Death Hunt (1981)

Director: Peter Hunt
Starring: Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, Carl Weathers, Andrew Stevens, Angie Dickinson, Ed Lauter
Music: Jerrold Immel
Editors: Allan Jacobs & John F. Burnett
Director of Photography: James Devis
Writers: Michael Crais, Robert Victor
Producers: Albert S. Ruddy, Raymond Chow

Death Hunt is allegedly based on a true story. The film opens in Yukon Territory in November 1931, and man, it looks imposing and icy cold – it looks dangerous! But one man who seems to be in his element in this hostile environment is Albert Johnson (Charles Bronson). We meet him as he is riding down from the mountains on his way home. As he passes through a settlement a vicious dog fight is taking place with a crowd of hardened mountain men circled round. The fight is in its final stages, and one of the dogs is owned by this fella called Hazel (Ed Lauter), and the beast is copping a hiding. It is covered in blood and can barely defend itself. The fight should be called off, but Hazel is too proud to give up – even if it costs the dog his life. Finally the fight is stopped. Hazel is angered and embarrassed, and pulls a knife, preparing to take out his frustrations on the dog. That’s when Johnson wades in. He knocks Hazel to the ground and picks up the wounded animal. Hazel is not happy that a stranger has intervened. Once again he has lost face with his peers. Johnson throws one hundred dollars at Hazel for the half dead dog. Still angered and petulant, Hazel demands more money. Johnson throws another bill at him, and then rides off with the dog on a stretcher.

Of course, Hazel doesn’t leave it there. First he approaches the local Mountie, Edgar Millen (Lee Marvin), demanding justice, claiming that Johnson forced him to give up the dog, so it was theft. Millen knows the type of guy Hazel is, and ignores the complaint. So Hazel takes matters into his own hands. With a posse of men, he rides out to Johnson’s lodge intent to kill him.

One of Hazel’s posse shoots the dog, and in anger, Johnson shoots the shooter down. Now Hazel runs back to Millen demanding action, as Johnson is no longer just a thief, but a murderer. Millen understands that the killing may have been self-defense, or Johnson was simply pushed to it – but the law is the law, and Millen sets off to reluctantly do his duty.

Millen, and a posse (mostly Hazel’s men) go to Johnson’s lodge. Millen tries to bring Johnson peacefully, but Johnson refuses. He dosen’t believe he has done anything wrong. When one of Hazel’s dupes opens fire during the negotiation, it becomes one big gun fight. With the numbers stacked against Johnson, it would appear he doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell.

One of the more interesting aspects of Death Hunt is the changing relationship between the two main antagonists. At the beginning of the film, Johnson is the good guy who is being treated wrong. However, when he refuses to go with Millen and have the matter sorted out – and inadvertently turns the investigation into a seige – he becomes the bad guy. As for Millen, he too starts out as the good guy but as he allows himself to be coerced into hunting down Johnson, even though he knows he is innocent, he becomes a bad guy. But even though they have both become bad in their way, you can still sympathise with their characters, because it is the people around them that have turned them bad. In their natural state, for want of a better expression, both of them are good men.

Please correct me if I am wrong, but is Edgar Millen Lee Marvin’s last great film role? Don’t you dare say Delta Force! Of course, he did work after this, but his age was really catching up with him and he didn’t seem to choose (or was offered) roles that weren’t age-appropriate. He was still playing the same hard living character as he had through the 60s and 70s as if time had stood still. Unfortunately it hadn’t, and some of his later roles are just hard to watch, such as The Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission.

Death Hunt is one of my childhood favourites. I watched it many times on video, and still enjoy watching repeat viewings now. It is interesting to compare it to the film First Blood with which this film shares many common themes, and shares more than one or two similar scenes.

As a final bit of trivia, Death Hunt was directed by Peter Hunt, who directed the Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – and who would go on to direct Bronson again in the Secret Service thriller, Assassination.

If you have never seen Death Hunt, it is well worth a look.

Death Hunt (1981)

Chato's Land (1971)

Country: United States
Director: Michael Winner
Starring:
Charles Bronson, Jack Palance, Richard Basehart, James Whitmore, Simon Oakland, Richard Jordan, Victor French
Music: Jerry Fielding

Chato’s Land is a very interesting film. It is not a classic by any stretch of the imagination, but all the characters are fleshed out, and have multiple layers, and some traditional western stereotypes are turned on their head.

The film opens in a saloon, and an Apache, Chato (Charles Bronson) has a shiny silver dollar down on the bar, and he is expecting to be poured a drink. At that moment, the Sheriff of the town, Eli Saunders, enters the saloon through the swinging doors and makes his way to the bar. The bottle of whisky intended for Chato, is snatched up by the barkeep and handed to the lawman. The Sheriff pours a goodly portion into his glass, and then approaches Chato saying that it is a ‘white man’s saloon and sells white man’s liquor’. He tells the Indian to leave before he kills him.

The lawman keeps pushing Chato, and then pulls a gun. But he is not fast enough. Chato spins, aims and fires. Eli Saunders falls down dead.

With the Sheriff dead, justice falls to Quincey Whitmore (Jack Palance), an ex-soldier who craves authority and command. From an old trunk, he drags out he old Confederate uniform and puts it on. Then he assembles and leads a posse, setting out to apprehend the renegade Apache. However, many of the posse members are not really ‘bring to justice’ types – particularly the Hooker Brothers. They are racist killers with their own perverted agendas to fulfill.

Of course, as played by Charles Bronson, Chato is not easy to track, let alone kill.

The main problem with the film is the lack of explanation for Chato’s initial reaction. Sure, the sheriff was a loud mouth racist; but if Chato had left the bar when he was initially asked, then there wouldn’t have been a killing. It’s probably a safe assumption that Chato had been bullied and victimised his whole life. And he certainly had the right to have a drink in the bar as much as the next man. But enough was enough, and he acted. On the flipside, however, is he killed the sheriff, and as such should be brought to justice. His act of defiance perpetuates the negative attitude that all American Indians are savage animals. Chato’s actions are not the way of a ‘noble savage’; this is more an example of ‘might is right’*. Chato was the better gunman, and that is why he won in the brief gunfight. It was not because he had ‘right’ on his side.

All the characters in the film are drawn in shades of grey. No one is right. The casting of Charles Bronson as the central protagonist negates any social commentary that the film may have provided. Maybe if Will Sampson had been cast, then it may have been a different story.

Admittedly, the Hooker brothers, all driven by racist hate, push the posse on to further extremes than their lawful mandate would warrant. But despite the individual idiosyncrasies, good or bad, of each man in the posse, the group is treated as a whole. After the rape of his wife, Chato as he seeks retribution, kills everyone (or at least that’s his intention). He doesn’t divide them into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ posse members. As far as he is concerned, they are all responsible.

As I said at the top, Chato’s Land is an interesting film, but it never makes any profound statements, beyond life in the old west was tough, which is a shame, because the film had a solid framework, and could have served up, not only an action packed western, but a thoughtful one too.

* Before anyone comments, that I am a racist and missing the point of the film, and this may seem strange for someone as parochially Australian as I am, but my great great grandmother was an Apache, so I am not pumping out some politically correct agenda or ‘anti-political correct’ agenda as the case may be. In fact the racist slurs in the film I find particularly repellent, but I also understand that they are part of a performance by actors portraying repellent characters.
Chato's Land (1971)

Hard Times (1975)

Hard TimesCountry: United States
Director: Walter Hill
Starring: Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Jill Ireland, Strother Martin, Robert Tessier
Music: Barry DeVorzon
AKA: The Street Fighter

I consider myself a pretty big Charles Bronson fan. I even don’t mind some of the violent dross he made in the 1980s as his career was petering out. I think it takes a dedicated fan to appreciate The Evil That Men Do, Murphy’s Law, Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects, and The Messenger of Death. Or the, however many, unnecessary sequels to Death Wish. I think my tolerance of this garbage comes from the fact that I just like watching him act. Some people may say that Bronson wasn’t much of an actor. I disagree. He simply belongs to, or portrayed, a different era. A time when men didn’t say much. They just did what they had to do. Okay, most men don’t have to hunt down psychopaths and then blow them away, but the attitude of going to work and doing your job, despite the odds stacked against you, is an old fashioned work ethic. And I think that can be seen in Bronson’s performances, and that’s why he was best playing strong silent types. Notice how his character, Danny, in The Great Escape was ‘The Tunnel King’. He was a worker, not one of the organisers or planners. He just got on with it, and did his job.

Over Bronson’s long career of playing strong silent types, I think one of his best turns was in Walter Hill’s Hard Times. In it, Bronson plays a drifter in the great depression, named Chaney. At the beginning of the film, he blows into New Orleans on a freight train, and stumbles upon a bare knuckle fistfight. A crowd has gathered round and are gambling on the outcome. Chaney watches with interest.

Small time hustler, Spencer “Speed” Weed (James Coburn) has a fighter in the scrap, but his man goes down and Speed loses his money. This appears to be a regular occurrence, but unflappable and unperturbed, Speed adjourns to a diner for a meal.

Later, Chaney approaches Speed and asks for a shot as a fighter. Speed is sceptical, but still arranges a fight. Everybody jeers and taunts Chaney because he is so old – Bronson was 48 years old when he made the film. However, Chaney quickly silences his critics when he knocks out the opposition fighter with just one punch. The thing here, is that Bronson is completely believable – I mean, never for instant do you doubt that he could take a man out with just one punch.

Speed sees a meal ticket with Chaney, and the two men enter into and an uneasy alliance. Speed is to put up the cash and arrange the fights, and Chaney is to take on all comers and knock them down. And although this film is about bare knuckle fights, it doesn’t play out like a two-dimensional video game. There’s a story with flesh and blood characters. Flawed human beings, yes, but none-the-less still a pleasure to watch.

This film was a video classic when I was a kid. My friends and I would hire it out repeatedly. In Australia it was known as The Street Fighter, which was allegedly the film’s original title. However, it was changed in the United States to avoid confusion with Sonny Chiba’s The Street Fighter which had just been released. The fight scene that we loved as kids was not climatic fight scene with Nick Dimitri – although that was pretty good – but the cage fight against Jim Henry, played by Robert Tessier. You’d recognise Tessier if you saw him. He was in a lot of 1970s action films (especially with Burt Reynolds) – usually as a big bad bald man. And guess what he plays here? Yep, a big bad bald man. In the fight scenes, he lowers his head so his opponent, when he punches, would hit the top of his bald skull, and the blow would be deflected. He also grins like a Chesire cat. This is one guy, who really enjoys hurting people, and he is the perfect opponent for Chaney.

I don’t know if Bronson and Coburn were friends – it is alleged that Bronson was a hard man to get to know and didn’t have too many close friends. However they appeared in several films together. Most notably The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape.

As the film was a period piece, and did not have an overtly 1970’s style, it has not really dated too much, and if you’ll pardon the cliche, it still packs a powerful punch, and is one of Bronson’s more watchable films – but hey, as I said the top, I’ll watch anything with Bronson in it. Anyone in the mood for Mr. Majestyk?

Hard Times (1975)

Assassination (1987)

AssassinationCountry: United States
Director: Peter Hunt
Starring: Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland, Jan Gan Boyd, Stephen Elliot, Randy Brooks, Michael Ansara, William Prince
Music: Robert D. Ragland

In the late 1980’s, into the early 1990’s, two of the biggest film producers and distributors were Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, and their company was Cannon Films. Cannon were routinely low budget exploitation affairs, generally with actors past their prime but still with an audience. Most films featured these actors doing particularly nasty and violent things. Amongst their output were several Chuck Norris films Delta Force 1 & 2, Missing In Action 1, 2 & 3, Invasion U.S.A.; and the Charles Bronson vehicles Death Wish 4 & 5, The Evil That Men Do, Murphy’s Law and The Messenger Of Death. Those familiar with any of those titles will know what I mean.

Assassination is one of Cannon’s better productions. This is probably due to the assured direction of Peter Hunt, who had directed On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and had previously worked with Bronson on the klondike manhunt thriller Death Hunt. Having said that it is one of the better Cannon productions doesn’t mean it is a great film though. At best, (and rather forgivingly) it can be described as half decent entertainment.

The film opens on inauguration day. A new U.S. President is about to be sworn in. Secret Service Agent Jay Killian (Charles Bronson) returns to duty after six weeks off on sick leave. He wants to be assigned to protect the President, but luck isn’t on his side. He is assigned to protect The First Lady, Lara Royce Craig (Jill Ireland – Bronson’s wife at the time). The Secret Service have an irritating habit of referring to her as ‘One Mama’. Doesn’t it make you cringe, just reading it?

As Mrs. Craig prepares for the motorcade to the inauguration, Killian outlines the protection mechanism’s the Secret Service have in place for her. “I won’t be coerced by your chauvinistic rules,” she says. And then she gets into an open top car, which she chose for the journey. Killian warns against it. He says they haven’t used open top vehicles since the Kennedy assassination in 1963. In a hostile fashion she rebukes his advice.

As the motorcade winds it’s way through the streets, Mrs. Craig chooses to sit up high on the back seat, rather down in the car. Killian warns her that it is a security risk. Again she ignores him. A policeman on a motorcycle weaves through the security cordon and approaches the car. An explosive charge emanates from his foot peddle and he looses control. The bike crashes and then goes up in a ball of flames. The officer, rather suspiciously disappears into the crowd. In the First Lady’s car, Killian has pulled Mrs. Craig down and into the car, just in the nick of time. Unfortunately her eye has connected with his knee. She doesn’t realise the gravity of the situation and believes Killian is simply being over zealous. She kicks him out of the car. He now has to run along side, which for a man of Bronson’s age seems quite a chore (at the time of this film Bronson was in his mid sixties). The Presidential swearing in ceremony takes place without further incident.

In the aftermath of the motorcade, Killian is given a stripping down. But he believes the motorcycle incident was not just an accident, but a premeditated attack on the First Lady. And from the quick glimpse he got of the suspect, he thinks that American terrorist, Reno Bracken (Erik Stern) was posing as the police officer.

Next it is off to a press conference for the First Lady. She acquits her self well in her first official duty, but a subversive reporter Derek Finny (Robert Axelrod) asks a few too many personal questions about the President and First Ladies sex life (apparently it is non-existent). Killian and another Secret Service Agent, Tyler Loudermilk (Randy Brooks), who is younger and more physical than Killian, scare off the nosey reporter.

Causing more trouble, Mrs. Craig leaves the Whitehouse without permission and a security escort. The Secret Service are in a flap. Luckily she is stopped at the airport and Killian and agent Charlotte (Charlie) Chong (played by Jan Gan Boyd) are sent to accompany her on the journey. They take a private plane to California.

In California, Mrs. Craig wants to go sailing on Daddy’s yacht, but it is currently in dry dock. She doesn’t care. She bullies the captain into getting it ready. Working on the boat are some shady characters, including Pritchard Young, the number two man for Reno Bracken. He attaches some plastic explosive to the hull.

The yacht is almost ready to go. Mrs. Craig, Killian and Chong wait in the boathouse as the yacht sails past to be refuelled. Naturally it explodes and all the windows in the boathouse shatter. But the First Lady is safe. Killian orders her back to Washington. She is reluctant. She believes it is another accident.

Back in Washington, Killian and Chong are off duty. Chong convinces Killian to come back home with her. The age difference here is staggering – I would guess forty years. Anyway, Killian agrees. But folks, this is a Charles Bronson movie. We all know what happens to minor characters he gets attached to. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

While Killian and Chong are enjoying their evening, Agent Loudermilk is working. Analysis on the exploded yacht reveals that C4 explosive was used in the assault. It appears that Killian isn’t paranoid after all. And it seems the conspiracy goes even deeper than expected. Loudermilk has found a listening device in his telephone.

Despite the danger she is in, Mrs. Craig refuses to allow Killian to protect her. The man sent to do her dirty work is Presidential Advisor and Chief of Staff, Senator Bunsen (Michael Ansara). Killian tells Bunsen that he thinks someone is trying to assassinate Mrs. Craig. Bunsen believes him and agrees to talk to the President about her security. But Bunsen still has to suspend Killian from duty.

Killian’s suspension doesn’t last long. He is called into work the next day. There has been an incident overnight. To protect the Whitehouse, on top of the old Executive Building is an installation with rockets designed to intercept (shoot down) intruders into the airspace. It seems that two sentries at the installation, were disabled with tazers and the rockets stolen. Reno Bracken is the chief suspect. To make matters worse the First Lady intends to give a speech to an assembly of university students. Her journey to Lexington, Virginia includes a section of 200 miles across open country. At any point she could be targeted. Killian contrives a scheme where Mrs. Craig makes the start of the journey by chopper. Then it discreetly sets down in a paddock, where she is transferred into a car. She is not happy about the interruption to her schedule. And even less amused to see Killian when she alights from the chopper.

The chopper continues it’s journey. As it passes over a barn, Reno Bracken armed with a rocket launcher takes aim and fires. The rocket misses. Killian is ready for the attack and his team storm the barnyard on dirt bikes. More rockets are fired and the barn is blown to smithereens, but Bracken still gets away.

Back in Washington, Killian approaches Bunsen once more. But this time Bunsen is not so receptive. He insists that Killian is actually the target of the terrorists and not Mrs. Craig. Bunsen is either stupid or corrupt – as he is played by Michael Ansara, an actor who has made a career out of playing villains, it is not hard to work out which.

Remember Finney, the nosey reporter that asked the personal question about the Presidential sex life? Well he turns up dead, with his body rigged to a large amount of explosive. It appears that someone didn’t like what he had to say.
Killian and Chong are now assigned to watch the First Lady’s sister, Polly. They follow her to the National Museum of Natural History, where her sister is donating her inaugural ball gown. Agent Chong goes inside and Killian stays in the car. Polly leaves early and gets into a car, but there is something different about her hair. Killian follows. She is also followed in a police van by the terrorist Pritchard Young.

Obviously the difference in hair is because Polly is now the First Lady in disguise. She is scared and on the run. And furthering the contrivance, she deliberately had Killian assigned to protect her sister, because she knew he’d be following and that’s what she wanted. In a dramatic turn around, it seems that she now trusts Killian and wants him to protect her.

The two of them continue their journey together. Their first stop at night is a hotel where they pose as man and wife (not very seemly for the First Lady?) It is not long before Young turns up at the hotel, and in his guise as a police officer he finds their room. Young enters the room with a blazing machine gun. Killian is ready and waiting and kills Young.

The following day they ditch the car, and travel on a bus to Kokomo, Indiana. Next they buy dirt bikes and keep travelling. Killian’s reasoning is that the terrorists wouldn’t be looking for them on motorbikes. At the next hotel, Mrs. Craig explains that her marriage to the President is a marriage of convenience. It was simply to get him into power. It was agreed that once he was in the Whitehouse, she could either go along for the ride or get a discreet divorce. Killian reasons that is why they are trying to kill her. If she gets a divorce the President would not get re-elected. But as a widower, he would get a sympathy vote and be a shoe-in at the next election.

Next day, they are out of town, back on the motorcycles, when a utility vehicle starts chasing them. The driver is brandishing a machine gun. Killian and Mrs. Craig take the bikes off road and follow a railroad track. The utility follows behind, along the railroad tracks. No prizes for guessing that a train is coming in the opposite direction. The utility is forced off the tracks and into a riverbed, where it explodes in a colourful ball of flame (which we see repeated from multiple angles).

At this point, Killian asks the question that all viewers have ticking in their heads, “How could they have possibly found us?” No answer. The story moves on. They ditch the bikes and board a train. Later the train is stopped. Bracken and another minion land in a helicopter and search the train. Killian hides himself and Mrs, Craig outside, between carriages, up on the couplings. This is successful and Bracken moves on.

Again Killian asks, “How did they know you were on the train?” The First Lady says she has been phoning her husband because she trusts him.

Next they hitch-hike. They are picked up by Indian Joe, a used car salesman. Back at his lot he sells them a dune buggy. The couple make their way to Mrs. Craig’s father’s home on Lake Tahoe. Mr H.H. Royce (William Prince) is happy to greet them. Meanwhile, Killian has arranged for agents Chong and Loudermilk to join them there.

On the lake, behind the cover of an old stern wheeler, Bracken approaches on jet-ski, with one hand steering an unmanned boat laden with plastic explosive. Once he is close enough, he releases the boat and it powers towards the Royce lakehouse. Killian’s team scramble and start firing. A shot takes out the outboard motor on the speedboat and the explosive is dead on the water. Killian leaps into another speedboat and takes off after Bracken. Bracken slides his jetski ashore, and Killian follows, riding his boat up onto the bank. Amongst the trees a gun battle is played out, until Killian runs out of bullets and appears to be shot. He is lying on the ground, when Bracken approaches with gun poised ready to fire.

And in the tradition of all good cliff hangers I will leave the synopsis there. All the threads come together satisfactorily at the end, but if you care how, you’ll have to watch the movie to find out.

Bronson is often accused of being lazy in this film, but I think he is rather relaxed. He even breaks into a smile a few times and is probably very comfortable working with his wife. (She had co-starred in quite a few of Bronson’s films in the seventies, but it had been quite a while since the two of them had appeared together). So of the other performances aren’t quite as good, in particular Jan Gan Boyd, whose performance is sub par.

As I mentioned at the start, that Cannon films tend to be violent affairs and often they leave a bad taste after viewing, but Assassination isn’t as gruesome as many of their productions. And here is a spoiler, but without giving the ending away, I am going back to what I said about Charlotte Chong earlier. Remember I mentioned that she was going to ‘buy it’ because she fell in love with Bronson’s character. I am pleased to say, I am wrong. She lives. This is the strongest example I can give that this isn’t like many other of Bronson’s late cycle films. It doesn’t leer at violence and death – and thankfully the film-makers seem to know the difference between action and violence.

By no means is this a classic – but I somehow feel that it is better than it should be.

Assassination (1987)

Love and Bullets (1979)

Country: United Kingdom
Director: Stuart Rosenberg (and allegedly John Huston)
Starring: Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland, Rod Steiger, Henry Silva, Michael V. Gazzo, Strother Martin, Bradford Dillman
Music: Lalo Schifrin

Love And Bullets is a good detective thriller, made just before Bronson started making all the gratuitously violent crap in the 1980’s. That’s not to say, that Love And Bullets isn’t violent. It contains it’s fair share. But most of the violence follows the story and is not there simply to titillate. This time Bronson plays Charlie Congers (fantastic character name).

Congers is a Phoenix detective. But what separates this film from the usual detective dramas is that Charlie is recruited by the F.B.I. to go to Switzerland and retrieve a witness for the indictment of a mob boss. Why Charlie? Firstly, he is involved in the case after a fellow police officer is blown to smithereens in a car bomb explosion. Secondly, the F.B.I. can’t work legally outside the U.S.A., so they need a ‘volunteer’ who works outside the system to go and do their dirty work. At a casual glance Love And Bullets may seem like a detective movie, but believe me, the style is pure ‘spy’.

Rod Steiger, in one of his most bizarre performances, is Joe Bomposa, the Mob Boss, who Bronson and the F.B.I. are trying to indict. But Bomposa is almost childlike, prone to adolescent temper tantrums and stuttering incontrollably. Although he is undeniably powerful he tends to come across as a buffoon.

Jill Ireland (Bronson’s wife at the time) plays Jackie Pruit, the ex mistress of Bomposa, who is the witness Congers has to bring back. Of course, the mob do not want Pruit to testify, and will do anything to stop the duo. As you’d expect from a husband and wife team, Congers and Pruit fall in love. But it is not the kind of movie where sex is used to manipulate events. It is more of an old fashioned morality, where the relationship between the two protagonists builds as they struggle through each successive attempt on their life.

Bomposa’s henchmen are an interesting bunch. The first, is Lobo (Michael V. Gazzo), who is a young punk that loves killing so much that he spends most of the film laughing. The second, and most menacing character in the movie is Vittorio Farroni (Henry Silva), the hitman hired by Bomposa to kill his ex-mistress. Unfortunately Silva isn’t given enough screen time, but he is at his evil, glowering best.

Visually the movie is played straight, hard and lean. There is little finessing with the camera work. The most surreal moment occurs when Rod Steiger is bathing in a steaming volcanic hot spring, surrounded by red lava rocks. As the camera pans back, it is revealed that this elaborate spa setting is not an amazing natural beauty, but a construction of his balcony.

Musically, Lalo Schifrin doesn’t let us down again. Another quirky and enjoyable score, which combines the contemporary spy music of the time (a lot of piano), with an almost western feel to emphasise the Arizona cowboy aspect of Bronson’s character.

The real star of Love And Bullets are the great Swiss locations. It’s a fantastic backdrop that takes this detective story out of the usual U.S. city environment and plays out the drama on an international stage. And Bronson is still at an age where he is believable as the hero (he was 58 years old when this film was released). If you are a fan of Charles Bronson, this is one of his better efforts. It’s not high art, but it is a pretty good seventies-style cop thriller with a hint of globe trotting espionage.

Love and Bullets (1979)

Red Sun (1971)

Ursula Andress FestivalAKA: Soleil Rouge
Director: Terence Young
Starring: Charles Bronson, Toshirô Mifune, Ursula Andress, Alain Delon, Capucine, Anthony Dawson, Luc Merenda
Music: Maurice Jarre

By the early seventies, the Spaghetti Westerns (which had revitalised the Western genre) were starting to run out of steam. The look, the feel, and the violence weren’t enough to attract audiences anymore. Westerns needed another twist, or an angle to put bums on seats again. Then somebody took the old saying ‘East meets West’ and twisted West not to mean ‘civilisation’ but the ‘old west’. And for a brief moment in time we had Kung-Fu and Samurai Westerns. Entries in this short lived cinematic movement include Fighting Fists Of Shanghai Joe, the TV series Kung Fu with David Carradine, and this film Red Sun (okay it was a very small movement).

The idea is simply a variant on the fish out of water story, but Red Sun added another nice twist on top of that – the casting of Charles Bronson and Toshirô Mifune. How is that special I hear you ask? Well Mifune was one of the Seven Samurai and Bronson was one of The Magnificent Seven. I like the correlation.

But the film features many fish out of water. It was filmed in Spain, and starred the American, Bronson; Japanese, Mifune; French, Alain Delon; and the Swiss actress Ursula Andress.

The film opens in 1870, and the Japanese Ambassador is travelling by train, accompanied by two Samurai guards, across the wild west to deliver the gift of a golden ceremonial sword to the President of the United States. Unfortunately for the Ambassador, this is the train that outlaws, Link Stuart (Charles Bronson) and Gauche (Alain Delon) have chosen to rob with the help of their band of trusty outlaws. Well maybe ‘trusty’ is the wrong word. There is no trust. In fact Gauche double crosses Stuart and leaves him dead. Gauche also angers the Japanese Ambassador when he steals the ceremonial sword and kills one of the Samurai guards.

The Ambassador orders his other Samurai guard, Kuroda Jubie (Toshirô Mifune) to track down Gauche, kill him and retrieve the sword. They figure the best man to lead Kuroda to Gauche is Stuart. So begins a journey for the two men. Wise-ass Stuart, has no intentions of staying with Kuroda, who is dressed in full Samurai gear. But Stuart does want to get to Gauche, and retrieve the money that is rightfully owing to him. But his attempts at breaking away from Kuroda aren’t too successful, as Kuroda is dogged in his determination to complete his mission – retrieving the sword – and if that means sticking with Stuart, then that’s exacly what he does.

Stuart and Kuroda aren’t too successful in tracking down Gauche, so Stuart adopts another strategy. He let’s Gauche come to him. Or more correctly, come to Christina (Ursula Andress). Christina is a prostitute, and also happens to be Gauche’s girlfriend. Stuart figures that sooner or later, Gauche is going to have the ‘urge’, and when he does, he’ll come for Christina; and Stuart will be waiting.

Red Sun, while being very enjoyable in it’s way, is quite an uneven film. After the train robbery and betrayal at the start, the film spends quite a bit of time with just Bronson and Mifune’s characters; and here the film works very well as almost a character piece. But plotwise, with only two men making a journey together, not much story progression is taking place. But that’s not to say it is boring – these are characters that are engaging.

For the second half of the film, once Ursula Andress’ character is introduced, the story does move forward, but it doesn’t really have any place to go.

The ending itself, is very reminiscent of Bandolero (and numerous other Westerns), where the ‘good’ guys and the ‘bad’ guys have to team up to defeat a common enemy – here they have to battle a number of rather European looking Comanche Indians. I always think it is a clumsy plot device when fate steps in to turn the tables in favour of the hero. A real hero would ‘think’ or ‘fight’ his way out of trouble.

Ultimately Red Sun is not a great film, but it is an interesting one. It’s Samurai Western with a likeable International cast performing a variety of Swordplay, Gunplay, and if you count Christina’s seduction of Link, Foreplay.

Red Sun (1971)

Breakheart Pass (1975)

AKA: Alistair Maclean’s Breakheart Pass
Directed by Tom Gries
Charles Bronson, Ben Johnson, Richard Crenna, Jill Ireland, Ed Lauter, Charles Durning, David Huddleston
Music by Jerry Goldsmith
Based on the novel by Alistair Maclean

Breakheart Pass is a weird hybrid, partly Western, partly ‘whodunnit’, and finally spy thriller. But mostly it is pure old fashioned seventies entertainment. But not quite like you’d expect.

By the mid seventies the spy film had become quite jaded. Bond-mania, which had driven the genre along during the sixties had died down, and even the serious anti-Bond films, like Scorpio, or Permission To Kill, had worn out their welcome. Writer Alistair Maclean, a veteran of the genre, decided to move into different territory, whilst still keeping all the espionage elements that had become his trademark in place. He moved towards the ‘western’. At the time, even the western film was suffering. The Spaghetti Westerns from Italy had breathed fresh life into the tired old genre, but even they had run their course. So in Breakheart Pass, in which Alistair Maclean wrote the screenplay, based on his novel, we have two tired genres rolled into one.

I am pleased to say that the idea really works. Maybe the traditionalists may be up in arms, saying that it is not really a spy film, but I beg to differ. I could explain why, but to detail the plot would give away a few of the surprises this movie has in store, but in simplified terms it is the story of a few characters in the old west who are on a steam train, as it winds through the Rocky Mountains to Fort Humboldt The cavalry fort is in the middle of a dipheria plague. The train contains medical supplies and troops who will replace the sick and dying men, as well as Governor Fairchild (Richard Crenna) who is leading the ragtag band to the fort. Along for the ride is Major Claremont (Ed Lauter), the cavalry officer in charge of the replacement troops, John Deakin (Charles Bronson), a gambler and a murderer, and Ben Johnson as Nathan Pearce, the US Marshall who is escorting him to trial.

Breakheart Pass features another great score by Jerry Goldsmith. For each Goldsmith soundtrack I come across, I am constantly astounded at the high quality and diversity of his work. This score may not be Goldsmith’s most subtle work, but essentially we have a movie about a train, and in keeping, he gives us a powerful, brassy, driving theme and motifs throughout the movie. It’s a good one.

I am going to go out on a limb here. Bronson made many great films as a part in an ensemble cast; The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, and Once Upon A Time In The West to name but a few. But in films where he solely carried the story, the success rate is considerably lower. I think of Bronson’s solo efforts, Breakheart Pass is his best film. It’s a big call, but if you stack up the Death Wish movies, Mr. Majestyk, The Evil That Men Do and it’s ilk, for pure enjoyment, and a great performance, Breakheart Pass is the one!

This review is based on the MGM Home Entertainment USA DVD

Breakheart Pass (1975)