The Flickers: Then Came Bronson

Then Came Bronson (1969)

Starring Michael Parks, Bonnie Bedelia, Akim Tamiroff, Gary Merrill, Sheree North, Bert Freed, Martin Sheen and Stu Klitsner. Directed by William A. Graham. From Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

All images © MGM.

Without explanation, reporter Jim Bronson (Parks) is summoned to an active suicide attempt. When he arrives on the scene, he’s met by police inspector Otis (Merrill) who shows Jim the would-be jumper’s motorcycle. Jim recognizes the bike and his blood runs cold. He knows now why he’s been called here. Sure enough, Jim finds his good friend, Nick Oresko (Sheen), high on a ledge getting ready to hurl himself into the abyss. Nick explains to Jim that, while Jim always had style and is a respectable reporter, Nick himself is a bum. A loser. Nick tells Jim he can have his bike and he takes off running. Jim gives chase but he cannot prevent Nick’s plunge to death.

Jim goes to visit Nick’s widow, Gloria (North). She is distraught and laments the poverty she has been living in while Nick spends outrageously on his bike. Jim comforts her, gives her a cheque for Nick’s bike and leaves. He reports back to his boss at the paper (Freed) and gets a reprimand for being off the job the last few hours. When Jim explains, Editor Carson isn’t having it. He tells Bronson that going forward he will toe the line and do as he is told or he can hit the road. Jim hits the road. He talks one last time with Inspector Otis and Jim tells him he’s taking off. Otis bids him farewell; “Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life”. Jim packs up and heads out. Before leaving the city, Jim is stopped at a stop light. The weary driver of a station wagon (Klitsner) next to him looks longingly at Jim, his bedroll and his bike.

Businessman: Taking a trip?
Jim: What's that?
Businessman: Taking a trip?
Jim: Yeah.
Businessman: Where to?
Jim: Oh, I don't know. Wherever I end up, I guess.
Businessman: Man, I wish I was you.
Jim: Really?
Businessman: Yeah.
Jim: Well, hang in there.

Jim heads down to the beach to get used to the motorcycle. While there, he is haunted by the image of his friend plunging into this same ocean but he shakes it off and runs into the surf, cleansing himself of his old life. Once dry, Jim ponders his next move. Suddenly he sees an odd sight; down the shore, a young bride in her wedding gown (Bedelia) walks to the water. She takes off her ring and wedding gown, discarding them carelessly on the beach. Now undraped, she sees Bronson watching her. She gives him an empty look and runs out of sight. Jim runs after her but loses her.

Bombing down the highway, it doesn’t take long until Bronson is harassed by a car behind him honking the horn. The car squeezes by Bronson forcing him off the road. Jim has to lay it down but gets back on the road and gives chase. Catching up to the car – driven by the runaway bride – he gives the quarter panel a good hoof with his sturdy boot. Up ahead gassing up the bike, who should pull up behind him but the runaway bride. She tears a strip off Jim and slaps his face but he stays cool. They are joined at the pumps by Smokey. The policeman asks the girl if that is her car. She says it is not, she’s with Jim. “No, she’s not”, he quickly responds but in her face is clearly a plea for help. Jim renegs and says they’re together and he pulls away with this crazy young girl wedged in between him and his bedroll.

Temple (Bedelia) and Jim (Parks).

The runaway bride – eventually revealing her name to be Temple Brooks – has not only fled her wedding and her old life but she’s obviously evading the law, revealing that the car she had been driving is not hers. By necessity then, she is compelled to travel with Jim. She is belligerent to him but he stays calm. She is belligerent for quite some time but gradually, she begins to soften. When the two arrive at Jim’s old friend’s place, Papa Bear (Tamiroff) welcomes the two warmly. While there, Temple begins to learn from Papa about Bronson’s character. This softens her more.

“He’s a gentle, kind, loving, violently angry young man.”

– Papa Bear knows – and loves – Jim.

The final union of souls comes when Jim and Temple find themselves in a hick town with an overly curious gas station attendant so enamoured with Jim’s bike that he takes it for a ride – and promptly runs it into the river. Still, the two of them seem a long shot. Once they make it to their final destination, New Orleans, they get into an accident. As they both recover, they come to a considered decision.

Here we are again at Your Home for Vintage Leisure looking at Michael Parks. For the full story of how he came to portray Jim Bronson, head over and read my profile of Mike here and then come on back and jump in where you left off. William A. Graham was given the job of directing Denne Bart Petitclerc’s script about a newspaper man who leaves his old life behind and hits the road on his Harley-Davidson. We recently learned here about director Harvey Hart who had directed Parks in Bus Riley’s Back in Town. We learned that Hart was a prolific director of television but has only eleven feature films on his CV. William A. Graham? He was also more active on the small screen and the features he directed number only…eleven. He is most known for directing Elvis Presley in his last narrative film, 1969’s Change of Habit.

Wonder.

Bud Ekins is one of the most celebrated stunt men in movie history. Actually born in Hollywood, Bud befriended Steve McQueen and the two worked and raced motorcycles together often. Bud reached legendary status in Tinsel Town after successfully completing the jump over the barbed wire fence in The Great Escape (1963). He also was one of the stunt drivers who drove the Mustang in McQueen’s Bullitt (1968). Bud worked on several other films including Presley’s Speedway (1968), Chrome and Hot Leather (1971), Diamonds Are Forever (1971), The Thing With Two Heads (1972), The Blues Brothers (1980) and a personal fave, City Heat (1984). Bud Ekins served as “action coordinator” on both the Bronson film and series. Parks did much of the driving as you can see from many of the shots but Ekins rode the Harley for any and all action sequences. Lastly, Birney Jarvis, the man screenwriter Petitclerc based Jim Bronson on, served as “assistant to producer”.

Bonnie Bedelia was born Bonnie Bedelia Culkin in NYC; Macauley Culkin is her brother’s kid. Bonnie is one of Hollywood’s most reliable and prolific actresses. Through her teens, she was a regular on the soap opera Love of Life and appeared in a handful of episodes on other shows. Her role as Temple is her first significant work as an adult; here she is 21. Bedelia received much acclaim for her work in 1983’s Heart Like a Wheel in which she plays pioneering drag racer Shirley Muldowney. Bonnie is perhaps best known for her portrayal of sturdy Holly Gennaro McClane in the Die Hard films. As if Holly Gennaro wasn’t enough, with Bronson Bonnie solidifies her place in my book. Graham was wise to shoot Bonnie in such a way that her simple beauty shines through. Her natural look is seen nicely in her little red nose. Most all of this film was shot on location and the elements played their part in how the actors look. It’s a delightful part of this film. Additionally, Bonnie joins Michael to sing pieces of the folk song “Wayfaring Stranger” on the soundtrack. A song Parks featured on his debut album, this is a song well-suited to the action and the fact that it is the two stars blending their gentle voices in fragile song is a wonderful aspect that lends much to the movie.

Sheen as Nick. The opening scene takes place at Fort Point in San Francisco, also seen in Vertigo and Point Blank.

It seems there were a few recognizable faces added to the line-up of this pilot film to support what is a two-person show. This was early days for Martin Sheen. He had appeared in less than a dozen episodes of television and two feature films – including the fascinating The Subject Was Roses (1968) – when he played Jim’s troubled friend, Nick. Nick is a notable character in the Bronson world considering that is where Jim got his bike. If you follow the dialogue, it seems that Jim and Nick built the bike for Jim. It then went to Nick who gave it back to Jim. Anyways, Sheen – Capt. Willard and President Bartlett to me – went on to a successful career, as everyone knows. Gary Merrill had been married to Bette Davis and had appeared in Clambake (1967). He worked only sparingly after our film. Trained dancer Sheree North had appeared in one of King’s worst, 1968’s The Trouble With Girls and would later work with an all-star cast in The Shootist (1976). Bert Freed I ran into recently when I learned he was the first actor to portray Det. Columbo. The prolific actor actually turns up in some pretty notable films. He died of a heart attack while on a fishing trip with his son in British Columbia in 1994. He was 74. Akim Tamiroff has the most significant secondary role as Papa Bear. The Russian-born Armenian was a character actor who appeared in countless films, the most notable for me is, of course, Ocean’s 11 (1960). Akim gave another stand-out performance in the legendary Orson Welles film Touch of Evil (1958). Tamiroff was actually the very first recipient of the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture for For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943). And I must mention Bay area actor Stu Klistner who drove his own car in his scene with Bronson at the stop light. This notable exchange was seen in the opening of all 26 episodes of the TCB television series. One scene for Sheen, North and Freed and two brief ones for Merrill. They are there simply to provide notable faces to work opposite Parks. The film belongs to him and Bonnie.

What we have here is a sneaky-good film about a relationship. And about the pivot points of life. The times when you realize what has gone before cannot continue – but what lies ahead? There are many lovely moments in the movie. At first, Temple is rigid and behaves poorly. Their first night on the road, Jim sets her up to sleep under cover. When it starts raining, he climbs in beside her, a move she misinterprets and she lashes out, sending him running. Once she realizes he simply wanted to stay dry, she exhibits her first display of sweetness; “Come in out of the rain…please.” Another moment is when Jim takes her to a train staton and buys her a ticket back home. He leaves her there and drives off – only to return to her. “I’ve nowhere to go”, she says and gets back on the bike. It’s wonderful to see people learning about each other on the fly like this. After Jim wins some money racing his bike, he takes Temple to a store and splurges on a dress for her, saying simply “I wanna see what you’d look like in a dress”. Near the end of the film, Temple is – without even thinking about it – signalling with her arm when they make a turn on the bike.

There are stark differences between these two. Jim is of the earth while we can assume that Temple is from society. Through Jim, she learns about grasshoppers, saying grace, children. At Papa Bear’s, Jim begins to realize you have to choose in life; to travel alone or to stay still with another. He’s on the precipice. Papa warns Temple about falling in love with Jim; “A home, wife, children…they would be death to him.”

These two are perhaps not suited to each other but they find one another at just that moment when they are wondering, when they are searching. They serve a functional purpose, they mean something to each other. What they mean, though, is not forever. Their union is instead pivotal. Each sees in the other the person, the spirit at the core and with that spirit each can commune. The layers on top? They might not mesh. Temple’s high class leanings and Jim’s sleeping on the ground. Temple’s delicate beauty; Jim’s windblown leather gaze. “There’s a lot of distance between us. Isn’t there?”, Temple asks as the two begin to try to imagine themselves together. Love flares between them contrary to the ever growing knowledge that while what is happening here may be significant, even holy, it is not forever.

A cathartic moment comes when Temple helps to drag the bike out of the river. In doing so, she ascends to a state of something resembling grace. Up until now, we can easily imagine her at the country club that her parents have been members of for years. We can see her there with Tommy, some Ivy League twerp who is simply going into the family business because he couldn’t chart his own path if you gave him a chart and said “here’s your path”. Something may have snapped in Temple to drive her from her wedding day but she is no doubt a Hillsborough girl, used to the finer things. To see her so determined to do her part to bring the motorcycle out of the water – to take something buried, broken and pull it out of the depths, to restore something – is delightful.

She has never been involved in such hard work before; and she has never before felt the thrill of accomplishment through labour. She is wonderfully filthy. And there is something baptismal in her falling into the river. It is not only cute as heck, it is a transitional moment for her. Jim laughs for it is indeed a joyous sight. Temple caps the day off nicely by sleeping – still caked in hardened river mud – on the front seat of an old heap of a pick-up truck. If the folks back home could see her now. Jim delights in this – but seems to realize it is still not enough. The two may simply have to accept the fleeting nature of their relationship. But its brevity need not be without benefit.

Maybe seventeen years later, Temple’s 11-year-old son comes home raving about a motorcycle he and his young friends saw for sale on someone’s front lawn. Temple has never been able to deny that every motorcycle she sees takes her back. Her mind is just beginning to wander again when her son asks if she’s ever been on one. Yes, she says. Really?! She simply smiles and tells her boy to go wash up for supper. She’s happy in a good marriage with fine kids. She’s fulfilled. She never gets to talk about it out loud but in her thoughts she often thanks a guy she once knew. She wasn’t always this together, this sure of herself. She may have ended up anywhere if she hadn’t met him in the crazy way she did. But he happened along at just the right time, just when she needed help finding answers. Looking back, she remembers thinking that he was the answer but now she knows that wouldn’t have been the right thing for either of them. She will always cherish the memory of the time she spent with Jim. Because of him, she’s where she is today. Happy.

This is the third in an unexpected trilogy of articles concerning Michael Parks; I feel like I’ve been traveling with him down the long, lonesome highway. Watching this pilot film has been an emotional experience – I did not expect to be affected by it so. It helps to solidify my contention that some of the very best diamonds are to be found in the rough. Then Came Bronson is a tender and poignant story and definitely worth seeking out.


Further Studies

Wayfaring Stranger: The Ballad of Michael Parks – SoulRide’s look at the career of Michael Parks

The Flickers: Bus Riley’s Back in Town – Ann-Margret joins Parks in his second feature.

Then Came Bronson (1969) – the pilot film – can be purchased on DVD as part of the Warner Archive MOD series. It’s a fine print and can be found at Amazon.

You may be able to access all 26 episodes of the TCB series – and the pilot – here.

And check out this one final nugget I came across. It’s the Then Came Bronson exhibit at the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa. Let’s go there.

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