The Wild Bunch (1969)

Directed by Sam Peckinpah

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The Wild Bunch is a long western more like modern action movies than any other western from this time period I’ve seen.  It’s alternately very slow and very fast, the quiet conversations lasting a little too long, followed by massacres that seem to have 100 cuts a minute.  It’s like a Tarantino film or even a Michael Bay movie.  The point never seems to be the characters or the story as much as the spectacle of blazing guns and sprayed blood.

John Wayne said of this movie that it destroyed the myth of the Western.  This surprises me because The Wild Bunch came out after Sergio Leone’s series of westerns, most notably The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).  Those films seemed to represent a a turning point in the genre.  The John Wayne westerns were about heroes and villains, often with some light racism speckled in.  Like when kids would play ‘Cowboys & Indians,’ these westerns were very much about ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ and what better way to show that than to have the ‘them’ look as different from us as possible?

There is no overlap between good and bad.  The hero defends his land and his family, and he only uses his gun in self-defense.  But in The Wild Bunch (and Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns), the heroes are as down in the mud as the bad guys.  And the bad guys here are mostly indistinguishable from the heroes, not just in intent but in appearance as well.  Throughout The Wild Bunch I found myself unsure who I was even looking at.  Other than William Holden as Pike Bishop, ostensibly our hero, and Ernest Borgnine as Dutch, his number two, I had trouble knowing who I was looking at, and what I was supposed to feel about them.

The story here begins with a robbery, led by Pike and Dutch.  The robbery goes south, and they discover that Pike’s old partner, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), was the one leading the fight against them.  This would seem to be a betrayal of Pike, but he knows that Deke was likely forced to work for the other side, which would be the good guys in this case.

After the robbery, a bloody, messy spectacle that seems to last forever, the gang learns that they were duped.  The bags of money they stole are really filled with metal washers.  Pike, hoping to get out of this lifestyle after this robbery, now needs to make one last hit before he can retire.  And that’s the premise, with Deke in pursuit.

But the story doesn’t seem to follow a consistent track.  The characters lounge around, then they run into a group of people here, agree to a train robbery, then there’s some double-crossing, and the whole thing just feels a little messy, which seems to be the point.  It’s hard to know who to trust or even how to feel about the characters onscreen.  One young man, Angel, is flustered when he learns that the woman he loves has married another man, a villainous character.  What does he do?  He shoots and kills her.

Maybe you were on the kid’s side, understanding his anguish, but his sudden violence betrays that empathy.  Later that kid will be dragged through the dirt, his body bloody and mutilated, before he’s killed.  It’s a squeamish moment probably more squeamish when it was released than it is today.

And back to the gang’s goal… the plot feels a little strange, maybe a little forced.  I quickly lost track of why they were doing what they were doing, but it never seemed to matter.  The train robbery sequence is thrilling, and I think it would be just as thrilling out of context of the rest of the film.  The Wild Bunch feels like a string of violent sequences that are only loosely tethered together through plot.  Many moments in the film, apparently, were improvised on set.

Now, this film also gave its director Sam Peckinpah the nickname “Bloody Sam.”  While the violence was substantial, it didn’t really stick out to me more than a Leone Western, but the more I think about it, his Spaghetti Westerns were usually about duels, one man versus another.  His most iconic scenes involved wide vistas and intense close ups of a gunslinger’s eyes.  The action wasn’t in the gunfire as much as the tense build up to that anticipated moment.  When the man with no name fired his gun, he did so quickly, and just like that, it was over.

In The Wild Bunch, the violence lasts a while and involves many, many people.  It’s easy to lose track of the action onscreen, but for that reason the point appears to be the nature of violence more than the people responsible.  The impression I’m left with after watching this movie is that the old west was harsh, violent, and there was a fine line between good and bad.  Most, if not all, of the characters were driven by greed, and greed has a way of making people act inconsistently as they follow the money.  Deke is only on the opposite side of Pike because his hand was forced.  Their actions are in stark opposition, and yet the reason for that opposition is delicate.  If Deke had his way, he’d be next to Pike, not against him.

To be honest, I was bored for much of this film.  The set pieces were entertaining, but the moments in between felt stale and inconsequential.  It surprised me to see so much written about this film and its ‘myth destroying’ nature, because by today’s standards, it’s hardly unique.  Both the good and the bad qualities of this film have been replicated since.  The loud violence, as chaotic as it is, feels like Tarantino’s bold shootouts in his later movies, and the structure, with the quiet in between the expected moments of action, feels like any Marvel movie today.

But I didn’t care about the characters, and I wasn’t shocked by the nature of the story.  It felt equal parts extreme and dull, yet the story behind the extreme aspects of the film are fascinating.  Peckinpah said that the violence was influenced by the Vietnam War, the coverage of which was seen by millions of Americans on the nightly news:

“The point of the film is to take this façade of movie violence and open it up, get people involved in it so that they are starting to go in the Hollywood television predictable reaction syndrome, and then twist it so that it’s not fun anymore, just a wave of sickness in the gut … it’s ugly, brutalizing, and bloody awful; it’s not fun and games and cowboys and Indians. It’s a terrible, ugly thing, and yet there’s a certain response that you get from it, an excitement, because we’re all violent people.”

So, okay, here’s what’s going on.  Peckinpah, apparently, thought the violence would be sickening to movie audiences, and they would have had enough of it to not want to see any more.  Like exposure therapy, it would be so intense that they’d have to put their hands up and say enough is enough.  But they didn’t, I don’t think, and they certainly haven’t now.  The fact that the violence in this movie feels so ordinary to me today says it all.  I’ve seen Game of Thrones and that one scene in The Night Of.  I’ve watched Tarantino and Scorsese, and I’ve seen Saving Private Ryan.  I’ve seen entire cities upended or blown up, at least sequestered (as in The Dark Knight Rises), and I’ve seen moments of intimacy and murder.  Violence can be shocking in a movie no matter if it’s on a worldwide scale or between two people.  But when is it shocking, and when is it meant to be shocking (as it is in The Wild Bunch)?

Scorsese was partially inspired by this movie, from what I read, and it seems that instead of being turned away from violence, movie audiences in this time (and future directors) were motivated by it.  The violence of this film demonstrated that movies didn’t have to be as visually neutral as they used to be.  Like Hitchcock’s Pyscho showing a toilet flush (for the first time in movie history), certain barriers were being broken.

Perhaps other directors saw such violence (not the toilet, but of Peckinpah) as more honest.  They could better reflect their worldview, at least the worlds of certain types of characters, with more extreme action onscreen, but I think it’s troubling when movie violence is only reacting to other movie violence.  If the point is to show the danger in something, or the nature of people in some way, then violence can work if it serves this point.  But when the point is just to outdo the last Tarantino movie, then… what’s the point?

Every Marvel movie destroys a new city, and the recent Superman movies try to make their city-destroying images more striking than the 9/11 attacks.  Like Peckinpah reacting to the Vietnam War coverage and our increasing exposure to violence, modern superhero movies seem to be reacting, perhaps subconsciously, to the 9/11 coverage.  But I think Peckinpah knew what he was doing, and these modern superhero movies don’t realize why their scale is always getting bigger and, thus, more impersonal.

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