Posts Tagged ‘The Wild Bunch’

When I was a student, many years ago, one of the things that people did on a Saturday night was go to the weekly midnight screening of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. It became almost like a regular event for many of us – once every couple of months, we would go out for a few drinks and then turn up at the Odeon in Hull just as the normal screenings were letting out. At one point, as if to emphasise the slightly cultish nature of the event, there was something of a vogue for wearing the suits and dark glasses. This went on for literally years, to the point at which the actual prints of the film started wearing out. The film was originally released in the UK at the beginning of 1993 and was still enjoying this odd afterlife two or three years later, even occasionally resurfacing for a more conventional run. This was mostly due to the unique circumstances of this film, which was banned on video in the UK for most of this time, but such a long cinema run is still unusual. However, when it comes to violent ultra-masculine action thrillers that enjoyed unusually protracted UK cinema visits, then the film for you is undoubtedly Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 film The Wild Bunch, which ran in one London picture house for seven years.

The movie opens with a group of men in US Army uniform riding into a small town in southern Texas. The year is not specified but one can infer it is around 1913. As the group arrive at a railroad office, it soon becomes apparent they are not soldiers but thieves, led by the ruthless outlaw Pike (William Holden), along with his lieutenant Dutch (Ernest Borgnine). But the gang’s plan to rob the railroad payroll seems to be going awry, for their appearance has been anticipated: lying in wait for them on top of the building across the way are a motley group of bounty hunters, led by Thornton (Robert Ryan) – a former associate of Pike’s who has been offered early release from prison in exchange for his assistance in hunting down his former friend.

After a long, tense build-up, the thieves attempt to make their escape, and a full-scale gun battle erupts between them and the bounty hunters, with many members of the local town caught in the crossfire and casually gunned down. Pike, Dutch, and several of the other gang members manage to shoot their way out of town and escape, leaving ugly scenes in their wake as the hunters squabble over the spoils and pick over the corpses.

However, Pike and the gang are disgusted to discover the silver they planned to steal has been replaced by steel washers, and Pike’s authority over the group is challenged. He manages to hold them together and they head down into Mexico to plan their next move. Pike is aware that time is running out for men like them, and maybe the chaotic situation south of the border will throw up some opportunities. So it initially proves, as a tenuous deal is struck with a corrupt general, to steal arms for him from the US government. But Thornton and his posse have not given up, and a member of the gang has his own reasons for opposing the general. Pike and the others find themselves having to choose between personal loyalty, and self-interest.

The Wild Bunch showed up at the UPP in Oxford recently as the finale of their classic western strand – an entirely appropriate choice, given it is generally accepted to be one of the last of the truly great western movies. Showing just the previous week was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which I went to see with a friend – she thoroughly enjoyed it and asked if there were any other ‘cowboy films’ coming on. I said yes, but probably should have made it clear that this was a slightly different kind of film in its tone and outlook.

That said, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch have much more in common than you might initially think, even considering they’re both westerns (and thus naturally share a kind of generic resemblance). Both films are essentially concerned with the death of the old west, as it is generally conceived, and feature characters who are increasingly aware that the world around them is changing. Pike and his comrades see automobiles and machine-guns starting to appear around them; there is even talk of aeroplanes. There are a number of images and plot elements shared by both films as well – the pursuit of the main characters by hired killers (although in this case the leader of the posse is a more complex, sympathetic figure), the flight from the USA to another country, the climactic, bloody encounter with the army.

Nevertheless, this is a textbook example of how two films in the same genre can take similar material and produce totally different results. Writing about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid recently, I said that there’s a sense in which it almost doesn’t feel quite like a western at all – it’s a charming, romantic film that includes a lot of western iconography, but the focus is wholly on the central trio rather than the milieu in which they live. The Wild Bunch almost feels like a riposte to the other movie, an attempt to set the record straight – the real-life Sundance Kid was actually part of a gang known as the Wild Bunch, who were far from the inoffensive rogues beloved of most Hollywood depictions.

If there is any romanticism in this movie, it is of a very hard-edged kind. Pike, Dutch and the others are visibly ageing, grizzled and weather-beaten by their hard lives – Pike is half-crippled by an old wound, for instance. Charming they are not. Unlike Redford and Newman, this gang are ruthless killers when the situation demands it, showing little remorse for their actions – Pike has no qualms about finishing off one member of the gang who is too badly wounded to accompany them in their escape. You might therefore wonder how they can have any demand on the audience’s sympathy – shouldn’t everyone just be rooting for Thornton all the way through?

Well, Thornton himself comes across as an ambivalent, conflicted figure throughout, disgusted by the trash and scum he’s been given to lead. ‘What kind of man are we after?’ asks one of the bounty hunters, referring to Pike. ‘The best,’ Thornton curtly responds. Ryan’s performance makes it clear that Thornton hates himself for going after his former friend, and is only doing it to escape prison and the accompanying torture. Through his regard for Pike, we gain some ourselves.

And there is, of course, the fact that while the gang themselves may be crude, violent, ruthless men, Peckinpah still surrounds them with other characters who are appreciably worse. They live by some kind of code of honour, look out for each other, respect each other as men. And as the film goes on and we share in their small victories and the accompanying camaraderie, we do come to respect and care about them ourselves, even though they are obviously doomed.

When that doom eventually arrives, it is in the extraordinary climax of the film. Watching it again, you can’t help wondering about the extent to which Peckinpah is suggesting that these men are knowingly going to their deaths, opting to go out guns blazing. Is this really about their personal code of loyalty, or just a convenient pretext to cover a breathtaking outburst of nihilistic violence? At one point there’s a temporary lull in the slaughter and it looks like the gang may be able to get away with their lives – but Pike seems to make a deliberate choice to provoke a further surge of killing, this one uncontrollable. The director keeps it ambiguous. What is certain is that the Wild Bunch don’t get the gentle, sepia-toned freeze-frame-and-pull-back accorded to Butch and Sundance: they die bloody, in full view of the camera, but by no means alone.

You could probably argue that the final battle of The Wild Bunch was the shot heard round the world, in terms of finally extinguishing whatever innocence the western had left once Sergio Leone had his hands on it (well, more like several hundred shots heard round the world). Even today it is a remarkably intense nearly-five-minute sequence, a crescendo of blood as everyone involved seems to lose their reason and becomes fixated on killing anything that moves. The result is a kind of reflexive spasm of violence, made unforgettable by Peckinpah’s use of fast cutting, slow motion, and large quantities of blood squibs. Apparently the director’s intention was to shock the audience and confront them with the realities of violence, and he was concerned that viewers actually found it cathartic. Even today it is hard to decide which is really the case.

This kind of careful ambiguity extends through the movie, affecting how we view the characters’ motivations and identities. The result is a kind of studied amorality, which – when combined with the staggeringly violent sequences that bookend the film – could make it possible to dismiss the film as something technically competent, but with little to say for itself. I think this would be to do it a disservice. One of Peckinpah’s more striking choices is the sheer number of cutaways to women and children observing the main action of the film. They are there watching the gang ride in, they are present at the various villages they visit, they are taking cover during the final massacre, and so on. It looks like Peckinpah is making a point about the contrast between the men who are his main characters and the innocent lives damaged by their violence – but are they really so innocent? The playing children watching the gang’s arrival turn out to be torturing animals, while in the midst of the final battle, Pike is shot twice: first by a woman, then by a child. Whether you interpret this as representing masculine violence contaminating everyone exposed to it, or simply a sign that there is really no such thing as innocence, it suggests that Peckinpah did have moral ideas he wanted to express – just not very comforting ones.

Of course, you can interpret The Wild Bunch in terms of its presentation of violence and moral theme, or simply enjoy it as a terrific, hard-edged western. It has the epic scenery and rousing soundtrack you would expect of the best of the genre, and it really is about the classic themes of the genre – what it means to live as a man, in this particular setting. It’s still a challenging film to watch, but a challenge which it’s well worth meeting.

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