Death Hunt: Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin reunited after ‘The Dirty Dozen’ for Peter Hunt’s thrilling Western Actioner

Death Hunt (1981), starring Charles Bronson and lee Marvin in lead roles, and directed by Peter Hunt, is a thrilling action-packed Western set in Canada.

  • Golden Harvest presents
  • An Albert S. Ruddy Production
  • A Peter Hunt film
  • Charles Bronson
  • Lee Marvin
  • Death Hunt

This is how the titles of the 1981 film, “Death Hunt” unfolds. The titles are very interesting because it represent a diverse group of talents (from different parts of the world) coming together to make this film. First, take the production company, Golden Harvest: a film production, distribution, and exhibition company based in Hong Kong that for more than three decades (from the 1970s to the 2000s) played a major role in introducing Hong Kong action films to Western markets, especially those by Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. Today, China is perhaps the biggest single market for movies in the world, so co-productions between Hollywood and Chinese film companies are common now, but Golden Harvest (though at the time Hong Kong was under British rule) broke into American film market long long ago- with the English-language Bruce Lee film, Enter the Dragon in 1973; a worldwide hit made in collaboration with the Warner Brothers studio. Raymond Chow, the main behind the studio, had even larger plans in the late 70s and early 80s; he planned to make six films at a total cost of $60 million with big Hollywood stars and directors. But only four movies were made, out of which only one, “Cannonball Run,” was successful. “Death Hunt ” was one of the commercially unsuccessful movies among the four that got made.

The second one listed in the titles is the Canadian-born, two time Academy award winning film producer Albert S. Ruddy- most famous for producing “The Godfather.”; Ruddy, now a nonagenarian, is still active, and just recently produced Clint Eastwood’s “Cry Macho.” Of course, the pulpy “Death Hunt” is a far cry from the classical “The Godfather” or “Million Dollar Baby”- his other Oscar winner; but Ruddy is actually a specialist at making pulpy, populist entertainment like “Hogan’s Heroes.” The Third listed is British director Peter Hunt- a pioneering editor, whose fast-cutting editing style for the first few James Bond films set the template for editing all Action films to follow. Hunt turned director with “On her Majesty’s secret Service”; one of the best Bond films of all time, which was a commercial disappointment at the time of its release, but has now acquired cult status. That snowbound action-packed film may have been the chief inspiration for this film’s producers to hire Hunt to direct this snow-Western actioner set in Canada. It also makes it a very rare instance where both the director and the film share the same ‘surname.’

After Hunt, comes the names of the film’s two stars, Bronson and Marvin (in that order). Both Bronson and Marvin epitomizes the tough, ultra-violent men of Action in American films. The were both unconventional looking – in other words, looked too ugly and old right from their younger days to be considered contenders for movie stardom. But they slowly worked their way up the Hollywood ladder and, by the time they were in their forties and fifties, would emerge as the highest paid actors in the industry. Bronson and Marvin – born three years apart, Bronson being the senior- first worked together in 1951; as bit players in the Gary Cooper starrer, “You’re in the Navy now.” Throughout 50s both stars would continue playing heavies and supporting roles opposite then reigning superstars like Marlon Brando and Burt Lancaster. Marvin was the first to hit stardom- with a series of hit films in the mid 1960s like “Cat Ballou,” “The Killers,” “The Professionals” and “The Dirty Dozen.” The last mentioned film also featured Bronson, who was billed second in the credits after Marvin. Bronson was still a supporting actor then appearing in ensemble pieces like “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Great Escape.” Bronson would hit stardom first in Europe, with Sergio Leone’s 1968 Spaghetti-Western, “Once upon a Time in the West.” He will have to wait till 1974 and “Death Wish” to achieve stardom in America. But, by then, Marvin’s stardom had waned; starting with the notorious flop “Paint your Wagon,” Marvin had only a series of flops, so it was natural that when Bronson and Marvin teamed up again for “Death Hunt” in 1981, Bronson will get top billing; the title itself was designed to capitalize on the success of “Death Wish.”

The above mentioned titles are displayed in blood-red colors, and superimposed on breathtaking, aerial images of snow-capped Canadian mountains. The film is literally about ‘blood in the snow,’ and the film has lots of scenes of graphic violence, with guys getting shot through their scalp, through their face and arms. Bronson plays Albert Johnson, an American trapper living in the Yukon Territory, circa 1931. The settlers in the territory amuses themselves by indulging in organized dog fights, and Sergeant Edgar Millen (Lee Marvin), commander of the local Royal Canadian Mounted Police post, is not interested in putting a stop to them: his theory is that as long as the settlers are indulging in dog fights, they are not fighting and killing each other. But Johnson is an avid animal lover, and when he comes across a dog fight, in which a white German Shepherd is badly injured, he intervenes; he forcibly takes the dog, paying $200 to its owner, a vicious trapper named Hazel (Ed Lauter). Johnson takes the dog with him to his cabin and nurses it back to health. Hazel, not willing to let this insult go, ambushes Johnson’s cabin with a few of his men. In the resulting gunfight, one of his men, Jimmy Tom, is killed; Johnson shoots him dead after Tom killed the German shepherd. Now Hazel goes to Millen claiming that Tom was murdered by Johnson, whom they also accuse to be the “mad trapper”, a possibly mythical, psychopathic, serial killer who supposedly murders other trappers in the wilderness and takes their gold teeth. 

Millen is most reluctant to go after Johnson, but as the police commander he’s duty-bound to investigate the matter. He gathers his posse of Mounties and trackers, which consists of veteran tracker, “Sundog” Brown (Carl Weathers) and a young constable, Alvin Adams (Andrew Stevens) as well as Hazel and his men, and move towards Johnson’s cabin. Millen, alone and unarmed, walks into the cabin and trues to convince Johnson that since the killing of Tom was self-defense, he will not be committed by a court of law; so he should peacefully come with him to town. But before Millen could finish his conversation, one of Hazel’s men shoots at Johnson. This leads to an all out firefight between Johnson and the posse, Many on Millen’s side end up dead. The posse uses dynamite to blow up the cabin, but Johnson escapes, shooting dead a Mountie, Constable Hawkins (Jon Cedar). Now the case of Albert Johnson becomes front-page news across the country, and many trappers join in the chase, attracted by the $1,000 bounty that has been placed on Johnson’s life. Even Captain Hank Tucker (Scott Hylands), a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot, is sent by the government to hunt down Johnson from the air. From here on the film becomes one long chase, with Johnson on the run, and Millen & his men, and every other tracker hot on his heels. Of course, in true Bronson style, Johnson manages to evade everyone – on snow or on air – including Millen, who by this time has developed a grudging admiration for Johnson- who, in the course of the film, is revealed, to being a United States soldier during World War I.

Both Bronson and Marvin specialized in playing archetypes rather than characters, and it’s no different in “Death Hunt”. Both are cast in the type of roles that they have done very successfully previously. The film itself is derivative of many movies made before it, and resembles many movies made after it. In its plot & character development, the film is closest to the 1972 Bronson Western, “Chato’s Land,” As in that film, Bronson is playing a wronged man on the run; a man (Apache half-breed there, an American trapper here) who kills in self-defense and is pursued across a treacherous, unsparing landscape (there it’s the arid, desert landscape of the South-West, here it’s the snowcapped, mountainous terrain of the North-west) by a bloodthirsty posse; he draws the posse more and more into his territory, and using his intimate knowledge of the terrain and superior survival instincts, he destroys his pursuers one by one. Lee Marvin here is playing the same role that Jack Palance played there: Bronson’s pursuer who despises the people he’s riding with and admires the man he’s chasing. So, it was a surprise to me to see the credits insisting that “this is Based on a true story.” The film is supposedly based on the true story of the manhunt of Albert Johnson, the reputed “Mad Trapper of Rat River”. Johnson was eventually killed in 1932 after a remarkable and highly publicized pursuit over several weeks, in which, for the first time, an aircraft was used in hunting down a criminal. But apart from the presence of the aircraft, the names of Johnson and Millen, and the Canadian setting, there is little resemblance to the real story; Worse, in the film numerous men are shot and killed by Johnson, but during the real manhunt Johnson killed only one man, Constable Millen, the character that lee Marvin is playing in the film – albeit promoted to commander; so much for historical accuracy.

Another thing I mentioned in my “Chato’s Land review” was how closely it resembled (and must have been an inspiration for) Stallone’s “First Blood.” This resemblance is much more pronounced in “Death Hunt”; especially since Stallone’s film came out just a year after this one. The ‘one man Vs many’ trope is very old in American films, but these films have the added edge of its heroes being at one with the nature, and after proving themselves to be misfits in the civilized society, returning back to nature, and there by regaining a superhuman potency that allow them to overpower overwhelming numbers of well-armed opponents. Additionally, there are two key scenes in the film, that I think is directly lifted for “First Blood”; First, the scene where the posse blows up Johnson’s cabin with dynamite and celebrates his death, but then is surprised to see Johnson emerge out of the rubble with his guns blazing; second, is the scene where Johnson jumps from the top of a steep cliff into the trees below, and then safely lands on ground.

Both Bronson and Marvin are compelling in their roles. They are actors who are alike in many ways, but also unlike in many ways. Both are macho, physical actors whose face is as craggy and stony as the mountainous terrain surrounding them. But Bronson is not very good with words, nor he’s that good while moving through a frame; Marvin is particularly good in these aspects of screen-acting; his dialogue delivery is still terrific ,and his body language and movements has a kineticism that resembles the vintage Marvin of “Point Blank” and “The Professionals.” His role here also resembles the ones he played in those films; as an obsessive hunter\pursuer who will keep going no matter what. In this film, his character is someone who disdains the company he’s forced to keep; he identifies more with the man he’s pursuing; he knows that if he was in Bronson’s shoes, he would have done exactly the same. He despises modern technology , and is angry when an aircraft is put into the service of hunting down Bronson. He believes that a resourceful, natural warrior like Bronson deserves to be hunted down by someone like him, and not the lynch mob, and not from an aircraft. Bronson is really good at being strong, stolid and silent, and this aspect of his acting is exploited to the full; and (again) as in “Chato’s Land,” he has very few of lines of dialogues here. Bronson manages to makes this mythical character humane, and sometimes vulnerable too. By this time in their careers, these two stars were pros at playing these archetypes (the ‘real’, ancient men who loves nature and hate modernism) in these kind of tough action dramas. One major disappointment is that Marvin and Bronson has just one scene together, and even there we don’t see them in the same frame; we see them from each other’s POV. But we do get a really delicious scene (or two) in which Marvin looking at Bronson through binoculars from afar see Bronson doing the same, and they smile at each other approvingly.

The film has all the hallmarks of a Peter Hunt directed film. Hunt is very good at conveying both the grandeur and the claustrophobia of a rich, natural, outdoor setting. The film looks really spectacular, with James Devis’ slick, widescreen cinematography conveying the majesty and treachery of the Alberta landscape (subbing for depression era Yukon Territory). But Hunt’s real strength is in the action choreography and the editing of his films; Though the actual number of standalone action set-pieces are not that many, he manages to maintain an action-mood throughout the course of the film. I only wish that the first thirty minutes of the film was much more compressed; the scenes at the police post, where a native women tries to seduce a newly recruited constable is too long; it’s also rather hard to watch today due to the racial insensitivity on display. But once Marvin and his posse land up at Bronson’s doorstep the film comes into its elements. And from thereon it’s a thrill-a-minute ride, with Hunt in top form, choreographing and stitching together scenes that continuously build thrills & suspense. Jerrold Immel’s rousing score also compliments Hunt’s fast-paced filmmaking and keep the audiences riveted to the screen. Of course, the desolate, wintry landscape also enhances the overall audio-visual quality of this film. I don’t want to make this film ought to be something better than what it is; it’s a very straightforward genre piece, and a very good one at that. Though set in 1931, and on a snowy landscape, it follows the basic template of any traditional Western set in the old-West. It’s solidly made and very engrossing\entertaining, though not very memorable- you wouldn’t be able to recall many standout moments from the film after you’re done watching it. We have seen it all before and, perhaps, on a much larger scale and in better shape. But I think it’s the last of the best of Bronson and Marvin; and the film provides a great opportunity to see these two legendary tough guy actors doing what they do best in a very attractively packaged Western Actioner.

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