The Gross Yields: Peckinpah 4 – The Wild Bunch

As a fan of movies and music, I am interested in examining the output of directors and musical artists chronologically, observing how their work changed and developed over time. In this column, I proceed album by album and film by film, until I’ve covered the gross yield of that musician/band or director. Often, I select artists with which I am only somewhat familiar, if at all.

Current Projects:
Film – Sam Peckinpah
Music – Ween

The Wild Bunch (1969)

The Wild Bunch (1969), Starring William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O’Brien, Warren Oates, Jaime Sanchez, and Ben Johnson

The late 1960s was a pivotal time in American cinema. Mark Harris’s book Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (2008) examines this period by detailing the development of the five Best Picture nominees at the 1968 Oscars (The Graduate; Bonnie and Clyde; In the Heat of the Night; Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?; and Dr. Doolittle). It makes for a fascinating read for those interested in American film. For someone examining the films of Peckinpah, it does much to explain the creation of a Hollywood that would allow a picture like The Wild Bunch to be made when it contained violence and visual effects that the director had been prevented from including in Major Dundee only four years earlier. Of course, the dismantling of the Production Code was crucial; it’s not just a matter of blood and nudity, the Code would have taken serious issue with the film’s moral ambiguity. With The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah aimed to present the American West desanitized, stripping from it the Hollywood glamor of decades prior and replacing it with a different kind of beauty, once comprised of dirt, grime, death and blood. While the impact of The Wild Bunch on film violence can’t be denied — thanks to the Code most deaths prior to the late 1960s were bloodless and unrealistic — its contribution to cinema is much more extensive.

Peckinpah displayed an interest in subverting the stereotypes of Westerns from the start. His television scripts were praised for their realism and, in an obvious but effective device, he reversed the colors of the hats on his two leads in Ride the High Country (it being a long-standing tradition to identify the good and bad guys with white and black respectively). With Major Dundee, he was more interested in examining the flaws of the titular character than creating a hero in the manner of many of the roles played by John Wayne. This interest in presenting a more realistic West, both in the harshness of the world and the grittiness of the people inhabiting it, finds its finest expression in The Wild Bunch. A gunfight, such as that which occurs not long into the film, leaves as many, if not more, bystanders dead as participants, and the fear of a bullet in the back causes most to disregard honor and focus on staying alive. And while Peckinpah shows us the aftermath of the initial battle, it includes not only tears and screams of horror, but also children imitating the recent action, making guns with their fingers. It doesn’t matter who they are imitating — the thieves attempting to rob silver from a railroad office or the bounty hunters looking to stop them — since both groups acted ultimately out of self-interest and both shot bullets that found their way into townsfolk rather than their intended target; the image of the children plays like a bitter coda at the end of the symphony of violence we just witnessed. It’s as if to say men will have their young imitators even if they are not heroes, even if there actions are not worth imitating.

The plot of The Wild Bunch essentially concerns two groups of men: the thieves mentioned above, a group of outlaws led by Pike Bishop (William Holden), and the bounty hunters, employed by the railroad. The latter group is led by Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), a former partner of Bishop. Much like Gil Westrum and Steve Judd and Major Dundee and Captain Tyreen, these two men have a history together but the course of their lives finds them now at odds. In Westerns of earlier years, Thornton’s band would be the good guys, the fellows that the audience gets behind. Not here. As the title implies, Bishop’s wild bunch is the focus of the film. Furthermore, Thornton’s posse — including Peckinpah regulars Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones as Coffin and T.C. respectively — are dirtier than Bishop’s men, totally devoid of charisma, and clearly pursuing the thieves for their own personal gain; they descend on corpses like carrion eaters, arguing over who made the kill and can collect the money. We check in on Thornton regularly — who has been released from jail for the purpose of catching Bishop and his men and promised pardon if he succeeds — and keep up with his progress and his growing frustration with the incompetence of the bounty hunters, but there is no mistaking that Peckinpah’s film is about the “bad guys.”

Other than Bishop, the wild bunch consists of (those surviving after the initial gunfight, that is): Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), brothers Lyle (Warren Oates) and Tector Gorch (Ben Johnson), Angel (Jaime Sánchez), and Freddie Sykes (Edmond O’Brien). Lyle and Tector are perhaps the least complex morally: their primary concerns seem to be drinking and whoring (which is not to say that they are uninteresting, as they are fascinating characters as realized by Oates and Johnson). Angel, as his name not-so-subtly implies, has concerns beyond his own skin: he hopes to help liberate the Mexican village in which he was born from Mapache (Emilio Fernandez), a warlord and general in the Mexican Federal Army. When his companions agree to obtain arms and ammunition from a U.S. Army train traveling near the U.S.-Mexico border for Mapache, Angel at first wants no part but then agrees to help if he can take one crate of arms for his village instead of his share of the $10,000 Mapache is offering in return. It is this arrangement, a gesture of loyalty toward family and country, that dooms Angel. The other members of the bunch show little concern for either, robbing weapons from their own country to put them into the hands of a would-be despot south of the border; as Bishop comments, “$10,000 cuts a lot of family ties.”

Even so, the concept of loyalty does exist with some of these men, even if they don’t entirely agree on the definition of the concept. Later in the film, Bishop and Engstrom have the following exchange when Thornton’s pursuit proves an inconvenience and a nuisance:

Engstrom: “Damn that Thornton to hell!”
Bishop: “He gave his word.”
Engstrom: “He gave his word to a railroad!”
Bishop: “It’s his word!”
Engstrom: “That ain’t what counts. It’s who you give it to.”

While he feels no allegience to family or country, Bishop places value on a man’s word; because Thornton promised to pursue Bishop and his men, Bishop believes that his former partner should persist in that goal until it is achieved, regardless of who the word was given to. Engstrom, on the other hand, implies that he has no problem breaking his word, if he does not deem the promisee worthy of his faithfulness. It is a fundamental disagreement between two men who would seem to have few scruples otherwise and Peckinpah’s film doesn’t provide us with an answer, it only presents their opinions and lets them live out those philosophies in a harsh, dangerous world. In the end, the two men share a fate, resulting from an agreed-upon course of action in fitting with both of their perspectives on honor, which leaves the viewer with the question: what did it matter? While Bishop, Engstrom and the Gorch brothers struggle for that last score that will allow them to retire, the world is changing and moving on. They wonder at Mapache’s new automobile and argue over reports of vehicles that can take flight, offering us glimpses of a society that has no place for men like these. As one of the tag-lines read, they “came too late and stayed too long.” In part, The Wild Bunch concerns not only what fate awaits the outlaw, but the understanding and acceptance on the part of the outlaw of that fate.

The Wild Bunch is a grand, fantastic achievement in film. It must be seen. In 1969, it was an important film that divided critics, helped make permanent the strides toward a different kind of American cinema made by films like Bonnie and Clyde, and, some said, reflected the unrest and uncertainty of a country questioning and distrusting its government. For Peckinpah, it represented a redemption after several years during which he could not convince a single producer to let him make a feature film. Coming after the flawed Major Dundee, The Wild Bunch is a stunning achievement that assured the director would be remembered for his contribution to film. Given his troubled career, it is cause for celebration that the elements involved aligned in such a way to make this film possible because it continues to have relevance. Even though violence has become commonplace and many moviegoers have encountered countless anti-heroes, The Wild Bunch remains effective. Writing in 1991, biographer Marshall Fine commented that the film “still feels utterly contemporary… In the 1990s, with the future obliterating the past on a daily basis, the story of men outliving their time seems, if anything, even more telling, more pertinent to an audience than it did in 1969″.* Nearly twenty years later, Fine’s observation seems even more true; The Wild Bunch is a film that will likely never be irrelevant.

* from Bloody Sam: The Life and Films of Sam Peckinpah by Marshall Fine (1991)

Next: The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)

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