Posted on October 12, 2018
by Steve Janowick
Just like my kids, I’d never want to see two people I care about get into a scrap. And I certainly care about these two guys. The legacies of these two guys. Two screen legends whose acting I’ve admired and whose personas I’ve lived vicariously through.
First, some history.
When you think old-school, Hollywood tough guys, many come to mind. The originalists would have to be Cagney, Bogart and The Duke. Starting in the 1930’s, these three cats were the firsts to deviate from the classic, leading man schmaltz to portray the more dangerous and violent underpinnings of a man. The gangster, the cowboy and the brooding tough guy all saw their respective silver screen beginnings within the performances of these three.
A few years later, the likes of Brando, Mitchum and Lee Marvin raised the bar by not only going a lot darker and irreverent with their characters, but by also having the reputations of continuing that propensity for violence long after the director yelled “cut.” These were real life bad-asses who just happened to be actors as well.
Then in the 60’s, silver screen tough guys were showing up everywhere. That was when the Method style of acting was really taking hold-when realism and emotional accuracy were paramount. From across the pond we got Richard Burton, Robert Shaw, Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris. These guys brought just as much boozing and rough-housing with them as they did their Shakespearian chops.
But two American actors whose careers were peaking at that time are, in this man’s opinion, the ultimate embodiment of the Hollywood tough guy. Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson both grew up rough and mean. Bronson was one of 15 kids forced to sling coal and eat dust everyday in the dreariness of depression-era Pennsylvania, while McQueen was a wayward, street punk kid, scarred by neglect and abuse, fighting both his inner demons and anyone who got in his way.
So, let’s set the stage for this hypothetical fist-fight between these two Hollywood heavyweights. Let me say, as an important caveat, that my curious, idol-worshipping mind is the only place this fight would/could ever take place, because it is a fact that McQueen and Bronson starred in a handful of movies together, were great friends, and had nothing but the utmost respect for each other. But with that aside, let the hypotheticals commence. It is 1963 on the set of The Great Escape. Steve is 33 and Charles, an extremely youthful looking 42. Both are in their physical primes: chiseled, lean and full of piss and vinegar. Both plenty long in the tooth and both plenty short on tempers.
Irritable from a long, rain-soaked day in the German countryside, they are the first of the cast and crew to arrive in the makeshift mess hall for an evening meal. Charles, the family man and consummate loner, is having his meal with his wife who has surprised him with a visit. Steve, the legendary skirt chaser, who’s never met Mrs. Bronson, thinks she’s just another groupie, star-fucker, and as he passes by the two of them, offers up a wink and says…”my ticket says number 2, I guess I’m after Charlie”? Bronson’s slow forming scowl says it all. He looks up from his roast beef.
“That’s my wife, Steve. Watch it!”
Steve, known for being a snarky instigator, especially when he’s agitated, smiles wryly and, after a pause, offers her up another wink as he moves along.
Bronson leaps from his chair like a sprung cobra. No taunting or pushing of the sort. He goes immediately for a right cross but only half connects as Steve’s equally quick instinct saw the punch coming from his periphery. A scream comes from Mrs. Bronson as she runs out of the tent, which now serves as the arena for these two gladiators. They stare each other down in their respective attack stances. Coiled to strike.
“You sure you want this, Charlie?” Steve asks.
Bronson’s neck veins, large, rigid and under high pressure are coursing with adrenaline filled blood. He snaps off a straight jab that connects squarely on the temple of McQueen. It’s obvious that Bronson has dabbled in the sweet science before. He immediately follows that up with a lunging right hook but it’s off the mark. McQueen easily ducks under it and offers up his own straight right that jolts Charles’ head back. Seems that what Bronson brings in brut power and skill, McQueen makes up with ferocious tenacity and aggressiveness.
The fight quickly goes to the ground as the combatants lose their footing. Two caged animals, in a study of evolution reversed, punch, gouge and claw; each gaining then yielding the upper hand. There’s absolutely no quit in either of them so this war quickly turns into one of attrition. Who will gas out first? Through the grunting and spitting, the concerned voices of two different men can be heard approaching fast. And just before Steve is about to clamp his jaw down into Charles’ triceps…the James Gang appears. Coburn and Garner each grabs a combatant and forcefully pulls them apart.
Winded, bruised and battered, McQueen and Bronson succumb to the respective bearhugs they find themselves in and slowly let the animal instincts dissipate. Guttural urges and compulsions to maim are taken over by reason and faculty with each deep inhale and exhale. For the next three minutes each is talked down and, after assurance from both that the fight is over, released by Garner and Coburn. Peaceful handshakes ensue.
And later that night in a German pub right on the outskirts of town, gawking fans peer into the foggy windows trying to catch glimpses of their favorite American idols. One youngish fan gushes the loudest (in German of course)
“Who are those two sitting at the bar together laughing it up?
Her starstruck friend answers, “that’s Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson. Wow, they must be really good friends or something!”
Now, that’s how I want it to be for my heroes!
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