[Motorcycles in Film] Then Came Bronson (1969)

Then Came Bronson / U.S. / 1969 / 98 minutes

Then Came Bronson is a made-for TV film that also served as the pilot episode for an ongoing series that lasted one season. The movie aired in March 1969 and the series began the following fall.

The film stars Michael Parks as Jim Bronson, a newspaper reporter whose values are shaken when he sees his friend commit suicide (by jumping into the bay under the Golden Gate Bridge). He quits his job and heads out on the open road on his Harley Davidson Sportster.

These opening scenes set the tone for the entire film, with sketchy dialog and even sketchier character motivation.

The friend (played by Martin Sheen in a performance so disjointed and dissipated it seems to be the pattern for son Charlie Sheen’s personal life) gives little motivation for his suicide other than being broke. Prior to jumping, he urges Bronson to buy his motorcycle back from his soon-to-be widow, thus explaining to viewers that Bronson knows how to ride a motorcycle, and once owned this motorcycle.

Bronson visits the widow, quits his job, and hits the road.

The rest of the film seems to draw on films like Easy Rider (1969) and the itinerant writing of Jack Kerouac and John Steinbeck. However, Easy Rider came out a couple months after Bronson, and the romantic idea of the drifter who lives close to the “real world” is as old as story itself.

Bronson rips around on the beach (in a scene that seems pulled from the 1971 documentary On Any Sunday), he sees a woman (played by Bonnie Bedelia) on the beach. She throws her engagement ring in the ocean and runs away. Strangely, the woman is shown alternately in a wedding dress and bare-breasted. Bronson grabs the ring and gives chase but she slips away.

But not for long. She purposefully runs him off the road with her car, and shortly thereafter he does the same to her. (This is the worst “meet cute” I’ve seen in a long time.)

The woman is apparently on the run from something, and she ends up ditching the car and riding away with Bronson.

Predictably, the couple is a mismatch. The woman, who is never named until the final scene of the film, speaks in a stilted trans-Atlantic accent that was once television shorthand for “wealthy/upper class”. Bronson adopts a raspy speaking style that sounds like he’s channeling Marlon Brando from The Wild One (1953).

In a series of vignettes, Bronson takes day jobs (such as cleaning recycled bricks), visits a friend who lives on a desert ranch, and eats and sleeps beside the road. The woman will have nothing of any of this, but she also does not want to return to her prior life.

Predictably, she slowly lets down her pretenses, the two share a night of passion, and eventually he deposits her back in the city, where she now ready to face…what?

We never know. This film has so little dialog, it’s impossible to know why she’s willing to live a couple weeks of hardship rather than face the life she’s run away from.

Like Easy Rider, the film has long stretches with little dialog and places a lot of weight on the performances. But even Easy Rider dosed out enough dialog to explain the motivations of the characters, and seemed to be about something.

Bronson leaves too much unexplained and seems to be full of about nothing in particular. How else can these two characters have ridden half of southern California and lived by the side of the road for a couple weeks, and it’s only as they part that he even bothers to ask her name?

Parks is a blank slate as Bronson. As he travels, he keeps revealing knowledge of itinerant, subsistence living, but no explanation (other than he’s a reporter, and they just know this stuff!) is suggested. Parks’ face may be familiar; he’s had minor parts in dozens of films and TV shows.

Bedelia seems to bring a little more personality to her role, struggling to communicate her character’s motivations despite the scant dialog gives her little work with.

The tone of the film (quiet, with an overcoat of counter-culture disillusionment) is unusual for TV fare, but I have to assume the weekly installments that followed were more typical of episodic television: Bronson wanders into a situation, new characters and their back-story are dumped onto the viewer, Bronson resolves the conflict, and then he rides away, leaving things better than he found them. It’s the same pattern used by westerns for decades before.

Then Came Bronson offers little to like or dislike…it’s a pretty empty of emotion. For me, the appeal of the film is in seeing the wide open California landscapes I vaguely remember from childhood, before the explosive growth that dramatically paved and modernized what was once one of the nation’s most remote states. As a motorcyclist, I also enjoyed the scenes where Bronson rides on the beach and attempts a hill climb.

A couple nits to pick: When Bronson rides on the beach, then on the highway, then rides up a dirt hill, when does he stop and change tires from slick street tires to knobby dirt tires? And when it rains all night on Bronson and the woman as they camp by the side of the road, why are they not wet, nor is the bike or the bushes, or the grass? How is that Bronson lays the bike down a couple times in the film, but it never gets scratched or dented…and when it gets submerged in a pond, he is able to take the engine apart to clean it in a few hours?  This kind of “real world” stuff is easy to overlook when a film is intentionally fantastic, but grating when a film is trying to present gritty reality.

This film is available from the Warner Archive DVD-ROM on-demand program. See WarnerArchive.com for more information.