, Red Sun (1971), in which a gang robs a train and steals a ceremonial Japanese sword meant as a gift for the US President, prompting a manhunt to retrieve it. Also shot in Spain was Chato’s Land, with Bronson again as an Apache, or half-breed anyway, a film ineptly directed by Brit Michael Winner (who would go on to use Bronson in Death Wish). And in 1973 there would be yet another un-American Western, Chino, with Bronson as abused horse-trader Chino Valdez, again a mezzosangue, and his wife Jill Ireland co-starring. It was also depressingly bad. Unbelievably John Sturges is credited with directing, but he was only nominally associated with the picture, in fact helmed by Italian Duilio Coletti. Between these last two spaghettis two episodes of The Virginian he had done, Duel at Shiloh (Jan 2, 1963) and Nobility of Kings (Nov 10, 1965), were spliced together to make the TV movie The Bull of the West.
Breakheart Pass (1975) was a thriller by British novelist Alistair MacLean, the Where Eagles Dare chap, filmed in Idaho (it’s a snowy train Western) and directed by Tom Gries, who had done so well on Will Penny, released in 1968, but who didn’t match the quality in this Western whodunit. But Bronson could do his silent tough-guy act.
The following year came quite a personal project with Mr. and Mrs. Bronson again, with Chuck cast a bit out of type in a light comedy Western, From Noon Till Three.
And lastly came the quite dreadful The White Buffalo, in which Bronson added to the cast of famous Western figures he had played by being Wild Bill Hickok (a very ridiculous Wild Bill Hickok). It was some hooey about a deadly bison, a sort of Jaws meets Moby Dick on the Plains, and the special effects were laughably bad, even for the time, the albino beast in question being a lumbering mechanical device on hidden tracks with smoke blowing from its nostrils.
And, unless you count as a Western Death Hunt (1981), a 1930s Canadian manhunt yarn he did with Lee Marvin, that was that as far as the Westerns of Charles Bronson go. It was not, honestly, the most distinguished of records. You might have expected such a character actor to do a bit better in the genre. Still, to be fair, with the exception of Showdown at Boot Hill, he didn’t get to lead in oaters till the 1970s, when the genre was definitely past its sell-by date. And Mr. Bronson, who died in 2003, still has his fans.