Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Wild Bunch

The Wild Bunch, directed by Sam Peckinpah, is probably the most violent western I've ever seen, at least until someone gets around to adapting Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian to the silver screen. It's a bloody, merciless picture, and it's just as shocking and graphic today as it was in 1969 when it was released. In this picture, no one is safe, not even innocent civilians, and there are no heroes, only a group of criminals who are slightly more honorable than the men who pursue them and the governments they defy.

Following a bank heist that turns into a bloody ambush in 1913 Texas, an aging group of outlaws led by Pike (William Holden) heads to Mexico for one last job before calling it quits. The group includes Pike's righthand man Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), old-timer Sykes (Edmond O'Brien), the hothead Angel (Jaime Sanchez), and the Gorch brothers, Lyle (Warren Oates) and Tector (Ben Johnson). They end up stealing guns for a Mexican general. Meanwhile, a former member of the group, Thornton (Robert Ryan), leads bounty hunters after the bunch; if he fails, Thornton will be sent back to prison.

The Wild Bunch is packed to the gills with scenes of unrelenting violence, and it is messy and bloody. The opening shootout between the gang and the bounty hunters not only results in several deaths on both sides but the slaughter of dozens of people marching for the Temperance Movement who get caught in the crossfire. Death here is not a quick, painless occurrence in which a person is hit and falls down quietly to the ground. Bodies are torn apart by bullets, blood gushes out of multiple wounds, and people cry out in agony. One member of the bunch has to be put down afterward by Pike because he's too injured to ride a horse. Following the battle, members of the bounty hunter posse immediately loot the dead, stealing the boots off one man and arguing with each other about who killed him. Meanwhile, the bunch finds their stolen loot is really worthless washers; the only reward is death, oblivion, or prison.

Peckinpah's camera is intimate, buried in the middle of the chaos and bloodshed. While a director such as Sergio Leone uses a lot of long, unbroken takes to build up tension that is released with maybe one gunshot, Peckinpah uses a more frantic editing style, cutting furiously between the participants. He also makes extensive use of slow-motion photography to show off the violence. As someone gets shot, we see them jerk and contort in pain as each bullet tears into him or her.

It's a cruel, merciless world in The Wild Bunch. No one is immune from the influence of violence; it's a nature that is apparently nurtured and bred into everyone. In the beginning, as the bunch rides into town, they pass a group of children who torture a pair of scorpions by feeding them to ants that they then set on fire. After the gunfight, the children run among the corpses, imitating the fight they just witnessed, pretending with their fingers and saying bang bang. Later, in a most interesting image, a woman wearing an ammo belt nurses an infant; the way of the gun is something to be weened on.

Now, it's an interesting irony that Pike's bunch is mostly likely the most honorable group in the movie. Sure, they're thieves and murderers who drink and frolic with prostitutes, but they're professionals; they don't go out of their way to kill anyone they don't have to, and they stick together, them against the world, even though that kind of camaraderie and honor is increasingly rare as modernity creeps into the Old West. The General and his army oppress the people of Mexico, stealing and killing as they please; the bounty hunters employed by the Railroad are a vulgar, stupid pack of killers; and the US government forces are either inept, corrupt, or both.

The tragedy of the film is that it's the gang's sense of honor that dooms them. Angel, the only one of the bunch with any plans to do something noble after being an outlaw. He plan to supply arms to Mexican rebels and fight for his oppressed people gets him in trouble when the General finds out he stole from him (Angel only has himself to blame himself. The mother of the girl he murdered for jilting him turns him in.). And it's the gang's sense of devotion to its members that leads Pike and company to march into certain death to save him. In a world in which machine guns and automobiles make death an impersonal act, the kind of code espoused by Pike and company is out of date.

The Wild Bunch has a somber, reflective quality tone between the scenes of bloodshed. Pike, Dutch, and the others frequently contemplate their future and the meaning of their lives. At one point, Pike even notes that the days of being an outlaw are almost gone. "We've got to start thinking beyond our guns," he says. Peckinpah and his co-writer Walon Green give their characters the time and attention to be more than vile killers; they're men who realize their fate and face it as honorably as they can. They'll go down fighting, but they won't abandon one of their own.

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