The Wild Bunch

Lawrence Russell

The Wild Bunch (1969) dir. Sam Peckinpah writ. Walon Green and Peckinpah (from the story by Green and Sickner) cine. Lucien Ballard star. William Holden (Pike Bishop) Ernest Borgnine (Dutch) Robert Ryan (Deke Thorton) Edmond O'Brien (Sykes) Warren Oates (Lyle) Jamie Sanchez (Angel) Ben Johnson (Tector) Emilio Fernandez (Mapache) et. al.

This film certainly caused a stir when it came out in 1969 at the height of the Viet Nam war and for twenty years it looked as if it was "the last Western" as Hollywood closed down the genre in favour of the urban gun drama. The retinal level of violent death was unparalleled, perhaps reflecting the new sensibility of a generation experiencing senseless injury and death in an unpopular war, a generation no longer prepared to tolerate the implicit lie in the dramatic method of bloodless bodies and romantic propaganda.

Recently re-released, The Wild Bunch clearly fits into the show and tell consciousness of the nineties. While the film is too long, full of soft transitional sequences, generic flashbacks and stock western routines, there are a number of scenes that make it revolutionary within the genre, never mind the industry (in a sense, Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992) takes up where The Wild Bunch left off).

It starts with a montage, climaxes with a montage. It's 1914, and the hard men who make up the Bishop gang ride into a small Texas border town. The last of the horse gang robbers, they're masquerading as U.S. Army soldiers, armed with the latest automatics. The brutal Hobbesian world-view is quickly established by the symbolism of a scorpion beset by a swarm of ants, choreographed (and later burned) by some urchins beside the railroad tracks.

In town, an evangelist is exhorting a group of the older citizens to refrain from alcohol. "Five cents a glass," he brays. "Does anyone here think that's the price of a drink?" The gang intends to rob the South Texas Railroad administration office, but it's an ambush led by Bishop's former shotgun and friend, Deke Thorton, with an entourage of bounty-hunting scum. The shootout is merciless, sets a new standard for montage editing. The gang retreats, using the temperance march as a cover. Horses get shot. Old women get shot. Property gets smashed. All to a fusillade of careening bullets, shrapnel, screams, and the absurd fundamentalist song "Gather at the River".

The message is clear: religion is dead, its values obsolete. It's a moment in history, a presage of things to come. Pike Bishop packs an automatic pistol, its flat rectilinear architecture the new way of death. From here on, no one dies alone, but in groups, as if the new warfare is a team sport. This is fully dramatized in the gun battle montage at the end, where a machine gun figures prominently in the massacre.

When women look at this film, what do they see? The beasts they give birth to? The only women here are whores or peasants who will be whores if death doesn't get them first. On the one hand, Peckinpah presents us with an adventure story, but on the other, he gives us a history lesson, setting the action against the much romanticized Pancho Villa uprising in Mexico.

The rebel attack on Mapache and his army of irregulars is certainly one of the best scenes, introduced as a panorama of the railway junction, showing the chaos and absurdity of such encounters. Yet for all his good intentions, Peckinpah's view of the situation remains typically ethnocentric American. The Mexicans are either corrupt, drunken elitists or poor, drunken peasants. While the Bishop gang is as bad as it is illiterate, there's still the familiar sense that these outlaws are hip, their homicidal values the true rules of machismo.

Maybe they are. It's this kind of nihilism presented as a means of dealing with the inevitable existential fait accompli that eventually finds us all is what brings down the instinctive wrath of the bourgeoisie upon films like this. It's the world view that accepts as reality that the best you can do is accept life as a sort of controlled suicide.

Ergo, reflexes rather than brains are valued.

The tension is always between the individual and the group. Pike Bishop (Wm Holden) isn't the greatest leader but he's willing to act when he has to. As they escape into the Mexican desert with their worthless bags of "steel holes", one of the gang falls from his horse, is unable to remount, begs Bishop to shoot him -- and he does. Continually faced with revolt by this gang member or that, he says: "...we're gonna stick together like it used to be. When you side with a man, you stick with him, and if you don't, you're like some animal... then you're finished... we're finished, all of us."

When Angel, the Mexican gang member, is taken prisoner and tortured by Mapache, Bishop and his remaining three desperadoes decide to do just this -- stick together -- and walk into Palo Verde in a suicide mission. You've seen many such walks in American westerns, but you've seldom seen such carnage at the end. Again, the editing is brilliant, the visceral aspect of the gun battle sensational.

Mapache and his drunken officer corp and German advisors sit above the rough plaza drinking and womanizing. Beside them sits the American machine gun (a "gift" from Bishop), the new icon in their shrine. Bishop calls for the return of Angel. Mapache frogs him forth, slits his throat... and Bishop guns down Mapache. There is a brief interlude of silence -- the four Americans are surrounded -- before the battle commences. They quickly commandeer the machine gun, take out dozens of Mexican soldiers, peasants, animals. They fall like broken sticks from the arches of the viaduct, from windows, from doorways, pillars, etc.

It is, of course, the generic barroom brawl taken to its nihilist conclusion. They all die and we see their bodies strapped like carrion to their horses being led into the desert by the bounty hunters (who in turn are ambushed by Sykes). Thorton remains behind, a victim of divided loyalties, the job done but his integrity compromised. As the wind tumbles the sage outside the gates, Sykes shows up, offers him a new beginning, another gang: "Want to come along? It ain't what it used to be, but it'll do."

An uneven work with journeyman performances by Holden, Borgnine, Ryan and O'Brien. You've seen them in these roles before, so they certainly didn't have to extend themselves into anything new. What is (was) new is the landscape of violence and history that Peckinpah lays on us with heavy hands and a suspect intent.

© LR 1/93


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