Lost in the Movies: The Wild Bunch

The Wild Bunch

The Wild Bunch, 1969, directed by Sam Peckinpah

Story: After being set up in a bank heist, the dwindling and aging Wild Bunch (a band of outlaws operating in the American frontier of the early 20th century) crosses into Mexico. Pursued by bounty hunters led by one of their former members, the Bunch agree to steal a cache of weapons for a corrupt Mexican warlord – but eventually, they must decide what’s worth more: his gold or their vaguely maintained code of honor.

The Wild Bunch is notorious as a subversive take on the Western genre, with the opening lines of Pike (William Holden) – “If they move, kill ‘em!” – supposedly a declaration of independence from the old-fashioned sanctities of the form. And the ensuing massacre would seem to confirm that we’re a long way from the moralistic shades of High Noon (1952) and Shane (1953), what with old ladies of the Temperance Union being killed in the crossfire by careless deputies, cowering bank tellers being taken hostage and used as live bait by the titular antiheroes, and the innocent babes of the town wandering through a town square littered with the corpses of their elders as they imitate the outlaws’ gunfire. Meanwhile, other children light a bonfire over battling scorpions and red ants, piling violence upon violence in a microcosm of the film’s pathology: lethal but somehow poignant old cretins – the bunch – pitted against the ruthless, small-minded hordes – the bounty hunters and Mexican soldiers and railroad men who are just as violent as the outlaws, but somehow more petty.

And there's a key point, because from today's vantage point the much-noted violence of The Wild Bunch is hardly as shocking as it was in 1969. Decades of slow-motion death rattles and massacres heavy with civilian casualties have somewhat desensitized us to director Sam Peckinpah's gore - though the carnage still inspires awe for its aesthetic finesse, its brutality no longer pulls us as sharply out of the old Western myths as it was supposed to once upon a time. Meanwhile, the film's style - despite the zooms, close-ups, and kinetic editing which were then novelties for the stately genre - now seems positively classical in comparison to the slick fireworks of contemporary blockbusters. What then remains, when the violence has lost some of its bite, and the film no longer appears so shockingly modern?

Perhaps the key takeaway from a 2009 screening of The Wild Bunch is its peculiar romanticism. If we've adapted ourselves to the nastiness and cynicism of Peckinpah's West, we've also forgotten some of the sentimentality (yes, sentimentality) that even the most hard-bitten, cruel bandits were capable of. In other words, The Wild Bunch now seems to hold some long-forgotten middle ground, between the clean-cut myths of many early Westerns (though they, too, had their fair share of ambiguity) and the amorality and despair of most modern Westerns - and indeed, most modern films, period. Suddenly it is not the balletic leaps of corpses riddled with bullets that seems so shocking, but instead the swigging of whiskey around the campfire, the affectionate sharing of a girl in a flea-bitten bordello, or the insistence of Pike that a man who betrays his buddies is no better than "an animal."

What stays with you is the longing in the weary Americans' faces as they exit a peasant village (portrayed with almost naive sweetness by Peckinpah as Edenic), the existential despair and emerging certitude of the remaining quartet as they decide to rescue their one remaining friend (who has been tortured by the Mexican general they cynically worked for), the wistful yearning of Pike's former partner Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) who could not be there with the gang when they went down in bloody glory but wishes he could have been (despite the fact that he was hired to kill them all himself). Of course, the gang may be likable but they are not especially sympathetic. Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), Pike's right-hand man and at once the most moralistic and least apologetic of the Bunch, grabs ahold of a panicking, fleeing prostitute in the final shootout and mercilessly uses her as a human shield to catch the bullets aimed at him.

It's a reminder that the gang, for all their honor and loyalty to one another (which itself is often challenged, if ultimately confirmed, throughout the film) cares little for those outside their immediate circle. Which is why the glowing portrait of the noble revolutionaries, whom even the dogged Bunch seem to admire, comes off as a bit dishonest: why are they worthy of our sympathy when the townspeople of Texas and the desperate Mexican prostitutes are not? (Such vaguely leftist favoritism, rare in the film, betrays something of its sixties counterculture milieu, otherwise sidestepped while balancing old macho values with modern outsider alienation).

Finally, Peckinpah gives us a portrait at once bitter and romantic, savage and tender, cruel and cynical yet also sentimental and honorable. Just as the decade to which The Wild Bunch belonged now seems as poignant for the passing of the old ways as for the birth of the new (and especially the brief coexistence of the two), so the film itself, much like its antiheroes, belongs to the world it is helping to destroy.

This review was originally published at the Boston Examiner, my first post as "Indie Film Examiner." It was later cross-posed at Wonders in the Dark, where you can read the comments.

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