Opening Up a Treasure: The Wild Bunch
THE WILD BUNCH
U.S.A. / Warner Brothers-7 Arts / 1969 / Technicolor / 145 Minutes / Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
"If they move... kill em!"
... is announced by the central figure in the justifiably famous The Wild Bunch a split second before the title card "Directed By Sam Peckinpah" appears and still frames the scene. Perhaps never before has any one statement more perfectly captured a film director's temperament. This storyteller commands our attention. He's got something a little more important on his mind than what we're used to experiencing at the movies. So the character and filmmaker become one, and in 1969 usher in a whole new level of storytelling: a uniquely purposeful vision, brimming with religious, cultural and historical references, symbolism, and irony. With this film, Sam Peckinpah passionately carried on the tradition of the Western genre while at the same time blowing it to bits. While the story reflects on America's tumultuous times, its execution is way ahead of them. The Wild Bunch stands today as easily the most compelling Western ever made hence one of the finest motion pictures America has produced, and contains a level of profundity never before imagined by western audiences or filmmakers alike, perhaps even Peckinpah himself.
Sam's seeds of interest in men having to make tough decisions while wrestling with their own moral code were planted early in his career as a television scriptwriter for various episodes of Gunsmoke, Broken Arrow, The Westerner, and The Rifleman amongst others (the latter of which he helped create and periodically direct), but really came to fruition with his second directorial feature and penultimate artistic success Ride The High Country (See: Top Ten Westerns Part 3). Expanding on the theme of "doing what's right" Peckinpah presents us with two protagonists Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott), and Steve Judd (Joel McCrea), both of whom have outlived their time trying to achieve their personal goals while simultaneously being morally tested by their adversaries. They've each made some bad decisions, although only Westrum has succumbed to the temptation of taking something not rightfully his. Yet they both believe in a personal code, one that Westrum will finally take to heart. At the story's powerful conclusion, these two will stand together prepared to do whatever it takes to live up to this higher purpose, however antiquated, in order to gain dignity and redemption.
The subject of men struggling with each other and their personal demons to find an identity and add meaning to their lives, would remain the common thread throughout most of Peckinpah's more personal projects including his next feature-length film Major Dundee. This film marked the beginning of Sam's volatile relations with producers and distributors. Columbia studios, sensing that the film was too long and convoluted to be commercially viable, made so many cuts that the finished product became practically unintelligible.
It would be three years before Sam would direct another feature but The Wild Bunch would forever remain the highest watermark of his career. Working with a dedicated cast of top professionals, a crackerjack crew of creative geniuses perfectly complementing his extraordinary vision, Peckinpah creates an opening scene to his revisionist western that delivers an all out assault on the senses.
The opening credits begin. They appear over drawings that will suddenly freeze-frame the striking imagery before our eyes. Over the soundtrack, a slightly off-beat drum cadence suddenly cuts to a minor-key fanfare over the title card. This announces a group of Army soldiers on horseback riding toward a small Texas border town circa 1913. The foreboding theme music briefly segues into a lyrical motif as they ride past some children playing. The riders look down, and we notice that these not so innocents are gleefully poking a stick at a few scorpions embedded in a pool of ants. The men continue on their slow ride into the town of Starbuck, past a Temperance Union meeting, and over to the railroad office where they are observed from atop a building by one of their former members Deke Thornton (a worn out looking Robert Ryan). Thornton is now with a group of savage bounty hunters and their very determined railroad boss Pat Harrigan (Albert Dekker). When Thornton reluctantly IDs the gang and its leader Pike Bishop (William Holden), we realise that these are not Army soldiers after all but a group of wanted outlaws. Like the children playing and the drum cadence missing a beat, nothing is what it seems. Pike and some of his crew enter the railroad office. An incidental but prophetic line of dialogue spoken by a clerk to his subordinate will add further meaning to the story: "It's not what you meant to do, it's what you did I don't like." The clerk is then confronted by Pike and the group's true intentions are revealed.
During the robbery, one of Pike's men Angel (Jamie Sanchez) notices the mercenaries on top of the building waiting to ambush them as they leave. They decide to make their getaway as the unsuspecting Temperance Union marches past the office singing "Shall We Gather At The River." These bounty hunters are nervously wound up over the anticipated shootout, and their boss Harrigan couldn't care less about collateral damage, so they shoot at everything and everyone in sight turning the town into a bloodbath. The scorpions in a pool of ants becomes a metaphor for the Bunch caught between innocent men and women on the ground and the hired guns shooting at them from above. Two children hold each other in the middle of the street during the chaos, as we watch a man get repeatedly shot from above. A woman is inadvertently trampled upon by Pike's horse in the ensuing getaway. The shootout is filmed with an authenticity to the effects of violence never before captured in this genre, courtesy of Lucien Ballard's vivid photography and the post production editing mastery of Louis Lombardo.
After the surviving members of the outlaws have fled out, Thornton says to his boss "Harrigan! Next time you better plan your massacre more carefully or I'll start with you" to which Harrigan says "Why didn't you kill Pike when you had the chance?" He receives no reply. The children burn straw over the scorpions and ants as Peckinpah dissolves to innocent men and women lying dead in the streets of Starbuck, loved ones crying over them. Other children run through the streets playing their mock gunfight finally coming right up to the camera playfully shooting us with their hands as the film pointedly cuts to one of the bunch falling off his horse. He's been shot in the face in the preceding shootout. We see the gory details as the wounded member tells Pike "I can't ride... finish it... Mr. Bishop" to which Pike obliges by shooting him dead. One of many ironies occurs later when the group's survivors discover that all they stole from the railroad office were bags of washers.
Before The Wild Bunch in 1969, the Western genre, typically defined by fairly recognisable good guys and bad guys had never included anything like this. More than just the graphic violence (bullets making entry wounds, blood spurting everywhere), Peckinpah and co-screenwriter Walon Green examine the reasons for this violence, furthermore demonstrating its repercussions by the unique and significant ways it affects everyone, even the story's peripheral characters. We're introduced to bad guys, worse bad guys and really worse bad guys, with their conflicting interests constantly arising. There's little humanity in this new kind of cinematic West; it seems everyone is morally compromised to one degree or another. Peckinpah has had enough of complacency as well. He makes the Temperance Union symbolic of society's unaware and offers no apology for turning them into his story's first sacrificial lambs.
As the bunch ride out of Texas and into Mexico with Thornton and his inept gang in pursuit, Pike will recall his past bad decisions: the worthless shootout in Starbuck, the time he boasted to Thornton that they'd never get caught (right before Thornton was captured) and forgetting about leaving one of their own back in Starbuck to guard some railroad employees. Later he will tell of a Mexican woman he once loved, shot dead by her husband after making a surprise visit discovering Pike and his wife having an affair. Pike says to his pal Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine: See End Credits) that an hour doesn't go by without his thinking of her.
In Mexico, the bunch visit the town of one of their own, Angel, and find a warm reception. However, an army "General" Mapache (noted Mexican filmmaker Emilio Fernandez: See Hidden Gem #20) has raided the village, killed Angel's father and taken his fiancee. The next day the bunch bid a heartfelt farewell to Angel's village and then stumble inadvertently upon Mapache's camp. After they subdue Angel for killing his former bride to be (who left willingly to be with her adored Mapache), the bunch is subsequently hired by the General to rob a U.S. Government train carrying munitions. In return for the arms to fight Villa, Mapache will pay them $10,000 in gold. Later that night, the bunch privately agree that Angel will sacrifice his share of the gold in exchange for 1 case of rifles and ammunition for his village.
The robbery goes off without a hitch. Pike even thwarts a ploy by Thornton to capture them. He blows up a bridge (an incredible, not to mention life-threatening scene whereby a bridge is dynamited with the stunt riders still on it). However, when it comes time for Angel and Dutch to collect an instalment payment, Mapache states that Angel has stolen some arms from the train, learning about this from the mother of the girl Angel killed. (This mother is referred to later as a "Judas" by one of the bunch, as Thornton was earlier in the film by his boss Harrigan). Dutch having previously lied about the missing arms being lost on the trail, is unable to reveal the truth about Angel's secret pact, and must ride on leaving Angel with Mapache's now well armed forces.
Later, Pike, Dutch, and the Gorch brothers Tector (Ben Johnson) and Lyle (Warren Oates) will again visit Mapache's camp to seek refuge from Thornton and his bounty hunters. Only this time they will discover the unexpected and learn something about themselves in the bargain. Angel has been tied to an automobile and dragged around the camp with children happily following, one who even rides on him. Pike tries to buy Angel back with half his share of the gold but it's no deal: Mapache, getting drunk in celebration with his men, is enjoying himself torturing the now half-dead Angel, has his guns and needs no gold.
Hours later just outside Mapache's camp, Pike dresses next to a prostitute and quietly contemplates the past events as the two Gorch brothers in the outer room quibble with their girl over how much she's due. As he looks intently at his female companion, perhaps Pike is thinking about his lost Mexican love killed by her husband or the girl Angel lost who betrayed him. In any event, he walks out and says sternly to his two comrades "Let's go." Lyle responds assuredly "Why not?" The meaning of this? In that one moment it has become clear to Pike and his men that they must finally stand for something more than their self-interest. They've made a mistake and this time must correct it. Earlier, Pike angrily stood up for the elder member of his group Freddie Sykes (an almost unrecognisable Edmond O'Brien: See Close Encounters) when the old man was being harassed by Tector Gorch proclaiming to the instigator: "I either lead this bunch or end it right now. 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! We're finished! All of us!" Now they've decided to act, to do what's right. They will get Angel no matter what the consequence. After these four, (Pike, Dutch and the Gorch brothers) arm themselves, they walk side by side down the road to redemption. Jerry Fielding's masterful march of doom, not heard since they rode into Starbuck, accompanies them, this time taking on a noble quality while reminding us that something big is about to happen.
When Pike declares to a drunken Mapache "We want Angel" the General replies "You want Angel, no? I'm going to give it to you" and proceeds to cut Angel's throat before him. The group's leader, Pike Bishop, has asked for spiritual redemption (Angel), and Mapache complies allowing Pike and his men to become "Avenging Angels" and finish the fight against his village's persecutors for which Angel sacrificed his life. A bloody battle ensues, for which the only previous rival for on-screen violence is the opening shootout earlier in the same film.
At the end of this massive gunfight, where the pain of death has never before been so shockingly portrayed, Pike (after being shot multiple times including twice in the back by a woman and a child dressed as a soldier) and his men are dead but so is Mapache and most of his army. Thornton and his gang, along with the buzzards, visit the bloody aftermath. One of the bounty hunters remarks: "You're not so much now are you Mr. Pike." They take the dead bodies of the Bunch back to claim their reward. Thornton decides to stay behind: He's sent them back... that's enough.
As some Mexican survivors leave the surrounds, Jerry Fielding's hauntingly beautiful adagio marries with Lucien Ballard's sublime photography of the wind swept dust blowing through the desert to create a cinematic impression that will last forever. Thornton, with his weathered "seen it all" expression is part of this scene and just sits on the ground outside the camp. When he hears some gun shots off in the distance, he smiles, realising that the dead bodies of his once former comrades have probably been re-claimed. Sure enough, some of Angel's mountain fighters and part of his village, led by old man Sykes (previously separated from the bunch and its lone survivor) have come with his fallen comrades in tow. They collect the arms that were ironically sold by the bunch to Mapache's army. Sykes even convinces the now free Thornton to join them saying: "Well, me and the boys here... we got some work to do. You want to come along? It ain't like it use to be but uh... it'll do."
Peckinpah acquires real strength from his rock solid story by Walon Green and Roy N. Sickner, the Academy Award nominated screenplay by Walon Green and Sam Peckinpah. It draws us into the events as they unfold by closely examining the motives of its characters, which deepen their conflicting and consistently shifting alliances. An example of this is when Pike and Dutch argue over the captured Thornton having to work for railroad man Harrigan with Dutch denouncing Thornton's persistent pursuit: "Damn that Deke Thornton to Hell!" Pike replies "What would you do in his place? He gave his word." Dutch says sarcastically "Gave his word to a railroad." Pike shouts back "It's his WORD!" Dutch even louder retorts "That ain't what counts! It's who you give it TO!!"
Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch is probably remembered by most for its on screen violence, but should be remembered as a film about violence. This maverick director has, in his own aggressive way, confronted us with a cinematic thesis, bookended by two perfect storms of ferocity, remindful of just how far some will go to exert their will over others. At the same time, the auteur filmmaker proposes that violence is an inescapable part of our genetic makeup and therefore will forever be in our lives. Just look at all of the children, their curiosity, admiration, mimicry, devotion and cruelty. (Even a baby is nursed under his mother's ammo belt). Try to hide or disguise it, it's still there, under the surface perhaps, but less controllable. Advance civilisation to subvert it and you only hand it over to those in charge, as Peckinpah demonstrates by the Railroad's actions in America and Mapache's in Mexico. Also worth remembering are these flawed, raucous men who despite their evil, self-serving and at times even child-like ways, finally become mythical for sacrificing their lives in order to live up to a higher purpose.
Sam would go on to explore the theme of loyalty and betrayal in the well crafted but ultimately unsatisfying Pat Garret and Billy The Kid... (Its two lead characters are just not distinctive or engaging enough to compel our deep involvement nor is the changing relationship between the two effectively delineated).
Sam also had a tendency at times to show his favoured characters a little too much adoration which would create a partly self-conscious narrative. However, the brilliance of The Wild Bunch would easily overcome these minor weaknesses and its Director's Cut (fortunately exhibited before the director's death at 59 in 1984) remains a very potent example of a filmmaker's artistry, and this artist's most important lasting legacy.
How To Best Appreciate This Treasure:
The Director's Cut is best served on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video.
Its next best presentation is on DVD also from Warner Home Video:
The most recent soundtrack, including Jerry Fielding's Academy Award nominated score, has been issued by Film Score Monthly in a very limited 3 Disc set currently available from Screen Archives Entertainment.
This can currently be purchased here for a limited time only: