skew * four * Reels * Wild Bunch
More About Pike Than About The Bunch
Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch"
reviewed by Jesse Garon
My formative experiences with film were primarily on the postage-stamp sized
screens of multiplexes, in the college classroom, or on television monitors. One
of the first things I did when I hit ground in the City of Angels was to start
making pilgrimages to the remnants of the great movie palaces along Hollywood
Boulevard: the Chinese, the Pacific, and the Egyptian. It took me about six or
seven months to get to the Cinerama Dome, at the intersection of Sunset and
Ivar, but, from my first trip there, I was hooked. The Dome is, to me, one of
the true Meccas of Cinema - what we talk about when we talk about the big
screen. When it was announced that the restored cut of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild
Bunch (1969) was going to playing at the Dome, I knew where I was going to be
its opening weekend.
The Wild Bunch is one of the pictures that transformed the American film-scene
in the late '60s and early '70s. In the years following the collapse of the
Production Code, American filmmakers found the freedom, for better or for worse,
to depict such topics as sexuality and violence in new, more explicit, modes of
expression. Opportunities for subversion and dystopian views had certainly
existed in the Production Code era; film noir and the later Westerns of John
Ford, for example, stand as excellent proof of that. However, for all the
subversive, intellectual content of these films, the violence was still refined,
and almost genteel; people who were shot bled just enough for you to know that
they had been hit. Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde changed that, and The Wild
Bunch reinforced this new way of seeing things.
The film is the story of Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his gang of outlaws,
rapidly approaching the end of their brutal careers. An attempted robbery of a
Texas railroad office turns out to be an ambush - the bunch shoots their way
past the bounty hunters, using a temperance union parade as cover - and Pike
makes it out with only four members of his gang (Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates,
Ben Johnson, and Jamie Sanchez as Angel). They hook up with Freddie (Edmond
O'Brien), and escape to the Mexican town of Agua Verde, ruled by the marauding
General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez). There they agree to rob a train carrying
U.S. Army munitions and deliver the weapons to Mapache's troops. Meanwhile, the
railroad forces Pike's former partner, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), to pursue
the bunch in order to avoid imprisonment. Deke can't even begin to disguise his
contempt for the "eggsucking, chicken-stealing", amoral scum the railroad gives
him as a posse, or his desire to ride with Pike and his gang again. The train
heist goes well, but Mapache finds out that Angel sent one of the cases of
rifles to the people of his village and tortures him. In retaliation, the four
remaining members of the gang march into the general's headquarters... and all
hell breaks loose.
The first time I saw this film, I was gripped by the brilliance of Peckinpah's
visual depiction of violence: the incredible montages, the constantly shifting
eye for details, the sheer viscerality of the spurting blood. Seeing it again,
three years later, the montage is still stunning, and absolutely incredible. The
details are vivid, almost haunting. A young boy and girl cling to each other in
the midst of the first gunfight, staring at the massacre around them with a
mixture of horror and fascination. The eyes of an Army patrol leader as he
watches a train engine crash into a boxcar full of raw recruits and horses. A
falling body away from which Peckinpah cuts three times before it lands. The
shock of recognition as Pike looks up and sees Deke pointing a rifle at him.
This film is not simply concerned with the aestheticization of violence, though.
The atrocities Pike and his gang commit equal those of the men hired by the
railroad; the only difference, as the railroad executive makes clear, is "We
represent the law." All of this is not so much about the end of an era, as about
the end of the perception of an era. Originally released at a time when people
were rioting in the streets and the war in Vietnam was shown on the nightly
news, The Wild Bunch points out that American progress has been riddled with
moral ambiguity and bloodshed from day one.
What I did not realize the first time, and what the restored film makes clear,
is that the film is more about Pike than about the bunch. As the men ride away
from the disastrous robbery, Pike ruminates on previous failures, depicted in
flashback: Deke's capture and the murder of a lover by a jealous husband.
Holden's grim facial expressions brilliantly capture the mood of a man who has
reached the end of the line, who knows that he will not be able to survive for
long in this world. Watching the film now, the significance of the final
bloodbath almost pales in significance to the scene in which William Holden,
dressing in a whore's bedroom, listens to an infant's cries and to his partners'
bickering, looks at the woman in his room, who stares back impassively, and
slowly and painfully comes to a decision that means certain death, but a death
in which he will finally "do it right".
The sheer kineticism of the violence in this film has been imitated so many
times since 1969 that it is frequently taken over by aesthetic gimmickry, as new
films compete to see who can depict violence in the sleekest, most stylized way.
The majority of these films do not even come close to the emotional resonances
which Peckinpah invested in the film's bloodbaths, where every shot (both from
the gun and from the camera) has weight and significance. The re-release of The
Wild Bunch confirms its, and Peckinpah's, landmark status in American cinema.