Bronco Bullfrog Review

Barney Platts-Mills' Bronco Bullfrog is a young person's film created by and for that demographic. Its grit feels earned, honest, and bold. The characters, including the titular one who's a secondary figure but an entirely important one, would not exist in movie world. They generally had no place in English language films of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and, for that reason and also because of how rawly Platts-Mills is able to present them, Bronco Bullfrog is a major piece of cinema. It's unfortunately not been included on the pedestal of things like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and other British New Wave films, being a little late in the game for one, but the achievement is no less impressive. Platts-Mills' film might actually have held up better, with its lack of known faces and generally uncompromising attitude.

The lead character is Del, played by Del Walker who has a slight Depardieu quality to him. He's on the cusp of adulthood and the freedoms and consequent struggles that accompany it. He still lives at home with his parents while working as an apprentice welder. Upon meeting the awkward but natural Irene (Anne Gooding), Del begins to spend more and more time with her, against the wishes of both his father and Irene's mother. Their romance is very much of the matter of fact nature usually seen on film among the working class rather than the starry-eyed movie variety. A major addition to Del's life is the motorbike he's able to get after his parents win some money. It's transportation, of course, but also a huge means of independence. Factor in, too, the influence of the one and only Bronco Bullfrog (Sam Shepherd), a slick delinquent slightly older than Del who's just left borstal, and the potential for unsavory activities increases greatly.

Essentially what happens in the plot is that Del makes some poor choices and Irene remains loyal to him. Bronco Bullfrog seems to constantly be in the periphery, making the title of the picture completely appropriate in addition to being catchy. The narrative itself isn't a persuasive reason to see the film and I don't think it's really intended to be. Instead the presentation of these characters - how they live, how they react, their places in society - is the fascinating main attraction. It still feels fresh. Much of this would seem to speak to class distinction and the manner in which sectors of people are portrayed (or not portrayed) in cinema. Just as Rossellini and De Sica's Italian neorealist films presented the ordinary with a certain poetry and sympathy rarely afforded them, Bronco Bullfrog resists judgment on its characters. It opts for what at least feels like authenticity and then builds a whole world around people like Del and Irene. They no longer have to conform to previously established rules. They're now the main focus.

Platts-Mills' film seems to get a lot of the little things right also. The black and white cinematography by Adam Barker-Mill gives off a sufficiently entrenched feel to the East London neighborhood. Music by the band The Audience is often a boost to the needed mood of the picture. Despite the cast being made up of non-professional actors, they are uniformly effective. The portrayal by Del Walker works because of rather than despite his questionable likability. He comes across as familiar and average, easy to want the best for if that's your anthropic persuasion but deeply imperfect. There is perhaps a lack of investment on the part of the viewer as a result but a distanced perspective on these characters doesn't prove to be a problem. The unimportance of not being able to identify with Del opens interest up to a wider audience and lifts the film out of its very specific milieu into a much larger realm.

Without actively doing much of anything, the ending to the film remains a significant shock. There's little reason to warn of spoilers here since it isn't about what happens or is shown at the end. The impact is far stronger than had, for example, one of the characters been shot or hauled away. It plays, to me, as bleak and real.


The Disc(s)

Spine number lucky 013 in the BFI's Flipside strand, Bronco Bullfrog was released in a Dual Format edition containing both Blu-ray and DVD. They are dual-layered. The BD is region-free.

The BFI have used the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The booklet informs that the film was "transferred in High Definition from the original 35mm negative" and then further restored. Director Barney Platts-Mills supervised and approved the transfer. An earlier DVD edition was available through Platts-Mills' website and reviewed years ago on this site by Anthony Nield, who assures me that this is a vast improvement. The results from the BFI are indeed tough to imagine being bettered. Black and white contrast is excellent. Grain levels are just right to achieve the desired appearance. There's a nice consistency across the image in detail and sharpness. Minimal marks of damage remain in the print, sometimes popping up in just a frame or two. The images in this review are screen captures from the DVD, which also looks splendid.

English language audio comes in the form of a linear PCM mono track that mostly succeeds at balancing dialogue with the occasional burst of music from the band The Audience. An error in the booklet omits the origin of the sound track but does confirm that audio issues such as noise and hiss were improved. The dialogue is often spoken with thick accents that make the optional English subtitles for the hearing impaired an essential inclusion. Unusual for the BFI, a set of French subtitles can also be accessed. The font used is white in color.

Three substantial extras have been included for viewing. They're on both the Blu-ray and DVD but in high definition on the former. "Everybody's an Actor, Shakespeare Said" (30:19) was made by Platts-Mills prior to Bronco Bullfrog and follows his future cast members as they participate in Joan Littlewood's acting classes. The result is a documentary lacking in glamour, where the fleeting highs of pretend cannot entirely mask the boys' reality. It's in color, in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio and contains a good deal of grain but looks clean. There are no subtitles, meaning that much of the dialogue can be difficult to make out for untrained ears such as my own.

Next is Bernard Braden's interview (21:49) with Joan Littlewood done for his scrapped Now and Then program. This is a substantial theatre chat in which Littlewood discusses her philosophy about the stage and mentions her work with kids like those seen in Platts-Mills' feature and short films.

"Seven Green Bottles" (35:06), directed by Eric Marquis in 1975, was made for the Metropolitan Police Authority and is a scared straight type of short about seven little thieving punks. The weird decision was made to switch to a subjective camera angle each time one of the boys is captured or confronted by law enforcement. It's 1.33:1, in color, and with some dirt remaining in the print. There are no subtitles but the non-professional actors are easy enough to understand.

A great piece on the film's background, including updates on the cast, kicks off the 36-page booklet. It's written by Ian O'Sullivan and runs for 4 pages. Another essay on the movie, this one from Sarah MacGregor and focusing mainly on its depiction of time and place, goes 5 more pages. A November 1970 review by Nigel Andrews that appeared in Monthly Film Bulletin is a brisk trio of paragraphs across a pair of pages. Another couple detail the music for Bronco Bullfrog, which was done by Audience (or The Audience as the band is listed in the credits). Director Barney Platts-Mills is then given a 3-page biography, followed by 2 more on his "Everybody's an Actor, Shakespeare Said" short documentary.

Continuing on, an article entitled "Joan Littlewood and her legacy" is 3 pages of information on the famed theatre director, and precedes some basic information on Bernard Braden's Now and Then series from which his interview with Littlewood is included in this package. Finally, details on "Seven Green Bottles" emerge from the 3 pages spent discussing the short film and comparing it with Platts-Mills' feature. A collection of handsome stills and various credits help to round out this typically generous offering from the BFI.


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