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I want all of them back here, head down on a saddle.

Movie

The Wild Bunch
(1969)

 

One of the classic, if not the classic, revisionist westerns, The Wild Bunch has never quite carried the same hallowed status for me it evidently has for others. I wouldn’t even call it Peckinpah’s best western. The director’s martialling of stirring, visceral tornadoes of slow-mo violence is as effective as ever it was, but his etching of his characters is crude and unsympathetic, such that, during the movie’s longueurs, he leaves me struggling some. Not helping matters is Jerry Fielding’s score, in the finest tradition of telegraphed western jauntiness, encouraging us to believe all this whoring misbehaviour is damn tooting.

As David Ansen said in Newsweek (upon the picture’s rerelease) “Peckinpah’s paranoia about women is on ample and lurid display. It’s an unshapely classic, full of flaws: the gang’s idyllic interlude in a Mexican village exudes gringo sentimentality, and Peckinpah… overworks the stagy effect of hearty, ironic laughter”. Pauline Kael called him “The youngest legendary American director”, and there’s the stuff of preformed mythmaking about the director, who wouldn’t take long – having taken long to get there – to fall from his peak and make a terrible mess.

The Wild Bunch opens in situ with extreme confidence and terrific understanding of pace and tension as the Bunch rob a railroad office, only to discover it’s a trap set by former gang member Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan). The group’s coarseness (exemplified by Warren Oates’ Lyle Gorch, Ben Johnson’s Tector Gorch, and Bo Hopkins quickly fated Clarence Lee) is only exceeded by the ghoulish rabble in Deke’s charge; he’s underfunded by the railroad, despite his protests, but the presence of those who know what they’re doing – Deke and William Holden’s Pike Bishop, now at loggerheads – infuses the scene with tension.

The aftermath, however, puts the picture in repose for nearly an hour; regardless of the discussions of loyalty and codes and the end of an era, this is where you really miss engaging and empathising with the characters. Except maybe Edmond O’Brien’s hilariously gnarly Freddie Sykes (who, of all the bunch likely to cop it early on, Peckinpah sentimentally allows to ride free). It’s only with the train robbery, commissioned by El Generalissimo Mapache (Emilio Fernández) on behalf of his benefactor Commander Mohr (Fernando Wagner) of the Imperial German Army, that Peckinpah and co-screenwriter Walon Green (Sorcerer, Robocop 2 and Eraser) grasp the mettle once more and put the band of brutalists to good use.

From this point, The Wild Bunch’s trajectory is surefooted and compelling; the superb train set piece is followed by delivery of the weapons and the detention and torture of Angel (Jaime Sànchez), who has armed his villagers against the General. This in turn leads to the gang agreeing to go and rescue him, aware of the likely consequences, and the gore-encrusted ecstasy of carnage that is the climax. Time Out’s Nigel Floyd suggested Peckinpah “presents their macho code of loyalty as a positive value in a world increasingly dominated by corrupt railroad magnates and their mercenary killers”. And Nazis. Let’s not forget Nazis (the question of whether killing the General would have been seen as an opportunity by the men who didn’t much care for him is moot, as the complete lack of (stunned) response is broken when Pike shoots Mohr. Because you have to kill Nazis. Always kill Nazis).

Peckinpah, the unruly, unemployable drunk who hired actual prostitutes to play prostitutes in order to bait the studio, boasted salient themes in support of his visually enriched thesis. The picture is volubly allegoric of Nam, in terms of addressing desensitisation of violence on TV (daily news), the rebellion of Angel’s village against the state (“My people are here for their guns”) and the bunch’s unabashed anti-establishment feeling (“Well, we share very few sentiments with our government”).

But the director was aware of the conflict in what he was presenting – as a visual exercise – and probably threading an excuse as a result: “it’s ugly, brutalizing and bloody awful; it’s not fun and games and cowboys and Indians. It’s a terrible, ugly thing, and yet there’s a certain response that you get from it, an excitement, because we’re all violent people”. Yes, you will get an excitement if you lace together your deaths with kinetic, balletic slo-mo action. And if you tell a tale in which a noble death becomes a thing, violence in service of a “just” cause – look, Nazis! – whatever the pronouncements about futility may be. Occasionally, Peckinpah succeeds in his points; the opening, with cruel kids playing with scorpions and ants, will ultimately meet its mirror in the apparent innocents of the picture – a boy and a woman – taking singular shots at Pike during the climax (I wonder if David Simon had this in mind for Omar’s demise in The Wire).

Peckinpah further commented “I was trying to tell a simple story about bad men in changing times… The strange thing is that you feel a great sense of loss when these killers reach the end of the line”. I’m sure many did – Kael was one, suggesting “Peckinpah has made theme seem heroically, mythically alive on screen” – but I can’t say that was really my response. Would I have liked to spend more time with Holden, and Borgnine and Oates and Johnson, good as their performance were? Um… No, not really. Would I have wanted to spend more time with Butch and Sundance, in the revisionist western Kael savaged the same year? Absolutely.

Much as Kael admired the movie, most of her points broached the way it was internally conflicted: “The new wine of The Wild Bunch explodes the bottle”. She considered Peckinpah “an artist in conflict with himself, but unmistakeably and prodigally an artist, who uses images with great subtlety and sophistication” but noted something anyone, with the possible exception of Malick, has come unstuck with when it comes to trying to see violence is awful: “The reason for violence in a number of recent pictures is that it’s there to make you see that violence is bad”. The Wild Bunch, however … “got so wound up in the aesthetics that… (it) became an almost abstract fantasy on violence; the bloody deaths, repeated so often and so exquisitely, became numbingly remote”. She gave him the benefit of sincere intent, suggesting he “was caught in the trap of discovering that he was no longer sure what he was trying to do”.

Pretty much as soon as Peckinpah discovered slow-motion balleticism and became a kid with a trainset, any moral sensibility was out of the window. As his subsequent pictures attest, he just loved that explosive mode (to be fair, the interrogatory themes are redolent in later works, particularly Straw Dogs and Cross of Iron, but it’s impossible to get beyond, as Kael notes, that his entire strategy makes violence aesthetically enticing).

I am not, by and large, a detractor of the movie, but I don’t believe it quite rises to meet its reputation. The Wild Bunch slots in neatly with its thematic peers of that era – the “heroic” nihilism of Easy Rider – while getting it in the ear from John Wayne for debauching the myth of the western. AFI rated it the sixth best in the genre, which is all very well until you note that Cat Ballou was in at 10 and Leone movies were automatically disqualified. Tony Scott was planning a remake before he committed suicide. Will Smith was subsequently attached for a spell. Mel Gibson, should it actually come together, will surely make a picture worthy of the Peckinpah tradition. But there’s absolutely no point trying to remake a classic – even a flawed classic. Particularly when its themes and tropes have since been done to death.

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