Jim Brown On Film

This was originally run as a 4 part weekly series for Black History Month 2016, published as part of the Travis Bickle on the Riviera patreon for supporters only. This was originally written as part of a much larger book of writing on Django Unchained and black action movie history, which I had planned and abandoned after my Hateful 8 video project struggled to reach zero views (if anyone ever wants to publish a book on Tarantino by me, I have a hundred pages of it already written). Jim Brown is an extremely interesting figure for me, especially in the context of 2018 where a lot of his life immediately discounts his achievements as coming from a guy who it kind of feels gross to lionize. His movies are a great lens to view the progression between one stage of black movie stardom to another, between the social pictures of the 50s/60s and blaxploitation, and his career spans them.

Jim Brown, like Burt Reynolds and Fred Williamson, was a professional athlete turned actor, starting with his first screen appearance in the 1966 Gordon Douglas western Rio Conchos. Brown is a kind of proto-blaxploitation figure. He appeared in major studio films. He starts his career as a minor figure with remarkable physical presence — a little like the way that Schwarzenegger’s career began. Brown was still a major football star unlike a lot of athletes-turned-actors, he retired after being given an ultimatum on the set of his second film to return from the UK shoot to training camp. It’s decisive behavior, and something he carried over to his persona as an actor. He goes from minor role to sidekick to ensemble lead to just plain star in the span of 4 years.

A lot of Brown’s first run of films from 1966 to around 1975 create a consistent character. Brown is reticent. Self possessed. He’s cunning more than smart, but he deals with problems first with his mind then physically. He is a hero, maybe sometimes an anti-hero. His relationships with women are on his terms. In Spike Lee’s Jim Brown: All American documentary Brown is discussed as a counter-figure to Sidney Poitier, which makes sense. Poitier in the 60s represented the kind of progression black movie stars were allowed to make (it’s really interesting to look at Poitier’s career after he defined this persona but people still don’t know that he directed Stir Crazy). But Brown is a different iteration of a black male identification figure. He presents a visible masculine ideal where Poitier’s persona was a passionate, verbal masculinity. He’s a superhero.

Brown collaborated with Reynolds early in his career, and frequently worked with Fred Williamson during and in the years following. Brown was a big star. He also was a groundbreaking figure. He had an early interracial love scene with Raquel Welch, he was the bankable lead in 2 movies with Gene Hackman, every one of his movies until 1970 was with a major studio. His position as someone who had screen presence combined with him being the most famous football player in the world meant he could have more control over his trajectory as a performer. The major studio thing, that’s what differentiates Brown from a lot of his blaxploitation peers. He’s a transitional figure, where Fred Williamson was more of an independent, he didn’t mind getting his own films off the ground. Brown wasn’t a guy who’d go to Cannes and talk investors into dropping 2 million on Original Gangsters or direct his own action vehicles.

Brown tried to start a production company with a major studio in the late 70s. The company collapsed when Brown’s partner Richard Pryor fell out with him and Brown had legal trouble (for some pretty disgusting shit with women, because he’s a heroic celebrity figure of the 70s, of fucking course). So Brown’s 80s/early 90s career turned toward something between late career Dean Martin and Orson Welles, either a figure who dropped in and traded on his icon status or the character who was spoken of portentously until he appears late in the film. In the 90s he did Original Gangstas, Williamson’s reunion project that brought together all the major star figures of the blaxploitation era going all Death Wish on post-bloods/crips gang violence. After that film, which partially reintroduced Brown to the mainstream, he played characters that were entirely walk-ons. His appearance in He Got Game, She Hate Me, Mars Attacks… he’s just Jim Brown.

What I think is most interesting about Brown’s screen persona is that he isn’t really a creature of blaxploitation because so much of that was about independent filmmaking, and black actors and filmmakers seizing any opportunity to appear in films. Whether that meant going to work for Roger Corman or shooting a movie in your backyard or taking the opportunity to make a studio crime or horror picture with a black cast. Brown wasn’t that guy, because he didn’t need to be. He was an established movie star that took the opportunities created by the black independent boom. Brown created some of the cultural context for these films, at least as much as the films Shaft, Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song and Cotton Comes to Harlem did. He was an icon and an example, but one that exists in a completely different context than his peers.

1967 to 1968

Today I’m going to discuss Jim Brown’s films from his most productive period — from 1967 to 1968. After retiring from pro football on the set of The Dirty Dozen, Brown made arguably his 4 best movies back to back. It wasn’t just a streak, it was a progression. He starts 1967 way down the callsheet, a solid part of an immense ensemble. By the end of 1968 he’s the star, driving every scene of a heist movie with an equal cast of heavy hitters. The dude worked fast.

The Dirty Dozen (1967), dir. Robert Aldrich, starring Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, John Cassavettes, Richard Jaeckel, Goerge Kennedy, Trini Lopez, Ralph Meeker, Robert Ryan, Telly Savalas, Ben Carruthers, and Donald Sutherland.

The Dirty Dozen is the kind of movie you quit being the star of a football team for. In the pantheon of action movies, it has a completely earned spot next to Heat and Seven Samurai and Wages of Fear. Not that those films are the most exciting — I think a lot of the most interesting action movies are like a lot of genres. Once you know the territory of the classics you want a more specific high. Like stumbling into an s&m club and five years later you’ve got a lot of equipment expenses you now have to budget for. The same way you end up knowing who John Hyams is.

It’s structured incredibly close to Samurai, it follows the schematic way Kurosawa would build his stories. First you assemble a cast, elaborate on their motivations, show them train, prove themselves, devise their plan, and watch them execute it. This is how Dirty Dozen never feels overlong, with it’s detours and 20-ish major characters, while Ice Station Zebra turns into an enormous slog in the final half hour. Aldrich is a brilliant framer of action but he’s gifted at highlighting character actors. Everyone is a star, most of them the kind of male star that was out of fashion at the moment the film was released. For Ralph Meeker and Robert Ryan this is their Magnolia, and actors with real charisma look like idols — Brown and Charles Bronson are played as partners, essentially the same quiet and strong character among a group of hyenas. Bronson gets more business in the bulk of the movie, withstanding an ass whupping from MPs, but once the mission happens they are the driving forces of what happens inside the Nazi-occupied chateau. You’re watching Brown deal with rapist/muderer Telly Savalas upstairs while Bronson uses his high school german on the S.S. downstairs. Cassavettes is the breakout, Sutherland is the most charming, but they’re show ponies while Brown gets to brood. (My favorite scenes are all Sutherland’s. Especially his sobering “No, getting back” when asked if he’s scared to jump out of a plane. All the stakes are there in that line).

Lee Marvin’s about as good as he ever was as a man fed up with his position. He is the most disagreeable, vindictive good guy you could imagine in 1965, given context by his reaction to an Army execution in the opening scene. Marvin is the kind of military man who doesn’t advance too far because he speaks his mind, can’t hide his resentment at bureaucracy and failure. Against George Kennedy and Ralph Meeker, both at their warmest, he’s more mischievous than unrelenting. Marvin’s bloodthirst in the chateau operation is not surprising, but it’s endless. Marvin, Bronson, and Brown end the film pouring gasoline on the Nazi aristocracy, including their wives. These three characters have truly justified resentment that builds to this moment. Bronson develops that rage in his scenes through damage, sparring verbally with his jailers and physically with any goon in his way. Marvin is much the same, Robert Ryan the face of an army more concerned with appearance than getting the job done. Brown doesn’t have those scenes, but he has his introduction. He survives other soldiers attempting to castrate him (by murdering them) and shows zero remorse or grace in Marvin’s offer of a reprieve. Brown doesn’t need the justifications of character, he has all the reason and rage he needs. Aldrich doesn’t flinch at the violence of this scene, doesn’t try to joke his way out of it or demur in the face of what amounts to war crimes. He know that no one in the audience is going to do anything less than cheer. Fuck, they’re not just nazis, they’re rich nazis. Burn them all.

This is Brown’s second movie, but he was already a star to the audience. He gets to run like a hero, but of course it’s 1965. Marvin and Bronson get wounded, Brown gets his legs shot up and left for dead as the building detonates. Aldrich also stops himself from acting like these men gave their lives for anything as important as saving the war. This is a parallel operation to D-Day, and only Bronson survives out of the 12. His reward is that he gets to go back to active duty. The rest just got to die on the job, their families notified that they weren’t hung by the arm. It’s quietly subversive, the generals smiling and telling you to get back out there while the whole team is dead.

Ice Station Zebra (1968), directed by John Sturges. Starring Rock Hudson, Ernest Borgnine, Patrick McGoohan, and Jim Brown.

Like Ripley in Alien, Captain Leslie Anders was not written with Brown in mind. it was written for any nondescript white guy. No element of the role is predicated on the character’s race, which gives Brown’s casting in the role a charge to the scene dynamics that just wouldn’t be there with another actor. It’s not Crimson Tide or even The Thing, where the confined elements force the racial tensions to the top of these conversations. It’s in the same territory. Brown is mostly in the film to be a one-dimensional character. He’s great as that character who is suspected as having ulterior motives but is exactly who he says he is. That character occurred a lot in movies in the 50s and 60s. Director John Sturges drops Brown into the film halfway through, arriving on the same chopper as BORIS BADENOV Ernest Borgnine. He is the no-nonsense Army Captain, where Rock Hudson is the understanding submarine commander. What interests me the most about Ice Station Zebra is the set design of the destroyed arctic camp and Patrick McGoohan’s performance. McGoohan scowls his way through Paddy Chayefsky(!) monologues about sabotage, technical explanations of experimental satellite cameras. He leaps out of a dead sleep to shove a pistol down his roommate’s throat.

Sturges takes advantage of the 70MM Cinerama format to stretch out scenes. This means stretching out the frame for sets as well as escalating tensions. The problem with the scale is the last 30 minutes of the movie kind of look like shit, especially after the first 2 hours look amazing. The climactic scene, where McGoohan, Borgnine, and Brown all have their revelatory standoff. McGoohan is beaten unconscious and Brown is killed, of course. At least, it being 1968 we know that Paddy Chayefsky and Harry Julien Fink weren’t killing him to have a “black guy always dies” in-joke. The movie never recovers from the 2 characters being taken out of commission. As a simmering tale of cold war paranoia, it’s great, as a standoff between nations? The film already ended with those three men in that room.

Dark of the Sun (1968), directed by Jack Cardiff, starring Rod Taylor, Jim Brown, Yvette Mimieux, Peter Carsten, Kenneth More, Calvin Lockhart, Andre Morell, Olivier Despax, and Guy Deghy.

Jack Cardiff was cinematographer of The Red Shoes, The African Queen and Rambo: First Blood part 2. Dark of the Sun is a fantastic triangulation between those films. I am totally ignorant of Cardiff’s career as a director outside of The Girl on the Motorcycle. This movie is so assured, it makes me want to watch everything he’s ever done. Then again, I don’t think he did many movies about Mercenaries hired by the broke Congolese government to steal diamonds back from an area encroached by rebels, though. Dark of the Sun is the only one.

Also released as The Mercenaries and Katanga (which is not only historically inaccurate it’s pretty fucking racist), it’s the big surprise for me going back through Brown’s body of work. I first read about the film when I was (still am) going through an attempt to watch every movie from Quentin Tarantino’s QT festival. The theme is used in a scene in Inglourious Basterds and it’s an obvious influence on that film. It also shares some DNA either from research or from him being a fan, with Garth Ennis’ Fury: My War Gone By. Specifically the section with that big ex-nazi motherfucker training the soldiers.

Dark of the Sun is Rod Taylor’s movie. He has the motivations, the relationships, the conflicts. Brown is the sidekick. There’s no question. He is on Taylor’s side for most of the film with very little dialog for the first 30 minutes. It’s even the kind of narrative that Fred Williamson openly despised — Brown is killed to spur on Taylor’s revenge drive in the finale. Much more egregious than Zebra or Dozen, which killed Brown but were not nearly so naked in their use of him as cannon-fodder. This is a colonialist-ass movie in a lot of ways.

Which is fine, a lot of good movies come from a reprehensible place like that — Zulu AND Zulu Dawn are amazing films. This one is too, some of the best action setups ever filmed. The thing is that Jim Brown’s character, Sgt. Ruffo, is downplayed in the first third so he can steal the rest of the movie. He delivers a monologue to Taylor midway through the film that is devastating. And Brown, who up until this point has been a physical presence, delivers on it. The speech lays out a man who has strove his whole life to get away from his tribal roots, speaks four languages, and as the movie goes on he might have a real hatred of his own people deep inside the love of his country. “I came down out of the trees by invitation. And I will kill anybody who tries to send me back up again. Russian, Chinese, English, Belgian, or United States, you take your pick.” This speech shows the quiet sidekick in the first section of the film to be an act, and creates a character that extends past the simplified morality of the other characters.

His relationship with Taylor isn’t a Han/Chewie, Tonto/Lone Ranger situation, he sees Taylor’s mercenary as a friend but also a tool. He’s the cowcatcher at the head of the train, and when Brown gets to use a machine gun on the Simba rebels he has a rage and glee that he doesn’t have when fistfighting the ex-nazi commandant. It’s one of the great versions of a character type that Brown helped make look outdated. He mastered the form before discarding it. Taylor’s performance and character arc is equally as intersting, but white dudes always get those. There’s nothing special about that.

The Split (1968), directed by Gordon Flemyng, starring Jim Brown, Diahann Carroll, Ernest Borgnine, Julie Harris, Gene Hackman, Jack Klugman, Warren Oates, James Whitmore, Donald Sutherland, and Joyce Jameson

The Split is Brown’s first starring vehicle. Brown plays McClain, a variation on Richard Stark’s Parker character (I’d put him third behind Lee Marvin and Robert Duvall). This is the first time Brown played a fully actualized version of his screen persona. He’s hyper-competent, virile, outsmarting everyone in front of him. The Split has a cast that outstrips it’s material. Kind of like an Ocean’s film, veteran television director Gordon Flemyng is betting on his cast to save this kind of rote version of this film.

It opens like Cul De Sac, Brown on the side of the road in a wrecked car, wandering through the desert. The heist itself is no different than many — it’s a football stadium but it recalls many casino or racetrack jobs up to that point. Brown’s race is an afterthought, only mentioned in dialog by Warren Oates’ character. It has no bearing on any of the character’s motivations. Which is pretty cool. It lends it the same quality I talked about in Brown’s casting in Ice Station. This is a more conscious decision than that, because the film was financed by MGM on the back of Brown’s stardom and developed with him in mind. So this is a little bit of an aspirational character for Brown.

I have never read a Parker novel but the appeal of the movies is pretty obvious — How ruthless and determined is this version of the character (and his world) going to be? Brown as McClain is middle ground. It’s an arrival, getting to see people we think of as more major figures reacting only to Brown. Diahann Carroll gets to have a badass change of tone, Oates gets to be a nervous redneck, Gene Hackman shows up very late as a crooked cop. My favorite scenes are the most brisk. Carroll and Brown casing the stadium, how quickly the gang turn on Brown, them torturing him in that green sauna. I love Sutherland’s grin as he rejoinders to Oates “The last man I killed for 5,000 dollars. For 85 thousand, I’d kill you 17 times.” Point Blank is more primal, The Outfit is more raw, this is mean and light on it’s feet. From here out, Brown was the driving force in his films. The movies may not have always been as good as this quartet, but they were always his. The movies may not have always been as good as this quartet, but they were always his.

1969 to 1970

100 Rifles (1969), directed by Tom Gries. Starring Jim Brown, Raquel Welch, Burt Reynolds, Fernando Lamas, Dan O’Herlihy, Soledad Miranda, and Aldo Sambrell.

The problem with going deep on Jim Brown is that his most interesting period is actually before he became Movie Star Jim Brown. Those movies still have a lot of black character in a hollywood studio picture bullshit, but they’re a really solid array of what hollywood studio bullshit was good at. 100 Rifles is a knockoff spaghetti western. Like Burt Kennedy’s Hannie Caulder, it was shot in Almeria, Spain but it’s not quite the same thing. The characters actually speaking without dubbing, it’s done from that point. 100 Rifles feels like an American movie, it doesn’t have the surreal nature that even the most crowd-pleasing european westerns have. It’s kind of a corny movie, apart from a few moments where Brown and Burt Reynolds get to be amazing. The ideas at the heart of the movie all reek of used Corbucci, and the film was released a year after The Mercenary. Heroes who stumble into being heroes for people that aren’t theirs, that’s nearly every Zapata western.

Brown gets to have his love scene with Raquel Welch (who is great in this, even though she doesn’t really have anything to do), but that’s more of a milestone than a selling point on the movie itself. My favorite scenes are Reynolds and Brown chained together, waiting for a firing squad or beating the shit out of one another. Reynolds wasn’t yet doing his “well, shit” alpha with a sense of humor thing yet. It’s like Viggo Mortensen playing the shifty creep in Carlito’s Way. Next to Jim Brown, he’s a character actor.

…tick…tick…tick… (1970), dir. Ralph Nelson, starring Jim Brown, George Kennedy, Frederic March, Lynn Carlin, Don Stroud, Bernie Casey, and Clifton James.

This movie is a fucking bummer. The premise, that Brown is elected the first black sheriff of an ultra-racist southern county, is rock solid. It suffers from being early in the redneck revenge genre. Released in 1970, it predates White Lightning, Deliverance and Walking Tall… each movies that would take advantage of an audience’s wish that fat southern cracker cops/klan scum get the shit kicked out of them by a righteous heavily muscled badass. Perhaps sensing the volatile nature of the material there’s a visible pull back from the movie you wish it could have been. What I wanted while watching it was for Brown to wade through this racist shithole with his fists soaked with blood. I wanted him to walk into the local klan bar and walk out with half the town’s teeth.

That’s not this movie. That’s Walking Tall. Which is Joe Don Baker, a big white guy who frequently played rednecks himself. There is a twisted appeal to those movies. They trade on a lot of conflicting ideas about manhood and morality. There’s a thing going on in Badass Cleans Up Rednecks that is a kind of wish fulfillment, of white people cleaning up their own prejudice from within. It’s not the same thing at all as watching a black man take the fight to the racists. It has the tang of revolt that Joe Don Baker and Burt Reynolds just don’t have. Which is why it kinda sucks that this movie is full of the threat of conflict and let’s it simmer. The opening sequence feels like a direct response to In the Heat of the Night, up until Brown walks up to the Sheriff’s office in an extreme wide shot full of only white faces, it’s all boiling tension. We know the klan is in town, we know they’ve killed a couple recently. We know that George Kennedy isn’t happy to be voted out of office, but he damn sure isn’t a racist. And then Brown takes the position and the movie stays in that tension. He gets into one chase and one fight (respectively with a rich white murderer and a poor black rapist). The inevitable fight at the bar is deferred to Kennedy and it’s short and nasty. The movie lays out the head of the local clan as more principled than his brothers, and the film ends with the klan guys coming to Brown and Kennedy’s aid when a threat comes from out of the county.

Which is bullshit. It’s a movie about bringing everything together after the threat of explosion. Literally in title and dialog, every scene anticipates Brown having to take on the klan singlehanded. It has it’s moments, and Kennedy’s character is the most genuine good guy who might still be kinda racist you’ve ever seen on film. It’s a half measure, it’s a missed opportunity. You wonder if, like Lolita, if the movie had simply been made three years later if it would have been as amazing as it’s promise. Brown is game, but the script is too damn afraid of him.

El Condor (1970), directed by John Guillermin. Starring Jim Brown, Lee Van Cleef, Patrick O’Neal, Marianna Hill, Iron Eyes Cody, and Elisha Cook Jr.

Andre de Toth, the producer of El Condor, is a legendary action director. He made Day of the Outlaw and Crimewave, two of the meanest movies of the 50s. El Condor, directed by future Shaft In Africa/Towering Inferno director John Guillermin, doesn’t have the bleakness you would hope for with De Toth involved.

Brown worked with a lot of the same actors over and over again. Williamson, of course. And Jim Kelly. But he also made several films with Van Cleef, George Kennedy, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Sutherland, Richard Roundtree, and Gene Hackman. All of them the kind of performers who make their collaborators look good, all of them Man’s Man types. It does kind of suck that Brown doesn’t have many recurring collaborations with many directors, rarely black directors. For the most part he stuck with people who he could trust with the material. Veterans of tv or action movies, which might have something to do with working with Sturges and Aldrich early on.

El Condor, for Brown, is another entry into his hyper competent schemer persona. In the line of The Split and 100 Rifles, he’s got the whole film wired. Even when it appears he’s completely screwed. He is introduced by veteran western character actor Elisha Cook Jr., who tells him of a great gold hoard in a mexican fort. He escapes. Talks Van Cleef into helping him. Talks him into forming an Apache army. Talks the general who runs the fort like a king’s wife into betraying him. If you came to this movie in 1970 expecting Jim Brown, this is exactly the movie you wanted.

But it’s Lee Van Cleef’s movie. I’ve never seen this Van Cleef, especially in a western. He’s a mess, a drunk, a coward. Faced with Brown’s hypercompetence, he throws away all the persona he’s built up in the bank of western performances he’s been building. Col. Mortimer and Sabata, those guys are too close, so here is a one-off Van Cleef where he plays against type.

1972 to 1975

Slaughter (1972), directed by Jack Starrett. Starring Jim Brown, Stella Stevens, Rip Torn, Cameron Mitchell, Don Gordon, and Marlene Clark.

Slaughter is Brown joining the blaxploitation boom in earnest. He was an established Hollywood figure in 1972, but now he was following the lead of Shaft. Slaughter and it’s sequel (Slaughter’s Big Ripoff) were produced for American International Pictures — for Samuel Z Arkoff not Roger Corman. Slaughter was early in the genre’s cycle, released the same year as Superfly and The Hammer, but it sure feels like a cash-in. Brown is great getting out of his car at full speed firing his gun, but anytime he has to interact with someone it’s clear he’s on autopilot. Directed by journeyman actor turned director Jack Starrett (who directed much more interesting 70s exploitation Nam’s Angels. The Gravy Train and Race With the Devil), there are huge problems with this movie. The plot has Brown’s parents executed by south american drug cartel. He chases the assassins down to a non-specified south american county at the behest of the D.E.A. who have dirt on him. It’s shitty and vague. Slaughter’s enemy is played by Rip Torn, who seems unhappy to be there/hasn’t grown into his face yet. The bad guys are comically racist, the fight scenes are shot with odd filters, the depiction of women and sexuality is stunted.

Torn’s frothing racism turned cuckold paranoia is a sneak peak at the odd motivations for blaxploitation villains. The same way that Three The Hard Way pitches out a simple greed motivation for a plan to destroy all black people. I guess, these are movies and villains always have ridiculous reasons for doing shit. But the systemic racism and sexism at the heart of american capitalism sure works for Shaft and Coffy. Those are less Bond-style, more crime films, and it grounds them. When Jack Hill’s movies go for larger ideas they have to execute small. Slaughter is an AIP shot in Mexico, so it has the same tools as Coffy but feels tiny whenever it tries to branch out and make Brown into 007. Slaughter is at it’s best in Billy Preston’s opening theme, one barely used in the film itself. The guitar riff is a kick to the face, in a movie that needs more of them.

I Escaped From Devil’s Island (1973), directed by William Witney, starring Jim Brown, Christopher George, Richard Ely, James Luisi, Paul Richards, Richard Rust, Jan Merlin, Bob Harris, and Stephen Whittaker.

The first 40 minutes of the film, almost to the halfway point, is perfect. It’s a good movie, but it’s a great Roger Corman-produced movie. Directed by William Witney, the most veteran of veteran b-action guys, who started making 2 reel Lone Ranger serials and worked until the mid-70s, making 2 blaxploitation movies (this one and Darktown Strutters). Witney is an interesting figure, Tarantino credits him with inventing the western fight scene as we understand it. A lot of veteran directors worked forever, directed a lot of television with occasional features. It’s another thing that Witney didn’t see the difference between an action movie starring Roy Rogers or Jim Brown. Jack Arnold has a shorter, but similar legacy of doing what he’s good at and not caring about the cultural context of those decisions.

I Escaped From Devil’s Island starts with it’s best scene, Brown and Christopher George sit waiting to be executed in French Guiana 1918. George is a pacifist, Brown is too desperate to care. The guards beat him into submission and drag him to the guillotine, dominating the skyline. At the last moment, the French grant a stay of execution to all prisoners. From then on, it’s Brown and George trying to escape the island. Witney, on a minuscule budget, stages this sequence as a sea of closeups and artfully framed compositions. The rest of the movie has flashes of this stylishness but seems as rushed as any Corman production. The set (which I believe is a real fort in the Phillipines) in that first half has so much production value. The story seems much tighter too, it has a clear goal and Brown seems to have the place wired. Yet, Witney shows that he’s always on the verge of being tortured, pushing one of the guards the wrong way. Early on, he has to to fight another prisoner to the death over nothing.

After they get on the raft, the movie loses it’s pace (which it shouldn’t, they’re on the run for the rest of it). I think Brown just doesn’t have to prove himself, doesn’t get to show off that tactical sense that he shows off in his best roles. He’s pissed off and hurt once they escape. Whatever turns the movie makes — Brown busts out his football skills to win the heart of a native princess, they run into a cult of masked lepers — the whole enterprise feels deflated.

Take A Hard Ride (1975), directed by Antonio Margheriti. Starring Lee Van Cleef, Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Catherine Spaak, Jim Kelly, Dana Andrews, Barry Sullivan, Harry Carry Jr., and Buddy Joe Hooker.

Jim Brown made multiple Dream Team-style collaborative films with Fred Williamson and Jim Kelly. Their first was Three The Hard Way, a dumb movie saved by Hal Needham’s stunt setups. The most interesting thing about Three the Hard Way is seeing these actors work together for the first time. I think Fred Williamson and Brown have a great contrast onscreen together because they are such different presences. Brown is solid, Williamson is a STAR. Brown is more relaxed and has an enticing presence. But in their scenes together, I gotta go with Fred every time. He has zero range. He acts with his voice and with his face. He talks a lot of shit and when he stops it brings gravitas to the preceding lightning quick. Jim Kelly is more of an athlete than an actor, when compared to the other two. While he steals every scene in Enter the Dragon, it’s a surprise how much of that disappears in the face of Williamson and Brown.

Despite such similar background as football players, they bring completely different energies. Last year we did a special episode on Williamson, and I talked about how Williamson had standards for his persona. He wouldn’t die, he wouldn’t lose a fight, and he could get the girl (if he wanted her). This is what appeals to me about Williamson, this is some ego shit that pays off in his films. Even the bad ones, those standards held. And when they were broken, like when he loses the fight in Black Eye, they are broken with purpose. Williamson is great because he’s an aspirational figure driven by his ego, like Burt Reynolds and Jackie Chan. He also produced and directed because his rules didn’t play well with Hollywood. He held to his convictions. This means he directed showcase movies like One Down, Two To Go and liked to present his peers together in projects he put together.

Take A Hard Ride is the best of the all star team-ups. Directed by Italian director Antonio Margheriti (who made every type of genre movie from Lightning Bolt to Cannibal Apocalypse), the movie is a true spaghetti western, it never has the air of cash-in to it. What’s exciting is how the movie has three major black stars appearing, along with genre mainstay Lee Van Cleef. There is some oddness to Jim Kelly playing a mute Native American (halfbreed?), but not when you realize how often American, Italian, and Spanish actors played Mexicans and Apaches in these films. Kelly is great in his silent movie performance. It’s the most intense he’s ever been. The entire cast brings their best, realizing the material is a step above the films they’d been making in the 70s.

Margheriti frames shots as portentous, ominous. Van Cleef and Jim Brown’s relationship remains enigmatic and tense. The same way Van Cleef is used in The Grand Duel — like they both remember the events of El Condor and have lived lives in the ensuing 5 years. Fred Williamson plays a conniving greedy gambler who by circumstance behaves like a hero, which is a change we see rather than hear him talk about it. Take A Hard Ride doesn’t cheap out on it’s tensions, and ends like an early slasher movie — surviving is gift enough. Brown’s motivation is that of a traditional western hero, and complicated by his race and the time period. Seeing Brown in this kind of role is him in full ascendancy — trying to get the money back to save the town, resisting every temptation. He could be Randolph Scott or John Wayne, but he’s Jim Brown. He’s his own classic western hero now.

I think this is a fitting movie to end a Jim Brown retrospective on, because it’s so good and for the rest of the 70s he never matches it. Van Cleef and Brown made another western together, Kid Vengeance, which was unrelated but released in the states as Take Another Hard Ride. He made One Down Two To Go with Williamson and Kelly. But for the most part he’s checked out for the next decade. When he returns he doesn’t subvert his own image as he moves forward, he starts to play toward it.

1978 to 1989

Fingers (1978), directed by James Toback, starring Harvey Keitel, Jim Brown, Tisa Farrow, Michael V Gazzo, Tanya Roberts, Danny Aiello, Ed Marinaro, and Tony Sirico.

This movies is most interesting because of Harvey Keitel, and his unhinged ur-Keitel uncomfortable screaming that would later come to define his Bad Lieutenant-era. Also Tisa Farrow is in it. She is known best for Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 but I love her in this. Brown’s performance in this movie is a critique. It’s so we can see little Harvey Keitel meet an idealized cliche new york pimp, Jim Brown in a too-tight pink shirt. Completely relaxed as he threatens Keitel in front of Farrow. After Taxi Driver, it’s as if Toback wanted to remind everybody that Keitel as a pimp is fucking ridiculous.

The Running Man (1987), directed by Paul Michael Glaser, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Richard Dawson, Maria Conchita Alonso, Jesse Ventura, Yaphet Kotto, Michael J McIntyre, Mick Fleetwood, Toru Tanaka, Gus Rethwishc, Erland Van Lidth De Jeude, Dweezil Zappa, Kurt Fuller, Sven Ole-Thorson, and Jim Brown.

This and the next film would come to define how Jim Brown appeared in movies. He appears late in the runtime, an figure on the sidelines that is essentially him. In The Running Man he is an athlete, so it has an extra charge. While there are bits that reference Brown’s football career in his prime career (like in I Escaped From Devil’s Island), but from this point on he was playing Jim Brown. Meaning that now he’s an institution, he’s equally the football player and the action star. Brown as Fireball is intentionally under-written menace. He’s great but there’s nothing there beyond his innate charisma. Not that it matters. The Running Man is one of the great movies of the 80s and characters are paper-thin cyphers. Anyone that cares doesn’t get The Running Man. WHO LOVES YOU AND WHO DO YOU LOVE?

I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988), directed by Keenan Ivory Wayans, starring Wayans, Bernie Casey, Ja’net Dubois, Isaac Hayes, Jim Brown, Antonio Fargas, Damon Wayans, Kadeem Hardison, Dawnn Lewis, Chris Rock, Eve Plumb, Tony Cox, David Allen Grier, Clarence Williams the III, and BOOGIE DOWN PRODUCTIONS.

Again, this is Brown playing himself. He doesn’t appear until an hour in. He and Isaac Hayes are introduced in one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie — where Chris Rock orders the ribs. I’m Gonna Git You Sucka is sort of a satire, but it doesn’t have the teeth that Hollywood Shuffle has (Wayans was a co-writer on that movie). So it has moments of commentary but really it’s just funny. There’s some great digs (“it’s a phallic thing” , “Lots of big stars do exploitation movies”). Brown’s participation shows he understands what kind of star he was. When he grabs Wayans and asks him “What makes you think you can be a black hero” he says “I’m an ex-football player”” which Brown just can’t argue with.

Crack House (1989), directed by Michael Fischa. Starring Jim Brown, Anthony Geary, Richard Roundtree, Cher Butler, and Angel Tompkins.

This is late in the career. It’s after I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, which is a nice demarcation point for Brown as a self-aware screen presence. This is his Orson Welles moment, his Touch of Evil, his Third Man. Brown is talked about well into Crack House. At least an hour. So long that you forget he’s top billed. Brown never really played a villain, at least not the true villain of a movie. So the appeal is the novelty. The way Brown turns his charisma into something reptilian. Crack House is considered one of the last true grindhouse movies, and the Cannon Films credit at the beginning signals a very different kind of trash than AIP’s logo did. It’s essentially a relentlessly bleak afterschool special. Brown isn’t on any of the posters or in the trailer, they knew that holding him back could make his appearance have some additional impact. It does, he saves the movie from just being this lurid half-ass mess. Aside from Original Gangstas, which I don’t want to cover again after the Fred Williamson podcast, Brown didn’t appear in anything great outside of a few cameos. So ironically for a movie called Crack House, this film feels bittersweet.

  • Sean Witzke, February 2018