Friday, April 29, 2016

The Wild Bunch (1969)

USA, 145 minutes
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Writers: Walon Green, Sam Peckinpah, Roy N. Sickner
Photography: Lucien Ballard
Music: Jerry Fielding
Editor: Lou Lombardo
Cast: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O'Brien, Warren Oates, Jaime Sanchez, Ben Johnson, Strother Martin, L.Q. Jones, Albert Dekker, Bo Hopkins

It's been about five years since I foolishly started to attempt writing about every one of the 1,000 titles on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, which ranks movies all-time all-everything by some formula involving critical assessments. I know it's ridiculous to think I can write about them all (for one thing, they change around every year), but I've got "hi - igh hopes." Some of them—the silents, many Westerns, and certain directors such as Fellini or Tarkovsky—I know ahead of time are going to be hard to write about. I have little affinity for them, or have put off seeing them, or usually some combination.

I thought The Wild Bunch had the look of one of those. It has fallen from #48 to as low as #71 on the TSPDT list since I started, which afforded me time to dance around it. For a long time I liked the idea of director and co-writer Sam Peckinpah more than I ever liked the reality of his movies, which left me with some pretty big gaps in this and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, his two best. My previous head-butting forays—Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which I still find stultifying after I don't know how many attempts, occasioned mostly by liking the song "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" (somehow I feel certain I should like the movie), and Straw Dogs, which is both unpleasant and kind of dim—lowered his priority for a long time. Whenever I felt the need to check on Peckinpah again, I went directly to Pat Garrett again. Definition of insanity, I know.

I finally broadened my horizons, so to speak, when I became involved in a project with Phil Dellio and Steven Rubio a few years ago, writing about movies on Facebook. We created a group, and Steven came up with the name: If They Move, Kill 'Em! Thus my true confession of how I came to see one of the great staples of the new American cinema of the '60s and '70s so late. Also, the name of the character who says that line in The Wild Bunch is Pike Bishop (played by William Holden, who was reportedly horrified by the movie). Naturally that got my attention. How often do you see your last name as someone's first name in a movie? This is not a problem that Jennifer Lawrence, Katy Perry, or maybe even William Holden has, but still.

As an example of new American cinema, The Wild Bunch is even more specifically a "new Western" (like new Bob Dylans, we have seen many of them in the years since). Almost inevitably it invites comparison with Sergio Leone, whose Once Upon a Time in the West from 1968 has slipped past it on the TSPDT list and stayed a few notches ahead. The Wild Bunch also stands some comparison with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, another new Western that came out in 1969 with a few remarkably similar plot points (and which I ranked at #50 on my list, whereas Steven had The Wild Bunch at #8).

But, to dispose of that first, The Wild Bunch is obviously the superior movie. All you need to know is that the song "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" is featured in Butch Cassidy. Yet both movies, made at the same time (meaning imitation is less likely and "something in the air" more likely), are focused on the Western post-frontier era as the 20th century dawns. They feature a wily grizzled veteran getting too old for the outlaw life. And in both movies a wealthy railroad magnate obsessively takes it into his mind to put him out of business, with prejudice. Both movies also end with disproportional showdowns with Spanish-speaking armed forces, for what that's worth, and they even both have scenes of men on horseback leaping out of boxcars.

The Wild Bunch is infinitely more serious about its themes than Butch Cassidy, though it often seems distracted by what it can do in the way of violence. At the same time, it's not as coldly clinical as Once Upon a Time in the West—Peckinpah was always a more lusty and instinctual director than Leone. The Wild Bunch is ruddy with browns and reds and best when it breaks down into action scenes, with the visual motifs and punctuations of violence establishing irresistible rhythms and a few stunning sequences. At those points, almost outside conscious notice, Jerry Fielding's soundtrack slyly slips into the kind of music pulsing on the action scenes of a hundred TV shows from the '60s and '70s.

The narrative lines are loose and sprawling, fleshing out the backstory of the leader of the gang, Pike Bishop, even as the picture dwells easily in the big haw-haw-haw hyper-masculine camaraderie of the bandits at their ease. Bishop is trying to figure out how to retire with dignity, but the movie itself feels drunken, or orgiastic, by turns. All the players are great, taken individually, and make great visual profiles together: Ernest Borgnine, a ubiquitous presence like Joseph Cotten or Eli Wallach in some of the greatest movies ever made, and Robert Ryan, literally an old hand at Hollywood Westerns going back to the '50s and before (in 1948 he played the Sundance Kid in Return of the Bad Men), are the two biggest casting coups after William Holden, but there are other familiar faces too: Edmond O'Brien, Warren Oates, Strother Martin, Bo Hopkins.

For all its solid points, however, I'm still not sure how much I understand what it is doing. Early on, for example, a couple of connected scenes feature the hymn "Shall We Gather at the River?," which has always felt to me like a staple if not the epitome of John Ford and his eternal pilgrims—Ford used it a lot. But here it is almost lampooned, first as the overture to the operatic violence of the bank robbery in the opening scene, and then even more grotesquely when one of the henchmen (Bo Hopkins) forces his prisoners to sing it for him as he marches them to their deaths. In this way, The Wild Bunch seems to be at the work of destroying the Western as we have known it.

Yet some of its deepest plot points, about the connections among M - A - N men and the code they have and understand with one another, feel more like the Western as we have always known it. It's ritualistic John Wayne, except now with a garish ultraviolent mask. That makes it more honest, in a kind of '60s tell-it-like-it-is way. It also makes it vastly more entertaining than most of what I know of the '50s Westerns of Budd Boetticher, Delmer Daves, Anthony Mann, and other journeymen Western directors. Among other things I have The Wild Bunch filed away to look for a chance to see on a big screen, for sure. Take it from me—see it right now if you haven't before.

1 comment:

  1. Glad to see your comparison of Wild Bunch to Butch Cassidy, a comparison without prejudice and thus a useful one. (I dislike Cassidy so much and love Wild Bunch so much that my bias would show through.) You get at an important point: The Wild Bunch is a confused masterpiece. There are plenty of confusing movies ... Peckinpah made more than one. But Wild Bunch is confused, as if Peckinpah knew what he was doing and wasn't sure he should do it. It is deeply in love with the tradition of the Western, but it is inevitably headed for the destruction of those traditions in the final shootout. Even the hypermasculinity fits ... no one loved it as much as Peckinpah, but here it seems as doomed as everything else, dying with the Bunch at the end. (Two years later came the ugly misogyny of Straw Dogs, about which Peckinpah brushed off accusations of rape: "I showed a guy eating pussy!".) ( Wild Bunch works because Sam honestly loved the traditions, honestly hated that the traditions had to go, but honestly knew the time had come. There were plenty of anti-Westerns in the wake of Wild Bunch, but they mostly lacked the love of the traditions they were intent on destroying.