Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #45 The Wild Bunch (1969)
Well, folks this is it. Our patron-fueled chronological exploration of the films of Sam Peckinpah hits the big one: 1969’s The Wild Bunch. The film that changed it all. The movie so influential, so important, so essential to the canon of American film, and particularly the Western, that the genre can usefully be split into two periods: post-The Wild Bunch and pre-The Wild Bunch.
Everything that Peckinpah had done as a writer and director and visionary television maverick was leading up to this, his blood-splattered, corpse-strewn, transgressively violent masterpiece. The Wild Bunch would be Peckinpah’s magnum opus, his defining film.
In the world of film and the world outside, things had changed tremendously between 1961, when Peckinpah’s The Westerner star Brian Keith got him a job directing a modestly budgeted western called The Deadly Companions and 1969, when Peckinpah, empowered by the ability to show bloodshed and carnage with an explicitness previously unimaginable, gave the world The Wild Bunch, a landmark in the Great American Annals of Cool and cinematic violence.
The Wild Bunch is a great film. It is a masterpiece. It lives up its vaunted reputation as a cultural touchstone anyone with even a passing interest in film should see for the sake of cultural literacy. It is also, in the current social and political climate, an incredibly problematic movie overflowing with racist stereotypes of Mexicans as wild-eyed hedonists with a tequila bottle in one hand, a gun in the other and a crazed look of incoherent violence in their bloodshot eyes.
Even Angel, the Mexican member of the bunch, who is otherwise depicted as a man with a code of honor and a sense of decency, murders a woman in public in a violent frenzy of sexual jealousy and is betrayed by his own mother. So he’s not exactly the world’s best role model either.
Our current cultural sensitivity regarding racial and gender representation in entertainment doesn’t make The Wild Bunch any more racist or sexist or nihilistic but it does make its racism and sexism difficult, if not impossible, to ignore or dismiss.
Watching and enjoying The Wild Bunch I found myself powerfully conflicted. The film’s climactic shootout lives up to its reputation as one of the greatest set-pieces in film history but it also invites you to experience a massive surge of excitement and glee watching white men like William Holden and Ernest Borgnine use an early but EXTREMELY effective machine gun to mow down a sea of evil, crudely stereotyped Mexicans.
In Peckinpah’s world, there are no good guys, really, just variations of bad but the white men with their names at the top of the credits sure seem to reside closest to good. That includes Pike (William Holden), the leader of the Wild Bunch. Pike gets one of the great opening lines when he barks to his fellow gang members of their hostages in a daring raid, “If they move…Kill em!”
THIS man will be the film’s moral compass, this man of violence, this man of darkness, this man with so much murder in his past and so much carnage in his future. As with Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea in Ride the High Country, Peckinpah directs Holden and Robert Ryan (as Deke Thornton, a former member of the gang now tasked with tracking down Pike), to magnificent autumnal performances as men who have known each other forever and have a complicated history that informs every exchange, every glance, every facial expression.
Ryan brings tremendous gravity and sadness to the role of a survivor facing an impossible predicament: play Judas and betray a former collaborator and friend he admires and respects like few things in this corrupt and wicked world, or spend his golden years behind bars.
Deke is cursed with a team that isn’t just inferior to the one Pike is leading; they’re damn near sub-human, feral yokels he refers to as “nothing but egg-sucking, chicken stealing gutter trash” accurately if a little harshly. The outlaws Deke used to ride with with were men of brutality and men of violence but also men of honor, men with a code.
Early in The Wild Bunch we get a glimpse of Mexican children at play, their eyes wild delight, looks of pure mischief on their adorable faces. What’s giving these moppets such palpable pleasure? Watching fire ants descend upon a scorpion and overwhelm it with deadly force. It’s an image of pure brutality that establishes in the most ghoulishly unforgettable manner possible that violence in Peckinpah’s world is not the exclusive domain of gunslingers and outlaws, bandits and train robbers. No, in Peckinpah’s world, violence is everywhere. It’s in our DNA, in our blood. It’s human nature. It’s who we are.
God, should He exist, is not fundamentally benign. He is not kind. He is not on our side. He laughs at our suffering and our anguish with the same demented, unapologetic glee these children laugh at the suffering and mass death of insects. And then, because cruelty is not enough, because torture is still not enough, they set the whole fucking thing on fire just to watch the scorpion and the insects’ world burn.
The Wild Bunch opens with a bank robbery followed by a shootout between Pike’s men and bounty hunters that remains shocking a half century less for the brutality and graphic nature of the violence than for its artistry and effectiveness. It’s as if the death of the Production Code and the rise of outlaw Hollywood in the wake of Bonnie & Clyde unleashed Peckinpah’s id onscreen, that it opened a Pandora’s Box of darkness, carnage and brutality in Peckinpah’s dark imagination that could never be closed or contained again. The Wild Bunch is the work of a man empowered by the new freedoms of the times to be his best, darkest, most savage self.
The bank robbery is bloody but ultimately pointless, since the gang ends up with worthless washers instead of silver while losing several members, including “Crazy” Lee (Bo Hopkins), who gets one of the all-time great dying lines when he uses his final words to taunt Johnny Law, “How’d you like to kiss my sister’s black cat’s ass?”
When the subject of giving a recently killed member of the gang a burial is brought up, Dutch Engstrom, a hardass played by Ernest Borgnine sarcastically roars his approval, hissing, “I’d like to say a few words for the dear, dead departed. And maybe a few HYMNS would be in order. Followed by a Church Supper! WITH A CHOIR!”
By the time Borgnine gets to “with a choir” he is roaring with mock-concern and faux-reverence for the dead. In this world, only a sentimental fool would waste time with bourgeoisie niceties like giving the dead a proper burial. That’s a formality with no meaning in a lawless realm like this. They might as well be proposing a memorial tea party in honor of the colleague they lost.
This unruly aggregation of outlaws hole up in the village of Angel (Jaime Sanchez), the aformentioned Mexican member of their gang. Angel nurses a crush on a villager who has taken up with General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez), a drunken, violent, debauched and cruel tyrant out of Donald Trump and Steven Seagal’s feverish, racist imagination.
The Wild Bunch sadistically plays up the scandalous villager’s teasing sexuality, the way she throws herself at Mapache to antagonize Angel until, in a fit of rage, he shoots her dead in front of a huge crowd of people, a mere foot or two away from Mapache himself.
There’s a bracing luridness to this sequence, a grindhouse, drive-in movie sense of vulgarity that comes from the shameless, potent combination of sex and violence, bloodshed and misogyny that gives the sequence its grimy, gut-level power. This is an A-list blockbuster very in touch with its inner b-movie.
The Wild Bunch doesn’t seem overly concerned that one of its anti-heroes murders a woman in a fit of rage. The women in The Wild Bunch exist to give violent men momentary pleasure, or to betray men for money and opportunity. They’re women of ill repute or cold-hearted pragmatists with betrayal in their icy hearts.
William Holden was only around fifty years old when he filmed The Wild Bunch, or six years younger than Tom Cruise is now. But he could easily have passed for fifteen years older. Drinking and hard living had aged the Sunset Boulevard star prematurely. He was a beautiful, beautiful man in his youth in addition to being a brilliant actor and magnetic personality. But too much booze and too much hard living had taken a toll. By the time The Wild Bunch rolled around, Holden looked grizzled and sad, defeated and exhausted, like a man who had lived enough for two lifetimes and was now profoundly ready to die.
I didn’t understand that feeling when I was younger, the first time I saw The Wild Bunch as kid madly in love with the sum of American film. I imagined that death would always be the enemy, the one foe that could never be defeated, only held off for as long as possible. I don’t feel that way anymore. I’m a middle-aged man with a lot of life left in me but I can understand how a man might be so exhausted, so beaten down by life’s cruelty that death becomes to feel somehow kind, a final, ultimate release from a world of pain and torment instead of life’s cruelest, most final and irrevocable punishment.
Pike is a man convinced, correctly it turns out, that he doesn’t have much time or luck left, that he’s on his last go-round, his last trip to the rodeo. So when Mapache rejects Pike’s offer to buy Angel’s freedom and life and slits his throat in front of him instead, Pike and his remaining men kill Mapache and then embark on a suicide mission from which there is no possibility of survival, only the opportunity to go out in one hellacious blaze of glory.
The unrelenting violence, misanthropy and casual and not so casual racism have always made The Wild Bunch a tough and complicated, as well as thrilling and exiting watch. In many ways The Wild Bunch is a difficult film to watch in 2019 because it’s so thrilling and exciting to watch.
Watching the film’s rightfully revered final shootout, where Pike and what’s left of his men choose death rather than let their comrade’s murder go unavenged I was mortified by how excited I got watching grizzled white men commandeer a machine gun and litter crudely stereotyped Mexican bad guys with bullets.
The influential, brilliantly staged bloodshed in The Wild Bunch is almost too good. Instead of being repulsed by the savagery and ugliness and waste of human life, we’re vicariously experiencing the transgressive power fantasy of decimating the bad guys with a gun so powerful and futuristic it feels less like a conventional weapon than a goddamn doomsday device.
This machine gun is the future. It is an instrument of mass death. Troublingly, in The Wild Bunch, it is overwhelmingly an instrument of righteous death as well.
I was riveted by The Wild Bunch while I was watching it and deeply troubled by it immediately afterwards. It embodies, in its purest form, the troubling questions at the core of Peckinpah’s cult and mythology: how do you separate the creative genius from the personal ugliness? How do you separate the art from the artist? Can you separate the art from the artist?
The Wild Bunch was supposed to shock, to move, to assault the senses and sensibilities of moviegoers like no western before. It’s still shocking and assaultive and deeply, deeply troubling, a movie that’s so unrelentingly nasty that it’s impossible to embrace unequivocally but such a masterpiece it is impossible to deny or dismiss.
The Wild Bunch changed everything, for Peckinpah, for Westerns and violence in entertainment. A half century later we’re still wrestling with its complicated legacy and the way it seems to engage messily with some of the most pressing and important debates of today in an ugly and deeply disconcerting fashion.
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