Reflections on “The Wild Bunch” (1969)
Story by Walon Green and Roy N. Sickner
Screenplay by Walon Green and Sam Peckinpah
Directed by Sam Peckinpah
Starring William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan et al.
A video presentation of these notes is available here
“The Wild Bunch” opens with a raid by our “heroes” on a railroad office, the purpose of which is to relieve the railroad company of a consignment of silver, but the carefully planned robbery goes horribly wrong.
A group of undisciplined, greedy and reckless bounty hunters hired by the railroad company and led by a former compadre of our robbers, opens fire on them but our group uses a passing parade (ironically composed of members of the temperance movement) to cover their exit. As shots are exchanged between the determined and organised robbers and the less than competent and hot-headed bounty hunters, instigators and innocents alike are mown down by wild gunfire with a complete disregard for the lives of passing townsfolk and any collateral damage either side might inflict.
Using imagery vaguely reminiscent of that used at the start of Clouzot’s existential action/drama “The Wages of Fear” in which cockroaches are linked and taunted by a young boy, these opening scenes are interspersed with shots of a few scorpions being attacked by a horde of red ants while being watched by a group of amused children. Dangerous creatures willing and able to assert themselves and cause death in order to survive are attacked and overwhelmed by a mass of individually inferior red ants working together to bring down the ostensibly superior and more powerful breed.
This may be viewed as a metaphor for the fate of our band of anti-heroes as our simple but highly dangerous band of thieves encounters opposition in the shape of the railroad company and its bounty hunters, the army, and the Mexican militia led by General Mapache, representing business, governmental order and amoral political ambition, respectively.
The metaphor does not, however, end there. The children who view this grisly assault and who are all amused by it, place burning hay over the entire assembly, sealing the fates of all concerned. It might be suggested that these children represent the youthful audience delighted by the embattled antics of these proud, noble and menacing creatures now held up as mere figures of entertainment who are consigned to the flames of Hell and the ashes of oblivion.
Thus, the stage is set and in the opening minutes the underpinning moral principle for the entire film is established – there is no morality. There is no “right”, “wrong” or “justice”. There are only “sides” doing what they feel they have to do in order to survive and prosper. No side respects morality, humanity or even legality – their actions are based on their determination to succeed in accordance with their own perspective.
All are willing to cause collateral damage to innocents, cause death and destruction and trample on human rights in order to see their task through or to defend their viewpoint.
There are, however, major differences between our “Bunch” and these other factions. The railroad bounty hunters, the army and Mapache’s men are united by the desire for payment, self-advancement and self-interest while Pike Bishop’s cohort appears bound, however loosely, by comradeship and friendship. This does not prevent them from disagreeing and bickering to the point of mocking and threatening one another, but the underpinning principle of loyalty always allows them to forgive transgressions and retain respect for one another. Pike and Deke maintain admiration and regard for one another despite Pike apparently running out on Deke and the fact that Deke now leads the bounty hunters chasing them down. Each knows and understands that the other did what he had to do in order to survive, though each feels guilt at letting the other down, reflecting an ongoing, if conflicted, allegiance between the two.
While we may not approve of the Bunch’s murderous and robbing ways, they have our support as they face even less principled and more inhuman groups opposed to them. These groups are well financed, armed and supported as they represent power and order which they seek to impose and expand. Our anti-heroes persist in trying to survive in their own way but they apply certain limits (“We don’t hang people”, they insist) and at least demonstrate humanity toward one another. There is no denying their courage and determination as they refuse, almost Quixotically, to yield to the others’ overwhelming force and instead set out to take on the challenge of facing seemingly unbeatable odds.
Much has been made of director Sam Peckinpah’s enthusiasm for the theme of the passing of the Old West and its ways in several films, and that theme is undeniably revisited here. The introduction of the motor car, the machine gun, improved communications systems and the very fact that commerce, government and political opportunists have organised themselves to put pressure on our small band of rebellious desperadoes all attest to that.
However, the broader themes of ageing, the awareness of time running out and the resultant desire to give value to one’s life are also visited.
There are frequent references to physical problems in simply moving about, the need to make one last big score and recollections of the past, all associated with ageing, reflection and an awareness their time is coming to an end. Of course, they quickly realise that they have nothing in their lives but action, survival and one another. It is perhaps fitting, then, that in the end they opt to face insurmountable odds to try to gain the freedom of Angel, one of their own, who has been held by Mapache and is being tortured by him. In so doing, they choose to defend the one principle by which they have tried to live – loyalty to one’s compadres, and perhaps they hope to compensate for any previous failures, even if they were understandable, to live up to their code.
The willingness to risk everything for a friend is indicative of the strength of the bond between these men. There are times when they share their inner feelings and fears. They bicker but reconcile due to profound respect and mutual affection. They recount tales of shared experience and they end up laughing with one another, both because they enjoy one another’s company and as a means of defusing a situation, suggesting an underlying bond that will prevail over any disagreement. These are all signs of a solid, almost marriage-like relationship. They have formed a fraternity which overrides all other relationships, even those with women who are appreciated but with whom they find it difficult to communicate and have a satisfying and emotionally rounded relationship.
Children are seen frequently in the film and apart from being regarded as a source of responsibility and pride, they may be viewed as a reminder of the cycle of life and the fact that their outlook and actions will be influenced both directly and indirectly by the actions and attitudes of those around them as they grow up. Significantly, it is a child, dressed in uniform and wielding a rifle, who fires on Pike in the final battle and brings about his end.
Sam Peckinpah’s highly engaging script and direction were punctuated by graphic violence, gore (strong for its time) and celebrated slow-motion sequences. His declared purpose in using slow-motion was to emphasise the horror and bloody consequences of such violence, but I can’t help but wonder if, especially in the final extended battle and given our mitigated affiliation with Pike and co, there was not a feeling of satisfaction in the audience as Mapache and his men get their just desserts, dying as they lived, by violence.
Unsurprisingly, Pike and his friends also die violent deaths at the hands of those they are willing to kill, leaving Deke and Sykes as the sole survivors of the group. Sykes recognises the futility of focusing on the past and, invoking their common bond of fraternity and spirit, invites Deke to join him in the action and mayhem of the Mexican Revolution. Laughing together, they head off to continue to ply their trade with Pike, Dutch and the others living on as happy and revered memories. Life goes on and, as they say, it is for the living.
I approached this film with some trepidation given its reputation for glorifying violence, but I found it far more engaging, touching and thought-provoking than I anticipated. Yes, the violence is there but it serves a poetic purpose (though the success of the way it is presented is, I suppose, open to debate). The whole is delivered, rather like the characters themselves, with great spirit and gusto, yet tinged with wistfulness and regret.
There are strong performances from all concerned but especially from the lead actors who manage to convey determination, reflection, regret and affection, fleshing out the thoughtful script and carrying their roles to a higher emotional plain.
Ernest Borgnine gives excellent support as the strong and devoted Dutch while William Holden is superb as the weary but still driven Pike.
My thanks for taking the time to read this page. I hope you found it of some value.
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