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Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Director Report Card: Sam Peckinpah (1969)

4. The Wild Bunch

Following the behind-the-scenes fiasco that was “Major Dundee,” Sam Peckinpah was hired to direct “The Cincinnati Kid.” He was fired after a week. The director's career was in tatters. This is not the last time this would happen. In this sad state, Peckinpah would return to TV. An hour long adaptation of “Noon Wine,” made for “ABC Stage 67,” earned the director some of his critical cred back. This got him hired by Warner Brothers to make a film called “The Diamond Story.” Instead, the director came across a script called “The Wild Bunch.” This is the movie he wanted to make. With the changing cultural norms of the time, Peckinpah was finally allowed to realize his vision of the American West. The result was a film that was immediately hailed as one of the greatest entries in the genre. “The Wild Bunch's” critical and commercial success would ensure Peckinpah's legacy.

A group of men enter a Southern Texas town. The outlaws, led by Pike Bishop, are there to rob the local railroad office. The job quickly descends into chaos, several gang members being killed by bounty hunters. The bunch takes their loot into Mexico... Only to discover their bags are full of useless metal washers. They arrive in a village ruled by the cruel General Mapache, who is at war with Pancho Villa's revolutionaries. Pike's gang ends up working for the General but are soon caught in the conflict. When one of their own is captured and tortured by Mapache, Bishops' gang saddle up for one last march.

“The Wild Bunch” is the accumulation of everything Sam Peckinpah was working towards in his first three features. Many of his reoccurring themes – men on a mission, former friends falling into a conflict – take root here in more meaningful soil. Most pressingly, “The Wild Bunch” is another film about the end of the West. It's set in the early 1900s, instead of the wild frontier days of the 1800s. Technology is marching forward. The men are marveled by new inventions like machine guns and motorcars. Airplanes are referenced, along with the soon-to-explode first World War. The world is changing quickly and there's no place in it anymore for men like Pike Bishop. When they die, the legend of the West might as well die with them.

Yet “The Wild Bunch” is not just bemoaning the death of the American West. It's actively deconstructing it. The outlaws are introduced impersonating soldiers. They then hold innocent office tellers hostage, threatening their lives. It's quickly established that these guys are primarily motivated by greed. The bounty hunters chasing them search dead bodies for any valuables. The point is: These are not the virtuous outlaws of legend. In the course of their mission, they rob a bank, innocent people getting caught in the crossfire. They rob a train, destroying a bridge in the process. Only when one of their own is threatened by extreme cruelty do they march off to honorably die, as much because they have nothing to loose as anything else. “The Wild Bunch” takes place in a hard world populated by hard, cruel men. It is closer to real life than the idealized westerns made before it.

As much as Peckinpah realizes that the Wild West was a rough place, full of hard-asses, he still can't help but get a little nostalgic. As Pike and his best friend, Dutch Engstrom, ride towards Mexico, they reminiscence about their past. Pike talks about the women that he's lost and those that have betrayed him. These events are shown through flashbacks, that roughly disrupt the current story. As if these memories haunt him, intruding in his mind when they're least wanted. Dutch, meanwhile, feels weighed down by mistakes and a misspent life. Both men are wracked with regrets. Their age is at an end and they wonder if it's been worth anything. This is an evolution of the themes of “Ride the High Country” but reborn for a more cynical film, made in a more cynical time.

While the director's themes continue to evolve, “The Wild Bunch” is most notable for introducing the world to the Peckinpah bloodbath. By 1969, the Production Code was dismantled and the director no longer had to restrain himself. The opening shoot-out is still a bold statement. Shots are fired. Huge blossoms of blood spurt from their bodies. They spin, fall from structures, and die in slow motion. The editing is rapid, cutting between the firing weapons and the violence they reap as quickly as the bullets fly. In-between the quick shots of action, the focus is on the actors' faces and the cramp interiors they inhabit. Simply put, nobody had seen cinematic violence portrayed like this before 1969. “The Wild Bunch's” action, especially its quick cutting, still feels thoroughly modern.

Though he would become notorious for it, Peckinpah doesn't just use violence on-screen because it looks cool. Even his famous trademark of slow motion death throes has a higher purpose. By slowing the camera down when men die, Peckinpah forces the audience to consider the agony of the dying. Once the shooting stops, the film frequently focuses on the dead bodies littering the ground. “The Wild Bunch” is a film all too aware of the hideous weight of violence. Men are gunned down, throats slashed, dragged behind automobiles. People suffer. And for what, the movie seems to be asking? Children imitate the gunfighters after the fight is over, seemingly unaware of the awful effects of that violence. “The Wild Bunch” was made during the Vietnam War and Peckinpah's bloody visions were influenced by the war. “The Wild Bunch's” cinematic depiction of violence pointed towards a world where the horribleness of violence could no longer be ignored or sanitized.

At the same time, the action in “The Wild Bunch” is undeniably thrilling. The final battle, the gang's last stand against the General, is certainly one of the greatest action scenes put to film up to that point. It begins in relative silence, one action of swift and definitive violence returned with another. From there, the scene explodes into chaos. There's not a second without the sound of gunfire. One after another, the characters are cut down, their bodies littered with bloody holes. Grenades are thrown, explosions blasting through the fort. The machine gun is utilized repeatedly, spinning around and delivering speedy death, adding even more ferocity to the sequence. It's a powerful and intense climax, one hell of a way to finish up the film.

More than the thrilling and awful ways it uses violence, “The Wild Bunch” is notable for something else. During the filming of “Major Dundee,” Sam Peckinpah fell in love with Mexico. Maybe that's why the movie lingered in the time during its shaggier later half. In its own way, “The Wild Bunch” is a blood-soaked love letter to the same country. Much like in “Major Dundee,” the protagonists spend a lot of time enjoying the drink and women around the Mexican countryside. There's joyous sequences, of guys bathing in distilleries and enjoying the company of prostitutes and otherwise. The film's villain is ultimately someone who abuses the Mexican people. Though he had perhaps an odd way of showing it, it's clear that the people and cultures of Mexico meant a lot to Sam Peckinpah.

“The Wild Bunch” is pretty clearly an ensemble film but two characters seem to emerge as the leads. The part Pike Bishop was offered to Lee Marvin, who accepted but ended up starring in “Paint Your Wagon” instead. As amazing as that probably would've been, William Holden does just fine in the part. Holden brings the gravity of someone living with a lifetime of regrets to the part, while still maintaining a nasty streak a mile wide. Opposite Holden, as Dutch Engstrom, is Ernest Borgnine. One of the great character actors of the day, Borgnine plays Dutch as a similarly hard man. However, Borgnine brings a caustic humor and, more importantly, a sentimental streak to the part. As tough and nasty as these men are, they do ultimately care about each other. They may be the only friends either has left in the whole world.

By his fourth feature, Peckinpah had a few regular players, his own “Wild Bunch” of sorts. This was Warren Oates and L.Q. Jones' third film with the director. It was Strother Martin and Ben Johnson's second. All of them would collaborate with the director again. Of those four performers, Oates makes the biggest impression. As Lyle Gorch, there's something pathetic and almost childlike about Oates. Among the outlaws, he seems to be the most desperate. I also really liked Jaime Sanchez as Angel, the unlikely heart of the gang. His capture is what forces them to come together at the end, realizing that brotherhood is the only thing they have left worth dying for.

Peckinpah's films, primarily being about manly men doing manly shit, have been accused over the years of sexism. The label didn't quite stick for Peckinpah's first three features. “The Deadly Companions” and “Ride the High Country” features complex and considered female leads, dealing with a vicious and unsympathetic world. A clear-headed woman was among “Major Dundee's” most likable characters. “The Wild Bunch,” however, has little room for the fairer sex. Most of its female characters' are prostitutes. Many of them are backstabbers or fools, directly or indirectly harming the male protagonists. In the past, an untrue woman got Pike shot. This is darkly mirrored in the last act, when a hooker shots him in the back. In return, he calls her a bitch and guns her down. It's another example of the harsh world “The Wild Bunch” takes place in but it also points towards the director's complicated feelings towards the female gender.

Upon release, “The Wild Bunch” would make an immediate cultural impact. It would become the seventeenth highest grossing film of the year. It would be nominated for two Academy Awards, for the screenplay and Jerry Fielding's rousing and elegiac score. The critics reacted with praise and condemnation, some calling the film brilliant and others saying it was vulgar. The film would start the modern era of R-rated carnage in Hollywood and filmmakers never looked back. Nearly fifty years later, “The Wild Bunch” still feels shockingly modern and urgent, a powerful piece of movie-making that has lost none of its ability to shock, thrill, and inspire discussion and debate. [Grade: A]

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