Sunday, July 10, 2011

Ten Statements About....THE WILD BUNCH (1969)

Is there a more iconic shot in modern American western cinema?
"We're not gonna get rid of anybody! We're gonna stick together, just like it used to be! When you side with a man, you stay with him! And if you can't do that, you're like some animal, you're finished! We're finished! All of us!"

1) You know--even as someone who's primary fame has been in horror, I've rarely seen an opening sequence quite as disturbing as this film's moments with a group of smiling children torturing scorpions by dropping them into a mass of ants and then burning them. It echoes not only Bishop and his crew's final fate...but in retrospect puts a sinister face on one of the film's general themes--namely, that all men, even cruel ones like the Wild Bunch, yearn to be innocent like children again. Transposed against these children....well, we have our doubts.

2) On BiTD, I've made comments about how Peckinpah and Leone shared a lot of credit in changing the face of the Western. Here's another thing they share--a love of faces. The opening robbery and gun battle (which, let's be honest, would be the climax of most other westerns) is frequently punctuated by reaction shots of townspeople wincing in horror at all the carnage. and speaking of carnage...

3) I don't think anyone pays as much attention to the aftermath of carnage as Peckinpah. The sequences of T.C and Coffer wandering over the streets filled with bodies arguing over who shot who first and who gets to keep which boots emphasizes the banality with which this extremely violent world is treated.

There's nothing quite so intimidating as William
Holden with a machine gun.
4) While there literally any bad performances in this film, my favorite has to be Ernest Borgnine's Dutch. There's something in the way he uses that toothy smile of his where you're not sure if he's enjoying himself or anticipating the fun of slitting your own throat. Plus, the genuine friendship he has with Holden's Bishop is palatable and alive....

5) Here's something Peckinpah shares with another great genre filmmaker of the 60's and 70's, George Romero--namely, the fact that in this film the Wild Bunch fucks it up for themselves. All the mistakes they make are made because they act against their instinct and attempt some degree of honesty and fairness. It's not killing the one straggler after the initial robbery that dooms this crew; it's trying to help Angel even after he violates one of Bishop's direct orders.

6) I know a lot of people claim Peckinpah's world is a man's world...but it's not. It's an individual's world. Notice how every time a part of an official institution--the railroad, the military, etc.--tries to do something, they are thoroughly incompetent, unable to compete with Bishop's crew. And the only person who has a chance to capture the Bunch--Robert Ryan's Thornton--is literally hamstrung by the group of goofuses the railroad forces on him.

That this is the moment that seals the titular bunch's doom
is all the more amazing given Borgnine's performance.
7) Reason This Film Could Not Be Made Now #58: no Hollywood studio nowadays would allow the moral ambiguity of Dutch leaving Jaime Sanchez' Angel with Mapache. They would make Dutch fight to keep him right there and then, which would kill the whole third act's conflict and dull the impact of the final gunfight (of course, the final gunfight would end with at the very least Bishop and Dutch triumphant and still alive for a potential sequel, so....)

8) We hear Bishop say 'Let's Go' throughout the film...but we do so to set up the final time he says it, just before the remaining Bunch head off to their fates. Holden is such a great actor and infuses those two syllables with so many different emotions in that moment--sadness, weariness, acceptance--that's it's positively chilling.

9) When I was younger, a lot was made of Peckinpah's overuse of slow motion. Watching this now, I can see that while there are some slow motion moments, it's used sparingly. However, Peckinpah uses some tricks--like bisecting a single action with a quick cut away to stretch out the moment--that makes us think he's using slow motion.

10) It's very deliberate that the two people who do survive this film are the two who have shown a capacity to adapt--Thornton, who adapts to becoming something of a lawman to escape prison time, and Edmund O'Brien's Sykes, who adapts to become a cook so he's useful to Bishop long after he's too old to fight. When they ride off with the rebel troops, it closes the book on the West Bishop and Dutch thrived in...driven home by Peckinpah's choice to freeze frame the final image and pull away from it as it morphs into a still photograph. essential film if you're at all interested in the development of the Western, a film that is so known for its violence that people forget the emotional depth and nuance that is its true strength.

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