The Art of War

Sean Gullette
Originally Published in Gear
2003



The Last Tough Guy

In 1960, James Coburn hit the screen like a thrown knife. As The Magnificent Seven's shiv-chucking Britt, he fought alongside gunmen Yul Brenner, Charles Bronson, and Steve McQueen to save a village of impoverished Mexican peasants from rapacious banditos in Sergio Leone's immortal western remake of Kurosawa's "Seven Samaurai."

Through the 60's Coburn established a trademark style, satirizing James Bond in the "Our Man Flint" series and at the same time quite seriously defining a new American ideal of masculinity, as smooth as a silk tie but tougher than Montana leather.

In Bruce Lee, the athletic Coburn found a serious friend, a great martial arts instructor, and an unlikely co-scenarist -- together the two wrote the screenplay for the strange and little known film "Circle of Iron," a martial arts parable about a young man's quest for manhood and the Book of All Knowledge. Coburn found his great director in Sam Pekinpah, the consummate hell-raising helmer, who immortalized him during the 70s as the reluctant lawman in "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid," and as a hardass WW2 Army corporal in "Cross of Iron." A Coburn Character emerged, quite distinct from the John Wayne shoot 'em up mentality. His characters often lived by an unspoken code tempered by the prime dictum of the Art of War: "to win without fighting is best."

His career would be capped by a tour de force performance in which he viscerally linked violence to self-destruction. In Paul Schrader's Affliction, Coburn created a fearful archetype of the universal type of the distant, abusive, hard drinking father, a characterization so powerful that Coburn, responding to blown away audiences, said, "I didn't even know there were fathers that bad." As Willem Dafoe shied away and Nick Nolte hammered at him, Coburn's icy, scornful Vermont Daddy wielded his massy torso like a heavy blunt instrument -- but in the acting, and moral, choices he made could be seen the agility of a youthful martial artist and the sharpness of a thrown knife.