Even though I like horses, men who swagger, and wide open skies, I have never enjoyed westerns. I object to their cookie-cutter bad guys, their marginalized females, their predictable endings, and the fact that they all seem to have the same goal: a lugubrious homage to the Man Apart, a creature as revolutionary, ephemeral, and possibly fictitious as the American West itself. However, it took one of the classics, Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch," to enable me to fully understand my distaste for the genre. The chief reason I don't like westerns is the painful historical truth they illustrate, namely, that honor died soon after this country was born.
As long as there have been people, there have been archetypal heroes whose manifestation of honor helped define the values of a civilization and the qualities expected of its leaders. The Homeric warriors, for example, staked their manhood on ironclad (or rather, bronze-clad) allegiances to home, altar, guest, and kin, in addition to the basic requirements of strength and courage. Later on, the Celts added the concept of geis (bond or prohibition) to a warrior's attributes, moving some of the focus of his obligations to a more personal level. When Christianity came to the fore, god absorbed all other priorities for the European hero, resulting in that most exalted of knights, seeker of divinity, protector of the oppressed, and champion of his land, King Arthur. And as large kingdoms began to replace smaller fiefdoms, the noble class became less warlike and more institutionalized; a man's honor was reflected in his clothes, his manner, his speech, and the company he kept, and he might be willing to shoot you at fifty paces if you dared to impugn it.
Such was the state of things a mere 227 years ago, when the United States emerged proudly onto the playing field of the world. In young America as in Europe, a gentleman was an acknowledged entity who served his country, respected his neighbor, and would brook no threat or insult to his family, property, or reputation. Today, though the nation is still quite young, the gentleman, the noble warrior, the steadfast chieftain, and the pious king are nowhere to be found. Our leaders need but one quality --- wealth --- and their most salient characteristics are greed, egomania, ruthlessness, and incestuous cronyism. Their goal is power, their allegiance is narrow, and their devotion to family, neighbor, promise, and god is purely decorative, a smarmy nod of condescending recognition to the mummified corpse of the traditional honor they have vanquished. And the link between the old captain and the new cheese is the hero of all movie westerns.
Few films capture how the old west hero bridges the gap between the centuries of honor and the century without as well as "The Wild Bunch." The titular group is a pack of renegades led by Pike (William Holden), which makes a living robbing train depots and other establishments that serve the expanding settlements of southern Texas. After what was supposed to be their last big score goes violently awry, the group finds itself caught between the vindictive anger of an American railroad tycoon and the volatile interest of a thuggish, self-proclaimed Mexican "general." Although Pike is a thief and murderer, he comes to resemble a mythic hero because he has more philosophy (and competence) than all other men in the picture. Rejecting both traditional honor and the vainglory beginning to replace it, he follows the rules of conduct dictated by his natural ambition and daring, and by his respect for camaraderie, loyalty, and the underdog. As with all born leaders, the strength of his conviction draws others to him, including his right-hand man Dutch (Ernest Borgnine) and the lone Mexican in their party (Jaime Sanchez), whose chivalrous notions of virtue represent the last vestige of traditional male standards. The bunch's precarious position between the old world and the new is emphasized by the appearance of 20th-century technology on their horse-and-buggy landscape, and by the character of Thornton (the beautifully lined and weathered Robert Ryan), an old partner of Pike's now forced to hunt him down by the long arm of the law.
Some critics view Peckinpah's extreme grimness and unusually graphic scenes of violence (for the time) as representing the end of the conventional western, even while many commend "The Wild Bunch" as a work of art. The movie does feature quite a few bloodbaths, as well as notable acting, direction, and cinematography; but to me the sum of its parts is not so much the death of westerns as the death of the last ancestor of the ancient hero, the man of self-determined honor who enjoyed a short-lived glory in the American West before succumbing to the modern age.
Copyright © 2003 The Jujube (M. I. Kim). All rights reserved.