Stand Your Ground and Make a Death Wish: The Bronson Classic Turns 40

Death With the 1974 vigilante action film

When director Michael Winner’s film Death Wish was released in 1974, reaction to it was deeply polarized. Some viewers saw a reflection of the frustration Americans felt with the crime rate and the ineffectiveness—or even hostility—of law enforcement and the judicial system when it came to addressing the concerns of victims over the concerns of criminals. Others regarded it as crudely executed and dangerously reactionary; it was clearly the kind of movie that didn’t just celebrate violence, but encouraged it.

Who was “right” here? Who was “wrong”?

In the four decades since Charles Bronson‘s star-making film told the story of a liberal-minded husband and father who acquires a gun to dispense vigilante justice after street thugs rape his daughter and murder his wife, writers interested in movies and politics have treated Death Wish as a kind of “true north” destination to advance their theories about the liberal-conservative divide, gun rights, and the morality of movies and their impact on moviegoers. Writing about the film, in fact, can be thought of as assuming the persona of Bronson’s character, Paul Kersey—going out into the darkness and inviting trouble your way.

Maybe that’s unavoidable if I disclose here that what drew me back to the film wasn’t so much its 40th anniversary (and its welcome release on Blu-ray) but the killings of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, and the discussion of “stand your ground” laws that advance the rights of gun-carrying citizens to use fatal violence in cases where they claim to believe themselves to be in mortal danger.

Between those tragic cases of private gun owners acting as “Judge, Jury, and Executioner” (to appropriate both a familiar cliché and the tagline used to sell Death Wish to audiences) and an extremely disturbing comment submitted to one of my previous posts (Good Times in a Movie Theater), where the commenter praised the retired Florida policeman who shot and killed a man for texting inside a multiplex theater, I decided it was a good time to revisit the controversial blockbuster for a look at how well it holds up artistically and how relevant it might continue to be.

(The comment I refer to that was left on my past post was one of the very few we, and by “we” I mean I, chose to delete from the comment stream. It was a lengthy block of text, and frankly it was not easy to tell if the writer was being wholly serious or engaging in a well-disguised act of trolling—but frankly in either case I am glad to stand by the decision of rejecting its publication. When you cheer on the murder of an innocent person, your comment gets the boot. Sorry. I mention it because the writer specifically celebrated the shooter as a modern-day Bronson, making a clear, enthused, and highly unfortunate connection between that murderer and the star of Death Wish.)

On a purely artistic level, I would suggest that director Michael Winner’s style—or, to perhaps pin it down a little more precisely, his decided lack of it—is what helps the picture remain so potent a watch today. What we do not see in the film are visual pyrotechnics, or the kind of overly musical editing that creates much pure aesthetic pleasure in the dramatization of the film’s violence. Winner’s techniques here are straightforward. It would be incorrect to say the movie is done in a documentary style, it’s not quite that, but it would be closer to the mark to say that Winner’s camera records the action more than it dramatizes it. This approach is aided in no small part by cinematographer Arthur J. Ornitz, who shot Serpico the previous year in a similarly unaffected manner. Death Wish on the whole might not be a “realistic” film, but the image-making was very clearly meant to evoke the opposite kind of feeling you would get looking at frames designed by the likes of Bergman, Fellini, or Martin Scorsese, or filmmakers expert with film noir.

Death With (1974) Starring Charles Bronson

The brutality of the scene where Bronson’s wife and daughter are assaulted still feels disturbing and unsavory, and likely this sort of sequence would be realized by a mainstream filmmaker today with much more ecstatic audiovisual detail—rapid-fire cutting, extreme close-ups, exaggerated slow-motion, surreal coloring of the frame, overwhelming and immersive sound, that sort of thing—that could be rightfully said to eroticize the experience of the criminal act. Those sorts of directorial flourishes still wouldn’t serve as the legitimate basis to condemn a movie as far as I’m concerned, but any accusations that Winner is “getting off” on depicting the film’s violence are hard to sustain, unless one is of the position that any depiction of graphic violence or nudity is ipso facto worthy of condemnation.

To what should come as a surprise to exactly nobody, that very disapproval of graphic material on the movie screen, stylishly presented or not, is a conviction held by many, and it is one of the few things that can often unite the left and the right in self-righteous outrage—though in the case of Death Wish, most of the venom directed at the film came from liberals who saw it and the first Dirty Harry film as simple-minded fantasies that also served as “fascist” endorsements of extrajudicial violence.

Yes, the left is always mad about violence and the right is always mad about sex; what unites both factions in these cases is the certainty that movies are not “just” art and not “just” entertainment, and not “just” reflections of our cultural identity at any given time, but objects so hypnotic in their power as to predict, if not dictate, future antisocial behaviors from those exposed to them. This belief is not unique to movies, of course: Just as Death Wish was thought by some to be a dangerous inspiration to would-be vigilantes (and was much referenced in the wake of the Bernhard Goetz subway shooting of 1984), the Harry Potter series of novels was attacked for encouraging witchcraft, and the children’s television show “Teletubbies” scolded for causing gender confusion and endorsing homosexuality.  

Charles Bronson in Death Wish (1974)

It’s fun to ridicule some of those extreme examples, but equally valid to point out that few who champion artistic liberty are terribly consistent with these beliefs. You ask a person inclined to support movies and artistic license whether or not they believe Martin Scorsese is responsible in any way for the acts of John Hinckley, Jr., and you get one answer, and that answer might be very different from the one you’d get if they were asked if they believe Death Wish could inspire would-be vigilantes to commit acts of violence.

In his very, very rewarding 2010 short book about the film (part of the Deep Focus series from Soft Skull Press), writer Christopher Sorrentino rejects critic Vincent Canby’s much-discussed condemnation of the movie upon its release, as well as Canby’s labeling of Death Wish as one of New York’s newest “problems,” with an unusual argument of his own. Sorrentino asks:

If New York’s “problems” are different today, is Death Wish itself still a problem? Does a film’s value mutate along with the reality to which we seek to compare it? Is that what we mean by “period piece”? Death Wish is a frozen pose, a piece of popular art, one that reveals a bygone zeitgeist without in any true way reflecting the society that sustained it.

Here, Sorrentino is asking questions not just about Death Wish but about the nature of cinema—questions that have obvious answers to me, but of course might be highly debatable to others.

Does a film’s value mutate along with the reality to which we seek to compare it?

Of course it does. The evidence for that is abundant, but here is the representative example that springs to mind from my direct experience:  

A few years back, I attended a revival screening of The Exorcist, which as most of us know, utterly shocked and repulsed and terrified moviegoers en masse in 1973; today, among the same kind of modern-day audiences, it provokes considerable laughter. That’s not the movie’s “fault”—because Sorrentino is correct at a certain level when he refers to a movie as a “frozen pose”—but its evolving impact is an observable, and indeed continuously evolving, fact of culture.

As “frozen” as any movie is, what distinguishes cinema from, say, live theatre performances—which really are frozen in time because in their purest form they cannot be carried forward into the future except by our subjective memories—is the very fact that, just as with books, and paintings, and sculpture, and any other works of physically crafted art that exist as enduring objects, a film’s meaning to future observers who interact with it changes because culture doesn’t stand utterly still, allowing movies to have a fresh, if vitally different effect even though the film itself has not changed. And, if we’re to be honest with ourselves, the meaning of individual movies evolves for us, too. The films you saw as great when you first saw them, even if they remain great to you now, are great in a different way.

That seems to me like it’s a terribly self-evident point, but at the same time, it seems necessary to also illustrate the simple proof of that: The classic movies you saw decades ago and loved? The ones you revere now because “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore”? You weren’t thinking “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore” when you first saw, and loved, those movies. The greatness of those movies exists differently for you now. Your relationship to them has changed.

death-wish-bronson-holds-gun

At the same time, when we look back at Death Wish now, forty years from its original theatrical run, there is something striking about its most politically charged dialogue. Whether we are being asked to shape our attitudes about gun laws based on the argument that a gun is just a tool, like a hammer or an axe, or we are challenged to regard as a tautology of justice that more black men are in prison and/or dead because more criminals are black men (this is what we overhear as the “commonsense” response given to a hilariously brainless lefty partygoer who accuses Paul Kersey of being racist because he’s killing more black muggers than white ones)—what stands out about the rhetoric in the film is that so many of these heated postures have not evolved or budged one inch. Today, we still hear almost exactly the same arguments being made from both “sides” of the gun issue, whether crime rates are rising or falling. The statistics that can be marshaled by either party to advance their agendas tend to effectively zero out anyone’s ability to reach a consensus on what constitutes reality, and therefore a solid ground on which to effectively make law.

So, is Death Wish still relevant today, or have its themes and original meaning evolved out of recognition because Times Square looks more like Disneyland than the mean streets once prowled by Charles Bronson? You tell me. To my way of thinking, Michael Winner’s movie hasn’t dated a jot when it comes to holding up a mirror to our capacity to be both traumatized by violence and seduced by it. The film’s politics are not nearly as diffuse or complicated as its defenders ache to suggest, nor does it exist somehow beyond the boundaries of artistic expression as some kind of public threat in and of itself. But it has roiled conversations about guns, justice, and cinema for nearly half a century—and that makes it one hell of a movie.

There’s probably one important and very basic difference to note, too, with respect to using Death Wish as a touchstone for discussing “Stand Your Ground” and the Martin/Davis cases: the people Paul Kersey gunned down were, in the story, all criminals who were actually armed with knives or guns. The conversation today has shifted, to some degree, to the defense of using lethal force in response to threats that are imagined by the gun owner as well as in response to the threats that are real. That position is scarier, and more offensive, than anything to be found in all five Death Wish films.

death-wish-funeral

  • stan

    death wish is a great series if you aren’t into race bashing.

  • Blair Kramer

    “Death Wish” has been called a fascist film, and that may well be true in some small way. But if you or a family member has ever been a victim of a violent crime, you might have entertained fantasies of revenge in your quiet moments. That’s why “Death Wish” struck, and continues to strike, a nerve.

    • Butch Knouse

      In the late 1960s Mad Magazine published a list of the World’s Thinnest Books. One of them was “Liberals Who Have Been Mugged, and are STILL Liberals.”

  • Jan

    When “Death Wish” was released in 1974, I was a 26 year old young woman. The rape and killing of Paul Kersey’s wife and the rape of his daughter was very dsturbing to me because it was so realistic. I felt Kersey’s reaction to their violation and death was that of an angry, grieving husband and father instead of the vigilante cold blooded killer. While I don’t condone his actions, I can understand them. One of the things rarely mentioned in overviews of the film is that Paul Kersey did not just kill without feeling. He killed, yes, but (especially the first several times) he threw up his cookies afterwards. It did not begin to come easy to him in this film until close to the end of the film. While I like the first film of the series because of the human emotion involved, I did not care for the remaining 3 films because the character did evolve into someone who just kills to be doing so. I am a huge Bronson fan and was for all of his acting life, but DW 2,3 & 4 are at the bottom of my list of his movies to watch because they de-humanized the character and made him into someone you just do not want to know.

    • GeorgeDAllen

      Excellent you mention the memorable Kersey response to his first vigilante action (the tossing of his cookies), though he only experiences that the very first time. The interesting transition Bronson’s character undergoes—from Kersey feeling nauseated by killing to the way he baits thugs with his gaze at the end—is definitely one thing that sets the original apart from the sequels.

      I should probably also mention that there was, in fact, a “Death Wish V,” but now I feel a little guilty for having done so because you were obviously lucky enough to have forgotten about it, or fortunate enough never to have known of it in the first place. From one Bronson fan to another, I will say you may safely pass that one up and just re-watch the far superior “10 to Midnight” instead.

      • Butch Knouse

        Are you kidding? 10 to Midnight was just another 1980s Mad Slasher movie disguised as a Charles Bronson movie.

        • GeorgeDAllen

          Oh, I kid not, because (a) I will stand by my estimation that “10 to Midnight” is without question superior to “Death Wish V”; and (b) I suppose some people might say that I should classify my enjoyment of “10 to Midnight” as a “guilty pleasure,” but I’m not in the least guilty about enjoying that seamy but sensationally crazy Bronson thriller. For my money it’s the best of the Bronson/J. Lee Thompson collaborations–though I do also like “The White Buffalo,” as odd as it is…though, here’s where I also have to admit my Bronson/Thompson viewing can’t be called complete in the least because I have grossly missed out on seeing “St. Ives.”

          But really: “Forget what’s legal, do what’s right” has to go down in history as one of the great Bronson lines. I’d quote some more favorite “10 to Midnight” classic dialogue, but it’s a little R-rated for this space.

          • Butch Knouse

            I’ve never seen White Buffalo, but I heartily recommend St. Ives.

    • Bruce Reber

      The part of “Death Wish” when Kersey goes out west to Arizona and the real estate developer (Stuart Margolin) relates the credo of the old West and how the gun is only a tool, and how the gun was used in keeping the peace and for self-defense during that era. He gives Kersey a “going away gift”, and when Kersey gets back to NYC he unwraps it and finds its an old-fashioned six-shooter. It’s from that point on that Kersey really gets deep into his role as urban vigilante, applying what he learned out west to the big city, and no longer is revulsed by his actions.

  • Tom K.

    ” The conversation today has shifted, to some degree, to the defense of using lethal force in response to threats that are imagined by the gun owner as well as in response to the threats that are real. That position is scarier, and more offensive, than anything to be found in all five Death Wish films. ”
    ” A ” general reaction today is: I refuse to be a victim – I refuse to be afraid and live in fear – I refuse to go down without a fight – I Will take responsibility for the safety of my family, my neighbor and myself. I SHALL be a free American and persue happiness. I will accept and enjoy ALL of God’s Blessings. Most people just want to be left alone.

  • Bruce Reber

    In one scene from “Death Wish”, self-proclaimed urban vigilante Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) is standing under a billboard ad for a magazine (either Newsweek or Time) with the cover reading: “Vigilantism: Can It Stop Urban Crime?” IMO that’s the movie’s big question, one that still hasn’t been answered, and may never be answered.

    • GeorgeDAllen

      Well-remembered! The movie, I think, does offer an “answer” to that question, by having Vincent Gardenia’s character told that street crime has rapidly dropped off, and that’s why he’s not to make a public martyr of Kersey and instead run him quietly out of town. Replace the word “can” with the word “should” and I think we have the larger, and proper, question at hand.

    • Nicolas

      In Mexico you have these vigilantes going after the drug cartels, and perhaps that is the direction we should be looking at.

  • john

    First off Trayvon did not rape and murder Georges family so there is a big difference there with stand your ground. Second I was not trolling I was stating truthful facts. The man in the Florida theater was not so innocent. The owner of the Alamo Draft house states: If you are going to text or use light-up devices in a theater you might as well shine a flashlight or spotlight into everyone’s face that came to see the movie that is why we have a strict policy we enforce (like we did with Madonna) and we humiliate and embarrass customers by putting there picture on the screen to show others what a real nuisance is and we have the ad we show in our theater before every movie. And if you remember 40 years ago when Death Wish came out people went to the movies to actually watch the movie. Today people have no respect for others anymore and think they can damn well do whatever they want 24/7 without a care less for anyone else. If you go to a movie go to watch it and if you go to be a nuisance then you get what you deserve. And thanks for deleting my comments I guess that you never heard of freedom of speech or you may be someone that doesn’t care if your dollar paying movie experience is constantly interrupted by rude people that go to do everything else but watch the movie. Theater owners should enforce a no light up electronics policy and enforce it.

    • GeorgeDAllen

      We will have to agree to disagree when it comes to defining the body of your comment that I removed from the stream for my previous piece as just “stating truthful facts.” I can’t say I’m surprised, but nevertheless still disappointed, that you decided to resort to the “freedom of speech” canard with respect to your comment having been deleted. There is no “freedom of speech” issue at work w/respect to our obligation to publish or not publish your contributions here…because we are under no such obligation to do it, full stop. Most folks who come here don’t get out of line–at least, not out of line in the way that would trigger a moderator to keeping their comments from being published.

      Yes, I chose to let this (slightly) less disturbing version of your philosophy about the Florida shooting through in the spirit of good will, but I will just reiterate that I find it very unsettling. The notion that the man who was texting his young daughter/her babysitter before the movie even started–though frankly whether it was before or during the movie is utterly immaterial–was someone who “got what he deserved” in your view is just beyond sad. And the implication that I wouldn’t care about getting value for my dollar in a movie theater because I don’t agree with you that people who text or talk should be shot–shot–is so absurd to me as to be beyond further rational dispute, or even satire.

      I’ll close on the positive, I guess, by saying that we absolutely agree that the issues at hand w/respect to the Death Wish story and the Martin/Davis “stand your ground” cases are very different. That was, well, kind of my point.

  • GeorgeDAllen

    There’s a great deal of your cultural criticism I agree with—where we disagree is in the response. Just on the topic of the overwhelming presence and obsession with cell phones and their users’ detachment from what I guess we could call the living human moment, here’s a short video you might enjoy. It’s called “I Forgot My Phone,” and it’s spot-on:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OINa46HeWg8

    To return to movies and movie theaters and audiences: I will answer by saying that of course, your complaints about poor audience behaviors are not unique to you; I hear this all the time. I’m starting to think I might just be more fortunate than many, because generally, I find myself experiencing more “good” times at the movies in this regard than “bad” times when I encounter self-absorbed, rude behavior with loud
    talking, cell phone use, and so on. (Whether that’s from old people or young people; both have been guilty of boorish behavior)

    I’ve also said here in this space more than once that I also believe it to be at least partly about the quality of the work onscreen. Most of the time—there are exceptions, naturally—when I am at a movie that is very, very good, and really working, I find that audiences are compelled to pay attention and behave well and lose themselves in the movie. If the movie is failing to connect, though, obviously you have people starting to detach from the experience. Not everyone thinks the good and bad movies are the same, of course, so there will always be these problems.

    The great theater director Peter Brook made this valuable observation. He was talking about theatre, but this also applies to the movies:

    “I think that you’ll find that Shakespeare did something that we learn all the time in the theatre, and which every orator knows as well, which is to never let any part of your audience slip for too long. Because one recognizes that there is this phenomenon in audiences – an audience that switches off. And the aim of all theatre work is never to lose your audience for a moment. Because if you lose an audience, even for a matter of seconds, it’s very hard to capture them again.”

    This is not to concede to another frequent gripe here, that all movies today are generally inferior to the ones from decades past; they aren’t. My feeling is that this perception could be related to a growing literacy problem when it comes to movies (and that is maybe a deepening issue with older people more than with younger people), but that, as the saying goes, is another story for another time.

  • billgrove57

    What people completely forget is that Kersey is driven mad by his actions! He thought he was in the Wild West.

  • Nicolas

    To bad that this is the film that Charles Bronson would get famous for in the United States. Watching it now it is very cartoonish, though i enjoyed it when I saw it with my father back in 74, and I only went to see it because I was interested in Bronson at the time, and was my first theatrical movie that I saw with him. I much more prefer many of his other films, the Mechanic, White Buffalo, and many of the European efforts he was in. I find there many similarities of this film with the film by Melvin Van Peebles film Sweet Sweatback’s Bad Ass Song), though they are on different sides of the coin.