Eye For Film >> Movies >> Bronco Bullfrog (1969) Film Review
There were plenty of films in the 1960s that took a hard, unsentimental look at working class youth culture – but not many where the kids themselves took centre stage.
A notable exception is Platts-Mills’s bracing and poetic study of teenagers in distinctly non-swinging London at the tail-end of the decade, facing lives of monotony, crime and violence as their war-scarred landscape is replaced by an even uglier vista of tower blocks and ring roads.
The film grew out of the director’s involvement with a drama workshop in Stratford. It was run by Joan Littlewood (of Oh! What A Lovely War fame), the left-wing theatre pioneer who encouraged her young charges to act out scenes based on their own lives.
Bronco Bullfrog – made in a few weeks on a minuscule budget – is basically an extension of their work, with much of the dialogue improvised or suggested by the actors themselves. As a result, some of the performances are a bit rough around the edges and the story lacks the clear narrative trajectory that even the most avowedly ’realistic’ of the earlier kitchen-sink dramas had dealt in. The film has elements of these (and Karel Reisz’s groundbreaking documentary We Are The Lambeth Boys) but still resolutely ploughs its own furrow.
This may have been a reason for its disappointing box office performance (despite critical acclaim) at the time. But the BFI have once again done a sterling job of tracking down and sprucing up a neglected British classic. And following a short-lived but well-received cinema run this summer, it arrives on dual format DVD/blu-rayin a very handsome package.
The central character is Del (Del Walker), an apprentice welder who spends most of his time kicking around the streets of East London with his mates. The opening scene, where they wander up to a local cafe and smash the window in before robbing it blind, sets the tone; this is no comforting tale of warm-hearted Cockneys united by working class solidarity.
Like Littlewood’s own Sparrers Can’t Sing, it offers a harsh but tender portrait of lives that are defined and confined by geography and circumstance. For Del the future offers nothing but work by day and “hanging around” by night. But two significant events offer contrasting views of a way out.
He meets Irene (Anne Gooding), a young girl from a nearby tower block and despite parental disapproval – ironically both sides view the new arrival as “not good enough” for their family, despite the two’s near-identical backgrounds – a relationship blossoms.
But Del is also influenced by the eponymous Bronco (Sam Shepherd), a former member of the gang now returned from Borstal and making a living out of petty crime. Del begins to tag along on jobs and starts skipping work. He dreams of a new start with Irene, living and working with relatives in the country. But the police are closing in on Bronco and it seems that the realities of life may prove too hard to overcome...
This may all sound a bit “it’s grim down South” but the actors and director catch the buzz and bravado of the emerging “suedehead” culture and the eternal problems of boys barely out of school desperately trying to be grown up, with not enough money and too much spare time. There are some beautifully judged comic scenes, mainly based around their ineptitude with girls. But there are constant reminders too of the random, everyday violence of gang culture, as Del’s mates wander on to rival turf. These scenes are as determinedly unglamorous as the rest of the film, depicting the fights as clumsy, squalid corner-of-the-eye affairs a long way from the stylised, orchestrated battles of something like The Firm.
Platt-Mills and his cinematographer Adam Barker-Mill handle both elements expertly and show a poetic eye in the depictions of the stark Stratford landscape (including one memorable shot of homing pigeons set against a row of dock cranes, perhaps a metaphor for Del and his mates) and the lush, sun-kissed Kent countryside, to which Del and Irene escape on a memorable motorbike ride.
The performances are remarkable, considering this was the feature film debut of virtually all the cast. It’s a shame that none of them developed careers in acting or cinema as they all show considerable (if at times raw) talent. Walker takes what could be a somewhat clichéd “mixed-up kid” role and brings a wealth of insight and humour to his portrayal of a basically good but indecisive and easily-led young lad. Gooding is equally impressive as the fragile, troubled but deeply in love Irene. Shepherd as Bronco has relatively little screen time for a title character but does enough to suggest a cold and genuinely dangerous character beneath the flash, matey exterior. And there’s a memorable supporting turn by Haywood as Del’s mouthy, eternally on-edge best mate.
All in all, it’s a pleasantly unclassifiable gem that in no way deserved its years of obscurity, though one can certainly detect its influence in later slices of street life such as Quadrophenia (In fact, ‘Quadrophenia directed by Francois Truffaut’ is as good a one-line summary as any) and Bullet Boy. But this is a genuine original and worth seeking out by anyone who believes in challenging, unconventional seat-of-the-pants cinema.Reviewed on: 16 Sep 2010