Monday, March 9, 2009

The Wild Bunch

The Wild Bunch is a brutish, nasty, ugly movie, a film that aims to strip the Western genre of its stereotypes and clichés and instead strips it of its humanity, of any trace of true honor or decency or goodness. The film certainly strips the varnish off of great Western archetypes like the honorable outlaw or the decent lawman on his trail, but it doesn't replace the absence with anything: it's just a big gaping hole that goes unfilled. As such, the film is an unremittingly unpleasant experience, watching rotten people do rotten things to one another, with one band of these rotten people placed in the central position usually reserved for the heroes in these kinds of movies. There's a lot of shrill laughter, but very little true humor: just these men making one another the butt of cruel jokes.

It's certainly hard to work up much sympathy for the gang of bank robbers and bandits led by aging tough guy Pike Bishop (William Holden). Joined by his friend Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), the rowdy, womanizing Gorch brothers (Warren Oates and Ben Johnson), the proud Mexican youth Angel (Jaime Sánchez) and the withered old coot Sykes (Edmond O'Brien), Pike and his gang have become the most wanted men in Texas. They're hunted by a band of bounty hunters led by Pike's former partner Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), who has no choice but to hunt down his old friend or else be sent back to prison. The bounty hunters are portrayed as a gaggle of cackling vultures, hooting and hollering whenever they come across a corpse, picking at the boots and weapons and gold left behind. These filthy, stupid, nasty men are so thoroughly amoral that Pike and Deke actually begin to seem almost honorable in comparison, almost like the good guys by default, just because there's no one else available who could possibly fill that vacuum.

In fact, though the outlaws claim to have a code of honor, to be bound together by their promises and commitments to one another, there's little honor to their actual behavior. They stop just short of killing one another, but that seems to be just about their only limit. They're hard men, doing anything for some gold, not above leaving one of their own to die and thinking very little of it. When one of the men learns that his grandson has been killed, he shrugs and just wants to know if the boy acquitted himself with honor — a laughable premise since the kid was a typically brutish thug who died while abusing and threatening a group of hostages. Pike and his gang are deluding themselves with their talk of honor and loyalty, of being bound together as a group, as though there's something noble in what they're doing. At one point, Pike talks about doing one last job and then pulling back, the oldest of clichés for Western outlaws getting old, but Dutch quickly puts things in perspective: "pull back to what?" These men have nothing beyond the hard, cold lives they've made for themselves, nothing to look forward to beyond the next gold score and the whores and booze it can buy for them.

Director Sam Peckinpah signals right from the very beginning what kind of a movie this is going to be. As Pike and his men ride into town, dressed as soldiers to rob a bank, they pass by a group of kids by the side of the road, playing with a pair of trapped scorpions being overrun by swarming red ants. The symbolism is obvious, and hints forward all the way to the film's conclusion: a few deadly, dangerous creatures being destroyed, eventually, by the less powerful but more numerous hordes surrounding them. Throughout the film, children frequently appear, as images of lost innocence for Pike, who is, with Deke, alone among these men in seeming to have some regret about what he's become. The laughing faces of children thus often appear as symbols of innocence, but just as often it's apparent that children can be taught to torture, to kill, to serve as soldiers: the innocence Pike seems to remember and cherish is very fragile indeed, easily overcome by a cruel world. On the way out of town, after the failed bank job, Pike and his men pass by the kids again, to see them growing bored of the contest between the scorpions and the ants; the kids cover the whole ground with straw and light it afire.

These opening scenes establish the elemental themes of the film to come, particularly in the disastrous bank heist, which backfires when Deke and his bounty hunters are waiting in ambush. In the resulting melee, the two groups of killers shoot up the town, and it's not clear who takes more innocent lives caught in the crossfire, the bandits or the men supposedly working on the side of the law. The streets are soon filled with blood, bright red and blatantly artificial blood, each bullet smearing a big red circle on anyone it hits. After this frenetic shootout, the pace of the film slows down, and the middle section is languid and episodic, following the disappointed bandits as they meander around, trying to plan their next heist while evading capture.

They spend some time in Angel's poor Mexican village, where he is outraged to find that in his absence, Mexican federal troops have stormed the village, killing his father and stealing his lover away as the woman of the general Mapache (Emilio Fernández). Angel is the only character in the film who has some sense of nobility, who wants something beyond himself: freedom from tyranny for his people. The film's middle section drags, though, mainly because Peckinpah seems very interested in capturing the milieu of his characters, but not in delving any deeper into them as characters. Pike gets a few very brief flashbacks, fading in and out over closeups of his face, but neither him nor any of the other characters could really be said to have much complexity or nuance. The closest the film comes to deeper characterization is the blank stares of Pike whenever he's in an ugly situation, like the excruciatingly long sequence toward the end where Pike sits uncomfortably staring at the prostitute he'd just spent the night with, as her baby cries in the background. In overthrowing old archetypes, Peckinpah only replaced them with new ones, crude and ugly archetypes biding time until they next bathe in blood. The film picks up again when the group decides to rob a munitions train and escapes with both Deke's hunters and the US Army on their trail. But no matter how viscerally exciting the film's action set pieces often are, it's hard to escape the overwhelming impression of this film as wallowing, without relief, in dirt and blood and ugly emotions.


Joshua said...

While the film does operate within its own peculiar set of archetypes, I find their actions fascinating, especially in the whirlwind climax. What's so interesting about the gang is not that they finally realize the importance of their code, setting about retrieving Angel, but that once they've done this they come face to face with their own obsolescence. I'll agree that it is a film that gives little relief to its viewers, but I have to argue that it replaces the humanity it strips away with the establishment of an entirely different morality, one grounded in "ugly, brutish" reality.

Richard Bellamy said...

Great review. I first saw this film when I was at college in the early 70s - when reviewers and filmmakers were becoming very cynical about the John Wayne Westerns and 50s Westerns I had always loved. I didn't know what to make of The Wild Bunch. I don't think I liked it.

Then with the advent of tapes and DVDs I started watching it again - nearly once a year, and I have to say I like it. Yes, Pike and his men are scum buckets, but they go back for Angel. Yes, the film lags in the middle, but I totally love that elegaic departure from the Mexican village scene shown in the image above. Yes, there is a lot of ugliness in this film, but some of the worst depravity is perpetrated by Mapache in the name of war. What I like most about it is visual: they'll never film another bridge explosion like that again. As for Pike and his scum who even shoot down women in the final bloobath - they certainly die by the code by which they have lived: violence.

Uncle Gustav said...

I think one valuable key to this film is in this heated exchange between Holden and Borgnine arguing about Robert Ryan's turncoat character:

WH: He gave his word.

EB: He gave his word to a railroad.

WH (almost yelling): It's his word.

EB (equally loud): That ain't what counts! It's who you give your word to!

I think there's a sharp, knowing morality in that, no matter how simple it appears. And I believe the picture's lack of clearly defined heroes reflects an honest appraisal of men who've killed, whether on the side of the law or not. No matter how "noble" the act may be touted under whatever circumstances, it will always soil the soul.

Joel Bocko said...

I get the sense you don't like this movie, which you almost come out and say though not quite (and you've said in the past that you don't think it's a bad thing if a movie alienates its audience, so that's why I'm not 100% sure you didn't like it, though I'm about 90%.)

Anyway, excellent revisionist take on a revisionist western. I like The Wild Bunch but I have to admit it's primarily as an action movie. I suppose I'd seen too many violent films (and slo-mo'd too many of them on my own) to really be upset by the violence here. Watching it, I was old enough to know I wasn't supposed to think the shootouts were cool, but I still did. Perhaps time has undone whatever statement Peckinpah hoped to make (though I think any such statement may be slightly disingenuous to begin with). Then again, a further re-viewing of the film (I haven't seen in years) could change my opinion.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments, all. I was definitely rather ambivalent about this film -- to a large extent I appreciate what it's trying to do, and MovieMan is right that I don't think alienation is necessarily bad, but Peckinpah seems to be indulging too much in the empty violence the film is trying to critique. But then, any film that makes me struggle so much with my reactions to it can't be all bad, so I don't know. It will definitely merit another look at some point.

Anonymous said...

This is a rather childish "review" of an extraordinary film. Maybe you should stick to "John Wayne" westerns where the baddies rode black horses and the injuns were no good savages...

Ed Howard said...

Haha yes, because those are the kinds of movies I usually enjoy and write about. Good call!

Anonymous said...

I find it sad that you can't admire this film for what it is. Maybe all films should portray the world with rainbows, flowers and candy canes but I think a bit of diversity in film is wonderful

Anonymous said...

Just stumbled across this review.

Christ. Though I've always appreciated a passionate, well-reasoned contrarian's take on an acknowledged classic, I have to say this just might be the most misguided, candy-assed, Michael-Medved-at-a-screening-of-Last Tango in Paris fucking assessment of The Wild Bunch in recorded existence. (Though, some of the flustered grandmas who angrily scribbled their disapproval all over reaction cards during the film's initial preview screenings back in '69 may have you bested in that arena.)

I'm guessing you only watched those stunningly edited paroxysms of death and gunplay that bookend the film and completely missed -- or ignored -- all that stuff in the middle about recognizing the failure to live up to a self-imposed code of honor in oneself, having outlived your time, marching to the beat of an increasingly outmoded way of life when the world around you is singing a new tune called Civilization, living with the festering wounds of regret until you can't fucking take it any more, can scarcely stand to face your own reflection. You know, the stuff that actually makes up the bulk of the story.

And as far as Peckinpah and the "brutish, nasty, ugly" qualities of The Wild Bunch are concerned, heaven help you if you ever decide to brave Straw Dogs or Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.

Someone needs to revoke your film-reviewing license.

Your penis, too.

Ed Howard said...

Christ. Though I've always appreciated a well-reasoned contrarian response to my opinions, that wasn't it. I get it, you're very manly. Now put your penis away and stop talking about mine.

For what it's worth, I've seen Alfredo Garcia and thought it was much better, actually embodying some of the themes you describe there with far more complexity than this movie does. That's an ugly movie too, but it's ugly in much more interesting ways.

Anonymous said...

To paraphrase Barry Goldwater: extremism in defense of great cinema is no vice; assailing the best American film of the 1960's because one lacks the necessary perspective and life experience to understand some of the fundamental truths about manhood contained therein is certainly no virtue.

And with the right girl, Alfredo Garcia actually makes quite the date movie. (Go figure.)