Perhaps I should have kicked My Year of Westerns off with something simpler. A bit less daunting than say, one of the best films ever made. Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch is a formal and thematic masterpiece, 140+ minutes of lean, hungry storytelling. And that hunger is fed nothing but an emptiness of violence.
The celebrated opening sequence, where we are introduced the world of this film through the eyes of children, tells us everything we need to know moving forward. The kids are smiling and laughing with angelic expressions. Then the film freezes, the color washes away to a black and white still and those smiles, devoid of their vitality, become sinister. Sure enough the camera delivers the children’s perspective. The kids are dropping scorpions on an ant hill. The red ants are going ape shit all over the scorpions. Like a blood tide these ants overwhelm one of nature’s most badass killing machines. Behind the kids a series of ‘soldiers’ ride into town. These grunts are our ‘heroes’, the Wild Bunch themselves, a bunch of crusty outlaws about to rob a payroll. Hmmm, I wonder if these guys will find a happy ending?
The rain of bullets that rips apart the town in this opening sequence is direct result of that hunger I mentioned a little while ago. The outlaws in army drag want money. The bounty hunters hired by the railroad to stop them want money. The townsfolk who are parading down the street at the worst possible time in the name of Temperance (of all things) presumably want nothing more than to not be torn to ribbons but tough shit, let’s watch that one guy get hit so many times he can’t even fall to the ground as the bullets make him dance back and forth as if on a marionette.
Do the Wild Bunch get the payroll? Spoiler alert: nope. Its a bunch of steel washers. All that hunger and blood for nothing. Later on, miles down the hardpan and south of the border, when the gang have met the demise all of us saw coming in that ant hill, it is the bounty hunters themselves who will ride off with their bodies only to be wiped out in turn by Mexican rebels. All that hunger and blood again, for nothing. In between there are minor victories. A thrilling train robbery. An evening in a village that is damn near paradise. A bridge being dynamited sending horsemen into the drink. A machine gun used on friend and foe alike. Prostitutes, whiskey, men being men and a whole lot of death. This is a western after all.
And look, a lot of folks a helluva lot brighter than me have written entire books on this beast. There’s a lot to parse. Of the actors, I can say that William Holden is brilliant. An actor that had been sleepwalking for a decade until given a roll he absolutely owns. Pike Bishop (and just think about that name a bit) is a wonderful creation. An old man who somehow manages to lead in this godforsaken place. He inspires loyalty where betrayal is far more common.
“If you side with a man, you stick with him. If you can’t do that you’re an animal.”
Let’s just say there are a lot more animals in this film than there are men.
There’s this wonderful scene where Pike and second in command, his best man (or even ‘wife’ as we’ll see in a minute) Dutch are laying in their roll-ups in front of a fire which is almost domestic. It felt to me like I was watching an old couple going over their day. Another of the gang is singing in the background, a very romantic, sad song that only adds to the, well, romance between these two grown men. Much later in the film when Pike and the Gorch brothers have just spent the night with prostitutes, the camera exits the building and you see Dutch sitting outside. It would be a great and perhaps unsupportable leap to describe Dutch as gay, but the film goes out of its way to separate him from the others.
Pike’s opposite number is Deke Thornton, a man let out of jail and promised a pardon if he catches Pike and the Wild Bunch. He is Pike in all but name only, he simply finds himself on the other side of the larger warring factions of this world. There is the crooked Mexican general and his rebels on one side, the US Army on the other. Thornton and his bounty hunters are the disreputable, underworld arm of the latter, while Pike and his gang are in league with the general by a matter of convenience (i.e. money). Neither exactly wants to be working for their master, but thems the breaks. At one point Thornton says of the Wild Bunch:
“We’re after a man! And I wish ta God I was with ‘im. The next time you make a mistake I’m going to ride off and let you die.”
He says this because his bounty hunters are nothing more than a ragtag collection of cowards and children. It speaks to the morality of the film pretty well.
Grade: “Royal Flush“
(I’m adopting a Poker based grading system. I’m assuming if you’re not familiar with different hands and their values, well, you’re probably not interested in these reviews either).
Listening to: The Cult of Youth The Cult of Youth