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Post title A brief assessment of how "The Wild Bunch" has been written into history





      "The Wild Bunch"; Sam Peckinpah, 1969

      In looking at how "The Wild Bunch" has been written into history it soon
      becomes apparent that there are essentially two arenas of criticism. The
      first is what tends to be termed the "popular press", and by this I mean
      periodicals such as "Empire" magazine, newspapers, and TV programmes like
      "Film 2001". The second area is "academia", and by this I mean books that
      are dedicated either to Peckinpah and his films or the portrayal of the
      American frontier, journals such as "Monthly Film Bulletin" and "Film
      History", and papers that are written by university lecturers, professors
      and so on. Although various frameworks are utilized in each arena, there
      is a noticeable difference in emphasis. Put simply, the popular press
      tends to concentrate upon the violence that is contained within the film,
      and more specifically the notoriety that this gave to both the film and
      the director. The academic writing, however, deals with the films in a
      more detailed manner, looking more closely at the film's construction,
      themes, relevance and resonance. Even when dealing with the violence (as
      it must do for it is an integral part of the film) it does not do so in a
      sensationalist way but instead looks at Peckinpah's reasons for including
      it, and for filming it in the way he has.
      Before looking at this duality in more detail, however, and before
      identifying the various frameworks that have been employed to discuss the
      film it is first necessary to give some brief background to the film, in
      an attempt to place it in it's historical context.
      "The Wild Bunch" was released in 1969, a year that was a turning point
      regarding the American public's attitude to Vietnam, and at the end of a
      decade that is considered by many to be a watershed. Douglas Reitinger,
      for example, states that "America was in the process of ripping itself
      apart...Battles of one sort or another were pitched on problems ranging
      from civil rights to the Vietnam War to abortion" (Reitinger, 1996; 21)
      The studio system had expired around the mid-1950's (or, at least, this is
      what David Bordwell proposes in his book "Film History - an introduction)
      but taking this to be the case the following decade or so became a time of
      experimentation and imagination, particularly in mainstream film.
      Directors and producers revelled in the newfound freedom and independence
      at their disposal, and films such as "The Wild Bunch" were the result.
      Mainstream cinema began taking risks; a new dispassionate look at society,
      offering blatant criticism that had, hitherto, been rather subtler. Robin
      Wood, for example, argues that films such as "The Wild Bunch" presented
      "the sensation of imminent or actual breakdown, of rottenness at the
      ideological core of capitalist society..." (Wood, 1986; 28). He goes on to
      conclude that: "Since the early 60's the central theme of the American
      cinema has been...disintegration and breakdown. Various genres have
      reached their apocalyptic phase, most significantly that reliable
      barometer of America's image of herself, the Western...a development
      instigated by "The Wild Bunch" (Wood, 1986; 28).

      The story, very briefly, concerns two outlaws who were once friends but
      now find themselves on opposite sides of the law, and it charts their
      mutual realization that they have outlived their usefulness as one pursues
      the other towards the inevitable, tragic finale. It is this very finale,
      in fact, that is most often written about, and which illustrates the first
      and most common framework that is utilized in discussing the film: a moral
      framework. Paul Seydor has noted, for example, that "Whenever the subject
      of violence in the arts comes up, Peckinpah and his films..."The Wild
      Bunch" in particular, are at the epicentre of the debate" (Seydor, 1995).
      Upon the film's release the reviews concentrated upon its violent content.
      One critic called it "moral idiocy", and this can be further illustrated
      by looking at Empire magazine's review of the recently released
      "Director's Cut". Reviews such as this are, actually, very useful because
      they have a limited amount of space in which to discuss the film and so
      have to select one area to concentrate upon. This can often be very
      telling, and in this example the reviewer summarizes the film by stating
      that it "polarized American audiences, provoking widescale repulsion and
      documented cases of vomiting in the aisles" (Naughton, 1995; 34). From the
      very first paragraph, then, the tone and emphasis of this piece is clear,
      as they then continue by following the established wisdom that Peckinpah
      made violent films, and this is all that's really worth saying about them.
      Whether or not this is, in fact, the case is, of course, irrelevant
      because Empire is situated firmly in the popular press arena and is
      catering for a specific market: a market that is not interested in reading
      about technique or genre theory but wants, ultimately, to be entertained.
      It may even be possible to argue that reviews like this create an audience
      for the film, encouraging people who wouldn't have been interested in
      seeing it originally to give it a look, after reading about the notorious
      violence. All of this only enhances the myth that surrounds Peckinpah the
      man and his films.

      However, Paul Seydor justifies the violence by claiming that "the action
      is always charged with an ambiguous, volatile tension. It expresses
      something dark and subversive: the excitement of violence, the thirst for
      violence that brings us to violent entertainment in the first place"
      (Seydor, 1995). This duality in terms of the violence is, of course, a
      common one even today, and there is always conflict between those who wish
      to reduce the amount of violence in films and those who claim it is a
      question of artistic freedom. In this way, it is essentially a question of
      censorship, and "The Wild Bunch" is seen, along with "Bonnie and Clyde" as
      a pivotal film in this debate. It is accused of ushering in a new, relaxed
      climate towards violence which led directly to the more violent content in
      films throughout the 1970's and, of course, to the violence in films
      today.
      So, as Paul Seydor's quote demonstrates, academic opinion towards
      Peckinpah is quite different, and many writers have dealt with him as an
      artist. This leads us on to the second framework within which this film is
      discussed, and this is an aesthetic framework. Here, writers have tended
      to concentrate upon the technique of Peckinpah, and particularly his use
      of editing. Seydor himself describes the use of editing as follows: "It
      was Eisensteinian montage freed from ideological point-making and turned
      toward a new, profoundly disturbing psychological expressiveness and an
      authentic stylistic innovation which left few films that came in its wake
      untouched by its influence" (Seydor 1995).
      This also illustrates another common occurrence in writing about "The Wild
      Bunch", and this is the comparison of Peckinpah with people who are
      already established as great artists: a kind of "greatness by
      association". Here, he is compared with Eisenstein, but he has also been
      compared to Akira Kurosawa, Orson Welles and, even, Ernest Hemingway, but
      it is interesting that the majority of this kind of evaluation has been
      done recently. With the re-release of "The Wild Bunch" Peckinpah seemed to
      undergo a kind of reappraisal, and writers such as Seydor, but also David
      Weddle and Philip French, began comparing the work with that of others
      almost as a defence. It seems to me from reading all I have that it is as
      if they consider Peckinpah an underappreciated director, and by comparing
      him with all these other directors who are, seemingly, beyond reproach,
      they are providing a watertight defence for his work. It is as if they
      believe that no-one will dare criticize for, if they do, they will also be
      indirectly criticizing the likes of Eisenstein and Kurosawa. I think it
      also shows that the first response they expected towards the film was one
      of derision and dismissal, and the emphatic reception they give it is a
      way of eliminating this from the debate almost before it has begun. This
      sense of the man being under-appreciated is made clear from the way Seydor
      begins his reappraisal:
      "When Sam Peckinpah died...reaction in the media and the popular press was
      almost non-existent...There were no obituaries of substance and little
      commentary that gave any sense of the artist who had just passed away, or
      the seminal importance of his best work" (Seydor, 1995).
      The final line of his quote clearly illustrates how Seydor feels, but it
      also sums up the way that the majority of recent writing has approached
      the film. There is a definite sense of re-discovery, of a man and a film
      that need to be re-assessed, summed up by David Cook who simply states
      that "The Wild Bunch" is "the greatest western ever made", and that "it is
      clearly a major work of American art which changed forever the way in
      which violence would be depicted in American films, as well as permanently
      restructuring the conventions of the genre".
      Cook's mention of genre actually leads us to the third framework I've
      identified which places "The Wild Bunch" within debates about the Western
      genre, concentrating upon how it may either have been responsible for
      destroying the genre, or, by contrast, rescuing it. It all depends on who
      you read. Pauline Kael, for example, stated in 1974 that "A few more
      westerns may still straggle in, but the Western is dead" (Reitinger, 1996;
      21). However, Douglas Reitinger instead claims that the film was the first
      of the "post-western" genre, and that rather than die the western simply
      mutated its form. He states that "due to historical context and social
      upheaval, along with its own naturally occurring generic transformation,
      Western films, as well as their audience's expectations had changed
      dramatically" (Reitinger, 1996; 21).
      "The Wild Bunch" is certainly not a western if one thinks in terms of the
      simple politics of early John Wayne films, or those of Audie Murphy or
      Alan Ladd but, and this illuminates another framework, it is seen by some
      to reflect a change in America's psyche. So here we encounter a social
      framework. The contrast between this film and the earlier ones of more
      straightforward tone is taken up by Philip French who states: "The Wild
      Bunch [is] a violent, apocalyptic movie...in contrast to "The Magnificent
      Seven" where a less equivocal wild bunch intervene in the internal
      politics of Mexico almost as if they had anticipated the call of Kennedy's
      inaugural address...Now one views "The Wild Bunch" as a new-style, soured
      Kennedy western and a rather obvious and bitter allegory about Vietnam"
      (French, 1973; 32).
      Robin Wood takes up this view, and asks that the film be placed in a wider
      context "that of the movement of the American cinema and, beyond it,
      American society" (Wood, 1986; 28). It is the Vietnam war which tends to
      be focused upon in this particular framework, and more specifically the
      capacity for the film to reflect the war, almost as a metaphor. David Cook
      states that "For many critics..."The Wild Bunch" seemed to be an allegory
      of our involvement in Vietnam...Others saw the film more generally as a
      comment on the level of violence in American life. But nearly everyone saw
      that it bore some relationship to the major social issues of the times,
      and, depending on how one felt about those, one's reaction to the film was
      enthusiastically positive or vehemently negative".
      Those who have written about the film in this regard, then, actually spend
      very little time discussing the films form, style, or even the technology
      which was used. Instead, the debate is more of a polemic, concentrating on
      the film's thematic content and relating this to political factors at the
      time. It is interesting, however, that Peckinpah himself never stated that
      the film was intended to be a metaphor, and John Tuska argues that this
      was clearly not the case if one considers Peckinpah's work before this
      film. He claims that "the war may have helped the popularity of "The Wild
      Bunch" at the box office, but the underlying vision...was already being
      worked through in "Major Dundee" (an earlier film) before the Vietnam war
      had become truly an issue of national dissension" (Tuska, 1988; 28). The
      problem here, then, is in deciding how much weight to lend to this
      metaphor idea. It appears that it may have been nothing more than a happy
      coincidence, with themes that were common in Peckinpah's films in the
      decade prior to this suddenly attaining new gravitas due to social events
      beyond his control. If so, the relevance of this framework can be
      questioned, if only with regard to intent.
      These four frameworks, then, the moral, aesthetic, genre-based, and social
      are the four that the majority of the writing concerns itself with.
      However, there is one other that is used quite extensively, and this is
      the framework which considers Peckinpah as auteur, seeing "The Wild Bunch"
      as part of a consistent body of work.
      This attitude can be summed up by, once again, turning to Paul Seydor who
      says the following with regard to his films: "They have...assumed an
      imposing place in our film heritage both because of their intrinsic
      qualities and because of their influence, plainly evident, on other films
      and on our collective consciousness" (Seydor, 1980; 18). The recurring
      themes that writers suggest qualify Peckinpah as an auteur are almost
      solely based around the presentation of masculinity, and the majority of
      writing in this area has, understandably, been done by feminist critics
      who almost unanimously lambaste the director, and "The Wild Bunch", for
      their portrayal of women.
      In the notorious final sequence one woman is used as a shield against the
      gunfire, and another shoots the hero in the back. These scenes, in
      particular, have come in for a great deal of criticism, but writers such
      as David Weddle have leapt to Peckinpah's defence. He states that the
      omission of women, giving them only ancillary roles, places Peckinpah "in
      a solid American tradition which includes two of our greatest works of
      fiction, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "Moby Dick"" (Weddle,
      1995, 29).
      To summarize all of this, then, in looking at how it has been written into
      history, "The Wild Bunch" has been given pretty extensive coverage, with
      the role of the director being given equal prominence to that of the film
      itself. The overriding impression one gets, however, in looking at all of
      it is that it is undoubtedly the violence which is consistently picked out
      and scrutinized. This is understandable since it plays such a large and
      important part in the film but, as stated, it is the way in which it is
      scrutinized which proves interesting.
      One major factor in this regard certainly seems to be the passage of time,
      and this has had a huge impact on the film's reception. As discussed, at
      the time of its release the film was fiercely criticized from all
      quarters, and its not inconsiderable commercial success is probably
      largely due to this. However, as time has passed, and violence within
      films has become more commonplace, "The Wild Bunch" has become more widely
      accepted, and is now regarded by many to be a "classic", this phrase being
      used to mean "important" or "influential".
      Academic writing treats the violence as a "means to an end", as an
      important and integral part of Peckinpah's vision, which mytholigizes the
      male characters and mourns their passing. The popular press, however,
      centres its discussions on the ever-present debate regarding the effects
      that violence may or may not have on the viewer. Whichever framework is
      employed there are, of course, omissions that have to be made, but I do
      think that concentrating so intently on only one aspect of the film is too
      narrow an approach. This, according to Robin Wood, has had the result that
      "in the eyes of the public and most critics, Peckinpah's gentler and
      arguably finer films have been overshadowed by the spectacular and
      explosive violence of the notorious works" (Wood, 1986; 22). It is
      probably an attempt to rectify this that has led to the thorough
      re-evaluation that the film, and particularly Peckinpah himself, is
      currently undergoing. Whether this re-evaluation is wholly objective is
      highly debatable, but then no evaluation can be, and this is the problem.
      The writer has to decide which area to concentrate on, and it just happens
      that with "The Wild Bunch" Peckinpah provided ample opportunity for the
      violence to be taken as the centrepiece.

      References:

      Too Long in the Wasteland from "Film and History" vol. 26; Douglas
      Reitinger; 1996

      The American West in Film; Jon Tuska; 1988

      Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage; Paul Seydor; 1980

      The Western; Philip French; 1973

      © Adam Shepherd 1997