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The End of Westerns: 'The Wild Bunch'

A fine example of the work of Sam Peckinpah, 'The Wild Bunch' is an ode to the end of American frontier life, undermining the classic Western mythology.

NOTE: Don't miss Collingswood Movie Club tonight at the Collingswood Public Library, hosted by Patch movie blogger Robert Castle.

Last week I mentioned, somewhat briefly, one of the greatest Westerns ever made—The Wild Bunch (1969)—the work of one of the great American directors, Sam Peckinpah.

Peckinpah had nearly killed his career as a director when he made Major Dundee (1965). On that project, he came into conflict with executives at Columbia Pictures as well as with his producers, whom he thought were undercutting him at every turn.

Peckinpah lost control of the film, and its final cut, which was supervised by Jerry Bressler, amputated important material (In 2005, an extended cut was released, adding 13 minutes). Peckinpah didn’t direct another film for four years, save for a television movie.

The themes and plot of The Wild Bunch in many ways echo those of Major Dundee. The action starts in Texas and moves to Mexico; but as Ben Johnson says when the Bunch reach the Rio Grande: “It just looks more like Texas to me.”

In each film, the protagonists are being pursued by several forces out to destroy them; Dundee, by an Indian group led by Sierrsa Charriba (Michael Pate) as well as by a French army under the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian. The Bunch are dodging the U.S. army, the railroad men, a Mexican army, peasants fighting the army, and the Mexican army fighting Poncho Villa.
 
Thematically, both films represent protagonists that are quintessentially American. For one, they are comprised of diverse individuals who temporarily band together. Dundee’s army moves into Mexico with Northern troops, many of whom are freed blacks, Southern prisoners-of-war, and assorted thieves and reprobates.

The Bunch’s American-ness is wrapped up in their values. They are men of principle (until they are not). They help get guns for the Generalissimo Mapache (Emilio Fernandez), but also help the Mexican peasants fighting against Mapache. Pike Bishop (William Holden) leads the gang and lays down his credo:

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!

Except that Bishop had already ditched his partner, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), when the law was coming down on them. And Thornton is leading a group of railroad bounty hunters against the Bunch because it’s his only way to stave off prison.

The film opens with the Bunch coming into Texas border town to rob a shipping office. Through the credits sequence, we see several of the forces gathering against them: the people in the shipping office, the bounty hunters on top of buildings waiting to ambush the Bunch when they leave the building, a group of temperance advocates parading down the main street.

Realizing too late they are trapped, Bishop orders his men to escape as the marchers are directly between them and the bounty hunters. The resulting slaughter leaves the audience exhausted; ravaged.

As Bishop takes over the office, he yells: “If they move, kill 'em!” Then the credit “Director Sam Peckinpah” appears. In a later film, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), Peckinpah prints his director credit over the final shot of a smoking machine gun barrel.

This opening suggests the complex historical context of the film. Mapache works for President Huerta, who has just taken control of Mexico in 1913, and is fighting a losing war against Pancho Villa.

Mapache is being advised by German military officers, anticipating both the approaching Great War in Europe and the German bid to goad Mexico into declaring war on the United States in 1917 (the Zimmerman telegram).

The German presence in The Wild Bunch echoes the presence of French forces in Major Dundee; and as in the film's beginning, the Bunch will be involved a large fight that leaves scores of people dying and wounded.

Peckinpah projected a lot of anger at producers in most of his films, starting with Harrigan (Albert Dekker), the railroad man in The Wild Bunch. Thornton confronts him at one point:

Tell me, Mr. Harrigan, how does it feel? Getting paid for it? Getting paid to sit back and hire your killings...with the law's arms around you? How does it feel to be so goddamn right?”

"Good."

You dirty son of a bitch!

Even the lowest of the low working for him—T.C. and Coffer (L.Q. Jones & Strother Martin, who have been called “the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of white trash”)— Peckinpah has more feeling for or, at least, grants the two humorous and affectionate moments.

Critic Jim Kitses once wrote, “The Wild Bunch is America.” By this he means the “America” that worries about what others say about it, that can be compassionate and bloodthirsty simultaneously, that has sense of doing the right thing and being an outlaw, that lives in a world without substantial female presence and influence, and that wouldn’t have it any other way.

In the Bunch’s case, doing the right thing means trying to save their compadre Angel from Mapache, who is torturing him for stealing a load of rifles.

In a scene that had as much to do with my seeing the film four times in 1969 (and twice in one day), Bishop, Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine) and the Gorch Brothers (Ben Johnson and Warren Oates) march through Mapache’s camp to the sound of a great soundtrack. The subsequent shootout makes the opening slaughter seem tame.

Perhaps the most American theme of The Wild Bunch, however, is the closing of the frontier. Pike Bishop feels the end is near, and with the others, wants a final bank job on which to retire as forces of the 20th century, in the form of automobiles and machine guns, make their presence felt. The Bunch, if not the film itself, yearn for an earlier, better time.

There’s an early scene in Angel’s village when the Bunch finds some peace and relaxation. When they leave the village, they are given a send-off more fitting for conquering heroes, not outlaws. This very scene is referenced at the end of the film, reflecting either a longing for the western hero or the end of the road for cowboy heroics.

Collingswood resident Bob Castle is an author, teacher, film critic, and playwright. In town, he is also the founder of the Collingswood Movie Club, which meets monthly in the public library for film showings and discussion.

Castle's writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film Comment, and The Film Journal. His plays have been performed during the Philadelphia New Play Festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and at the the Gone in 60 Seconds and "In a New York Minute" festivals.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Ned Bulmash September 26, 2012 at 06:15 PM
I like that line " the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of white trash."
Sean Gallagher September 28, 2012 at 03:20 PM
My favorite western is The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. I also love Once Upon a Time in the West. Spaghetti westerns are some of my favorite movies when they are done well. Sergio Leone heavily inspired Tarantino, as we will probably see in Django Unchained.
kevin October 26, 2012 at 01:15 PM
What a superb article! Understated excellence in every way. Kevin ONeill
Matt Skoufalos (Editor) October 26, 2012 at 03:00 PM
Glad you enjoyed it, Kevin. Bob is great, and we are lucky to have him here in town. Check out his monthly movie night sometime!
kevin November 01, 2012 at 03:55 AM
Matt, I honestly now think about your suggestion to come visit. i think I just might do that. As to Bob's masterful article, I add just a couple of of substantive thoughts. On a personal note, I recently finished, for the second time, Barbara Tuckman's The Zimmerman Telegram, which answered a question asked by this movie, What, for heavens sakes, was that austere German officer in the white suite doing in The Wild Bunch? Her book answers the question. Kudos to Robert Castle on this one. Erudite with emphasis. Two other period pieces that deal with some of the same themes at the same time as the Wild Bunch are worth mentioning. The well known, The Magnificent Seven being the first. James Colburn was quite memorable in this film, but he really shines in the second film that comes to mind, a hidden gem, A Fistful of Dynamite, a/k/a Duck, You Sucker (1971), for my own taste Sergio Leone's finest film. And I am not really a Leone fan but this one is almost a book end to the Wild Bunch, same ideas, same time, same war, with a different sort of brilliance. The haunting musical score is one of many reasons to see this film more than once...........as great films compel us to see them again, to try to unravel their magic. Gonna come to his monthly movie night, thanks for the invite. We know who we are. After a while, our minds tend to have a life of their own. kevin

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