He aims, he shoots, he kills. As an oppressed Everyman in countless crime flicks, Charles Bronson had a thirst for vigilante justice that could only be quenched with blood. But Bronson was already in his fifties when he made Death Wish — his hard-boiled persona was honed in a long line of Westerns well before that. Which are the best in the bunch? Read on!
Breakheart Pass (1975)
Someone is trying to stop a train carrying medical supplies, and Bronson will be damned if he’ll let anyone stand in his way. With plenty of explosions and thrills, this Western seems closer to a jaded action flick. Its tagline is hard to imagine in a Western: “Trust no one and believe half of what you see.” Good advice, regardless.
In his second reteam with Magnificent Seven director John Sturges, Bronson plays the eponymous rancher, a half-breed to whom the local cowpunchers don’t take kindly. Surprisingly, there aren’t any bloodbaths here, just an observant tale of a man trying to live against the grain while romancing a girl (Jill Ireland, Bronson’s real-life wife). Well, that’s not entirely true — Bronson does throw a couple of good ol’ boys through a window.
Chato’s Land (1972)
Bronson plays the eponymous half-Apache facing off with City Slickers‘ Curly himself, Jack Palance. Palance is at the head of the white posse that’s after Chato’s hide after he offs a racist sheriff. The rape, immolation, and vengeance that follow make for pretty brutal watching — even Bronson’s heroic characters seem one bad childhood away from becoming mass murderers. Which isn’t exactly surprising: this Western’s director, Michael Winner, would go on to make the first three Death Wish movies.
Red Sun (1971)
Before Owen Wilson and Jackie Chan bantered in Shanghai Noon, there was this East-meets-West cowboy comedy. It’s one of the oddest footnotes in Western-casting history, with Bronson, Toshiro Mifune, and Alain Delon among its marquee. In Red Sun, Bronson is a train robber who teams up with Mifune on a quest for gold, a priceless sword, and Delon’s head on a platter.
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Also starring Steve McQueen and James Coburn, this Western rework of Seven Samurai was the movie that helped propel Bronson into the big time. Its tale of gunslingers defending a town in exchange for some cold, hard cash was also the prototypical guys-on-a-mission movie. It’s a niche Bronson would work with aplomb in such later movies as The Dirty Dozen and The Great Escape.
Run of the Arrow (1957)
Though of Lithuanian ancestry, Bronson’s ambiguous ethnicity, and generally odd features, allowed him to play Mexicans, Native Americans, and even a Canadian. In Sam Fuller’s early Western Run of the Arrow, he plays a Sioux chief named Blue Buffalo who — in more cross-cultural confusion — welcomes a Yankee-hating Southerner (Rod Steiger) into his tribe.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1958)
Bronson was Sergio Leone’s initial choice for the Man With No Name films. At the time, the actor was a huge star in Europe and even had a nickname in Italy: Il Brutto (the Ugly One). No dice. But they worked together on this film, which in some ways did Eastwood one better. Once Upon a Time in the West has a polish and epic sweep that the scruffy, low-budget Eastwood films never quite attained. As the taciturn gunslinger Harmonica, Bronson is as mysterious and menacing as ever.