There's Nothing Left to Do but Die
The Wild Bunch / TK
Film Reviews | January 21, 2008 | Comments ()
I’ve always felt that there are several different major sub-genres of westerns. The morality tales of John Wayne, frequently directed by John Ford. The Italian movement, or “Spaghetti Westerns,” with Sergio Leone and his Man With No Name trilogy, consisting of far more minimalist direction. The modern interpretations, such as Tombstone, Wyatt Earp, Unforgiven and the more recent 3:10 to Yuma. And then there is The Wild Bunch, the film John Wayne famously claimed was destroying “the myth of the old west.” Wayne was right, too. The Wild Bunch doesn’t just destroy that myth; it shoots it to pieces, leaving a trail of blood, tears and despair in its wake.
Filmed in 1969 and directed by Sam Peckinpah, The Wild Bunch is the tale of a group of on-the-run bank robbers fleeing across the border to Mexico after a robbery gone terribly wrong. To describe it simply as a caper film, however, is to do the film a great injustice. The Wild Bunch is also a tale of an age coming to an end. Set around the time of the Mexican Revolution, it tells the story of a world that is changing, and what happens to those who cannot cope with that change. It’s famous for its extreme violence, but it is one of the few films where the violence serves a very specific purpose. In a way, the violence is the message in The Wild Bunch. And that message is: No matter how hard you fight, you can’t stop change.
The eponymous Wild Bunch is composed of Pike Bishop (William Holden), Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), Angel (Jaime Sanchez), and the Gorch brothers — Lyle (Warren Oates) and Tector (Ben Johnson). Pike is the leader, a weary relic and hardened criminal who is watching the world he lives in change around him, but refuses to accept it. Dutch is the loyal lieutenant and in some ways the moral compass of the group, despite his savagery during the film’s extended gunfights. The Gorch brothers are the younger, uncontrolled wild cards. They’re obviously late additions to the gang and don’t always believe in the moralistic directions of their elders. Angel is the earnest Mexican ideologist, a romantic hothead who is full of fury at the woman in his life and at the country he is seeing being ripped apart by the warlords of its time. Together, and with several others, they set out to rob a bank in a grim western town. The bank job is a setup, however, and they are quickly ambushed by a group of bounty hunters hired by a railroad company, seeking revenge against Pike for his past offenses. The bounty hunters are led by Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), the sad traitor who once used to ride with Pike.
The ambush at the bank is brutal in its violence. At its time, it probably broke a record for most innocent bystanders killed in a single scene. The robbers, trying to flee the bank, end up in a shootout with the bounty hunters, and neither side has any regard for those getting in the way. Coupled with the fact that the town is in the middle of a march by the temperance movement (one of the many symbols of change), it turns into an all-out massacre. The gang, which started out with nine or ten members, is whittled down to a bloody and battered five within the first 30 minutes of the film.
Following the ambush, the Bunch flees to Mexico (after furiously discovering that the job was a setup, and they just killed dozens of people for several sacks of steel washers), picking up a crotchety and wizened former gunslinger, Freddie Sykes (played with a gleeful gleaming eye by Edmond O’Brien) along the way. Once in Mexico, they stop briefly in the village of Angel’s youth before meeting up with the villainous General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez). It is these two meetings that set the tragic events of the rest of the film into motion. From there on out, the film takes them to Mapache’s gang of mercenaries, who, backed by German intelligence agents trying to gain a foothold south of the United States, is trying to gain power in Mexico. They rob a train full of weapons, meet up with Mexican revolutionaries with ties to Pancho Villa, and finally end up in a massive firefight with Mapache’s entire army, all while dodging the forlorn yet dedicated bounty hunter Deke and his hired band of miscreants, not to mention the U.S. Army.
There are so many themes throughout the film, it’s difficult to keep track of them all. The most recognizable theme, however, is progress and change, and how some can survive it and some will be destroyed by it. When Wayne complained of the destruction of the old west mythology, it was this very theme he was inadvertently describing. The old west, as we know it in stories and films, was coming to a close by 1910. The concept of the noble cowboy, an outlaw who lives by a code, was turned on its head by Peckinpah, who was more interested in showing what desperate men are capable of, and how they have no place in the modern world. During one of the film’s quiet moments, when Pike and company are trying to figure out how to escape the predicament they’ve shot themselves into, Pike despondently claims that it’s “time to start thinkin’ beyond our guns. Those days are closing fast.” As a result, the gang is looking for that ubiquitous last score, something to get them out of their gun fighting ways. But even then, they are paralyzed by the thought of the future. When Pike proclaims, “one good score, and back off,” Dutch derisively snorts “back off to what?” They can steal all the money in the world, but it won’t buy them a home in the new world order.
Some of the most interesting and vivid symbolism takes place within the film’s first 30 minutes. The opening shot of the gang riding past a group of playing children starts out harmlessly enough, until the camera cuts to show the children are torturing scorpions by burying them in fire ants. Right away, we are shown the brutality that people, even the youngest most innocent-looking, are capable of. This theme of the corrupted innocence reappears throughout the film, demonstrating that no one is truly good, culminating in the shot of a young boy gleefully shooting someone in the back during the furious battle at the film’s climax. And if killing a peaceful group of temperance marchers, a group dedicated to morality and changing the ways of the past, doesn’t demonstrate the film’s underlying ideas, frankly, I don’t know what does.
Another idea worth exploring is the treatment of women. While we all know my aversion to the misuse of “the m word,” misogyny is deliberately rampant in the film. With the exception of the temperance workers and a random smattering of villagers, almost every single woman in the film is essentially a whore. Whether that’s a consequence of the circles they travel in or the mindset of the director, it’s obvious that there’s no place for women in this world, and as such they are shown nothing but disrespect by its denizens. When Angel discovers that the woman he loves has taken up with Mapache, he shoots her in a fit of rage. When they aren’t being routinely used as human shields in the gun battles, they are shown to be there solely for the amusement of the men. It’s hard not to take a critical eye at Peckinpahs depictions of women in The Wild Bunch, but at the same time, I suppose it’s perhaps unfair to expect to find feminist role models wandering around gangs of killers and thieves in pre-revolution Mexico.
Finally, the idea of the traitor is immensely important. Throughout the film, people are betrayed, trusts are broken, and revenge is sought as a result. Whether it’s companions left behind, or Dekes self-loathing for helping the railroad, a corporate beast hated by all, to track down his former comrades, or Mapaches attempts to cheat the Bunch out of their money when they rob the train for him, betrayal of trust is a steady constant. What’s interesting about it is that everyone is guilty of it — the “code” of the cowboy rarely holds firm, even when Dutch shouts that your word “ain’t what counts! It’s who you give it to!”
The Wild Bunch is credited as being one of the most controversial yet influential films of all time. The action sequences were heavily edited, filmed with multiple cameras and mixing standard-speed shots with slow-motion. While slow-motion deaths and falling are commonplace now, they were relatively avant-garde in 1969. The long, sweeping shots of many other westerns are not as prevalent; instead, Peckinpah chose to focus on the characters and their immediate surroundings for the key scenes. But the violence of the film is what attracted the most attention. While perhaps less jarring to our contemporary eyes, it’s still undeniably vicious. Throats are cut, men are back-shot, and the innocent are killed without remorse. When, in the climactic “Battle of Bloody Porch,” one of the Bunch takes control of a tripod-mounted machine gun, men are cut down in a steady stream of bullets and brightly-colored blood. Peckinpah is renowned for the violence in his films, the natural consequence of his fascination with the viciousness that humans are capable of. However, as mentioned earlier, the violence here, like in many of his films, serves a purpose: It shows that no matter how much the world changes, the violence will always be there. Whether you choose to resist that change, or to go along with it, it will always be a part of our world.
TK can be found wandering aimlessly through suburban Massachusetts, wondering how the hell he got there while yelling at the kids on his lawn. You can find him wasting his time at Uncooked Meat.