Charles Bronson was a popular actor in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s who was known for his gunslinger, vigilante, and law enforcement roles. His work ethic was simply incredible. At the height of his career, he would appear in up to five films in a single year. In total, Bronson starred in a whopping 93 film, a mixture of non-English European and Hollywood productions.
Throughout his career, Bronson was one of Hollywood’s most recognizable tough guys. The fact that he was a US Air Force pilot in World War II makes his resume even more impressive. Bronson flew 25 missions and received a Purple Heart – an honor given to soldiers that were wounded or killed in battle.
Here are Bronson’s most iconic movie roles.
Vince Majestyk: Mr. Majestyk
The novel which the movie is based on revolves around Chicano migrant workers, but the film focuses on Bronson’s character instead. This turned out to be a good move because the rugged actor carried the film on his shoulders from start to finish.
Mr. Majestyk follows a Vietnam veteran called Vince Majestyk who decides to settle down in the rural part of Colorado and make a living as a farmer. Due to his inability to stay calm, he soon finds himself in jail where he prevents a breakout organized by a mob boss known as Frank Renda. The Mob puts a target on his back but of course, they can’t kill him. He is Mr. Majestyk.
Joe Valachi: The Valachi Papers
Charles Bronson plays Joe Valachi, a real-life snitch who opened up to the authorities about the inner workings of the Genovese crime family. The film is based on the non-fiction book of the same name. What makes The Valachi Papers even more intriguing is that Valachi is being held in the same prison as Vito Genovese, the mob boss he is ratting out.
The story is told via flashbacks and it follows Valachi’s life from a low-level gangster to one of the top guys in the mafia. Bronson’s performances were widely praised even though critics felt the film was a poor man’s Godfather. The Valachi Papers was released a few months earlier than Copolla’s popular film, which did it no favors.
Joseph Wladislaw: The Dirty Dozen
There is a bit of Inglourious Basterds in this movie. In The Dirty Dozen, Bronson stars as Joseph, a convicted killer who has been sentenced to death by hanging. Together with a few other convicts, he is offered a chance to become free if he volunteers to be part of a secret mission meant to derail the Nazis during World War II.
By the end of the mission, most of the men end up dead. One of them even dies after breaking his neck during a parachute landing. However, Bronson as Wladislaw manages to soldier on till the end. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards and won one.
Graham Dorsey: From Noon Till Three
While not known for wearing a smile, Bronson does have more range than might initially seem apparent. In From Noon Till Three, Bronson starred alongside his real-life wife, Jill Ireland. The movie is a western comedy that strikes the right balance between absurdity and preciseness.
Bronson plays Dorsey, a member of a gang who is having second thoughts about a planned robbery because of a nightmare that he had. Jill went on to collaborate in fifteen more films with her husband Bronson.
Harry Dobbs: Rider On The Rain
Bronson was already a major star in Europe before America truly appreciated him. Rider on the Rain is part of the reason why. During an interview with The Washington Post, Bronson notoriously lambasted popular American actors of the ’70s, saying, “I can play a character better because of my experience – because of all the things that I have been through. All those method guys – De Niro, Stallone and what’s his name, Pacino – they’re all the same. They even look the same.”
In Rider On The Rain, Bronson played a no-nonsense investigator tasked with solving a murder/rape case. Given that it was a French film, Bronson offered to learn the language, even though that was not typically the case for future non-English films.
Arthur Bishop: The Mechanic
It’s hard to tell which film is better between the Jason Statham remake and the original one starring Bronson. In The Mechanic, Bronson plays Bishop, a hitman who is focused on taking down various criminals. He decides to mentor a young man but the relationship ends up being a complicated one.
Bishop is mostly anti-social and his philosophy is “Murder is only killing without a license.” In a way, the character’s anti-social behavior was not too far removed from Bronson’s real-life personality. He mostly kept to himself during the production period and rarely watched any films, even his own.
Chaney: Hard Times
There is a lot of fighting in this movie. Even Chuck Norris would be jealous. It’s like UFC in movie form. The action scenes are also very impressive and are somewhat reminiscent of those in The Raid. Each punch feels impactful and everyone seems well-trained.
Bronson never unleashed a smile either. Neither does he talk much. He plays Chaney, a bare-knuckles street fighter in the Depression Era who befriends a sly promoter called Speed and uses him to advance his career as a prizefighter in New Orleans.
Danny Velinski: The Great Escape
The Great Escape chronicles the real-life story of POWs of Allied nations trying to escape a Nazi camp where they are being held. Out of 250 POWs, only 76 make it out of the camp but the number keeps dwindling as they are hunted. Steven McQueen, starring as Hilts, had one of the best motorcycle chase scenes in film history.
As Flight Lieutenants Danny Velinski, Bronson’s character was tasked with supervising the digging of a tunnel that would take the POWs out of the camp. He was even nicknamed “The Tunnel King.” Bronson and Mcqueen were praised for their performances and the film went on to win numerous awards.
Bernardo O’Reilly: The Magnificent Seven
In The Magnificent Seven, Bronson has some very interesting quotes. For example, when he is asked why his name doesn’t sound specific to a certain region, he says, “Yeah, that’s my real name. Irish on one side, Mexican on the other… and me in the middle.” And when he’s teaching a boy how to shoot, he says, “Miguel, didn’t I tell you to squeeze? Hm? Just like when you’re milking a goat, Miguel.”
Other stars like Eli Wallach and Steve McQueen are present in The Magnificent Seven but it’s Bronson who mostly steals the show. Apparently, the role made him very popular in Russia where the film was a massive hit. A remake of the movie was recently released starring Denzel Washington but it failed to create the same buzz as the original.
Harmonica: Once Upon A Time In The West
In the Sergio Leone masterpiece, Bronson starred as Harmonica, a skilled gunman. The movie iconically begins with him shooting three men who had been sent to kill him. For the rest of the film, Harmonica does a good job of protecting a widow who is being sought after by an assassin.
Interestingly, before appearing in Once Upon A Time In The West, Bronson had turned down roles in Sergio Leon’s earlier iconic films. He even turned down the role of Blondie in the Dollars Trilogy which ultimately went to Clint Eastwood. The role is now seen as Eastwood’s finest.