Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) – the Friday Classic review
The late Ernest Borgnine’s best film, Peckinpah’s bloodbath still feels simultaneously timeless and modern: an elegy to the classic West(ern) and a revolution in film-making.
The Wild Bunch
(Sam Peckinpah, US, 1969)
When Sam Peckinpah invented the modern action movie, virtually single-handedly, nobody realised that the filmmakers who took inspiration from the squibs and slo-mo would ignore the gorgeous, elegiac nuances that gave the violence meaning. The result is that The Wild Bunch comes with a reputation as a bloodbath (and it is!) but that is far from being the whole story.
There are, in fact, only three action scenes in the entire film, strategically placed to show the changing fortunes of the Bunch. Notwithstanding the successful train robbery at the centre of the film (which as an exhilarating, boisterous feel quite at odds with the nihilism surrounding it), this is a story of men overtaken by history. The mood is signified by the difference between the two bloody gun battles that bookend the film, with the first, accidental massacre foreshadowing the very deliberate one in which the Bunch willingly embrace their fate.
Both are staged with astonishing versatility, as Peckinpah mixes close-ups and telefoto long shots, hand-held POV with slow-motion, in a fast-cut, almost hallucinatory rhythm that nobody (not even John Woo) has been able to approximate. If the opening almighty fuck-up isn’t jaw-dropping enough, the finale is utter carnage, easily retaining the intensity that so brutalised contemporary audiences.
Yet the violence is (almost) beside the point. Its unflinching extremeness isn’t just provocation but an expressionistic device to add depth to Peckinpah’s vision of the death of the Old West. The real meat of the film is the moments of reflection, as the Bunch ponders on a changing world and whether they still have a place in it.
Revealingly, the film is set in the early 20th century – decades after John Ford’s usual mythmaking – and it is the military tyrant Mapache, aided by the Germans, who represents the future. Given the choice between the Bunch’s code of honour and Mapache’s bloodthirsty blurring of the divide between law and outlaw, Peckinpah knows whose side he’s on.
And honour is the key to the film’s remarkably coherent thematic framework. It’s the only thing (besides money, sex and booze) that the Bunch believes in, which has led to understandable charges of all-round nihilism and especially of misogyny. There’s certainly a case to be made, but it’s noticeable that the worst culprit – the cuckolded Angel – is given a dressing down by Pike for getting emotionally involved. In the moral twilight of the outlaw’s world, where lives are cheap and feeling runs cold, all he has left is his word.
At the heart of this moral maze is ex-outlaw Thornton, yearning for the good old days but saddled with the repulsive duty of bringing his best friend to justice. His new comrades are a gang of filthy, effeminate bounty hunters, whose lack of scruples (squabbling over who gets to keep the boots from a corpse) contrasts, albeit somewhat disingenuously, with the Bunch’s professional thievery and raucous bonhomie – the film’s most purely enjoyable moment is the sight of the late, great Ernest Borgnine collapsing into throaty guffaws when the Bunch discover their latest haul has been a con job.
If the camaraderie seems genuine, that’s because it probably was. Stung by the compromises and interference he’d suffered previously, Peckinpah stubbornly made the film on location, off the map and far away from the suits. Operating almost as riotously as the Bunch itself, the ensemble performances have a unique, ‘lived in’ feel that raises the game of everybody, especially those like William Holden and Edmond O’Brien who were regarded as has-beens in 1969.
Visually, too, it benefits from Peckinpah’s decision to take his show on the road. Lacking both Ford’s painterly sensibility or Leone’s Pop Art framing, Lucien Ballard’s cinematography is very sweaty and muscular: genuinely lived-in. It’s probably just as well that the shoot was so much on Peckinpah’s terms, because sadly, of course, the studio would eventually gets its claws on the film in post-production and try to butcher the vision. But what exists, particularly the so-called ‘Director’s Cut,’ is still a masterpiece.