This is part of my effort to write about my 100 favorite films in two pages or less. The new Format looks stellar, no? Shelly did a remarkable job.
The Wild Bunch
by Sam Peckinpah
“I believe in the innocence of Children,” said Sam Peckinpah, one of the most exciting men who ever lived. He was a womanizer, tyrant, alcoholic, bastard, and a film director. His films featured grit, violence and sex to a degree few commercial filmmakers have ever dared. His movies feature true vulgarity and bacchanalia, whether in the form of one of the most narrow-minded depictions of rape ever filmed, or of two men bathing in a vat of wine with three whores, or of Warren Oates pouring tequila on his penis to kill the crabs his prostitute girlfriend has just given him. He was a difficult man, but one with vision and guts. While others moved in progressive directions, leaving ordinary themes behind for more complex ones, some opted to ignore the change in the times and keep making the same manner of film they always had. Peckinpah decided to breathe life into a genre that nearly everyone had forgotten about. The biggest difference between his and most other westerns is simply in the way he fills the background. Shot on location with real Mexican people, magnificent costume and production design, his films brim with vitality even when nothing happens. His films have a naturalistic quality in their backgrounds that even the greatest of westerns lack. Lucien Ballard’s cinematography helped, of course, in bringing a new Mise-en-scene to a dying breed of film. Things move freely and wildly in Peckinpah films and Ballard’s camera caught it all magnificently (though it is impressive to watch the Director’s cut that has been shown in theatres in recent years, it hasn’t been digitally remastered and so the genius of Ballard’s cinematography goes somewhat unnoticed). His attitude toward children played a crucial role in this, his crowning moment as an artist, and it differs greatly from that of his many heroes and predecessors – Rene Clement, Vittorio De Sica, Carol Reed, Frank Capra, Robert Wise – in that he sees their innocence as something that allows them the greatest potential. They do not see their behavior as wrong and so they do what they feel is right, what gives them greatest pleasure. They act violently toward nature, respect what they please and act out of this sense of respect. Now who they respect is another matter entirely, as they get to choose who they feel responsibility towards; themselves or those with the power to reward them. The only film that really captures every facet of Sam Peckinpah’s beliefs, the one that changed his life, gave his career it’s direction and altered the lives of many, many people is The Wild Bunch.
Sam Peckinpah was an outsider to the world of film; his views on plot structure and his steadfast refusal to compromise had nearly succeeded in taking his one creative output away from him. When Hollywood recognized once again the magnitude of Peckinpah’s creative genius, the first shot they gave him was all he needed and it fit him like a glove. Westerns until the mid 1960s had always basically followed certain archetypes (Anthony Mann’s films obviously prove the exception, ditto Johnny Guitar). The element of westerns which had yet to be rewritten was that the lead characters always apostrophize about their ideals and what it is they’d be willing to die for; Peckinpah’s triumphant return to the big screen unflinchingly shows what it looks like when men decide to walk the walk. They do so in one of the screen’s most electrifying gun battles ever filmed. The scene, famous for it’s behind-the-scenes stores of limited extras and uniforms, makes perfect use of Sam’s feverish editing and his love of the squib (fake blood spurting from bullet-sized pockets hidden in clothing). The opening and closing orgy of gun violence will always be as exciting to me as the first time I saw it. On the big screen, it’s the stuff of dreams; so perfect is the montage of both gunfights that you’re unknowingly on the edge of your seat when they’re through.
The story concerns a gang of aging criminals around the time of the Mexican Revolution in 1913, led by Pike Bishop (William Holden in what has to be the finest performance of his career). The bunch, Dutch (Ernest Borgnine, his finest hour), Brother’s Lyle (Warren Oates, who steals many of his scenes with his demented anger) & Tector Gorch (Ben Johnson, who despite being covered in filth can’t help but look elegant), feisty new recruit Angel (Jaime Sanchez, who must be one of the first Mexicans to portray a heroic figure in an American produced film), and horse watcher Freddie Sykes (Edmond O’Brien, who should have won an Oscar for his Walter Huston act) drifts around Mexico contemplating their next move; they’re wanted by the law and by a posse of inept bounty hunters hired by the railroad headed by Pike’s former partner Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan in one of his best roles). It was Pike’s arrogance that landed Deke in Prison and now the railroad has bribed him with freedom into tracking his old friend down. Thornton and Pike understand that things can’t change between the two of them, and that they’ll never stop their game of cat and mouse. This dynamic is not uncommon in many westerns, but excluding Sam Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James, the feeling of romantic tension between these two men is unique to the genre. Indeed it is the shock in William Holden’s face when he thinks Thornton has been killed in the demolition of a bridge and the hangdog look on Robert Ryan’s face after the final showdown has claimed his erstwhile accomplice’s life that cements the other half of the story’s dynamism. If these men didn’t care, neither would we. Lawmen chase bad guys because they have to; Thornton and Bishop have reason enough to get quit of the whole business, but it would almost certainly mean abandoning the other, which neither can face.
The two men share the same haunted flashbacks, but it’s the memory of the past that keeps them going. In fact it’s the memory of the past that keeps everyone in the film’s universe going. The story takes Pike and his men from a botched railroad heist into Mexico where they agree to steal guns for a General combating Pancho Villa. During a brief stop in Angel’s village before meeting the General, Pike and Sykes talk to an old man who helps the revolutionaries fight local oppressors who wish to steal their land. Watching Tector & Lyle dancing and acting foolishly, Pike says how funny it is that grown men can act like children when they want to. The old man tells him that even the worst men pine for their childhood. The end of the road is not too far for Pike and he knows it, so even if it isn’t childhood he wants, he’d take his earlier years, when he could get on his horse without stumbling that he wishes to relive. He could act as ruthlessly as the children who torment scorpions with fire ants that they pass on their way to rob the railroad. Sykes, Deke, Pike, and Dutch all see that their tenure as gunmen is coming to a rapid close, the only question is “how’s it going to end?” In a traditional western, the ending would look something like the departure from Angel’s village (a scene Peckinpah improvised): everyone gathered in the main drag to see these men off.
In Peckinpah’s world of absolution, they must give their lives for the one thing they have left to believe them. Interestingly, it wasn’t until seeing this movie on the big screen that I thought about what gunfighters must think of death. When each member of the gang is laid down, they seem to come to rest more than being torn asunder. Is death so unyielding a possibility that when it finally arrives is it simply the anticipated arrival of an inevitable step (is it welcome?). These men don’t seem too bothered about their own deaths; it’s the falling of their brothers in arms that gets them.
When Angel decides to steal a box of the General’s guns so his people can defend themselves, he is caught and punished by the general. With Thornton and the army waiting for them, they have little reason to leave town, but with Angel being towed behind the General’s car through the town square, staying feels just as bad. The scriptwriter Waylon Green commented that Pike’s last words to his men before they stroll, bold as brass through town, their guns in their arms, to go meet the General, were not enough. Pike simply barks as he has throughout the entire film “Let’s go,” and the message is clear; everything he says is completely unambiguous whether his words are makes no difference. Peckinpah, as his daughter Sharon has noted, clearly modeled Pike Bishop on himself, mannerisms and all. So what we have is a man searching for a time when he could be as bold and free as he could be, as a child is. The Wild Bunch was simply a movie with great dialogue and two of the best gunfights in history until very recently. There’s a recording of Peckinpah where he talks about something he used to do as a child. He was infatuated with Tennyson’s poem “Charge of the Light Brigade” and so memorized it and then started acting it out. Soon he had as many as 50 kids involved in helping him recreate the scene from Tennyson’s work. On this recording beautifully sums up his filmmaking career in so concise and pure a way that I was floored by his simplicity: “I guess I’m still doing that.” Never before had The Wild Bunch or it’s creator seemed so human. I was reminded of Arthur Lee of the band Love who received a premonition that he would die at age 26 and so strove to make his next (and presumably last) record show the contents of his soul; the result, Forever Changes, is one of the greatest records of all time, but it’s not without it’s dark and strange moments. Sam Peckinpah was, unbeknownst to audiences, baring his soul to the world. Pike’s dilemma was his dilemma: where do you go when the world has refused you? When all you want is to be able to be free again? He was a monster and mad scientist on the set because he needed the movie to be perfect, he needed the world to see what lay within him and could not be hemmed in by a script. When The Wild Bunch wrapped, Sam left his technicians, found an empty corner in the shooting space and wept like a child. This was it, his one chance and it’s perfect. It says everything Sam Peckinpah could not. He drank himself to death in 1984 leaving a lot of friends, a lot of enemies, a host of memories good and bad, and at least one legendary film behind.