Film Review: The Wild Bunch, Sam Peckinpah, 1969
" 'Gave his word to a railroad,' Dutch
'It's his word,' Pike
'That ain't what counts,It's who you give it to.' Dutch"
"The Wild Bunch takes the basic elements of the Western movie myth, which once defined a simple, morally comprehensible world, and by bending them turns them into symbols of futility and aimless corruption"
Vincent Canby, New York Times, June 26 1969
"an undisputed masterpiece, one of the towering achievements of the genre"
Edward Buscombe, 100 Westerns, 2006, 224
"one in the gut for the mythic clean-cut Fordian hero."
Paul Simpson, The Rough Guide to Westerns, 2006, 146
"it is easy to warm to their vulnerable humanity , and yet they are merciless killers....from the behaviour of the main characters one could draw the conclusion that psychosis is the normal condition of mankind"
David Carter, The Western, 2008, 219
The Wild Bunch, Sam Peckinpah, 1969
This is a monumental film, set in the early twentieth century, the twilight of the West. Like Monte Walsh it deals with the aging misfits who no longer have a place in a changing world. It is the end of The West, the closing of the frontier. Our heroes are hounded across the border, where lawlessness is preserved largely intact, predominantly immune to twentieth century technological advances. Mexico is presided over by the not so benevolent military dictator Mapache, Mexicans live in fear and some are in open revolt.
Despite being crooks The Wild Bunch are bound by a morality borne of a military background, they are disciplined but ruthless. They have the appearance of manners and good grace but are capable of calculated unfeeling actions. Perhaps in different circumstances we could find ourselves in a similar situation. In particular Angel is shown to be a man of principle who inspires not just comradeship but the loyalty of the others to him, hardly a dishonorable trait. The Bunch are paradoxical complex figures, like us all they have their good and bad attributes. One is directed to assume that, like the mythic Jesse James, they have been driven to a life on the fringe by being misplaced soldiers who have become, in a sense, soldiers of fortune. This fits with Will Wright's apparently analytical and superficially persuasive classification of the Western genre as a "professional plot" where the cowboys have become specialists who act as a co-ordinated unit. (Will Wright, Six Guns and Society, 1975). As in the James Gang myth they are pursued by the relentless powerful commercial interests of the railroad, which is depicted as remote and corrupt. Fate has put them on the wrong side of the law yet they are as honorable as anyone on the right side, and probably more so given that they lack the hypocrisy of upright citizens. There is a wonderful dynamic between the honour insisted upon among the Bunch by Pike Bishop (William Holden) and the degenerate behaviour of the group of bounty hunters which pursues them on behalf of the railroad, looting bodies of the fallen, innocent and guilty alike. They are "even more reprehensible than the badmen they pursue". (Michael Coyne, The Crowded Prairie, 1997, 151). These jackals are reluctantly led by former associate Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), who refers to his bounty hunters as "gutter trash". Deke's apparent treachery is understood by the Bunch since it is the only terms on which he could secure his release from jail.
"We're after men, and I wish to God that I was with them." Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan contemptuously sneers to the reprehensible grasping uncouth disreputable lizard Coffer played by the wonderfully degenerate Strother Martin. He and TC played by L Q Jones are "simple minded vermin"". (Kim Newman, Wild Wild West,1990 127)
For Jim Kitses "they have no honour, only a way of life that is shared", (Jim Kitses, Horisons West 2004, 219) Whether it is honour or honour among thieves is a moot point, more importantly, they are killers but Peckinpah explores their humanity, in Jim Kitses words, "man's twin capacities for love, joy and brotherhood, for destruction, lust and bestiality". (Jim Kitses, Horisons West 2004, 217) The cast rise to the brilliance of the script and the ideas behind it, they are prompted to superb performances. William Holden is at his best in a role which is the opposite of those good guys on which his acting reputation has been built. Yet he is the hero, or is it anti hero? The brilliantly understated Robert Ryan's performance is also up there with his fine characterisation of Ben Vandergroat in The Naked Spur. Interestingly in that film he was the killer sought by the bounty hunter as opposed to the reluctant bounty hunter which he is here.
While Peckinpah reprises John Ford by including a rendition of "Shall we gather at the River" he himself clearly inspired Sergio Leone, and yet in turn was also influenced by the Spaghetti Westerns. The emphasis in Peckinpah's film is not the Community revered by Ford and of which this hymn was used as a Fordian symbol. Sung by a temperance group in the street outside the bank here it is used to contrast starkly with the Bunch's murderous intent, which it does, chillingly. The townsfolk are thus seen quite differently to Ford, it is not enough to expunge violence from their town, for although increasingly less so, their civilized world is always vulnerable. They are naïve and prey to organized criminals such as the Bunch. The degree of unsettling incongruity is exacerbated by the childlike psychotic bumblings inside the bank of the simple minded Crazy Lee (Bo Hopkins). As Jane Tompkins pointed out, the preoccupation of the Western has evolved so that by The Wild Bunch it has become centred upon death.
Peckinpah gives respect to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, importing the character of the old timer Sykes from John Houston's masterpiece, he is recognizable as Howard, the old miner played by Walter Houston in the 1940s classic. The structure of The Wild Bunch also uses its predecessor extensively.
Michael Coyne, in the excellent and wonderfully opinionated The Crowded Prairie, attributes "much of The Wild Bunch's raw power" to "Peckinpah's assault on Hollywood conventions".He is "intent on shattering the entire frameworkof cliches and candy coated myths in which movies customarily traffic as a prettified alternative to life....Even bloody, glorious death was preferable to punching clocks. Such romanticism is better than no romanticism at all."( (Michael Coyne, The Crowded Prairie, 1997, 152 and 160). Sadly, as Michael Coyne laments, Peckinpah's vision was to presage the far worse reality of the excesses of Charles Manson and the Vietnam War which were far, far worse, far more genuinely tragic than Peckinpah's art.
The camera work is superb, especially the use of the zoom which takes us into and away from the action, back and to from being observer to witness. The trade mark slomo sequences also add to the feeling of realism and intensity. The film is remarkable and full marks to the New York Times critic who saw this at the time and rose above the furore about what some perceived as excessive violence to recognize the beauty and quality in a great Western which would soon become a classic of the genre.
"Although the movie's conventional and poetic action sequences are extraordinarily good and its landscapes beautifully photographed (lots of dark foregrounds and brilliant backgrounds)......, it is most interesting in its almost jolly account of chaos, corruption, and defeat. Vincent Canby, New York Times, June 26 1969
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© Chris Smallbone February 2009