Friday, July 24, 2009

Classic Series: The Wild Bunch

When The Wild Bunch premiered in 1969, Westerns were a dying breed, soon to be a fondly-remembered chapter of film history. Clint Eastwood helped reinvent the genre with the gritty Spaghetti Westerns of the 1970’s, but the classic Old West of Cowboys and Indians, the West that belonged to John Wayne, had all but disappeared. Director Sam Peckinpah and his team were ending an era, and most remarkable of all, they knew it. The Wild Bunch takes place in 1913, when only a few remnants remained of the wild American West. Like many films that endure, The Wild Bunch arrived at the perfect moment in history. One of the original taglines for the film read, “The land had changed. They hadn’t. The earth had cooled. They couldn’t.”

Like The Godfather, you’d be hard pressed to name the “good guys” in this picture, though at least in The Godfather, some characters are more likable than others. In The Wild Bunch, they’re all jerks. The film opens with a group of aging outlaws preparing to rob a bank. Pike (William Holden) and Dutch (Ernest Borgnine) head-up the operation, while Deke (Robert Ryan) and his crew hope to stop the thieves once and for all. The thieves narrowly get away, setting off a cat-and-mouse game that continues throughout the picture. The men live by their own rules, and they all refuse to admit that the world has moved on without them.

If you had to name the “good guys,” you’d probably point to Deke’s crew, simply because they’re working in conjunction with the police, though it’s plain to see that they’re only in it for the money. You get the feeling that if the payoff were better on the other side, they’d trade loyalties without thinking twice. The men show no regard for traditional morality, though they do live by ethical codes of their own invention. Pike shouts at one of his men early in the film, “We’re gonna stick together ... When you side with a man, you stay with him, and if you can’t do that, you’re like some animal!” Most of the dialogue comes in similarly crazed, melodramatic spurts. When Pike later defends Deke’s actions, saying, “He gave his word,” Dutch screams, “That ain’t what counts! It’s who you give it to!”

The Wild Bunch holds a very low view of women, all the more surprising because the feminist movement was thriving by 1969. Instead of the usual backseat role that Westerns place women in, this movie throws them out of the side door and into the street. Male characters in older Westerns certainly didn’t view women as equals, but at least they respected them. The men in The Wild Bunch use women for their own purposes before disposing of them, often through violence. Whenever women get riddled with bullets, either accidentally or intentionally, the men show neither remorse, nor emotion of any kind. For them, it’s all just part of the lifestyle.

The suspense builds over unusually long periods prior to the action scenes, and when the action does come, it’s bloody and relentless. Like Bonnie and Clyde two years before (1967), The Wild Bunch marked a new level of on-screen violence. It’s not overly gory, but it is realistic. When bullets hit, blood spews, bringing an unpleasant honesty that Westerns just hadn’t seen before. Scenes are edited together with many cuts, often showing the same piece of action across multiple shots and angles. A bullet will strike someone, and the camera will cut to another scene. Then the victim will begin to fall, and the camera will cut away again. Then the victim will hit the sand, and the camera will cut once more. The shoot-outs are fast-paced, confusing, and altogether gritty.

So, when the dust settles, does the film endorse violence, or make some kind of statement against it? I’m not sure, though I’m leaning towards neither. I don’t think The Wild Bunch makes any statement, so much as it tells a story. It’s a tale of free-spirited, untamed men fading away in an increasingly domesticated world. It depicted a strange corner of history, and it carved out its own piece of film history along the way. John Wayne famously accused the film of destroying “the myth of the Old West,” but if the film has any moral, it’s that you can’t stop progress. The Wild Bunch moved cinema along, and it did so at the right time. Edmond O’Brien utters the film’s last line: “It ain’t like it used to be, but it’ll do.” It didn’t just mark the end of The Wild Bunch - it was the end of an era.

1 comment:

  1. Dee,

    Great review of The Wild Bunch. Lots of insight, and you helped set the stage for why this film has become a classic. In a sense, you're looking at film history as much as you are this particular film, and framing a movie in its setting is a hard thing to do. Good work, and great reviews on the other films.