Try this for wildness. Two weeks ago in a special Russell Brand edited New Statesman, Noam Chomsky was asked to provide a definition of revolution. He quoted the famous revolutionary anarchist, Rosa Luxembourg. Chomsky affirmed his belief in the possibility that the working class will eventually overcome its subservience to bourgeois masters and acquire self-discipline. Chomsky has kept faith with the anarchic principle that subservience guarantees, rather than prevents, disorder. Few would regard The Wild Bunch as Chomskian but the relationship of subservience to self-discipline dominates the fate of Pike Bishop and his gang.
The late 60s produced three very successful Westerns that featured Americans in action south of the
Rio Grande. These were The Professionals, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch. All had an anarchic spirit that reflected the social and cultural turmoil of the 60s. All were critical of authority, which, then as now, had been exposed as deficient. The Professionals, although escapist and pleasantly infantile, was the most obviously political. The heroes in that film are Americans in search of a revolution. Butch Cassidy reflected the glib narcissism that undermined much of the protest of the 60s but at least it provided a suitable home for the smug vanity of Paul Newman and Robert Redford.
Few regard The Wild Bunch as a political film, and there is nothing in the history of Peckinpah to suggest he was political. Critics describe the film as existential. They talk quite reasonably about the obsession with death and the concern Peckinpah has for men who are affected by the passing of time. They are men out of time. Indeed, The Wild Bunch echoes his earlier film, Ride The High Country, that has the much-quoted line by Joel McCrea to Randolph Scott. ‘I just want to walk into my father’s house justified.’ McCrea is an impoverished hero but at the end of the film when he dies we know he will make that walk.
The Wild Bunch also has a glorious death scene that transcends existence. The gang, that began the film as crude killers, become at the end of the film an inspirational legend. Existentialists will assume that their myth resides in casual history. The political will believe that their memory will inspire and comfort rebellion.
The film became notorious because it insisted upon an authentic description of a violent period of American history. This is achieved through technical mastery of cinema. The fast editing and multi-angles emphasise the random consequence of violence. Surprisingly, the script does not withstand
careful scrutiny. The participation of Angel in the raid on the train depends on a mathematically flawed argument, and his capture by the Mexican general could have been anticipated and avoided by gang leader, Bishop. Unlike the men, the American women in the film do not look authentic although this is more than compensated by the scenes with working class Mexican women. But nearly 50 years later, The Wild Bunch still rings true. We forget we are watching actors. This feels like the real West, all held together by the vision of Peckinpah. We believe in these men and understand their fate. The film has been criticised for its misogyny but the division of women between ripe fruit of all shapes and sizes and poor spent creatures prematurely wrecked by childbirth and hard servitude is believable.
John Ford used the Western to argue that society could have only been established because human beings have worth. Peckinpah believed that modernity was no more than the consequence of the battles between powerful gluttons. This was interpreted as cynicism but he is actually pessimistic. He offers no hope. It is unlikely that Peckinpah ever condemned capitalism and his hatred of authority would have made him automatically suspicious of hierarchical alternatives such as socialism. It would be wrong, though, to merely think of Peckinpah as an American individualist. The sacrifice in The Wild Bunch is not that of the individual. It is their loyalty to each other and the individual within the group that demands they all must die. Early in the film, Pike Bishop explains to the old timer, Sykes, ‘When you side with a man, you stay with him and if you don’t do that, you’re no better than an animal. You’re finished.’ Before the modern world, this often meant sharing violence and death. The chilling implication for modern man is obvious. Without that bond, we have become animals again. Death becomes inevitable for the group because as Bishop reminds the gang, ‘We started this together and we’ll finish it together.’
But this kinship could be dismissed as mere male bonding akin to what we watch in the movies of Howard Hawks. No doubt, The Wild Bunch has appeal for adolescent spirits. Throughout the movie, though, we are aware of the division between the powerful and the powerless. The railroad bosses are
happy to sacrifice innocent townspeople to capture the gang that robs its profits. General Mapache has retreated to Agua Verde where he is now an established agent of exploitation. Angel says that the struggle against their oppressors may last forever. This is the heartbeat of the true anarchist. The struggle in Mexico will not cease until they have their land again. This is not a cry against imperial oppressors but a belief in the entitlement of ordinary people to share the ownership of natural wealth, human rights that deny privilege to the powerful.
The Wild Bunch and the gang of Thornton who are in pursuit mirror each other because both are subservient to the needs of the powerful. They are only at ease when they travel on their horses. Stationary, relations always became fractious because there is poor self-discipline. It is no coincidence that the one triumph of the Wild Bunch is the robbery of a moving train. Broken by the powerful, these subservient men are not capable of heroism. The first fine moments for the Wild Bunch occur during their visit to the village of Angel. When the Wild Bunch leaves, the oppressed line up in front of their houses to sing them on their way. In their exit, at least, the Wild Bunch has transcended subservience. It only becomes long lasting at the climax of the film when the gang finally defy the powerful and the consequences. The saviour for Wild Bunch pursuer, Thornton, is Sykes who afterwards invites Thornton to help the revolutionaries. In a scene, that is half stolen from The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, Thornton rides away to be rewarded with forgotten spiritual strength.
General Mapache, through power, is able to obtain subservience. When the gang pester him about the fate of Angel, they are dismissed easily by the lackeys of Mapache. ‘Why don’t you get a drink? There are women everywhere. Don’t be foolish and change his mood.’ Later, the gang are enjoying the bribes of the elite – money, women and alcohol. Angel, though, has been sacrificed and their subservience is clear. The defiance summons self-discipline, and they now reject the temptation served by their masters. Killing the powerful proves to be surprisingly easy. Masters do not understand the needs of the rebel, and their hierarchical pretensions are soon exposed as flimsy. Mapache is slaughtered an instant after he kills Angel. Bishop then quickly shoots the manipulative visiting German general. The real battle follows the easy slaughter of the powerful and it is between the Wild Bunch and those who assist the powerful. Peckinpah hated the modern world, and we all know the ideology that created it. Political or not, he understood that there would always be a struggle between the powerful and the powerless. Some oppose the powerful but there also exists the powerless that constantly betray the anarchist dream. This is the formidable enemy, not the powerful.
The Wild Bunch has few feminist friends. Only a fool would deny that misogyny existed in the nature of Peckinpah.When Bishop is shot by a woman he screams, ‘bitch’. Oddly, though, it is that moment perhaps when Peckinpah embraces feminism. Bishop and Dutch are killed by a woman, a child and an old man – the least powerful of all. In the earlier scene with Elsa, we are aware that the betrayal by Elsa is a consequence of her narrowly prescribed life. The fate of women and their importance to the future is not denied in The Wild Bunch. It is understood and maybe even honoured. Something has to be done about the powerless.
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This is a film I have long regarded as a gratuitously violent ‘boys own’ adventure which I prefer not to watch. I must admit though that Howard’s excellent critique is rather persuasive.
This is another great Peckinpah western….the group had problems of discipline, highlighted by the Gaucho brothers clash with Angel, they were loyal to each other to attempt his futile but heroic rescue. I like another Peckinpah classic, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, surprisingly low in body count, I’m sure Sadie Thompson would prefer that… Great post.
This is one of those movies depicting the death of the old west and the beginning of modern civilization, transition from horses to trains and the lone car shown in the movie.