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Living in Hard Times with Charles Bronson
Looking Back at this Charles Bronson Classic from 1975
“I suppose you have been down the long, hard road.”
With that terse exchange, Charles Bronson and James Coburn start their new partnership in the 1975 classic fight film HARD TIMES.
The tagline for the film “New Orleans, 1933. In those days words didn't say much” sums up the film as this is a film driven by physical action that does not detract from the depth of the characters in the film but greatly enhances it. Films of this cinematic style are almost nonexistent these days and a look back at HARD TIMES reveals a lost cinematic style brilliantly captured by legendary director Walter Hill.
The Stage is Set During Hard Times
A train rolls through the desolate plains of what seems to be Middle America. Chaney, a drifter played by Charles Bronson looks out of the boxcar he invariably hopped on for a free and unauthorized ride. He looks from the train and sees the desolate nature of the depression. His eyes eventually gaze upon the empty look in the eyes of two children standing by the train tracks. Chaney takes this as a cue to depart from the train. He looks at his nearby surroundings and reveals a look showing he is not sure where he is going. Chaney clearly is down on his luck and has probably been bouncing from town to town trying his hand at everything with no success.
Perhaps it is pure desperation that leads him to betting his last $3 on himself in a bareknuckle boxing bout. Bouts such as these - financed by side betting -- were quite common in the Depression era. He wins the fight with one punch and this leads him to a new partnership with fight hustler Speed (James Coburn). The two form an uneasy alliance and head to New Orleans where Speed feels he can make a lot of money with the aging Chaney.
There is a timelessness to this type of narrative. While economic times are somewhat dire today, combat sports such as boxing and MMA are doing quite well. There is an escapist component to the popularity of these events among fans and that escapism is found in proceedings of HARD TIMES.
While the beginning of the film masterfully sets up the narrative, it also masterfully sets up the theme of the work.
HARD TIMES is not exactly a tale of glory. It is simply a tale of a man that does his best amidst a very troubled environment. He is an itinerant drifter making a way for himself the only way he knows how. He simply is a blue collar man down on his luck looking for a way to survive. While not the most uplifting of tales, there is a heroic charm to the everyman Bronson plays in the film which is why HARD TIMES maintains its aforementioned timeless quality to it.
Troubled economic times can bring forth the tales of many heroes. Depression era renegades that achieved great notoriety and fame despite the troubled times were commonly found in the entertainment realm. Actors, singers, and athletes were the icons that people looked up to. Among the athletes many aspired to be were prizefighters and many of the era’s legendary boxers are still remembered to this very day. And then there are hundreds that have become forgotten. Among them were the bareknuckle boxers of prior generations. They did not fight in front of the biggest of crowds and what they did was mainly a hustle. They earned a few dollars in prize money from people attending the bouts but they made their biggest money betting on themselves (or against themselves) in illegal gambling dens.
Characters Born of Hard Times
While Chaney has a certain heroic quality to him, Speed is decidedly more conniving. He is a hustler and while not a person you would trust, he does not have any villainous traits. Chaney keeps his eye on him but is willing to trust Speed enough realizing that Speed does have a financial interest winning with Chaney. Speed ends up in the symbolic role of the hustler that plays by his own rules when times are tough. Of course, this does not exactly endear such a person to many nor is it a path of guaranteed success. In truth, it is often a road that is more trouble than its worth.
Chaney and Speed’s relationship is somewhat tenuous and the two do not share the same world view about their respective plights.
Upon winning the second fight, Speed goes to congratulate Chaney and Chaney mentions "You better just get the money" indicating his cynicism about the world. It turns out his cynicism is justified when he is stiffed on his payday after winning. Chaney, unlike Speed, is willing to stand up for himself and eventually force a confrontation to get his pay back. Actions such as this contribute to his mystique as the depression era hero fighting for what he believes is his.
"What does it feel like to knock somebody down?"
"It makes me feel hell of a lot better than it does him."
As Chaney puts it, it also "beats changing tires for two bucks a day" and more pointedly "There's no reasons about it. Just money." In the simplest of terms, Chaney just has to do what he has to do to survive in tough times. He is not a professional fighter or even someone that has much of an interest in it. He simply does it because it is what he needs to do in order to earn money in very hard times. There is no motivation for him beyond what we see on the surface. Or so it seems.
"Do you ever get scared when you do your work?"
"I don't think about it."
Such cynicism contributes to the relationship between Chaney and Speed remaining purely a business arrangement. Chaney is not the type to make friends. Speed really is not the type to keep friends due to his gambling problem and perennial con man nature. Speed has borrowed money from a loan shark and is at risk for life and limb when he can’t pay the money back. This weakens Chaney’s relationship with Speed when Speed demands a portion of Chaney’s take of their winnings. Chaney says no and walks.
He also walks away from a very lucrative offer to be managed by Gandil, the owner of an oyster cannery that once had the greatest bareknuckle boxer in New Orleans until Chaney beat him. Chaney is offered a huge sum of money to fight for Gandil but Chaney wants nothing to do with the conniving self-important elitist that treats his blue collar fighters as if they were his personal toys.
Ghandil eventually pays a huge sum of money to bring in a super fighter from Chicago to challenge Chaney....who refuses to fight. He has earned his $5,000 and now wants to retire peacefully. His job is done and he wants to move on.
But, he does not. He accepts a $5,000 bet - all the money he has -- to fight Gandil’s champion in the climatic battle. He does not do it for the money or for ego. Part of the deal is Speed’s debts with the loan shark will be covered if Chaney wins. Chaney does what he does to save his friend.
In a sense, this is a very subtle approach to a character change for Chaney. Throughout the film, Chaney was an unattached loner that merely wanted to fight to earn money and then move on. However, at the film’s conclusion, he shows he considered Speed a friend and accepts the responsibility to get Speed out of a bad situation. For the first time in the film, Chaney is decidedly less than cynical and actual shows a sense of duty and compassion. With his workman-like ethic, Chaney will put everything on the line in a challenge he will have a very hard time winning.
Class Struggles and Hard Times
There is a class struggle undercurrent here as Chaney reflects the blue collar everyman in a struggle not only against hard economic times but also against the elitists that look down upon people like him and consider them objects. The last fight is also symbolic of taking a last stand against such people.
After winning the bout, Speed does make a snide remark to Gandil. He says that no matter what “You still smell like fish” reminding of where his money and position in high society comes from. In essence, he is reminding him not to think he really is better than anyone else.
Earlier in the film, Chaney noted the reason he does what he does. Its “just money.” By the end of the film, he seems personally liberated as the thousands upon thousands of dollars he has earned can buy him a home and a safe retirement. However, his success is really one of personal liberation as he has succeeded in very hard times and can take pride in the personal and spiritual journey led him where he now is.
HARD TIMES might seem like a rather straightforward action film. A closer look at it reveals a unique character study that has undercurrents of the working man’s struggles and how one can achieve during hard times. In a strange way, the silent Chaney acts as a symbol of success as long as you are willing to do what you have to do in order to survive.