One of the more amusing follies of the last several weeks has been America's film critics trying to come to some kind of terms with Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch," the newly restored "director's cut" of which has just been released 26 years after its original, shocking arrival in 1969.
Most agree: It's a great movie. One even called it the greatest American movie ever made. But no one seems quite to understand why. There's a lot of blather about how it's really "anti-violence" and it shows the logical consequences of violence etc. etc. etc., blah blah and blah, none of it convincing.
That's to be expected. "The Wild Bunch" is a confounding piece of work, and one could argue that its very greatness lies in the contradictions it so happily endorses. It's a movie that young people adore, but it's about old men. It's theoretically anti-violent, but it is clearly one of the most violent movies ever made; more troubling, its fundamental attitude toward violence is enigmatic, possibly unknowable, certainly unexpressible in the bromides that, then as now, pass for public discourse. It struggles with the issues of loyalty to brothers, or loyalty to a larger "code" that underlies not only the American West but the American East as well and all of Hemingway and his clones, the boy-division in American literature; but unlike Hemingway and his clones, it comes to no clear conclusion.
It does not really, endorse anything healthy. In fact, it bubbles with delight in making a fetish of America's most dangerous pathologies: gun worship, the will to violence, tribalism. It is aggressively racist; it is incidentally sexist. Its heroes are scum and the lawmen chasing them even scummier.
It is the ultimate chasm movie. If you like it, your passion for it goes beyond words, a fact brought home by the reality that it is one of the most visually influential movies ever made, and one sees echoes of its imagery in hundreds of other movies. There isn't a director alive who doesn't wish he made "The Wild Bunch," with the possible exception of Nora Ephron. (Possibly somewhere there are women who care for it as powerfully as men do; I certainly never met one.)
For those who hate it, no critic can salvage its reputation, no argument can resurrect it, no theory can justify it. It is simply an unspeakable object, an outlaw work. It might be the beginning of the tidal wave of vulgarity that has overwhelmed the American motion picture and the culture in general. It's the original and best pulp fiction, obsessed with the impact of bullets on flesh, that proudly beats out its anthem of anarchism throughout, reaching a last-act Gotterdammerung of carnage the likes of which had not been seen before and has not since.
All this from a western?
Yes. "The Wild Bunch" is, to reduce it to genre, of the set western, subset caper picture, sub-subset Mexican division. Its tone, in legend, derives from the fact that director Peckinpah was once talking to a genuine old-timer who informed him that the gunmen of the West weren't the paragons of virtue played on the screen but mean and bitter as tomcats -- and that's one of the film's radical values, the way in which it clearly reinvents the image of the western hero by inverting it.
Its melancholy spirit, however, derives from another fact. It's a road picture, but a subset therein also -- it's the best end-of-the-road picture ever made.
The road is the road of the American frontier, which illuminated this country's imagination for a century, bright with hope and possibility, full of freedom for personal expression but also nascent with that fundamental American promise, which no European country could ever offer its common citizens: the freedom of room, of space.
The doomed warriors
But in 1913, the room is running out. The frontier is closing down, and like Vikings or Samurai, two other doomed warrior classes, the professional gunmen at the center of the movie are at least self-aware enough to realize it, even if they can't quite articulate it. They are caught between epochs, caught, as it were, between two kinds of .45s.
Pike Bishop, the outlaw chief, carries a Colt single action, beloved six-shooter of 50,000 cowboy movies, the gun that Gene Autry and Roy Rogers and the Duke himself carried. But he also carries two .45 automatics, the Army 1911 model, much faster to shoot and reload. You laugh at a critic's obsessions with firearms? Fair enough, but in "The Wild Bunch," the firearms are more articulate than the men: They put Pike and the Bunch right on the cusp of the romantic old days turning into the mean new ones, as the movie, with its machine guns, trench shotguns and hand grenades, looks forward to a modern world where personal honor is impossible.
Led by shrewd, brave Pike (William Holden, whose once beautiful face by 1969 wore the imprint of several decades' saturation in expensive bourbon and looked like a Spartan shield after a long day at Thermopylae), the Bunch sets out on a futile last crusade for a big score, which ends up riding them straight into oblivion. They go down with guns in their hands, under the impression that that's what's expected of them and that they had no choice; and, to put it mildly, they do not go gently into that good night. Ask the Mexican Army at Agua Verde; they knew them well.
Pike's right-hand man is Dutch, an amiable killer played by Ernest Borgnine at his most avuncular. Dutch also is the mystical custodian of "the code," consistently issuing rulings on what is and what is not permissible, which the Bunch just as often disobeys as obeys. Two others are nasty, feral Texans, Lyle and Tector Gorch (Warren Oates and Ben Johnson, both superb); there's the de rigueur old man, Eddie Sykes (Edmond O'Brien in his last great role); and finally a Mexican youth, Angel. He's played by Jaime Sanchez, a true surprise who stepped off the set of the cornball TV show "The Real McCoys," where he played Pepito to Walter Brennan's crusty Grandpa McCoy; yet, in this movie, he's instantly sexy and dangerous. Why he never became a star is one of "The Wild Bunch's" eternal mysteries.
The first of the movie's moral switches opens the film. When first we see them, the Bunch rides into a west Texas town in the olive drab rectitude of the United States cavalry. Of course, they're not gallant soldiers; they're robbers, come to steal the payroll from the railroad, that font of capitalism and tyranny. Meanwhile, up on the roof, lurking in the shadows, is what might be nominally described as the other side of the moral equation but is in reality another force for anarchy: a band of degenerate hillbillies, dismissed even by their own leader (Robert Ryan, another with a beautifully ruined face, in a late, elegiac performance) as "egg-sucking, chicken-stealing gutter trash." This mob has been hired by the railroad to gun down the Bunch; anybody who gets in the middle is out of luck.
That first sequence, utterly shocking, establishes the tone of the film to come. It's a gun battle that becomes a massacre in which the combatants don't give a gob of spit for anybody who passes between them. Men, women and children go down spastically. It also establishes the movie's prevailing image of a universe of fragility, apt at any moment to erupt into grotesque and unstoppable violence. Peckinpah pretty much re-invented the way violence was portrayed on screen there and in subsequent sequences with excessive use of new "squib" technology, electronically detonated capsules of ersatz blood that replicated or exaggerated -- the impact of bullets striking the body and, occasionally, passing through and leaving it.
An unstable universe
In fact, no film more convincingly dramatizes the body's vulnerability to gunfire, the sense of penetration and violation. One feels, as one never had, the passage of bullets through body, a metaphorical allusion not to being tagged but to being skewered. But Peckinpah also shot with multiple cameras at varying speeds and knit his action footage together in a terrifying rush of sensation driven forward by an incredibly sustained rhythm. To see the film is somehow to sink into the very essence of chaos. (In fact, several times more, Peckinpah brings us to the tippy edge of hell, as we struggle for balance. And in the last segment, he lets us fall.)
If it is a universe without physical stability, it is then, metaphorically, a universe without moral stability. Most radically, there's no equation between virtue and courage, a new device in movie culture that routinely portrayed evil as craven and cowardly. Pike and the Bunch are essentially tribal murderers, like marauding Goths, who have no empathy for those outside the group, and Pike can callously reach down and peel a woman's bloody shawl off his stirrup, picked up when he trampled her to death. Yet they are almost unbearably brave: They take on overwhelming odds, confident in their courage and valor to vanquish them. And they have other virtues and defects of the warrior class: incredible cunning, lack of wider political allegiances (they glibly sell out their country), passionate tribal bonds and a willingness, finally, to face the consequences of their actions.
But what is so interesting about them is how confused they are. They stubbornly cling to their code. One problem: They have no idea what that code is. "We gave our word," Pike insists at one point.
"It's not that you gave your word," Dutch ripostes, "it's who you
gave it to."
Honor among thieves
They squabble constantly over the issue of honor and behavior, lurching around for justifications of what their limbic systems compel them to do nevertheless.
If there's a value at the center of "The Wild Bunch," it's a love that dares not speak its name. It's nihilism. Somehow "The Wild Bunch" lingers and tantalizes because, way down in its medulla, in its ancient brain, it's in love with the terrible beauty of death. This will never be politically correct, unless you're a Nazi, and a psychiatrist would certainly have a great time with Peckinpah on the couch, exploring whatever tics and twitches drove him so self-destructively. Clearly, genius though he was, he never hugged his inner child.
But with nihilism comes another odd state of being: It's called liberation. The reason the movie is so invigorating is that it postulates a freedom from fear. There comes a point where the Bunch, or what remains of it, gives it all up.
"Let's go," Pike says to Lyle.
Lyle squints, and what passes for thinking flashes electrically through his tiny brain, and then he says, "Why not?"
He and Pike step outside, where Dutch and Tector wait. They lock and load, fiddle with their gear, and start a long, shuffling walk toward what they know will be their own deaths. Unlike the heroic mannequins who customarily inhabit the center of the Hollywood movie, these are truly believable characters, not so much warts and all as all warts; but the film sells the freedom they feel as powerfully as any movie has sold any emotion.
DTC They don't walk into hell; they are hell, come for breakfast. You may not love them -- indeed, if you do, you're probably pretty sick yourself -- but the movie invites you on that long walk into the last fight, and it invites you to face the ugly truth that your inner child may be a nasty little brute with a .45. It's like other great works of profound and bitter misanthropy, "Lord of the Flies" or "Day of the Locusts" or "Death on the Installment Plan," except that in its coils, death comes all at once, and how.
"The Wild Bunch" is playing exclusively at Towson Commons.