WELL PLANNED MASSACRE
Loyalty, bloodshed and betrayal in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969)
by Dylan Craig (firstname.lastname@example.org)
You're not gonna get rid of anybody. We're gonna stick together, just like it
used to be. 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. We're finished! All of us!
- Pike Bishop
These words, spoken to avert violence in a movie awash with violence, indicate
one of the central themes of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. In this essay, I
will show the ways in which the film can be considered a comment on American
society during the era of Richard Nixon and the Viet Nam war, and the
significance of concepts such as loyalty to the characters and events it portrays.
The Wild Bunch was released in US cinemas in June 1969. A year previously, the
American public had been shocked by the twin assaults of the Tet offensive and
My Lai massacre in far-off Viet Nam - two of the most bloody and disturbing
events of the entire Viet Nam war. These events had been brought home to the
general public (by the independent media) in what was to become known as the
first ‘Televised War’ - and, while its levels were nowhere near as high as they
were to become, protest against the war had been steadily growing since the
first trickle of American casualties began seeping back across the Pacific. The
American public had recently voted out a president who was seen to have
‘betrayed’ the interests of a nation - the ill-fated Lyndon ‘LBJ’ Johnson, whose
inability to satisfy the voters’ growing distaste for the war had led to his
fall from office. His replacement, Richard Nixon, inherited a society fraught
with suspicion and cynicism for the horrors of war, yet increasingly familiar
with its face; it is from these conflicting impulses that movies like The Wild
Bunch drew their power.
Several themes pertaining to issues of loyalty will be more closely examined in
the course of this essay; these include the different natures of earned versus
enforced loyalty, portrayals of legitimate versus illegitimate authority, and
changes in loyalty during the course of the film.
Setting the stage: The hold-up in Starbuck
We first encounter the Wild Bunch in the guise of Army soldiers - those
indefatigable guardians of order from the ‘classic westerns’ - moving in good
order through the town of Starbuck. They pass a Temperance League meeting just
in time to hear the speaker ask the audience whether they truly think that five
cents is really the price of a drink. Such a question provides the ethical
foundation for the dilemmas that are to confront the Bunch throughout the movie;
what are various abstract qualities - loyalty, friendship, professionalism -
truly worth? As the Bunch enters the bank, a clerk is heard to say ‘I don't care
what you meant to do - it’s what you did that counts’ thereby echoing a
sentiment which is expressed by Dutch later in the movie:
Pike: What would you do in his place? He gave his word!
Dutch: Gave his word to a railroad!
Pike: It's his word!
Dutch: That ain't what counts - it's who you give it to!
Seconds later, to everyone’s surprise, the ‘soldiers’ level pump-action shotguns
and the illusion of order is dispelled. But these few moments - the only part of
the film in which the Bunch can move through ‘normal’ American society as
observers and participants rather than as fugitives - are crucial in terms
setting up the essential moral framework of the movie. As the temperance speaker
seems to represent, more is at stake than financial gain and crude enrichment;
the bank clerk, on the other hand, suggests that actions speak louder than
words, and that fine intentions mean nothing without a willingness to ‘practise
what one preaches’.
America in the late 1960s was, similarly, a society in which many fine words
were being spoken regarding such issues as global peace and civil rights; yet,
in almost all aspects of life, what was lacking was the willingness to make
concrete sacrifices towards the attainment of these goals. Harrigan (who claims
to ‘represent the law’) is as callous and vicious in his pursuit of a ‘body
count’ as any jungle grunt, and the deaths of the massacred Temperance marchers
bear obvious similarities to the newsreel and photo-footage the American public
would have been familiar with from the Viet Nam war.
This, then, is the movie’s depiction of American society - a place where the
innocent are brutalised by those in power, and where even children are capable
of torture and cruelty.
Loyalty within the Bunch: honour among thieves
By contrast, Agua Verde - Angel’s village - is a place of peaceful contentment,
despite the ravages of Mapache’s raiders (which, while mentioned, are never
shown). Here, the Bunch are revered as heroes, feasted and feted, and surrounded
by singing crowds on their departure. But before the Bunch reach Agua Verde,
they need to overcome a crisis of loyalty, which provides one of the clearest
insights into the internal dynamics of the group. Pike, Dutch, Angel, and the
Gorch brothers have reached the meeting point where Sykes is waiting with fresh
horses. Here, the Gorch brothers present Pike with an ultimatum; Sykes and
Angel’s shares are to be reduced, or else. But the rest of the Bunch unites
against the brothers, forcing them to back down as Pike snarls, “I either lead
this bunch or end it!” This challenge to Pike’s authority is the result of the
carnage in Starbuck; Pike has failed as a leader, and Lyle and Tector’s
disobedience flourishes as a result and is only dispelled - re-uniting the group
- after the successful raid on the Army train. The Bunch, then, is a group held
together by competence, rather than brute authority; although the Gorch brothers
are made to back down through a threat of implied violence, the factor which
unites Dutch, Sykes, and Angel against them is faith in Pike. Similarly, it is
another moment of incompetence which returns to haunt Pike in the guise of Deke
Thornton; Thornton’s capture, and subsequent appearance as an unwilling bounty
hunter stems from bad decision by Pike.
This kind of loyalty is strongly contrasted with the loyalty (or lack thereof)
between Thornton and Harrigan (on one hand) and between Mapache and the Bunch
(on the other). Harrigan compels Thornton’s obedience by threatening him with
the tortures of Yuma prison, while Mapache attempts to steal the weapons the
Bunch are bringing to him to avoid having to pay them for their efforts. In both
of these cases, the ‘idealised’ loyalty displayed between the members of the
Bunch is absent, and in both cases the beneficiaries are eventually punished.
Mapache’s cruel whims result in the death of his men under the guns of the
Bunch, and Harrigan loses Thornton’s services by refusing to allow him to ‘do
things his way’.
Parallels between these themes and the social context of the time are readily
drawn; while the full extent of Richard Nixon’s betrayal of the American people
was yet to become apparent, the 60s were perhaps the first time that a modern,
media-exposed American public had been aware of the failings of their leaders,
whether in the previously-sacred halls of military conduct or domestic politics.
An unease regarding the breakdown of such social contracts is apparent in many
films of the time, The Wild Bunch included.
The powers that be: Mapache, the US, the Germans, and Villa
The Bunch, a group of grim and ruthless gunmen who seem to have few concrete
dreams beyond the next debauch or bottle of whiskey, exist in a strange limbo
between the established sources of authority in the movie. On one hand is the US
government - a government with which, as Pike admits, they ‘share very few
sentiments’; on the other, their sometime employer General Mapache - a tyrant
whose money they gladly accept while funnelling aid and arms to those who would
resist him. Mapache is a pantomime tyrant, complete with sweaty uniform and
brutish leer; his men are little more than cackling murderers in the vein of
Harrigan’s animalistic bounty hunters. The American authorities are painted with
a similarly unforgiving brush; both the sheriff of Starbuck and the Army
soldiers are shown to be impotent, unable to control the excesses of men such as
Harrigan and Mapache. These groups exist within the framework of law, but
without personal morality - in Mapache’s case, because he is a selfish and
whimsical tyrant, and in the case of the US characters, because they lack the
grit or depth of character to do what is right.
By contrast, Peckinpah depicts the Bunch as existing above the constraints of
law without being blind to the rugged, idealised self-sufficient ‘Code of the
West’. They take hostages, but they do not (as Dutch points out) hang the
innocent, as Mapache’s men do; while they will kill soldiers in self-defence, it
is a rare occasion when, like Harrigan’s bounty hunters, they strike without
provocation and without justification. Their execution of the German advisors,
which seemingly stands in contrast to this code, is nonetheless understandable
due to their association with the odious Mapache. Peckinpah seems to suggest
here, that while any association can doom one as clearly as the bonds of loyalty
doom the Bunch into their suicidal rescue attempt, not all associations allows
one to die, like the Bunch, with honour.
The only legitimate sources of authority in the movie are, once again, those
motivated by idealism and honour - Villa’s forces (although visible only as
artillery on a distant horizon) and the Agua Verde partisans escape the harsh
treatment which Peckinpah reserves for the groups mentioned previously. The
pursuit of goals with honour, or at least accountability, is thus depicted as
doubly praiseworthy; both in the eventual success of those who follow such a
path, and the deaths of those who do not.
Death and Redemption: Conclusion
‘It ain't like it used to be - but it'll do.’ These words, spoken by Sykes to
Thornton, provide the closing statement of the movie, emphasising that despite
all that has gone before, rebirth and honour can always be attained by
Given such a moral framework, and the way the Bunch proceeds through the events
of the movie, by its end it becomes clear that there is no way out for them -
they must die to cleanse themselves of their association with Mapache. However,
their sacrifice frees the people of Agua Verde and Deke Thornton from their
respective tyrants (Mapache and Harrigan); the bounty hunters ride off to their
well-deserved deaths, and Sykes provides forgiveness and an opportunity for
regeneration by offering Thornton a place in the revolution against the
When these acts of redemption are considered alongside Peckinpah’s other major
points regarding the interconnectedness of competence, morality, and legitimacy,
we again see parallels between the society from which The Wild Bunch arose and
the scenario it depicts. ‘Peace with Honour’ was to become Nixon’s rallying cry
for the US withdrawal from Viet Nam; the notion of national pride and dignity
was still a strong one around the end of the 1960s, and the components of this
ideal - the ideal of national honour - is an ideal which is directly spoken to
by The Wild Bunch.
1. J. Douglas Canfield, Mavericks on the Border: The Early Southwest in
Historical Fiction and Film. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001
2. Michael Coyne, The Crowded Prairie: American National Identity in the
Hollywood Western. London: I.B. Tauris, 1997.