No matter how much we evolve in our values and understanding of gender, it’s hard for some of us to shake our fascination with a certain old-fashioned notion of manhood. The stoic, underestimate-at-your-own-peril ghosts of tough-guy-movie past shaped our ideals of masculinity as we watched them grimace, punch, and motorcycle-jump their way through adversity. And it seems like our mainstream fare of the moment doesn’t have men with that same kind of real-world grit anymore.
Whether or not these elder generations had it harder, they definitely had it different. Today’s manliest movie stars — mostly buffed-up superheroes like your Chrises Hemsworth, Pratt, and Evans — are scientifically enlarged and formed by state-of-the-art training and diet regimens. Guys like Steve McQueen, Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, and Jim Brown arrived in Hollywood already hardened and callused. Marvin and Bronson both earned Purple Hearts in World War II. McQueen had been a Marine, a carnival barker, and a lumberjack. Brown’s physique was forged in the gauntlet of professional and college football. These guys don’t look sculpted — they look chiseled out of a boulder. In Marvin’s case, the little pieces that were chipped off seem to rattle around in his throat when he speaks.
Their “era of onscreen machismo” (1960–1975), as a release terms it, is the topic of the Quad’s exciting series “Action Figures: Prime Cuts From McQueen, Marvin, Bronson, and Brown” (March 30–April 12), featuring fifteen crime, western, and war films, all but a few of them screening on 35mm. Bronson emerges as the most-represented of the pack because of overlap in ensemble pieces: The Dirty Dozen (1967), The Great Escape (1963), The Magnificent Seven (1960). (Another hard-nosed performer, James Coburn, though not named in the program’s title, shows up four times.)
In trying to describe the appeal of the Quad slate, it wouldn’t quite be accurate to reach for that oft-invoked platitude — “they don’t make ’em like they used to” —because they didn’t make many like that back then, either. In the World War II drama Hell Is for Heroes (1962), McQueen stands out even among his generally rambunctious platoon. Newly transferred to a unit near the Siegfried Line in Montigny, France, his Private Reese is more experienced and haunted than the others — regular guys like Bob Newhart, who gets an “and introducing” credit and does his famous telephone routine next to a German bug. A bartender says of Reese, “A man who is not afraid to break the rules. I find this interesting,” but that’s a mere surface-level description of McQueen’s appeal. He acts like he’s a rebel with no fear for his life or compunction about killing, but we know in truth he feels it deep. Even in The Getaway (1972), his fresh-out-of-prison, bank-robbing anti-hero admits he’s so rough because “it does somethin’ to ya. It does somethin’ to ya. It does somethin’ to ya in there.” In Hell Is for Heroes, when his unauthorized raid gets a man killed, he turns into a shaky, wide-eyed mess.
Bronson, for his part, tends to show less vulnerability, particularly in Hard Times (1975), where he drifts into New Orleans like a wandering samurai, conquers the bare-knuckle-brawling scene, and leaves. But the hard exteriors of his man’s-man characters aren’t always impenetrable. In The Magnificent Seven, he gets notably upset when some boys start calling their dads cowards, because he considers the responsibility of parenting much more brave than his own gunslinging. In Death Wish (1974), which was recently remade, his violent crusade is an attempt to deal with grief and anger, but he can’t withstand the emotional turmoil. At the end, he’s untethered from reality, quoting lines from a western stunt show.
Brown’s badass persona, meanwhile, takes on particular depth from its context within the history of racial progress. While Sidney Poitier was being Oscar-snubbed for In the Heat of the Night (1967), Brown was striking a similarly potent chord in The Dirty Dozen as a soldier whose disdain for white people doesn’t stop him from giving his life to help some of them grenade a bunker full of Nazis. Though it was only his second film, he made a strong impression even while surrounded by the likes of Bronson, Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, and Telly Savalas. As a counterpoint, in the rollicking western El Condor (1970), when Brown’s character is offered another freedom-in-exchange-for-a-mission deal, he breaks his chains and stuffs the pardon papers in a white man’s mouth.
By the time the blaxploitation trend had exploded a few years later, Brown had already appeared in more than ten films and broken ground as arguably the first black action star. Slaughter (1972) is prototypical blaxplo, lacking the flair of director Jack Starrett’s follow-up, Cleopatra Jones (1973). Cars roll off of cliffs, dummies are thrown from buildings, Brown sleeps with Stella Stevens twice in one night (which really upsets Rip Torn). My favorite scene is when the hero’s contact tries to introduce himself but Slaughter punches him out a window and into a swimming pool, where he…continues punching him. In films like this, the hero’s actions, attitude, and relationships are a defiant challenge to prevailing white authority.
In his four films in this series, Marvin warms hearts as a grizzled but honorable Army major, Mountie, mercenary, and freight-hopper. But I especially like seeing him explore the lives of total bastards, as he does in The Killers (1964). Straight man Marvin and weirdo Clu Gulager become embroiled in a dangerous scheme when they insist on investigating why a guy they were hired to kill just sat there and let them shoot. If I may spoil the ending, Marvin has the most spectacular slow death I’ve ever seen, crashing a car, stumbling across a lawn, shooting his enemy (played by Ronald Reagan!), and taking the loot while bleeding out. Reportedly the authentic feel comes from Marvin showing up to set drunk.
But even greater might be the series’ namesake, Prime Cut (1972), a sweaty fever dream of a crime thriller. Marvin plays a gangster sent to strong-arm white-slaver Mary Ann (Gene Hackman), who works out of a meat factory. The last guy they sent was returned to the boss in sausage-link form. Mary Ann laughs and eats a pile of ground beef while his rich clients browse a barn filled with drugged-up naked women. Marvin rescues Sissy Spacek. Later, they stand and watch a car get slowly devoured by farm equipment.
When life feels like a suicide mission, a P.O.W. camp, or the surreal hellscape of Mary Ann’s Meats, it helps to have a sturdy, no-nonsense McQueen, Bronson, Brown, or Marvin to make sense of it.
‘Action Figures: Prime Cuts From McQueen, Marvin, Bronson, and Brown’
March 30–April 12