Empire “Masterpiece” #54 / Issue #225 / March, 2008
“We’ve got to start thinking beyond our guns,” muses William Holden, not long after the bloodiest shoot-out 1969 audiences had ever seen. Minutes earlier, a bank robbery in the small town of Starbuck has descended into carnage, with Holden’s Pike and his titular Wild Bunch forced to shoot their way out of an ambush, catching a good proportion of unarmed, hymn-singing churchgoers in the deafening, blood-spurting crossfire. That the Bunch never get to the point where they abandon violence and start living up to their oft-spoken ideals is the great tragedy of the film: an epic about failure that manages to be both nihilistic and romantic at the same time.
The Wild Bunch began life as a potential vehicle for Lee Marvin (who eventually passed in favour of Paint Your Wagon), green-lit in 1967 in the wake of the hugely successful Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. According to popular legend, the Bunch was Cassidy’s gang of murderers who cared little for whomever got in their way. William Goldman’s screenplay for George Roy Hill’s nostalgia-fest had played up the Robin Hood aspect of the Cassidy myth; that he never killed a man and never broke his word. It glossed over the idea that other people had done Cassidy’s dirty work for him.
Sam Peckinpah’s vision, expanded from a treatment by Roy Sickner and Walon Green would be altogether different. Replacing Butch and Sundance with Pike Bishop and Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), The Wild Bunch begins with the massacre in Starbuck, after which the Bunch flee to Mexico to shake off the pursuing posse led by “Judas goat” Deke Thornton, Pike’s ex-partner. After finding that the bank robbery was a set up and they’ve come away with nothing but sacks full of steel washers, they agree to One Last Job stealing rifles from the US Army for cigar-chomping Mexican warlord general Mapache. When a Mexican member of the Bunch, Angel, asks for one crate to be kept aside from the haul so that the people of his home village can defend themselves against Mapache, the rest of the Bunch agree. But Mapache finds out, and is in the process of torturing Angel to death when the Bunch returns to his hacienda for one apocalyptic last stand.
The film would be bleak and brutal, using craggy character actors in favour of pretty-boy Redfords or Newmans, abandoning traditional sound and editing processes in favour of visionary new ones, and revolutionising the depiction of on-screen violence. Nobody would ride a bicycle in soft-focus, and Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head would not be on the soundtrack.
Monty Python’s Salad Days sketch, where Peckinpah directs a genteel tennis game in the English countryside as a limb-severing, artery-gushing abattoir, pretty much sums up the director’s reputation, but there’s more to The Wild Bunch, and to Peckinpah, than blood squibs. Like Sergio Leone, Peckinpah’s mission was to pay homage to the classic Western whilst at the same time completely eviscerating it. Unlike Leone however, Peckinpah’s Westerns are sincere. The Wild Bunch is set in an explicit place (Mexico and the border, as opposed to the mythic Nowhere of the Dollars films) at an explicit time (1913, with the First World War imminent), and Peckinpah wants us to empathise with these out-of-epoch characters, despite the inarguable fact that, to man, they’re self-deluding cold-blooded killers.
His agenda is actually much more conservative than Leone’s, and even John Ford’s, in that he seems to buy wholesale into the notion that the mythic Old West actually existed. It may be 1913 but, south of the border at least, it might as well still be the 19th century, shown in a light that Ford exposed as rose-tinted selective memory in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but that Peckinpah and his characters seem to cherish. The presence of faded stars like Holden and Robert Ryan reinforces the idea that these characters’ best days are behind them. Pike’s inability to get on his horse anticipates Eastwood’s Unforgiven by almost 30 years.
And yet the characters are constantly making statements that expose their old-school code of honour as a sham. “When you side with a man you stay with him, and if you can’t do that you’re like some animal; you’re finished!” says Pike, conveniently forgetting that he just left a member of his gang in the bank as a decoy to be killed, and shortly afterwards gunned another friend down for being injured to the point of uselessness. He will later tell Angel that “$10,000 cuts an awful lot of family ties”, and claims that “being sure is my business” when he’s generally wrong about everything. “We ain’t nothing like him,” says Dutch of the appalling Mapache, but there’s little evidence to back him up, and he himself is not above using an innocent girl as a human shield in the climactic gun battle.
Despite all the bullshit though, there is undoubted camaraderie between the Bunch members. The generally bleak tone occasionally lightens for scenes of drinking and whoring (Peckinpah was no feminist) but even here, there’s an undercurrent of desperation. There’s a lot of laughter in The Wild Bunch, but for the most part it’s what Montgomery Burns calls “the mirthless laughter of the damned”: children revelling in scorpions being eaten alive by ants; Mapache’s delight that the bullet that killed his concubine wasn’t meant for him after all; villagers crowing at Angel as he’s dragged behind Mapache’s car (there’s that 20th Century encroaching again); Dutch’s psychotic giggle when it becomes abundantly clear that nobody is getting out of this alive; Old Sykes’ crazed guffaw over the film’s final moments.
Peckinpah even refuses the Bunch a heroic death. They don’t die in a blaze of glory trying to rescue Angel, but in pointless ignominy avenging the death that they failed to prevent, for no other reason than “why not?” and because “It ain’t like it used to be, but it’ll do” simply isn’t good enough. Peckinpah may have started a trend for stylised violence, but here at least, it has purpose: “It’s ugly, brutalising and bloody fucking awful. It’s not fun and games and cowboys and Indians,” he explained later. The Bunch’s inability to think beyond its guns is one more failure in a film where nobody succeeds. Deke Thornton could, with different emphasis, be seen as a flawed hero, working for the law (or at least the railway) pursuing Pike and his monstrous outfit. But he can only “wish to God that I was with them,” and unlike Peckinpah’s later, similar Pat Garrett, he doesn’t even get his man, arriving just as the dust is settling in time only for his posse to loot the bodies.
The film’s cynicism reflected the turbulent times: America was at war in Vietnam, and during shooting both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. That it still seems relevant forty years later is testament to the film’s uncompromising power and unsettling ambiguity: furious but tender; bleak but moving; naive but savvy; reprehensible and admirable. It proved a turning point not only for the Western, but also for modern cinema as a whole. The ‘70s were coming…