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An Ideal Partnership - The films of director J. Lee Thompson and actor Charles Bronson - Part 1

Darren Murray
An Ideal Partnership - The films of director J. Lee Thompson and actor Charles Bronson - Part 1

When speaking about actor-director partnerships, most people think of the more famous ones, like Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese or Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa.

I have previously looked at the less celebrated collaborators, those who have perhaps not had the same recognition due to their films made more to please the masses than film critics.

In this article I will be looking at both an actor and a director that throughout their careers made undoubted classics only to go on to lesser material later in their careers.

This is where actor Charles Bronson  and director J.Lee Thompson would find themselves, initially working together on worthwhile productions for companies like Warner Brothers and United Artists until ending up working for Cannon pictures years later.

Even with this in mind, their later films shouldn’t be overlooked as there are still rewards to be found in these features.

Bronson and Thomson didn’t come to work with each other until the mid 1970’s, with the both of them forging out notable careers for themselves in the film industry.

During World War 2, Bronson enlisted in the United States Army Air Force, flying 25 missions against the Japanese home islands. He was awarded the Purple Heart. After the end of the war, Bronson found he had an interest in acting, originally joining a theatre group.

Bronson started his film career in the early 1950’s with a number of un-credited roles to begin with, such as John Sturges’ crime drama The People Against O Hara (1951) and musical Bloodhound of Broadway (1952).

Even when he was finally credited it was under his real name Charles Buchinsky. Some of the most memorable of his earlier films are the horror film House of Wax (1953), where he played the mute Igor alongside horror legend Vincent Price as well as the classic western Vera Cruz (1954), which found him working with director Robert Aldrich for the first time.

He would work again with Aldrich in the same year on Apache (1954), sharing the screen yet again with his Vera Cruz co-star Burt Lancaster. It was at this time he changed his name from Buchinsky to Bronson, as his agent feared that his Eastern European name could possibly harm his career.

As his acting career progressed, Bronson would find himself continuously working with the same director’s multiple times. He would work again with John Sturges on Never So Few (1959) before going on to play a supporting role in what is probably their most famous collaboration The Magnificent Seven (1960).

Bronson would work again with Sturges on the equally famous The Great Escape (1963). There would be a break of almost 10 years before their last collaboration, the forgettable western Chino (1973).

Even though Bronson was finding consistent work, true stardom eluded him. It wasn’t until the actor tried his chances in Europe, with him starring in what would become one of the finest westerns ever made, Once Upon A Time in the West (1968).

Director Sergio Leone would later comment that Bronson was one of the best actors that he had ever worked with. Bronson would follow this up with a number of other European produced movies, like Rider on the Rain (1970) and Violent City (1970).

Bronson would also briefly collaborate with director Terence Young on three other European movies, made in quick succession. There would be crime thriller Cold Sweat (1971), with him sharing the screen with the great James Mason, Liv Ullmann and Bronson’s real life wife Jill Ireland.

A lesser film for both the director and Star, the film still has some good performances and an excellent car chase created by Remy Julienne. They would follow it up with Western Red Sun (1972), with Bronson sharing the screen with movie legends Toshiro Mifune and Alain Delon.

The two would lastly work together on the more worthwhile The Velachi Papers (1972), a gangster drama that unfortunately was released in the wake of the superior The Godfather (1972).

These three films may be lesser examples of Bronson’s work, but helped further establish him as an international star.

With this new found success, he would return to America and begin to feature in starring roles. This is where he would begin to work with another of his main collaborators, director Michael Winner.

Perhaps the reason that some people have somewhat looked down on the combined works of Bronson and J. Lee Thompson is due to how popular his collaboration with Winner was, with the two of them creating what is possibly Bronson’s most iconic role, that of Paul Kersey in Death Wish (1974).

This is not to say that tat Bronson’s work with Winner is better, as Thompson proved multiple times that he was the more accomplished film maker, with Winner having no identifiable style throughout the majority of his directing career.

Winner’s success at the time was more down to giving audiences what they wanted, with his films being typically violent and filled with gratuitous nudity. Death Wish is clearly Bronson and Winner’s most popular film, with it going on to spawn four sequels and an upcoming remake from director Eli Roth, with Bruce Willis in the lead role.

However, Winner and Bronson had worked together three times previously with varying results, firstly on the poorly made western Chato’s Land (1972), with the constant use of day for night photography being a major issue.

They would have better results with the enjoyable The Mechanic (1972), with Bronson giving one of his better performances, and Winner doing a slightly better job behind the camera than he did on Chato’s Land, with the wordless opening being quite impressive.

Interestingly The Mechanic started off as a Monte Hellman movie, with the two main characters of the piece being explicitly gay. This element was eventually removed as the producers found it increasingly difficult to cast, with most actors stating that they would only consider the film if the homosexual subtext were removed.

Hellman would find himself being removed from the production after only a few weeks, only to be replaced by Winner, who Bronson had just worked with earlier in the year. The Mechanic was remade years later as a more straight forward action vehicle for Jason Statham, which itself spawned a sequel.

Both Bronson and Winner would reteam the year later for The Stone Killer (1973), one of the better lone cop movies made in the wake of Dirty Harry (1971).

It was after these that both Bronson and Winner went on to create Death Wish, with the two of them re-teaming years later to make further entries in the series, firstly with the gritty Death Wish 2 (1982), marking the first film Bronson made for Cannon pictures.

The two would work together again on the over the top third entry, Death Wish 3 (1985), a film that manages to overcome its ineptitude, with the film makers making the silly decision to shoot the film in London and try to pass it as New York.

As well as working with Winner, Bronson additionally worked with director Tom Gries on two of his more underrated films, Breakheart Pass (1975) and Breakout (1975). In the same year he was also the lead in Walter Hill’s directorial debut, Hard Times (1975), turning in one of his best tough guy performances.  

It wasn’t until after his success with Death Wish that Bronson would finally come to work with J. Lee Thompson, with their first film together being the crime thriller St Ives (1976).

Before working on St Ives, Thompson had forged out quite a prolific directing career for himself. He had originally worked for some years as a screen writer before making the transition to directing, with his first movie being crime drama Murder Without Crime (1950).

Not exactly setting the world on fire, the film did at least get his directorial career started, with him working consistently throughout the 1950’s. He would start to hit his stride with the classic war movie Ice Cold in Alex (1958).

Shockingly Ice Cold in Alex wasn’t released in America until 3 years after its UK release, with 20th Century Fox deciding to cut over 50 minutes from the finished film, truncating it to a measly 76 minutes. To make matters worse, the film was re-titled to the horribly generic Desert Attack (1961).

He would show his action credentials with his follow up, North West Frontier (1959), a terrific boys own style adventure starring Kenneth More and Lauren Bacall. The film was one of the most successful films in Britain at the time and no doubt played a part in him going to Hollywood to helm the classic Guns of Navarone (1961).

Thompson wasn’t the original director of choice on Guns of Navarone, with him being a last minute replacement for director Alexander Mackendrick. Star Gregory Peck was so impressed with Thompson that he went on to work on a further three films with him, beginning with the terrific Cape Fear (1962) then later on western McKenna’s Gold (1969) and cold war thriller The Chairman (1969).

During this time,  Thompson additionally directed Taras Bulba (1962) and Kings of the Sun (1963), both historical action adventures starring Yul Brynner.

As Thompson moved into the 1970’s, his films began to take a downturn in quality. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) is perhaps better than some give it credit for, but it falls way beneath the likes of Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear in terms of quality.

Thompson would make a further entry in the Planet of the Apes series with Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) as well as the disappointing The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1975) and other films before he would come to work on St Ives (1976).

St Ives was almost a change of pace for Bronson, with the film not falling back on the usual diet of blood and sex that was prevalent in many of his films of the time, with St Ives being more of a light hearted crime story, albeit one with quite a few deaths before we reach the end.

In comparison to some of Bronson’s other features, there is a lack of action in St Ives, which is made up for by having fine performances and a witty script from Barry Beckerman, who adapted the script from novel the Procane Chronicle by Ross Thomas, with Thomas writing it under the pseudonym Oliver Bleeck.   

The film has Bronson playing crime reporter and ex cop Raymond St Ives, who is hired by Abner Procane (John Houseman) to retrieve five ledgers that were stolen from Procane’s safe. Through his investigation, St Ives finds himself involved in the deaths of the thieves as well as trying to get back 4 pages that are missing from the ledgers.

Some fans of the novel and the character of Raymond St Ives have complained of the casting of Bronson in the role, but he is especially good here, with his character being a lesser man of action than his fans had come to expect and getting to show his more easy going side. His character seems continually perplexed at what is happening around him.

Bronson is ably supported by the beautiful Jacqueline Bisset who plays a femme fatale on Procane’s payroll. The only issue with Bisset is that she seems to tower over the leading man of the piece, but this isn’t the fault of the actress.

There are also roles for the likes of John Houseman, Maximillan Schell and Harris Yulin. Audiences should also keep their eyes peeled for an early appearance from future Freddy Kruger actor Robert Englund, as well as Jeff Goldblum, once again making life difficult for Charles Bronson after his earlier appearance in Death Wish. 

St Ives may not live up to the films that Thompson was making back in the 1960’s, but still shows him to be an adept filmmaker and was an improvement on some of the previous films that he had made at the beginning of the decade.

Clearly both Bronson and Thompson enjoyed working with each other as they quickly moved onto their next production, western hybrid The White Buffalo (1977).  In between, Bronson managed to fit in television movie Raid on Entebbe (1977).

Producer Dino De Laurentis was clearly in monster movie mode at this point in his career, with him turning out King Kong (1976) the year previously and then Orca (1977). The White Buffalo came between these two, and other than some especially poor effects, is probably the better realised film.

King Kong had the disadvantage of being a remake of a beloved original, whereas Orca had the difficulty of trying to stand out from the crowd of the many similar productions made in the wake of Jaws (1975).

In certain respects, the White Buffalo itself shares similarities with Jaws, with both films having a small group of individuals teaming up to take down a deadly creature. In place of a great white shark, it is a crazed albino buffalo that is hunted. The group is made up of “Wild Bill” Hickok (Charles Bronson), Crazy Horse (Will Sampson) and Charlie Zane (Jack Warden).

It turns out that Hickok has been haunted by dreams of the buffalo, and believes that if he doesn’t kill it that it will haunt him until he is driven mad. Crazy Horse has more personal reasons, as the buffalo rampaged through his camp and killed his granddaughter. To restore his honour and name, he must hunt the buffalo down and kill it. In Charlie Zane’s case, he is just along for the ride.

Bronson is a lot more serious here than he was in his previous collaboration with Thompson. His version of Hickok is a tired gunfighter with failing eyes, who would rather be left alone. Unfortunately even with the pseudonym James Otis, Hickok’s reputation goes before him, with countless people trying to make a name for them-selves.

Unlike St Ives, Bronson is involved in a lot more action this time round, with a number of well staged shootouts as well as his final confrontation with the buffalo, which still manages to be exciting even with the poor effects work.

Will Sampson makes an impression as Crazy Horse, who has a much clearer motive than Hickok. Sampson is probably best known for his career making turn as Chief Bromden in the award winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1974). Perhaps not as iconic a role, Crazy Horse gives Sampson a more substantial role than his previous classic.

Backing them up is the always reliable Jack Warden, who plays the racist Charlie Zane, who is always getting ready to shoot Crazy Horse in the back. Even with this in mind, Zane isn’t exactly a villain, with him coming to the rescue of Hickok a number of times throughout.

There are smaller supporting roles for the likes of Kim Novak, playing the only main female role in the film other than a small role from Cara Williams.

Regular western actors Stuart Whitman and Slim Pickens also show up for one scene cameos in addition to Clint Walker who has a more substantial part as a villainous gunfighter out to kill Hickok. This was the first time Bronson and Walker had worked together since The Dirty Dozen (1967).

Fans should keep their eyes peeled for blink and you’ll miss them appearances from Martin Kove and Ed Lauter

Thompson handles the on screen carnage well and gets equally good performances from his lead actors. He is assisted in keeping the atmosphere and tone by an excellent John Barry score, which is unlike most of the composer’s other work. Barry was brought on at the last minute to replace composer David Shire, as it was felt that his score wasn’t suitable.

Thompson additionally gets certain historical details correct such as how Hickok carried his guns and the fact that he wore sunglasses to assist with his glaucoma.

The historical facts could be partly down to script writer Richard Sale, who adapted the film from his own novel. Sale gives Thompson one of the better scripts that he had in a while, with interesting characters and an unusual plot for a western.

More prolific as a writer, Sale was also a director himself, with films like The Girl Next Door (1953) and Abandon Ship (1957) under his belt. By the time The White Bufallo came around, he hadn’t directed a feature film in almost twenty years. He did however work in television, directing episodes of western shows Yancy Derringer (1958) and The High Chaparral (1967).

The White Buffalo was Sale’s second to last film as writer, with his last feature being yet another Charles Bronson vehicle, Assassination (1987).

Even with good performances and a well written script, Thompson can’t overcome the decision by the producers to shoot a good deal of scenes on fake looking sound stages, which jar when the film transitions to the beautiful location shots of Colorado.

This was no doubt to cut down on costs, something that producer Dino De Laurentis was notorious for. As mentioned previously, the poorest aspect of the production is the buffalo itself, looking increasingly false as the film progresses.

Surprisingly, the buffalo was the work of Oscar winning special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi, who had won one of his Oscar’s only the year previous for his work on King Kong. Sadly his work here pales in comparison.

Thankfully, these poor elements aren’t enough to drag the film down, with The White Buffalo being a thrilling western with enough action to keep fans happy. It marked the final western of Bronson’s career as well as the last film he would make for Dino De Laurentis.

It would be another three years before Bronson and Thompson would work together again. In the interim, Bronson starred in a number of action thrillers like Telefon (1978) and Borderline (1980).

At this time, Thompson would re-team with another actor from his past, Anthony   Quinn, who he hadn’t worked with since the Guns of Navarone.

The two back to back films he made with Quinn didn’t live up to their earlier success, with The Greek Tycoon (1978) receiving extremely poor reviews.

The Passage (1979) similarly received negative reviews, but is a more enjoyable film. In its advantage are some well staged action scenes, an on form Anthony Quinn and an especially over the top performance from Malcolm McDowell, who clearly thought he was in a different film.

Bronson and Thompson would then move onto the Casablanca (1942)      inspired Caboblanco (1980). It may have been the filmmakers original intention to make a Casablanca remake, but it would seem the amount of violence and full frontal nudity got in the way.

Caboblanco falls some way beneath Thompson and Bronson’s first two films, with it moving at a somewhat pedestrian pace and never really coming to life.

The film does have some elements in its favour, with Bronson being his dependable self and an especially good Jason Robards, re-teaming with Bronson for the first time since Once Upon a Time in the West.

In addition to the leads there is good supporting performances from the likes of Simon MacCorkindale and Fernando Rey, who like Bronson and Robards, turn in good work even if the script is lacking.

Thompson manages to set a good atmosphere, with the film being shot well. Unlike The White Buffallo, Caboblanco at least looks as if it was shot on location.

Thompson is however let down by the dialogue heavy script, that prefers to speak about action than actually show it. The film may run to a brisk 87 minutes, but feels much longer due to the slow plot and focus on multiple characters, some of which could have been excised altogether.

Additionally, Caboblanco is tonally uneven, with parts being made in the same vein as classics from the 1940’s, then all of a sudden there are scenes of gratuitous nudity that don’t add anything to the plot.

Like Thompson’s previous releases, Caboblanco opened to poor reviews, with most complaints focusing on the films attempts to emulate Casablanca. The producers later came to the films defence stating that it was never their intention to make a Casablanca homage and that any similarities to that classic were limited.


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CaboblancoCannonCharles BronsonEuropeGuns of NavaroneIce Cold in AlexJ. Lee ThompsonOnce Upon a Time in ChinaSt IvesThe White Buffalo

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