In July of 2015, the BBC released a list of the 100 Greatest American Films, curated by polling critics all over the world. I’m watching them and writing about them as a form of self taught film school. This week… we’re doing number 52, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. As always, there will be spoilers. This film holds a special distinction as the movie that inspired the project and our first of many, many, westerns.
I love classic period pieces, the gentle reminders of just how deeply the roots supporting Don Draper and his ilk grow. Wikipedia tells me the first period piece in film was Cabiria, which was released in 1914 and set during the Second Punic War — illustrating just how integral the genre is to the foundation of cinema. What I love about period pieces is not just the joy of being dropped into another sliver of human history, but also the distorted reflection of our own, modern, cultural, focal points that appear in new dimensions when framed by the past. Just as the act of observation will affect the subject of the viewer, so does the act of artfully recreating history reveal the psychic tendencies of its contemporary producers. Some Like It Hot, released in 1959 and set in 1929, helped fan the flames of the roaring twenties narrative we still cherish and reproduce today. Grease, released in 1979 and set in 1959, bridges a gap between a post free — love movement, newly sexually awakened, America, and the (supposed) moralistic simplicity of our pre-Vietnam war, JFK assassination, existence. Thousands of other examples abound. Period pieces allow us to long for a life we’ll never live, and exorcise the demons we struggle to erase from our collective consciousness.
The Wild Bunch was released in 1969 and set in the 1913 Texas / Mexican countryside. Written (primarily) and directed by Sam Peckinpah, the film at once cherishes and explodes the Western archetype. Pike Bishop, the hoary leader of the gang of outlaws who title the film, is ready to hang up his boots after one final score. When it turns out the job is a setup instigated by Deke Thornton, Pike’s previous bad boy for life partner in crime, a massacre ensues leaving most of the outlaws, and many of the civilians participating in the ill-timed Temperance parade, slaughtered. When Deke and Pike lock eyes during the midst of the mayhem, Deke hesitates with Pike in his crosshairs, allowing him and the few other survivors of the WB to hightail it out of town. As they retreat, one of their comrades is unable to ride his horse, and after a brief debate over whether or not they should give him a proper burial, the merry crew of bandits leaves his corpse to roast in the hot desert sun.
At this point, you’re twenty minutes into the two and half hour movie, and looking around for someone to root for. Don’t count on Deke to be your lone cowboy hero, he has his own demons and his idiot team of bounty hunters wastes no time after the massacre shaking down the bodies scattering the dirt road for boots, money, and ammunition. The genius behind The Wild Bunch is that it begins where most movies peak and proceeds in reverse like a roller coaster that starts rolling backwards. The opening sequence accosts the viewer with extreme depravity and introduces dynamic, memorable, characters, most of whom are sacrificed in the shootout minutes later. We know from the outset that the members of the WB are immoral at best and evil at worst.
What unfolds next however, is an intimate, slow burning, portrait of their collective pasts; revealed in fireside chats and occasional flashbacks, hinted at in interactions with strangers and forlorn stares into desert sunsets. These are evil men, but they are also human beings who have been scorned by their lovers, had their best laid plans gone awry, and are forced to shoulder a burden of guilt they cannot wash from their conscience. The men hate bad coffee and lament their sore knees. They are at once repulsive and relatable. (Not to women of course- there are approximately twenty times as many exposed breasts than women characters of depth in the film. Besides the temperance movement nuns and the gaggles of prostitutes, the only woman character at all influential to the plot is Angel’s cheating wife, who serves as little more, and conceivably less, than a Helen of Troy symbol.)
In this way, The Wild Bunch was ahead of its time. Rooting for a bad guy who is searching for his own moral code as a leader of outlaws is a role modern audiences are very comfortable inhabiting, and it would be decades before Omar Little and Walter White would come along to kick off America’s renewed fascination with tragic male heroes. When Tony Soprano waxes poetic about “the family” he often employs a variation of Pike’s magnum opus of a line,
“When you side with a man, you stay with him. And if you can’t do that, you’re like some animal — you’re finished!” Suddenly, a morality code is established. Loyalty is the dark spot in Pike’s past and his compass for navigating the future. In the contemporary zeitgeist, loyalty is the last line in the sand between redeemable and forsaken. Bad men can be loyal. Disloyal men cannot be forgiven.
It’s plain to see why a writer / director in the late sixties would cast aside the myth of the lone cowboy in favor of a gang of misfit broncos. Apart from the tragic heroes of 21st century television epics, our other persistent context for the “brother in arms” narrative is soldiers in war. Released just six months before the draft lottery, the American military had been embroiled in the Vietnam War for over a decade when The Wild Bunch hit theaters. Bearing in mind the images flowing out of Southeast Asia at the time of its conception, it’s easier to comprehend the climate behind the film’s obsession with violence and its refusal to protect the innocent bystanders during bloody altercations. It also makes the coupling of violence and technology searing through the viewer’s experience of the story that much more potent.
If any experience can be said to have stood the test of time, it’s humans inevitable enchantment with advancement and the aftershock of fear that accompanies it. Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey must have been fresh in Peckinpah’s mind while he crafted The Wild Bunch. When the gang sees the villainous General Mapache ride into town in a stylish new automobile, they are uniformly astonished and gaze upon it like primates and the monolith. The men exchange what seems like stilted dialogue containing grandiose prophecies of flying cars such as “got motors and wings and go 60 miles in less than an hour. Going to use them in the war.” Their wonder at the new mechanical beast is at once hokey and riveting, they run their hands over the fenders like children jealous of the rich kid’s new toy.
Later, we see the same trance wash over them and Mapache alike when they are serendipitously exposed to an inconceivable machine gun during their train car robbery. The weapon, which only Mapache’s German henchman Commander Mohr knows how to operate properly, is introduced with equally juvenile playfulness as the car, albeit with more ominous undertones. Mohr implores Mapache to “Put it on the tripod!” but the General shrugs off Mohr’s concerns and in a fine bit of horrifying slapstick, promptly loses control of the gun and spins in circles while unloading hundreds of rounds on to the villagers as they dive to take cover. When the onslaught is paused, laughter erupts from the inebriated crowd of onlookers and their leader smiles with embarrassment before unleashing another ten seconds of hilarious machine gun tomfoolery on the bystanders.
After a series of events sours the connection between Mapache and Pike’s crew, Angel is apprehended by the General. When the gang returns to rescue him, they find Angel tied up and dragging behind the same car they had marveled at earlier. The car whips laps around the village, while Angel writhes in pain and gathers dust behind it. The villagers jaw and holler their approval of his punishment, while the cowboys’ faces drop with horror. It’s a sensation every generation of viewer can relate to. Who hasn’t marveled at the stupefying power behind the Internet with astonishment? And who hasn’t watched the insidious reality of that power unleashed in some horribly disturbing way?
The machine gun also returns to play a pivotal role in the final shootout between Mapache and the few surviving members of Pike’s crew. Trading hands too many times to count, the weapon is eventually commandeered by Pike who unleashes his final torrent of bullets onto the soldiers and villagers alike. The bystanders are no longer laughing at the power of the new gun and are also no longer able to hide from its fury. What follows is a rapid series of cuts impossible to follow but miraculously succinct. Everyone dies; almost every villager, Mapache, all of our now beloved wild bunch of outlaws.
Pike has his own last stand behind that machine gun. When Deke finally tracks him back to the village, and finds his former partner, a sad silence is the only last rites Pike receives before his body is packed up and shipped out by the other bounty hunters. While Deke gazes out across the Texas frontier, he is encountered by the old camp cook that catered for the WB. He walks over to Deke, trailed by a new set of kids and says, “Well, me and the boys here, we got some work to do. Want to come along? Ain’t like it used to be, but it’ll do.” Deke smiles at the cook, and the new Wild Bunch trots away while the credits roll. Both Deke and Pike show us what has been re-illustrated with different settings and different heroes throughout the history of literature. You’re only as strong as your people. Cowboys never retire.