Archive for June, 2021

A Note on The Wild Bunch

June 7th, 2021 No comments


The Wild Bunch immediately establishes itself as a film not just pushing the limits of what people have seen in Westerns up until the time (1969) but it explores the moral ambiguity of the American Western. Nobody in the Wild Bunch wears the white hat or the black hat. They’re all a dusty gray.

Professional outlaw Pike Bishop (William Holden) lead his gang to rob a bank in an unnamed town while posing as “law enforcement.” Their ride into town played over the opening credits, where it is intercut with a group of teetotaling members of a temperance movement holding a church service and a group of bounty hunters set up on the roof tops around the town bank. By the time the ‘directed by Sam Peckinpah’ credit faded from screen a tense scene had already been perfectly established. Very economic storytelling.

Once the outlaw gang cleared out the bank vault, Bishop kept them waiting. Church had been adjourned, the temperance protesters paraded through the street advocating for their cause. Bishop, without concern of collateral damage or perhaps thinking the bounty hunters won’t shoot into a crowd, waited for the church-goers to get close enough to be his cover.

The gang made a break for it, and chaos erupted. When the first man is shot blood sprayed from his body and he fell off the San Rafael building. For an audience accustomed to Leone westerns from earlier in the decade, this was startling. Blood never congeals in the dirt around the body in Leone’s world. But this was made in a post-Bonnie and Clyde Hollywood; the Hollywood heavily invested in squibs and zoom lenses.

Bishop and his gang took bystanders as shields. The bounty hunters rained down hellfire, hitting outlaw and civilian indiscriminately. Each bullet wound sprayed blood and soaked the ground. It takes our American nostalgia and glorification of the shoot ’em up Cowboys and adds a sense of consequence. A sense that perhaps the violent birth of the American West should not be romanticized.

Only half of Bishop’s men escaped the ambush, and one that made it out was badly injured. Without hesitation, Bishop executed him so he would ‘t slow them down. Back in town, the bounty hunting posse descended on the dead and picked them clean before the carrion birds arrived. They didn’t just loot the bodies of the outlaws, but the innocents as well. The only twinges of compunction came from Bishop’s right-hand man Dutch (Ernest Borgnine) and his former-partner-turned-bounty hunter Deke Thompson (Robert Ryan).

Deke was ashamed at the sight of his dessert-trash posse disrespecting the dead. Dutch was dismayed at the gang’s leader executing one of their own. But they both trundle on, accepting the violence of their times.

We know this world now. None are safe from the violence; not outlaw, law enforcement, hired bounty hunter, soldier, freedom fighter, parishioner nor pacific citizen of the town There were only have two types of people in this world, murderers and victims. Where violence begat violence.

The cultural climate in 1969 practically begged for an updated honest take on the American Western. Throughout the decade filmmakers used lighter weight cameras and more manageable zoom lenses to shoot in the field. Leone, Ford and Hawks had established basic “rules” ready to be subverted. And Bonnie and Clyde was a primer for the bloodshed.

One thing that stuck me was the way Peckinpah used the zoom lens to help give context to background characters. There’s one moment when the frame starts close on a mother breast feeding her child and the zoom pulls wider to show strangers on horseback riding into town. This intimate interaction between mother and child was disregarded by the strangers, these outlaws. Peckinpah does this quite often, giving a quick zoom in on helpless citizens or pulling wide to reveal the disorder around them. Again this highlighted the collateral damage done during the settlement in the west. And the nursing mother, specifically, underscored the violent upbringing that will be forced upon future generations.

The town Pike rode into was the seemingly idyllic hometown of Angel, a member of Pike’s gang played by Jaime Sánchez. The town, however, was under the oppressive reign of General Mapache who had also absconded with Angel’s girlfriend, Teresa. This is where Angel tranformed from being a member of a gang of outlaws to being the representation of the oppressed innocent bystanders during endless conflicts of the region.

Jaime Sánchez as Angel

From here on the camera lingers on Angel at different moments so we can see the pain, anger, jealousy and moral battle raging inside him as it is in the citizens of Mexico at the time. Pike and his men never really faced this dilemma. Their loyalties, their sense of right and wrong, was all dictated on whether or not their actions would make money.

Emilio Fernández as General Mapache

This brought Pike and his gang to pull a job for General Mapache that would secure him guns for his war against the Mexican Revolutionaries. Angel had other plans, knowing the arsenal would be used to continue the oppression of his town. Angel’s plan was revealed to Mapache and in turn Mapache had his men beat Angel and drag him behind his car.

When they drag Angel behind the car the camera is mounted to the vehicle and we can feel the dust in our eyes, can feel every jostle and every turn. When he stands up, we see his battered abused face.

Pike finally succumbed to his conscience after Angel, this representation of the Mexican people, was slaughtered in front him. It culminates in a magnificent bloody ending. The wild bunch waged a battle against the General and all of his men, tearing through them with a machine gun. My favorite image in the film is a crazed, bloody Warren Oates screaming as he unleashed Hell on the Mexican army.

The ending is amazing even by today’s standards. We cut rapidly between what feels like hundreds of angles, squibs are exploding at a fantastic rate, the lens zooms to anguished expressions and at the end a full battalion of extras lay covered in dust and blood. It would be nice to feel our antiheroes won, at least in small sense. But we don’t. Again, all the hats here are a dusty gray and many people do not like to think of the world as an endless gray area. There is a comfort for people to think of the world as strictly good and evil, black and white. But that is not reality.

Scavenger birds sit on the walls looking down on the flesh covered vultures that rush in to raid the bodies. These are Deke’s men again, the bounty hunters that are literally digging gold teeth out of dead bodies to enrich themselves. Deke walks out of the fort, disillusioned with the scene, and collapses against the wall. Was anything gained from all the bloodshed? All the pain and suffering? No. But he seems to have resigned himself to the fact this pattern will continue. Still continues.

This film came out just one year after “Once Upon A Time In The West,” which is among my favorite Westerns. Something they did that “The Wild Bunch” also did was cast a lead against type. They cast Henry Fonda as the black hat villain. It’s a far cry from “Jezebel” or “The Lady Eve.” Then William Holden as Pike goes against every image I’ve ever held of him. I remember him as the charming and funny David from “Sabrina.” Or the congenial, callow companion to Norma Desmond in “Sunset Blvd.” Later he appeared as another morally compromised character in “Network,” and it’s a highlight in his storied career.

“The Wild Bunch” is one of those rare films that you hear is a ‘masterpiece,’ then lives up to the hype. Everyone involved is at the top of their game. Ernest Borgnine, a man I most closely associate with his role as the simple-minded Marty, actually pulls off the role of a gunslinging outlaw. What I love most, aside from the technical aspects of the filmmaking, is that it helps dispel the myths of the West. Someone like John Wayne actually lamented the death of the Old West mythology when The Wild Bunch was released. But it is important to view our history accurately and not shrouded in folklore where we idolize murderers as heroes.