Friday, April 16, 2010
The Wild Bunch (1969) A Film by Sam Peckinpah
“I tried to make them honest. Yet they come off as human beings, which possibly is a frightening thing.” This is Director Sam Peckinpah on the brutal outlaws in his wildly divisive 1969 film The Wild Bunch, a work so blunt and forthright in its depiction of a violent, lawless West that it caused widespread uproar upon its release, reportedly spawning some cases of audience vomiting (Briggs 102). This was enough to position it firmly in the scope of the New Hollywood, among contemporary films as diverse as Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Easy Rider (1969). Peckinpah’s relentlessly bleak vision was largely not like that of John Ford and classic Westerns, but rather one that sensitively responded to the turbulent, often devastating late sixties with an unsentimental eye that he believed was the only way to accurately confront the prevailing social issues of the time. The fact that The Wild Bunch’s ruthless killers do indeed shine a faint flicker of hope and humanity amidst a blur of bloodshed, whoring, and stealing suggests a world that is significantly lopsided, both socially and morally, a world that contrasts jarringly with the luminous, black or white patriotism of archetypal John Wayne Westerns. While Peckinpah’s notorious film is very much a conscious product of its times and a reaction against the history that came before it, cinematic and otherwise, it is also a remarkably forward-thinking work that anticipates much of contemporary cinema’s frenetic depictions of violence.
Regularly misinterpreted as an overbearing right-wing advocate of the kind of destructive machismo The Wild Bunch – and the rest of his films – presented, Peckinpah was actually quite actively outraged by the troubling historical events of the late sixties, or what he referred to as “the insanity that surrounds us.” Like the rest of the American public, he was deeply disturbed by the Charles Manson Gang killings, prompting him to write a touching letter to filmmaker Roman Polanski, whose wife Sharon Tate was a victim of Manson, urging him with speechless shock to fight through the horror and continue making films in hopes of one day finding “a path of reason”. He commonly lamented the “horror of President Kennedy’s assassination and his brother’s death”. Angering him most passionately though was America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, an indignation that reached its apex of intensity when American troops invaded the South Vietnamese village of My Lai, massacring hundreds of innocent civilians, many of whom were women, children, and the elderly. Peckinpah once again took respectable action, writing a letter to President Nixon about what a moral tragedy it would be if Lieutenant Calley, the American officer responsible for much of the shootings, were let out of prison after a mere two years, all while citing his credibility as an ex-Marine.
Peckinpah viewed these horrific acts as manifestations of man’s inherent instinct for violence, an unavoidable instinct that he felt was seizing America in a particularly unsettling manner at the time. It was something he felt needed to be addressed and therefore acknowledged by the audience in hopes of getting them to harness these capacities. His method of accomplishing this was to produce the willfully nihilistic The Wild Bunch, which proved to be more provocative and large-scale than any of his work to date (Ride the High Country, considered by many to be among his finest work, was a decidedly modest, low-key genre effort also produced in the 1960’s). Peckinpah felt that to deliberately bombard the viewer with harsh, ugly violence was to open their eyes to the reality of it as opposed to its typically watered-down media depictions. To him, the audience comes away with nothing when subjected to safe, untruthful representations of violence, as he insisted was the case when studios cut 80% of the violence in his film Major Dundee (1965), rendering it “attractive and exciting” but not necessarily confrontational, which was the worst kind of degradation for the fiercely opinionated Peckinpah.
In its opening minutes, The Wild Bunch makes a bold announcement of the kind of film it will be, insisting on negotiating the vast gap between violence as shallow entertainment and violence as cruel, merciless reality. After passing a group of children who are playfully torturing two scorpions with a slew of red ants (a nakedly symbolic image that establishes the film’s guiding force of sheer barbarianism in large quantities, soon to be replaced by humans), Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his gang of outlaws ride into a small Texas town disguised in Army uniforms to rob a bank. Soon enough, they realize a group of bounty hunters led by Pike’s former riding mate, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), are hot on their trails, eying them from a nearby rooftop. As a result, the outlaws do not choose to slyly complete their robbery unseen and unharmed; instead, they resort to open fire in the town center in an explosively protracted scene in which the two forces are staged on opposite sides of a temperance union parade that is flowing down the street, made up chiefly of women and children as in the My Lai Massacre. It’s a startling opening scene that daringly juxtaposes the wild lawlessness of the Old West with the more dignified, transitional public who - with their forthright manner of protest - do enough to suggest the Vietnam rallies that Peckinpah was sympathetic towards.
What’s most unexpected about the scene is its utterly charged editing, which shows no signs of sugarcoating the savagery or ending the warfare prematurely. Unlike the mannered, tightly controlled style of editing and mise-en-scene used for action sequences in past Westerns, Peckinpah employs a frenetic burst of diverse techniques, causing a visual cacophony that somersaults forward with uncompromising purpose. An astonishing array of close-ups, wide-shots, detailed shots of gun barrels, reaction shots, dramatic zooms, and shaky, abstracted handheld shots all grace the frame with a rapidity that is simultaneously teasing and devastating; no fallen body is spared more than one or two seconds of screen time, emphasizing the sheer anarchy of death. Peckinpah also mixes in an occasional slow-motion image of a body falling from a building amidst all of the hyper-speed, a technique pioneered by Akira Kurosawa but exercised with a unique grace here, as if the successive cuts suggest the final heart beats of life. Because of the pure visual overload, if a central character had perished during this massacre, the audience would hardly have known it.
Such is indeed the case with the film’s ensuing battle scenes, which possess the same sense of restless energy. In the closing battle, for instance, Pike and his gang are slaughtered during another massacre, this time against the Mexican Federal Army lead by General Mapache (Emilio Fernández), who have invaded the small Mexican village that the gang member Angel (Jaime Sánchez) is from. Yet it seems unclear as to whether or not they were actually killed until we finally see their dead bodies in the aftermath and their giggling faces superimposed over the final shots. Peckinpah’s forceful editing – which updates the dense montage of Sergei Eisenstein by way of the footloose inventiveness of Jean-Luc Godard – has a way of obscuring actual narrative details, creating instead a hazy blur of death.
The Wild Bunch is not all subversive though, for it also pulls amply from the gamut of Western stereotypes and conventions even as it attempts to reinvent them. Pike and his men live by a classic code of honor familiar from countless Westerns. Though he’s a silent, remorseful man who speaks mainly through violence, Pike’s most salient verbal message still rings loudly as a credo of traditional loyalty and brotherhood: “When you side with a man, you stay with him. And if you can’t do that, you’re like an animal.” It’s a line that smacks of hypocrisy, given the fact that Peckinpah has presented the outlaws – and the bounty hunters for that matter – as nothing more than animalistic, undisciplined killers, but it nonetheless holds some weight for these down-and-out men as something that constitutes their only glimmer of goodness. There are also occasional sequences of real camaraderie between them as they bathe together with whores and joke and poke fun at each other. One senses a strand of traditional values in moments like this, even if they are negated frames later when they begin firing rowdily at opposing men or civilians.
These kinds of contradictions spring up repeatedly in the work of Peckinpah, an instinctive talent notoriously known in Hollywood for his unwieldy working methods (overshot budgets, late completions, and crew firings were common in his productions). He was not a director to convincingly articulate one clear-cut idea, but rather to create sprawling thematic mosaics as energetic and unpredictable as his bloody massacre scenes. While his hyperkinetic treatment of violence has become the norm for contemporary cinema, rarely do modern action films possess the sincere element of critique found in The Wild Bunch, instead simply appropriating the method for its pure entertainment value. This is precisely what gives Peckinpah’s film its stamp as a trailblazing work of American cinema.