Death Wish and beyond: the bloody history of vigilante movies

The typical movie vigilante shares traits with the Trump voter: a white, middle-aged, middle-class male who regards himself as endangered.

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It is regrettable that WH Auden did not live to offer his opinion on the vigilante thriller Death Wish; he died in September 1973, a few months before the movie began shooting in New York, the city which had been his home for more than 30 years. But prior to leaving the US for Oxford at the start of 1972, he confessed that he didn’t venture out at night without $5 in his pocket to placate any crook who might cross his path. “So far, thank God, I’ve never been mugged,” he said. “In Oxford I won’t be afraid after dark.” It was from this climate of clenched stoicism, where mugger money had become something to be kept about one’s person along with the house keys, that Death Wish was born—and into which it was received ecstatically.

In 1973, Michael Winner and Charles Bronson were coming to the end of making The Stone Killer, their second film together, when the actor with the leather face asked the director with the candyfloss hair what he was doing next. “I told him I had this script about a man whose wife and daughter are mugged and then the man goes out and shoots muggers,” Winner recalled. “Charlie said, ‘I’d like to do it.’ I said, ‘What, you mean you want to do this movie?’ And Charlie replied, ‘No, I’d like to shoot muggers.’”

He wasn’t alone. When Death Wish, with Bronson in the part turned down by George C Scott (who hated the violence) and Henry Fonda (who called the script “repulsive”), opened in New York in June 1974, it broke box-office records held by The Godfather. The volume of cinemagoers was less remarkable than the manner in which they responded, clapping and whooping wildly whenever another mugger bit the dust. A cinema manager interviewed by the New York Times reported hearing people in the foyer discussing buying guns. “It’s mostly said in jest – I think.”

When the film reached Britain in early 1975, the media was animated by warnings that New York’s crime wave would soon be hitting our streets. Winner was happy to fuel the fear – “You read about people who are too frightened to get on the Tube after ten at night,” he said – and the Metropolitan Police found time to chip in with the PR. “I say to everyone that it might help the police’s problem if a lot of people saw this film and realised the disturbing social situation we are heading towards,” Assistant Commissioner Colin Woods told the Daily Mail. Normally level-headed critics agreed, among them Nigel Andrews in the Financial Times, who said: “If society does not undertake adequately to protect the individual, then the individual has every right to protect himself.”

The Death Wish series staggered on for a further four instalments; in Death Wish 3 (1985), south London stood in unconvincingly for Harlem, and Bronson had distilled his already minimalist acting style to a few facial twitches. “It was more like watching a man golf than act,” said the future Bill & Ted star Alex Winter, who was among the cast. But even as the series became a laughing stock, the figure of the vigilante persisted, kept alive by the notion, invaluable to right-wing governments, that liberty was plucking justice by the nose, the baby beating the nurse.

Enter Bruce Willis – in a new version of Death Wish next month – to rid the streets of crime in 2018. “If a man really wants to protect what’s his, he has to do it for himself,” says a cop in the trailer. Cut to Willis: “I wanna buy a gun.” (One reviewer has already called it “sickening”.) The main difference in the latest version is a change of location – a New York vigilante would be twiddling his guns now that the city’s crime figures are lower than at any time since the 1950s. What’s left to do there? Open fire on any restaurant not offering a gluten-free option?

Vigilante movies feed on and foster paranoia and instability, hence the switch in Death Wish to Chicago, a city under attack not only from criminals (its 2016 homicide figures were the worst in two decades) but the president. “If Chicago doesn’t fix the horrible ‘carnage’ going on,” he tweeted during his first week in office, “I will send in the Feds!” The typical movie vigilante shares traits with the Trump voter: he is a white, middle-aged, middle-class male who regards himself as endangered despite his historical advantage.

Most seem respectable enough: Bronson played an architect, Willis is a surgeon. The title character of Mad Max is a cop who flips after the murder of his wife and child. (He acquires a dog in Mad Max 2, though, so it’s not all doom and gloom.) In Class of 1984, a kind of Blackboard Jungle gone punk, a teacher pushed to the limit by violent students restores the balance of power using a blowtorch and a circular saw, a course of action unavailable to Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds.

When he’s not a gentle man who’s had enough, the movie vigilante is usually an ex-military type aggrieved to discover that his country has gone to hell in a hotdog cart. In The Exterminator, he’s a Vietnam veteran cleaning up New York. In Outlaw, Sean Bean is a soldier who recruits Danny Dyer, of all people, to help him hunt down Britain’s “nonces, bullies and scum”. Dead Man’s Shoes also uses the returning hero idea, with Paddy Considine as a paratrooper coming home to confront his brother’s tormentors. But Shane Meadows’s film is unusual in the genre for taking time to humanise the bad guys as well as
the good in a way that renders those categories academic.

There are female vigilante films too, some smartly provocative (Ms. 45 – Angel of Vengeance, Handgun, The Brave One) and others salacious (Dirty Weekend, directed by – oh dear – Michael Winner). But if you are female, and one of your male family members happens to be the hero in a vigilante movie, you’re best off leaving town immediately – or you risk suffering the same fate as the daughter in the original Death Wish, who is sexually assaulted by a trio of thugs, including a goofy, gangly Jeff Goldblum. Rendered mute from that trauma, the same character is raped again in Death Wish II, this time by a gang featuring a different star of the future, Laurence Fishburne, before she crashes through a first-floor window and is impaled on the railings below. This is preferable, it might be argued, to having to go through it all again in Death Wish 3.

The gravest errors a vigilante film can make are to encourage us to root for the man with the grievance, or to see his prey as less than human. Taxi Driver daringly puts us behind the eyes of a racist sociopathic loner (Robert De Niro); if you’re cheering him on, something is wrong. In the 2010 black comedy Super, a citizen calling himself the Crimson Bolt doles out justice to anyone who displeases him: drug dealers meet the business end of his monkey wrench but so too does a man who cuts in front of him in a queue. Even Clint Eastwood, Dirty Harry himself, appeared to have woken up to the pitfalls of summary justice in 2008’s Gran Torino, in which he played a racist veteran of the Korean War who comes grudgingly to appreciate, defend and finally sacrifice himself for a Hmong teenager. In his final scene, Eastwood achieves more by not pulling a gun than he ever did with his .44 Magnum.

Still the most complex example of a film using its audience’s bloodlust against it is the 1993 drama Falling Down, in which the anger of a white-collar outcast (Michael Douglas) against the devalued, multicultural America he believes has abandoned him becomes steadily less justifiable as the film goes on. “He is bitter and he is looking for scapegoats,” Douglas explained. Surprised to see his son pilloried for the role, Kirk Douglas spelt it out: “Michael is playing the villain.” In fact, the movie permits this dislikeable character only one unequivocal grace note, when he castigates and kills a Nazi shop-owner. “I’m an American, you’re a sick asshole” Douglas tells him. In an age where the US President can blithely describe neo-Nazis as “very fine people”, as Trump did about those marching on Charlottesville, Virginia in August last year, Falling Down makes us nostalgic for a time when even vigilante violence was served with a side of morality.

Death Wish is in cinemas from 6 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 22 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special