Clint Eastwood’s most personal film Bronco Billy has sadly become one of his most obscure too. Throughout much of the ’70s, Eastwood mainly focused on violent action thrillers like the Dirty Harry movies or The Gauntlet, in addition to his burgeoning directing career. He made an odd right turn into comedy with 1978’s Every Which Way But Loose, which famously paired him with an orangutan co-star. Every Which Way But Loose’s huge success made it Clint Eastwood’s most successful film ever – a record it still holds – and signaled his willingness to experiment with his screen image. 1980’s Bronco Billy was the next step in that evolution.
This comedy-drama was helmed by Eastwood and he plays the title character, who runs a traveling circus. Billy is a former shoe salesman who fulfills his dream of becoming a modern-day cowboy, with his oddball troupe consisting of former convicts and alcoholics. Bronco Billy might just be Eastwood’s sweetest, most heartfelt work. It comments on his tough guy screen persona but features many subversions, such as when Billy swallows his pride when a sheriff insults him to help a jailed friend. Eastwood later stated (via the book Aim for the Heart), “But if, as a film director, I ever wanted to say something, you’ll find it in Bronco Billy.”
Bronco Billy Is Clint’s Most Personal Film
The Eastwood-directed Bronco Billy milks much of its comedy from the title character’s interactions with his troupe, including Scatman Crothers’ emcee “Doc.” While the circus is consistently broke, for Billy, the reason to perform is to see the joy they bring to audiences – even if their numbers are constantly dwindling. “Bronco Billy’s Wild West Show” also allowed Billy and his gang to live out their fantasies, in much the same way the acting profession allowed Eastwood to achieve his dreams. When speaking with Barbara Walters (via TelevisionVanguard), he labeled it one of the “definitive” Eastwood films, explaining its message as being “…about a dreamer who made dreams come true.”
If Bronco Billy is about its characters living their best lives, it underscores that reality often bursts that fantasy bubble. A sequence where Eastwood’s – who passed on many comic roles – Billy and his crew try and fail to rob a train is the perfect example, as it just leaves them in the literal dust. In the same way Unforgiven drew from Clint’s status as a Western icon, Bronco Billy does the same to more comic effect. Billy adopts the persona and morals of a cowboy even if the world doesn’t function that way anymore. The circus also draws comparison to a film crew and the family unit that can form.
Clint Was Disappointed By Bronco Billy’s Performance
Bronco Billy ultimately earned around four times its budget, but as recounted in Aim For The Heart, Eastwood was still disappointed by its reception. He was somewhat touched by the positive reviews it pulled in, but felt it underperformed. Unfortunately – just like his Depression-era drama Honkytonk Man – Bronco Billy is largely forgotten now. Despite being one of Eastwood’s personal favorites of his own films, it’s more earnest tone and sentimentality have seen it fall into obscurity. That’s a shame because, in many ways, it feels like an essay from Eastwood on his own screen image.