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 brief 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 feature. The feature drives forward with a physical action that does not detract from the characters' depth in the movie 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 ride. He looks from the train and sees the desolation brought on by the depression. He gazes 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. The down-on-his-luck Chaney has probably been bouncing from town to town, trying his hand at everything with no success.
Perhaps pure desperation leads him to bet his last $3 on himself in a bare-knuckle boxing bout. Bouts such as these - financed by side betting -- took place frequently during the depression. Chaney wins the fight with one punch, leading 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. An escapist component appeals to its fans, and that escapism lurks in proceedings of HARD TIMES.
While the beginning sets up the narrative masterfully, the opening also masterfully sets up the themes.
HARD TIMES won't fit the description of a tale of glory. It is merely a tale of a man that does his best amidst a very troubled environment. Chaney acts as an itinerant drifter making good for himself the only way he knows. He's a Bogart-esque 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, which is why HARD TIMES maintains a timeless quality.
Troubled economic times can bring forth the tales of many heroes. Depression-era renegades that achieved considerable notoriety and fame despite the turbulent times were commonly found in the entertainment realm. Actors, singers, and athletes were the icons that people looked up to. Many aspired to be were prizefighters among the athletes, and many of the era's legendary boxers bring forth fond memories to this very day. And then hundreds have become forgotten. Among them were the bare-knuckle boxers of prior generations. They did not fight in front of the biggest 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 in winning with Chaney. Speed ends up in the hustler's symbolic role that plays by his own rules when times are tough. Of course, this does not 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 it's 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 congratulates Chaney, and Chaney mentions, "You better just get the money", indicating his cynicism about the world. It turns out his doubt is justified when he is stiffed on his payday after winning. Unlike Speed, Chaney stands up for himself and eventually force a confrontation to get his money 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 a 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 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. The aged fighter fights because it is what he needs to do 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 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 event 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, an oyster cannery owner who once had the greatest bare-knuckle boxer in New Orleans until Chaney beat him. Chaney is offered an enormous 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 toys.
Gandil eventually pays a considerable 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 ended, 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 climactic battle. He does not do it for the money or 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 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 against hard economic times. There's a struggle 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 him of where his money and position in high society comes from. In essence, he is telling him not to think he really is better than anyone else.
Earlier in the film, Chaney noted the reason he does what he does. It's "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 one of personal liberation as he has succeeded in very hard times and can take pride in the personal and spiritual journey that led him where he now is.
HARD TIMES might seem like a straightforward action potboiler. A closer look at it reveals a unique character study with undercurrents of the working man's struggles and how one can achieve during hard times. Strangely, the silent Chaney acts as a symbol of success as long as you are willing to do what you have to do to survive.