Revisiting “The Wild Bunch”
I’m a big fan of the classic 1969 Sam Peckinpah western “The Wild Bunch.” I watched it several times in college and wrote a paper on it for the western unit of my American cinema course. However, college was a long time ago. I’ve been wanting to revisit the film, and so on Monday I headed out to Proctors for a special screening of “The Wild Bunch.” Is the film as good as I remembered?
Well, yes. “The Wild Bunch” remains a pretty bracing revisionist western — cynical, dark and uncompromising in its depiction of a band of outlaws and their ill-fated last stand. It is possible, at times, to sympathize with the aging gang, because they live by a code that stresses loyalty and toughness, and are fond of doomed, romantic gestures, such as giving stolen gold to a kindly prostitute before heading out to die. But Peckinpah never pretends his outlaws are good men, or that they really care about anyone other than themselves. We see them mercilessly gun down civilians, use women as human shields and initiate shoot-outs in public squares crowded with children. Of course, this being a Peckinpah film, the children are intrigued by the violence, rather than repelled by it; after the Wild Bunch tears through one village, children are seen running through town, pretending to fire guns. They aren’t scared of the outlaws. They admire them.
“The Wild Bunch” follows two sets of men: The outlaws, who are headed by Pike (William Holden) and Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), and the posse on their trail, which is headed by Thornton (Robert Ryan), who once rode with Pike and will be sent back to prison if he doesn’t track him down. After a botched bank robbery, Pike and his crew are hired to steal a shipment of guns from a train for a loathsome general in the Mexican Federal Army; one of Pike’s men, Angel (Jaime Sanchez), is a native of Mexico, and hates the general. He agrees to help rob the train if he can send some of the guns back to his village, so that the villagers can fight the Mexican Federal Army. Of course, this is after Angel has nearly gotten everyone killed by shooting his wife, who has run off with the general. Let’s just say that the women in this film exist to service men and advance the plot by getting killed or betraying their lovers.
Anyway, “The Wild Bunch” has several intertwined themes: age, the arrival of civilization in the Old West and the likelihood that each new generation is even more ruthless and greedy than the last. Peckinpah’s outlaws are not very good people, but they do have some standards, and the film seems to suggest that new, sophisticated weaponry, such as the machine gun that appears late in the film, make killing even more violent, detached and commonplace. I was actually reminded of a more recent film while watching “The Wild Bunch,” Michael Haneke’s 2009 film “The White Ribbon.” “The White Ribbon” is set in an unpleasant, patriarchal German village where the children are even more troubled and amoral than the adults; the implication is that fascism will emerge from this grim, repressed culture. I don’t think Peckinpah is saying anything about fascism, but the gleefully violent youth in “The Wild Bunch” seem to point the way to a dark future. When Pike is killed, it’s a child who shoots him.
On a certain level, I found it easy to sympathize with the Wild Bunch. These men are grappling with changing times and their creeping sense of obsolescence, the position many journalists now find themselves in. Pike is a smart and proud, and it’s tough to watch him struggle to mount a horse, or wistfully reflect on better days before his partner was arrested and his woman killed. He is the last of his kind, and he and his compatriots know it. When Thornton tells his posse, “We’re after men, and I wish to God I was with them,” you get the sense that he’s speaking not just for himself, but for Peckinpah, too. His film is an elegy, but an especially violent one. And we understand that men who live by the sword will die by the sword ... and take out a village or two along the way.
FOOTNOTE: “The Wild Bunch” was one of the first westerns I ever saw, and I thought it was amazing. I still think it’s amazing, but I’ve now seen a handful of violent, deranged spaghetti westerns, and the violence and cynical worldview of “The Wild Bunch” no longer seems so extraordinary to me. For instance, the 1967 spaghetti western “Django Kill ... If You Live, Shoot!” is especially savage, highlighted by a shocking, memorable scene where greedy townspeople tear apart a dead man after discovering that his body is riddled with gold bullets. The original “Django,” from 1966, features a mysterious outlaw who travels with a coffin; midway through the film, we learn that the coffin conceals a machine gun, which the outlaw uses to gun down large groups of people.
My point is: There are plenty of shocking and deranged westerns out there. Hopefully I’ll watch a few more sometime soon.
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