American filmmaker Walter Hill is famous and revered for both his action movies and the fact that he revived the Western genre. But before he went on to direct cult films such as The Warriors (1979), The Driver (1978) or 48 Hrs. (1982), Hill was well known for his screenplays, such as the one for Sam Peckinpah’s action thriller The Getaway (1972) or John Huston’s neo-noir spy film The Mackintosh Man (1973). After penning five screenplays and gaining some well-deserved prominence, Hill received an offer from Larry Gordon, head of production at the independent film production and distribution company American International Pictures (AIP). The offer was for him to direct one of his own screenplays. It is safe to say that Hill gladly accepted the proposal and, even though he did the directing job for scale, he seemed more than happy with the chance he was given, proclaiming that, in all honesty, he would actually have paid them for the opportunity to make the film. The picture in question was originally meant to bear the title The Streetfighter and was written as an original screenplay by Bryan Gindoff and Bruce Henstell. But the director’s idea was for it to be like a Western, so he decided to use parts from Lloyd Williams and his Brother, a script he had previously written and that Sam Peckinpah was keen on directing at some point. Gordon, who was from Louisiana, agreed to this and decided that the movie would be set in New Orleans during the Great Depression.
After writing the first draft, Hill proceeded with five or six rewrites before he was finally happy with the result. During the process, he envisioned a younger actor for the part of Chaney, the movie’s main streetfighting character, and had his sights set on Jan-Michael Vincent. For the role of Chaney’s manager Spencer “Speed” Weed, Hill wanted Warren Oates. But as the budget for the movie increased, so did the producer’s options when it came to casting high-profile actors. Therefore, the screenplay was sent to none other than Death Wish star Charles Bronson, who read it and, despite being very interested, first wanted to meet Hill and see for himself if the director had what it takes. And even though Hill initially thought that Bronson was too old for the role, the director was amazed to see that the actor “was in remarkable physical condition for a guy his age; I think he was about 52 at the time. He had excellent coordination, and a splendid build. His one problem was that he was a smoker, so he didn't have a lot of stamina. I mean, he probably could have kicked anybody's ass on that movie, but he couldn't fight much longer than 30 or 40 seconds.”
With Bronson on board, the actor’s second wife Jill Ireland also joined the cast and James Coburn was given the role of Speed. The film was shot in approximately thirty-five days and was renamed Hard Times, so as not to get confused with the 1974 martial arts movie The Streetfighter, directed by Sonny Chiba. When it came to the process of filming itself, Hill noted that cinematographer Philip H. Lathrop was of enormous help to him. While the director was worried whether he would be able to pull it off, seeing as how it was, after all, his directorial debut, Lathrop immediately appeased him, stating that they would simply shoot everything they needed and edit it so it made sense. What he did warn him about were the troubles that usually arise with getting people to collaborate on set. And as it turned out, the cinematographer was right to issue the warning. Hill stated: “[Bronson was a] very angry guy...Didn't get along with a lot of people. The only reason I can tell you he and I got along well was he respected that I wrote the script. He liked the script. Also I didn't try to get close to him. Kept it very business-like. I think he liked that. Jimmy Coburn who everybody liked and got along well with, he and I did not get along well. I think he was not in a good mood about being in a movie with Charlie, it was second banana. He had been up there more, and his career was coming back a bit. I don't think he was wild about being second banana. But Charlie was a big star, perceived to be low rent. That was part of his anger...He thought there was a cosmic injustice when he was not a movie star at 35. He didn't get there till 45 or whatever...[However] When things had seemed to not be working well, or there was some impasse, Charlie would come down hard on my side. It was the tipping point.” And yet, even though Hill would have very much liked to have worked with Bronson on other projects after Hard Times and even offered him the role in his next movie entitled The Driver, the actor did not share Hill’s sentiment and respectfully declined the offer. The reason for this lay in the fact that the director had had an issue with Jill Ireland’s acting, which resulted in him cutting a lot of the actress’ scenes. That was something Bronson could just not get past, so he ended up never speaking to Hill again.
Hard Times follows a drifter named Chaney who comes to Louisiana during the Great Depression and accidentally walks in on an illegal bare-knuckled street fight. He later on offers his fighting services to Speed, the backer of the fighter who had lost the match. The super talkative backer and the mostly silent streetfighter begin a collaboration that quickly turns Chaney into a real winner on the streets, earning both of them a substantial amount of cash. But, as is usually the case, not everyone is thrilled with that scenario.
There are several fascinating things that make Hard Times a truly stand-out movie. One of them is the fact that, in its very essence, it really is a Western, with its strong but silent hero with a past he is unwilling to talk about riding into a new town and changing the rules of the game. Chaney’s appeal is indeed derived from the lack of information the other characters have on him—they only know that he came there to make money any way he knows how. And apparently, bare-knuckled street fighting is his specialty, with the drifter seamlessly taking down men much younger than he is. But Chaney’s personality and characteristics would not have had the chance to come out the way they did, had it not been for his unlikely partner-in-crime Speed. Their being complete opposites is the very thing that makes their relationship an interesting one to watch unfold. As Hill himself has commented, this type of dynamic between two characters who share the same goal, but have different wants and ultimately a different endgame, enables the existence of a special kind of tension that permeates the movie. The two protagonists do not necessarily like each other. At all. But what they do develop is a mutual respect for one another, i.e. for the roles they play out in each other’s lives, in that particular point in time.
But probably the most interesting aspect of Hard Times is the fact that it deals with the harsh reality of that time without once pandering to its audiences by over-emphasizing it as a theme. Hill’s approach here is to show, rather than to tell—we do not need to hear any overzealous monologues about the cruelty of a world where money is scarce, for Chaney and his opponents are here to show us what living in such times entails. They do not hold anything against one another, nor are they mortal enemies who enjoy inflicting pain. These fighters are simply professionals in need of money, paid so that enthralled men could watch them risk their health for entertainment purposes. Thus, one might say that everyone gets exactly what they need, with the audiences escaping their in all probability less than joyous lives by feeling the adrenaline rush that comes with watching other men fight and the fighters sacrificing their physical and psychological well-being in order to earn the money they need.
And when it comes to physical violence, Hard Times would not be what it is without its wonderfully choreographed fight scenes, several of which had to be deleted so that the movie could be only ninety minutes long. Many people had told Hill that the fights would have been better had there been some actual blood in them. But the director did not see it that way. He thought of the fights as dances that carried with them a dramatic truth that would have disappeared had there been blood that would have made them seem and feel all too real. And he was right. If we suspend our disbelief while watching men continuously hit one another in the face without there being a single trace of blood, or knock their opponents to the ground in ways that should render them momentarily unconscious, but do not, we get the chance to feel the tension that is not only at the core of those fights, but also at the core of the fighters’ lives. And that tension is a product of their very real struggle to survive.
Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Walter Hill’s screenplay for Hard Times [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Walter Hill’s Hard Times.