Tough guy Charles Bronson had a long established career with guns in his movies: The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen, Once Upon a Time in The West and The Mechanic, to name a few. Some of his feature film titles (television included) made specific references to guns: Love and Bullets, Guns for San Sebastian, Guns of Diablo, Have Gun – Will Travel, Machine-Gun Kelly, Colt .45 and Riding Shotgun. But Michael Winner’s compelling film classic Death Wish was Bronson’s most famous firearms-o-centric project, the film that catapulted the actor to stardom at the ripe old age of 52 . . .
Death Wish was an early 1970’s statement about law, order and self-protection in a civilized (or uncivilized) society. It makes it point with precision accuracy. It’s a movie that is as relevant today as it was nearly 40 years ago.
The story is simple. Paul Kersey (played by Bronson) is a kind and gentle husband and father living somewhere along the upper west side of Manhattan. After the brutal attack and murder of his wife, and sexual assault of his daughter, Kersey transforms into a vigilante.
Kersey is an architect by training and a development engineer by trade. According to the story line, he was a conscientious objector during the Korean war, where he served in a medical unit. He was an admitted liberal. His mother was a pacifist. After his father died in a hunting accident, his mother sheltered him from guns.
From the brutally violent opening scene that propels the film right to the end, Death Wish is a compellingly honest movie. The movie was extremely popular—despite, or because of, critics who claimed Death Wish made a hero of a vigilante. They painted Kersey as a man who takes the law into his own hands by searching out bad guys to waste. That’s not exactly accurate.
Bronson’s character never approaches any of his victims. Basically, they come to him. He “finds” the bad guys by placing himself in normal yet vulnerable daily (or in this case, nightly) situations: walking alone in the park, sitting by himself in a train car and so forth.
The front cover of the DVD box and the poster for the film doesn’t suggest Bronson is avenging or hunting anyone. His body placement at the bottom of a staircase suggests he’s being approached by some threat from above, at the top of the steps. Bronson’s body position and posture suggests his back was turned; he had to suddenly spin around to aim his Colt .32 revolver for self-protection.
In truth, Death Wish is an exploration of an individual’s right to self-defense.
As Kersey explains, “What about the old American social custom of self-defense? If the police don’t defend us, maybe we ought to do it ourselves.” Kersey asks his son-in-law “What do you call people who when they’re faced with a condition of fear do nothing about it, they just run and hide?” “Civilized,” his son in-law replies with uncertainty.
Although gritty, Death Wish contains skillfully presented symbolism. After visiting his committed daughter, who is suffering from post-traumatic depression, Kersey and his son in-law walk down a flight of stairs within the nursing home. As the two men walk down the steps, nuns in dark garments accompany the helpless and weak up the stairs.
It’s an image suggestive of our heroes descending back to the hell of what is our world, as the helpless rise to the heavens with angels by their side.
In another symbolic sequence [above], two thugs enter a train car as a police officer turns his back and exits. As the thugs travel deeper through the train, passing nervous commuters, they intimidate and bully, all the while, the lead thug bears the American flag on the back of his black jacket, implying the country is being run by the criminals.
Ultimately these thugs’ reign of fear and terror ends when they try to victimize our hero, who in self-defense puts a bullet through the thug’s jacket, placing red blood spots along the flag’s image. It’s a point well taken: to regain America from the criminals, citizens need to fight back.
Later, the District Attorney worries that arresting the vigilante would upset the city’s citizens and possibly turn him into a folk-hero. They just want the good bad guy to disappear. This kind of honesty and realism is a credit to the filmmakers; they never insult the viewers’ intelligence.
Even after Kersey shoots his first assailant the realization of what he had done makes him sick to his stomach. He never goes on a one-man killing crusade after his wife’s killers, nor are they ever apprehended. There are no car chases or fancy gun tricks with a hip holster or eight shots fired from a six-shooter.
Death Wish is a thinking man’s action film; it’s a social commentary with valid points presented in a manner that’s simple and direct. The cinematography is competently lensed under the watchful eye of Arthur J. Ornitz (Serpico, An Unmarried Woman). Herbie Hancock’s moody and haunting urban jazz arrangements support the movie’s tone and texture.
Liberals may hate Death Wish just as conservatives love it. But anyone who watches the movie as a human drama can’t help but be drawn into the world of “what if it was me?” It’s a good question.