In the 1970s, Charles Bronson was one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. He had been around for almost two decades since starting to act in bit parts in 1951. Gradually, Bronson became a well-known character actor in films, and did a lot of TV Westerns and other TV—basically, he would take anything on offer. But it wasn’t really until The Magnificent Seven that he became an A-list supporting actor. And then he did a little film called Once Upon a Time in the West, and it made him a star, mainly in Europe at that point. With Death Wish, he became a huge star in the US.
These two films were done in that in-between period, with The Valdez Horses (also known as Chino or Valdez the Half Breed) an Italian spaghetti western and The Valachi Papers an Italian-French production. Bronson’s career trajectory was not too dissimilar to that of the Rick Dalton character in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, though for him, it was about to be on its way up.
The Valachi Papers (1972) was directed by Terence Young, who did a lot of the best Bond movies with Sean Connery. He also did three films with Bronson: Cold Sweat, Red Sun and The Valachi Papers. Bronson, probably the least “Italian” actor you could have, plays an Italian gangster. The set-up is similar to Goodfellas and The Irishman, with Bronson as mob informant Joe Valachi looking back on his life and crimes – and also his former teenage self, which is truly ridiculous. Bronson was many things in 1972, but a teenager he was not. The story is told in flashbacks.
Infamous producer Dino de Laurentiis was desperate for Bronson to do the film, but the actor turned it down several times before finally agreeing, and getting a big deal with the producer as a result. It might not have been a conscious decision to capitalise on The Godfather, but its success couldn’t have hurt, even though of course it made movies like this look like rubbish. Reportedly, Bronson hated The Godfather—although he changed this tune when appearing on “The Dick Cavett Show” later on. In any case, this film is a mess. There’s a part set in the ‘30s where they are driving near the East River, but you can clearly see The Twin Towers in the distance—they didn’t even bother to change the angle of the shot. It’s also overly long—all the best Bronson films from that era were around 90 minutes. As an actor, he was good at very specific things, and here he is doing something else. That said, it’s interesting to look at in comparison to Scorsese’s work, as there is a link. It just doesn’t really hold up, and is a little dull.
Both films also star Bronson’s wife Jill Ireland—he did 15 movies with her, as they were very much a package deal. The Valdez Horses is probably even worse than The Valachi Papers. It’s one of those weird early ‘70s westerns. John Sturges, who also directed The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, the two films that really broke Bronson, also directs here. I think it was a film that he was very happy to forget.
Bronson is this “half-breed” wild horse tamer whose way of life is under threat. A runaway boy appears and ends Bronson makes him under his wing. There’s a very ’70s scene where he gets rather rapey with Jill Ireland’s character after some horses have sex. So you get a Western with some hippie-dippy back-to-the-earth stuff, but it’s too much of a Bronson vehicle to really be a hippie Western despite the usual trope of the corrupt landowner versus the good guy.
At some point Sturges left the project, unhappy with the film at least in part because of the casting of Ireland. Six months later, De Laurentiis brought in Duillio Coletti, a workmanlike Italian director who had been around since the ‘30s, to shoot additional footage. Coletti is probably best-known for co-directing Anzio with Edward Dmitryk (on some prints of The Valdez Horses, he is credited over Sturges).
The Valdez Horses is what it is, and there’s always a market for a Charles Bronson film amongst his fans. Personally, I’d rather just watch The Mechanic again.
Both films have been re-released by indicator with all the bells and whistles you would expect—probably more than these films deserve, although people will buy them. Both films have commentary by Paul Talbot, who has written a couple books on Bronson. The Valachi Papers is a HD transfer, and also includes interviews with make-up artist Giannetto De Rossi and screenwriter Stephen Geller, an archival making-of documentary, broadcast footage from the real Joseph Valachi’s testimony to Congress, theatrical trailers, radio and TV spots, and an image gallery. Also included is a 36-page booklet with excerpts from the Peter Maas source novel, news articles about the Joseph Valachicase, film credits, an overview of contemporary critical responses to the film, and a new essay by Pasquale Iannone. The Valdez Horses’ package also includes interviews with De Rossi and Geller, an alternative Italian title sequence, theatrical trailer, TV spots, image gallery with promo materials, and a 36-page booklet with archival on-set commentary and interview extracts, film credits and contemporary critical responses, plus a new essay by Roberto Curti.