The Algonquin Kids’ Table

This Issue: The Wild Bunch

Hayden Childs - 09:41am Oct 15, 2003 PST

Peckinpah called it a movie about bad men in bad times, but it's much more than that. To me, it's about human nature, shifting values, and what it is to be a man. Those lovely long shots are in Texas and Mexico, but they could be landscapes of the soul.

Phil Nugent - 06:48pm Oct 20, 2003 PST

Well, to start with, there's the walk. I've seen the movie many times, usually on video but a couple of times on a big screen, sometimes totally immersed in it, sometimes just letting it wash over me, sometimes just letting it play on the TV in the background. But my degree of attention to it always deepens when the walk begins. The lead-up to the walk is simple, manly-man's-movie, action picture heaven: "Let's go!" "Why not!?" And then they're out there in the dust, each man self-contained but preparing to function as a unit, as they load up and select their weapons. And I don't know how much of this was left to the individual actors, but their looks are so perfect, with William Holden practically ready for a wedding and Warren Oates looking as if he just threw his clothes on to go out for the paper and a coffee, and he's toting that gun loose while Ben Johnson cradles his in his arms like God like Daddy Bear protecting baby.

This is one of those movies that I discovered on video during the first flush of the thrill that came with VCR ownership when they were new. Movies had been these magical things that you had to seek out as they passed through town at their own pace, you'd go to the dark temple and bathe in their light for a couple of hours and you tried to soak them up with as much attentiveness as you could muster, because who knew if you'd ever get the chance to see this one again. Then suddenly they were available in these little cartridges, and sure they were shrunken and usually came in truncated form with three-quarters of the image missing, but it meant so much that in this altered but still recgnizable version you could take them home and examine them to your heart's content. And I admit it, like many a sensation-starved young malcontent, the first thing I wanted to do with it was, I wanted to see the carnage over and over. I used to just pop it in and fast-forward to the blood ballet at Mapache's fortress and rewind and watch that sucker again and again. I'd watch them shoot that place to shit over and over. But every time I watched it, I felt a little more drawn in by the Bunch themselves--Oates screaming as he swings that Gatling gun around and then doubling over as he's blown away from it, Holden and Borgnine staring at each other for a second as they take a little respite from the action, Borgnine breathing hard, his eyes looking as if he's someplace far away. Peckinpah said of his characters that "the strange thing is that you feel a great sense of loss when these killers reach the end of the line." That's true, and the reasons for it seem to have less to do with any sentimental or redemptive qualities that are in the script than in Peckinpah's ability to arrange bodies in the frame and stage physical action in a way that brings these people, even the ones who are monsters, improbably close to you. It's very mysterious and I don't claim to fully understand it. I can only try to describe how, for whatever reasons, the movie makes me feel. I'm not sure that Peckinpah fully understood it, or that he always knew what he was doing. But I think that his feelings about what he was doing, even those feelings that might have been inchoate and unresolved, were very strong and very deep, and that he was able to transfer it to the people onscreen so that they seem larger than life, and at the same time we're aware of their vulnerability to pain and physical damage in a way that most movie violence doesn't want to even deal with. I remember during my first infatuation with The Wild Bunch I saw 48 HRS, in which a man's bare chest is blown apart with a handgun at point blank range, in a way that makes you feel you're just supposed to give a round of applause to whoever installed his blood squibs. And at that time I was a big Walter Hill fan, having seen and loved Hard Times and The Warriors and Southern Comfort, all of which I still love, but all I could think, after seeing that scene in 48 HRS after The Wild Bunch, is "Walter Hill's a punk." It was an extreme reaction based on what Peckinpah's movie had made me feel. It made using violence only for that kind of turn-on feel like such a waste.

Anyway, after I'd seen the massacre at Mapache's a few times, I found that the scene I wanted to watch over and over again was the walk. It still is. I used to think that if I watched it enough I'd get to the bottom of what makes it so moving, and I finally got to the point of watching it over and over and deriving satisfaction from knowing I never will. Because Peckinpah was capable of working on a level that you can't learn to achieve--Robert McKee can't explain what it is about those four swaying hips moving through the dust that makes them seem to sum up what makes life worth living, and worth dying for. I used to watch that scene over and over and video and then shut it off just as they arrived on Mapache's doorstep, and not just because I wanted to rewind the tape and watch it again. At the end of the movie, when the Bunch reappear in flashback, laughing like Walter Huston when his gold dust blows away, and then we end with them passing through the Mexican village again, I understand Peckinpah's desire to bring them back from the dead and, in the wake of their deaths, to freeze a moment when they were still alive, and I understand why he choose the moment he did--for Peckinpah, castinets and friendly senioritas were what were supposed to be waiting for you in Paradise. But Peckinpah's visions of Paradise were dull and treacly next to his feeling for the moment when you're perched on the edge, about the declare yourself, just before the shooting starts. That tense feeling before all hell breaks loose is thrilling, because it's the moment when his people are most alive, and the thing is, his people are more fully alive than any other moviemaker's. If I could change a single thing about The Wild Bunch, I'd end it with an flashback, not to the Mexican village, but the walk.

Gus Sheridan - 07:57pm Oct 20, 2003 PST


Dana Knowles - 11:35pm Oct 20, 2003 PST

No shit. That post is a thing of awesome beauty, Phil.

<edit> I'm dropping back in to say that I've still got goosebumps. Literally.

Hayden Childs - 09:20am Oct 21, 2003 PST

Ditto Gus & Dana, Phil. Excellent.

But Peckinpah's visions of Paradise were dull and treacly next to his feeling for the moment when you're perched on the edge, about to declare yourself, just before the shooting starts. That tense feeling before all hell breaks loose is thrilling, because it's the moment when his people are most alive, and the thing is, his people are more fully alive than any other moviemaker's.

Damn straight. Perhaps not-too-contrary to Dana’s argument in her brilliant Straw Dogs article, I think that Peckinpah believed in conflict (and not necessarily violence) as a defining moment of self. His characters set themselves on paths based on preconceived notions and self-images based on a (usually unseen) past, but it is only when they encounter the unavoidable Other that they become truly themselves. In the Wild Bunch, this is when the Bunch are violated by Mapache’s abduction and murder of Angel, but think also of Gil Westrum returning to fight by Steve Judd’s side at the end of Ride the High Country. Or Pat Garrett shooting the image of himself in the mirror after shooting Billy the Kid. Or how Junior Bonner’s conversations with Ace and Curly prepare him for his battle with the bull (and his age). Or Bennie’s final moments in Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia. Or (especially) David Sumner’s admission to his wife in the midst of the conflict in Straw Dogs that this is where he lives.

I've been wrassling with Peckinpah's sense of ethics. For all his concern with history (ok, maybe not history in terms of facts, but in terms of historical narrative, Peckinpah’s stories were lies like truth), Peckinpah always flattened events into one do-or-die moment for his characters. Do y'all think that it matters -- in that moment on the edge -- what you're going to declare yourself for? I think that it did matter to him that you declare yourself for something, but I go back and forth whether the content of your convictions mattered to him.

In the Wild Bunch, Pike chooses to break the stunned silence following Mapache's death by shooting one of the German advisors. I don't see this as a stand for his country, but a stand against encroaching totalitarian order, a stand for freedom, if you will. We cheer him on, because the Kaiser was worse than the alternatives, but what if the advisors had been envoys from Woodrow Wilson sent to convince Mapache to give us his war against the peasants? (I guess that this wouldn’t happen in a Peckinpah movie, because all motives up until that final moment on the edge are based on self-interest.)

Anyway, some of y’all have a better grasp on this than me, I’m sure.

“It's an expression of sorrow & waste which not even Kurosawa, working at the height of his powers, could come up with when he needed an ending for Seven Samurai.
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