Yet another western I have been meaning to revisit to better understand. My first reading of the film was completely off, as I realised after listening to a lecture from Richard Slotkin, now I really do have a far better understanding of The Wild Bunch (1969) which does indeed overshadow the rest of Sam Peckinpah‘s work, when he has so much more to offer to cinema. Instead of going over the plot I want to more analyse the film interns of how I read it, looking at certain elements and quotes which really do stand out for me, which probably shows why it stands out more so than others. It’s not just the violence that he wanted to amplify to the audience, Peckinpah, hated violence (not that you’d know it from his films) almost glorifying it, yet this has a knock on effect as we see the action, the deaths, the falls shot in slow-motion, we’re forced to look at the image for longer, it’s a form of torture, you want violence, here it is, in all of its bloody form, you look on staring at this beautiful image not really comprehending that you are seeing someone die before your eyes. At full speed and on the streets we don’t have that luxury, our memory replays the moments of real violence in real-time, or sped up we have no time to really process what has happened until it’s over in a flash. Peckinpah stretches those moments to allow us to process, to understand and if we want…enjoy the brutality.
With the more obvious element that stays with you long after the credits have rolled I want to focus on the Wild Bunch themselves, who in history were really Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and their gang. Taking the title and placing it on to an equally dangerous group of men, lead by Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his right hand man Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), playing old men who lead a bunch of gunfighter’s who we meet in the close of their era and the death of the West. Their time is almost up and they know it. Hoping that they will be carrying out no more jobs after the bank-robbery, which leads me onto my first quote which struck me.
If they move, kill ’em! – Pike Bishop
To be honest Pike
delivers most of these lines, this one is led with such military precision, there is no thought for the casualties. Those held up in the bank are collateral damage they just don’t matter in the mission, get the money and go. It’s cold blooded. Yet we spend most of our time with these men, much like most westerns, focusing on the heroes, these are reversed, leading us to believe the heroes lead by Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) who was once a member of this gang, given a chance to redeem himself. He is the anti-hero (of sorts) that are ordered to lead a gang of misfits, the scum of the earth in search of the wild bunch. Thornton has his own lines which such as
We’re after men. And I wish to God I was with them. – Thornton
There’s a yearning to even for him for the old days, for the male companionship he no longer has, surrounded by idiots who can’t even shoot the right men. Yet they are his only hope of ensuring his freedom which is in the hands of a railway man. He wants to feel alive, to be a man, to have some honour again.
I found that over the course of the film it wasn’t just a swan-song to the classics of the genre, such as John Ford’s, Hathaway’s, and Hawks etc that focus on the hero of the hour, there are no heroes here, their words and ideas are flawed, not those of men with honour that you would look up to. An argument between Pike and Dutch about a man’s words is a great example of this moral western that takes the violence by the throat and shakes it up.
What would you do in his place? He gave his word – Pike
He gave his word to a railroad. – Engstrom
It’s his word. – Pike
That ain’t what counts! It’s who you give it *to*! – Engstrong
The idea of a man’s word is a powerful masculine idea, a man’s word is worth more than a signature on a legal document to some people. It’s on the same level as the strength of a man’s hand-shake, a judgement I use myself, it’s a greeting with a stranger, or a positive start to an interview etc. A man’s word is a step further, a promise that binds two men together intrinsically. What’s being discussed here is who Thornton gives his word to, the enemy that is the railroad man (Harrigan) Albert Dekker who employs him, making him a traitor to Dutch who was like a brother to Thornton, this is a betrayal much like a partner having an affair and living with them. You could say; sleeping with the enemy. Where it becomes blurry is Pike arguing the point of the fact he still gave his word, it doesn’t matter who to, he;s accepted that he has changed sides and has to live with that, respecting him. Giving your word and keeping it shows the sign of a strong man.
Another quote to look at is
(talking about the railroad) There was a man named Harrigan. Used to have a way of doin’ things. I made him change his ways. A hell of a lot of people, Dutch, just can’t stand to be wrong. – Pike
Pride. – Dutch
And they can’t forget it… that pride… being wrong. Or learn by it – Pike
How ’bout us, Pike? You reckon we learned – vein’ wrong, today? – Dutch
I sure hope to God we did. – Pike
The glory days of their ability to strike fear into people, forcing them to change, to act fast. They are glorifying themselves as being almost gods, people to fear. Harrigan has become a man to fear as he has finally come after him, taking the law into his own hands, that at the start of the film caused countless innocent victims shot in cross-fire. Pike and Dutch are also reminiscing of better times, the height of the gunfighter that they were a part of it is no longer there. They encounter the latest vehicles that even outmoded the horse, a form of transport they have come to rely on and is synonymous with the western. Ironically used to kill Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) in The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) the good old days are over.
I want to touch one other aspect that is the US Army that is never portrayed in a positive light throughout the film. Traditionally the cavalry are the trooping the colours, riding in, sounding their bugles before quelling and pacifying the enemy in no time. Peckinpah portrays them as incompetent, even the main men think little of them. This could easily reflect Peckinpah’s and many other liberal directors who wanted to hit out at the Vietnam War, a divisive war, reflected into the countries own domestic past we see a different army that is unable to get up and react to weapons being stolen from under their noses. An embarrassment for any army, filled with raw recruits unaware of what they have to do.
It may have took a few attempts to really understand The Wild Bunch for me is a morality western, a Neo-Western if you want to be picky as its questions the genre and the countries past, taking it and reforming it to be viewed by an audience who is drawn by violence and the legend that has blurred the countries past, the two myth and fact is intertwined, only those who study American history (before 1900) really know what happened. I am slowly seeing the connections and the differences between fact and film fiction. I can see why this film overshadows the rest, the characters are painted on a wider canvas, morality is blurred and the violence is heightened. It’s a sweeping western that doesn’t even show a Native American, replaced with the Mexican Army who are more intelligently depicted than before, they are not just drunk gringos who sleep out in the afternoon sun with a sombrero covering their faces. They are fully formed people, which is something we don’t get from the Natives. The main cast is filled with actors who have hugely played the good-guys in westerns, here playing cold killers who have their own moral code that if you think about it would frighten you. Should we really listen to what these cowboy role models oft he silver screen have told us?
- The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969) (forrestinfocus.wordpress.com)
- The Wild Bunch (1969) ** (1001moviesblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Wild Bunch (1969) A Film by Sam Peckinpah (arethehillsgoingtomarchoff.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Wild Bunch (1969) (buddiesinthesaddle.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Wild Bunch (1969) (dfordoom-movieramblings.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Wild Bunch (Warner Bros, 1969) (jeffarnoldblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Wild Bunch…Part 1 (myfavoritewesterns.com)
This is a case of another mis-leading trailer which suggest it’s a case of American land-owner protecting his land against pesky Mexican immigrant trying their luck as they cross the border. Instead this Neo-western is not taking the same route as the classical incarnation of the genre where what I just described would make up a good portion of the film, when the Mexican was just another obstacle to overcome. Also the then recent history of the wars such as the Alamo, the loss land the new country. In short there is a lot of history between the old and new countries. Where we find the two countries today is one trying to benefit from there other. America is still very much seen as the land of opportunity, where a better life is to be made by all who cross that border.
The reality is much different with border controls tightened more immigrants are being turned away, the Hispanic community has grown to a point that they have a voice in the country, and should be represented in public life. But along the border there is still trouble which is what Frontera (2014) is all about, focusing not on the retired Sheriff but the little man who gets caught up in the system that wants nothing to do with them. When Miguel and Jose (Michael Peña and Michael Ray Escamilla) who set out on the long journey across the border, entering onto retired sheriff Roy’s (Ed Harris) land where they meet his wife with the open arm of friendship. This innocent meeting goes terribly wrong for all three when a stray gun-shot meant to scare the unwanted Mexicans backfires leaving Livy (Amy Madigan) dead.
You’d think when the police arrive on the scene tensions would rise between them, Roy and Miguel and Jose who go on the run. All Roy wants is the truth and his killers brought to justice, at the moment that is these two. That’s before you add into the mix three lads trying to be men scaring them off with gun-shots. The language of the western is brought up-to-date, of course there are horses, guns and Mexicans, even the odd hat. What it really is, is a film about the reality of life in the border state where people are taken advantage off.
Focusing on one family as Miguel sets off for better life across the border, where he meets what could be an angel on horseback who instead of running him off, gives him and Jose water before their lives are turned upside down in the country of opportunity. Placing the both on the wrong side of the law, playing up the stereotype in the film, but not for the purpose of the film or the genre, more out of circumstance. They are not seen as the villain of the piece, instead the victim, even though they are in police custody.
You really do empathise for this family who have put everything on the line. When Miguel’s wife Paulina (Eva Longoria) leaves to join him the journey she takes is far darker, falling victim to trafficking which to a point does play up to modern stereotype, which is the direction of the depiction of the darker side of the Mexicans. I suppose we exchange the old for the new really except with more understanding for their situation which works in the films favour. There is a lot of subtitles too which shows more respect for the Mexican’s.
For Ed Harris this is more a supporting role which he makes the most of and doesn’t take much for him to get into, showing more emotional depth, age is working in his favour. A modern sheriff able to look beyond black and white to find the truth. Its convenient that he can speak Spanish but slowly though, sticking his neck out to get to the truth and moving beyond the easy scapegoat, to reveal a more complex answer to his wives death that leaves him with a changed perspective on those around him.
For a Neo-Western it’s rather on the soft-side for the most part, there are a few horses and big hats acting as a backdrop for a story about Mexicans and an ex-sheriff who’s views are challenged at the worst possible time. There are a few harder moments which show how dangers border towns can be, showing how far the country has come, a light comment on gun-control too which is not really dealt with seen more as a parenting issue not about locking up your guns away from your kids.