Celluloid Style: Charles Bronson

Charles Bronson 1966
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

I spend a lot of time on here waffling on about the likes of Orson Welles and Dirk Bogarde, when in truth there’s little I enjoy more than a good dad movie — or a bad one, for that matter. For all of my talk of arthouse cinema and film noir, all I usually want when kicking back to watch a movie is the type of thing your archetypal beer-bellied, furry-chested father figure would want to see (even though I myself am childless and have resorted to drinking non-alcoholic beer to keep an impending dad bod at bay). 

If you’re wondering what precisely constitutes a dad movie, allow me to offer some examples. I’m thinking here of films like The Great Escape, Thief, or the original Taking of Pelham 123 — three movies I could happily watch on an infinite loop while parked out on the Barcalounger where I truly belong. They are often westerns, war films, sports movies, or any thriller set on the gritty streets of New York circa 1970. And while there are many great modern dad movies — Moneyball, Ford v Ferrari,  and much of Tom Hanks’ latter output (see Bridge of Spies, Sully or any of his WWII-era outings for reference) — a true dad movie to my mind is one that features, say, Al Pachino, Clint Eastwood, or James Caan in their primes. Or, going a bit further back, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, or John Wayne. 

Best of all, though, are the dad flicks that are populated mostly by men whose stars have dipped a little and whose names are no longer in common parlance. These hold the highest rank in the paternal cinematic canon since they allow viewers the opportunity to interject with some dad facts (or ‘pop’ culture if you will), like ‘That’s [INSERT NAME HERE]. Did you know he [INSERT MANLY BIOGRAPHICAL FACTS]?’ At which point he’ll inevitably shake his head in mournful appreciation, take another swig of Budweiser, and add a ‘they sure don’t make ‘em like they used to’ for good measure.

The Magnificent Seven cast publicity photo
Charles Bronson (kneeling) alongside the rest of the cast of The Magnificent Seven
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

There are few better examples today of this kind of actor than Charles Bronson, who your dad might point to and say: ‘That’s Charles Bronson. Did you know he used to be a coal miner, then served as an aircraft gunner in World War II, and became one of the biggest movie stars in the world? They sure don’t make ‘em like they used to.’

They sure don’t. Charles Bronson — not to be confused with the notorious fist-fighting British prisoner who adopted the same moniker after the actor in question — was born Charles Buchinsky on November 3, 1921, in the coal-mining Scooptown section of Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania. He was the eleventh of fifteen children born to Lithuanian immigrants and grew up desperately poor. His father died when he was ten years old and by the time young Charles was sixteen he had started working in the local coal mines, earning about $1 for each tonne of coal he dug out. 

He was drafted into the US Army in 1943 where he served as a tail gunner and was later awarded a Purple Heart medal. After the war, he variously worked as a bricklayer, a short-order cook, and an onion-picker, among other things, before breaking into the entertainment industry as a scene painter and eventually getting work as an actor beginning in the early 1950s.

It was at this point that he changed his surname to ‘Bronson’ because he feared his Russian-sounding name wouldn’t go down in the milieu of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade at the time. Regardless of his rebranded last name and his appearances in films like The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), and Once Upon a Time in the West (1969), Bronson only broke out as a major star in the US with the release of Death Wish in 1974. At this point he was already in his early fifties and was said to be the biggest movie star elsewhere in the world. In Italy he was known affectionately as Il Brutto (The Ugly One) and apparently once had a billboard the length of a city block displaying his name in Japan.

It must be said, given the putative focus of this site, that for all of his fame and fortune, Mr Bronson is not generally regarded as a particularly snappy dresser. But there’s no question that clothing and appearance meant something to him. As he recounted in an interview with Roger Ebert in 1974:

‘I remember my father had shaved us all bald to avoid lice. Times were poor. I wore hand-me-downs. And because the kids just older than me in the family were girls, sometimes I had to wear my sisters’ hand-me-downs. I remember going to school in a dress. And my socks, when I got home sometimes I’d have to take them off and give them to my brother to wear into the mines.’

He goes on to describe being drafted as being the luckiest thing that ever happened to him: ‘I was well fed, I was well dressed for the first time in my life, and I was able to improve my English.’ In his film roles, true to his tough-guy persona, Bronson set the mould for many action stars to follow wardrobe-wise. There was ample cowboy and military gear, a lot of leather jackets, sheepskin coats, and, above all else, tight-fitting T-shirts, tank tops, or no shirts at all. 

Perhaps his most famous attribute, apart from his compact but exceptionally brawny physique, was his moustache. Though clean-shaven in many of his early roles, a pencil moustache became his signature at the height of his fame and throughout the rest of his life. Alongside an impressive mop of hair and a narrow-eyed stare, it was an essential ingredient of his he-man on-screen image — albeit one that, according to his New York Times obituary, Bronson was privately upset by, apparently longing for more challenging roles to play. Nevertheless he worked hard to maintain a public image of toughness: ‘He told interviewers that he had been in fistfights and had been arrested on charges of assault and battery, and he liked to suggest to journalists that his hobby was knife-throwing. But reporters who checked out his stories found no police record, no assault and battery, no predisposition toward violence. In fact, they learned that Mr. Bronson’s hobby was painting and that he was a quiet, personable, gentle man.’

What is certain, however, is that an on-screen appearance by Charles Bronson is as sure a sign that you’re in dad movie territory as is the presence of labyrinthine military tactics or a brawny sportsman shedding a tear in the third act. That moustache, that stare, and that inevitably uncovered torso can only mean that you are bound for a thoroughly paternal movie-going experience. What more could any aspiring dad ask for?

Last week marked what would have been Bronson’s 101st birthday. He passed away in 2003 at the age of 81, but still I say along with all of the other dad flick fans out there: Long live Il Brutto!