The Algonquin Kids' Table

This Issue: The Wild Bunch

Tom Block - 11:20am Oct 26, 2003 PST

Maybe Peckinpah rigged the deck by making that German advisor a just broad enough symbol that he can stand in for anything that we/Pike might loathe or fear: institutionalized repression, an amoral attitude towards Life, or a bland but privileged conformity. The masterstroke though was making the mere sight of him--peering curiously & even a little stupidly at these strange cowboys, as if they were interlopers at a tea party rather than the men who just shot down a general in front of his troops--so instantly remindful of the historical currents that're sweeping Pike away that it's totally understandable that he'd be the catalyst for Pike's decision to finish things off w/a bang.

I've lived w/The Wild Bunch as much as any other film I've ever seen--thanks to having my anticipation whetted by its reviews & novelization I dreamed at 15 that I was watching its final scene a couple of months before I actually got to see the movie--& I'm still amazed by the multitudes it contains. A conventional (& in spots quite ordinary) Western bookended by a pair of avant-garde gunfights which have set the standard for screen violence the last 35 years, punctuated by some incredibly stirring tours de force (the outlaw shot down in the street at the beginning, the exit from Angel's village, the train robbery, the "walk thing"), all delivered w/equal amounts of emotional conviction & technical virtuosity.

At this point when I think of it, what comes to mind are all the quiet things I love so much: Holden's lined & leathery face reflecting the light in his campfire scene w/Borgnine, Pike thinking tequila-spiked thoughts about loss & innocence while watching the children's faces in Angel's village, Deke Thornton involuntarily wincing at the end of his flashback to his arrest, the rising & falling tensions between Pike & Mapache (all their scenes together are rooted in the two men's astute assessment of which of them has the upper hand at any given time, until their final confrontation, when Mapache makes the stupid mistake of assuming he must have it). And there's always the scene which does nothing but gain power for me as the years pass by: the little coda to the final massacre, when Deke is sitting outside the town gates. The pair of vultures watching over him, the dusky, faintly polluted sky, the mournfully paced pans of the townspeople retrieving their dead...It's an expression of sorrow & waste which not even Kurosawa, working at the height of his powers, could come up w/when he needed an ending for Seven Samurai. It's astonishing.


Phil Nugent - 04:10pm Oct 26, 2003 PST

Sorrow and waste, but I wonder who we're supposed to pity more: the dead killers or Deke and old Sikes, the ones who missed their chance to go out in a blaze of glory (which is what the final massacre is, even as it's also an appalling, pointless bloodbath) and have to go on. "It ain't what it used to be," Sikes says of what's left to them, "but it'll do." (It's funny how Peckinpah could make a simple line like that, or Pike's exchange with Dutch about how Deke "gave his word to a railroad", reverberate. Again, I'm not sure how he did it, and you have to see him try to do it and fail--a classic example that Tom and I have talked about before is James Coburn's climactic line in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, "What you want and what you get are two different things," which is given the full "stop the presses!" treatment and which, in context, rates a solid "Huh?"--to recognize what a tightrope he was walking.)

Pauline Kael once wrote something to the effect that because of Peckinpah's ability to pull you into his movies when they were at their most chaotic and roiling, he could leave you torn and confused, because you could feel yourself emotionally assenting to something and you couldn't always really be sure what it was. One thing that fascinates me about the killing of Mapache is just how badly he's shown to have misplayed his hand. Pike is clearly ready to die to avenge Angel's killing, but it turns out that he doesn't have to. The men under Mapache are brought up a little short by the sight of El Jefe lying in his own blood like a stuck pig, but they have no special desire to risk getting shot by these crazy gringoes; they could get out. Dutch, recognizing this, and scarcely able to believe his luck, giggles. And that's when Pike, noticing the German military advisor, elects to blow the fellow in half. Pike essentially makes the decision, on behalf of all his men, that this is the day they're all going to go down shooting. They're with him all the way, it seems, and when I'm watching the movie, so am I. But I'm not sure whether the prime motivating factor is a supreme blast of disgust, a desire to take as much of it down with you as you can when you go, or just a refusal to keep going and settle for what'll "do." I just know that if I could get ahold of a Gatling gun during that scene I wouldn't be getting back the security deposit on my apartment.

I was just picturing the final scene as Tom describes it and thinking again what a beautiful actor Robert Ryan was. I saw him a few weeks ago playing Larry, the author's spokesman, in the 1973 American Film Theater production of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh--his last performance, one that he gave while suffering from cancer--and it reminded me that for a plausible candidate for stardom in his time, he was a brave, selfless performer. He played a lot of losers--not glamorous, romantic losers of the Casablanca/Bobby Dupea mold, but hopeless drunks, weak-willed traitors like Deke, unattractively self-loathing villains like his Claggart in Peter Ustinov's film of Billy Budd. Deke is the odd man out in The Wild Bunch, a man who (one feels) might have had the antiheroic stature of Pike but slipped up and was broken and getting saddled with human trash and ends up missing the big shootout and at the end may be on his way to the decrepitude of Old Man Sikes. He doesn't have much in the way of memorable lines, maybe because they'd be wasted on the company he's stuck with for most of the movie. But at the end of the movie that face of his is as eloquent as anything that Peckinpah ever pointed a camera at.

Tom Block - 05:17pm Oct 26, 2003 PST

I'm not sure whether the prime motivating factor is a supreme blast of disgust, a desire to take as much of it down with you as you can when you go, or just a refusal to keep going and settle for what'll "do."

I think--& I'd bet Phil & everyone else thinks, too--that it's all those things (plus a couple other things, like a case of world-class fatigue, disillusionment over how things w/Deke have turned out, etc.) working together which finally push Pike into action. But that's as it should be, & how all those forces coil together are, on its simplest level, what the movie's about. Peckinpah, in his inimitable way, made some offbase or misleading comments in his interviews about TWB, but he hit the nail square on the head a couple of times:

I wasn't trying to make an epic. I was trying to tell a simple story about bad men in changing times. The Wild Bunch is simply what happens when killers go to Mexico. The strange thing is that you feel a great sense of loss when these killers reach the end of the line.

and

If you can ride out with them there [in the exeunt from Angel's village] and feel it, you can die with them and feel it.

The other '69 release that used the Wild Bunch as a jumping-off point didn't bother w/such niceties. Its antiheroes were made almost instantly endearing to us through their good looks (practically every other man in Butch Cassidy looks like a gargoyle next to them) & their noticeably modern sense of humor, & even in an early scene where we're set up to think that the Sundance Kid might be a rapist, it's done not because Sundance is some darkly conflicted character but because in William Goldman's world anything--even rape--is good for a cheap laugh. But Peckinpah didn't deal himself Newman & Redford. Instead he took a craggy movie-star from another era & surrounded him w/the faces of people like Ernest Borgnine & Warren Oates. Instead of appealing one-liners, he opens w/a bloodbath that casts as long a shadow over his heroes as it does over their opponents. And instead of wisecracking Robin Hoods, he burdened himself w/filthy, whoring, boozing killers, & worked to make them emotionally accessible to mainstream movie audiences. The number of dramatic, technical, & moral hurdles he set out for himself in a single movie is flat-out remarkable, but as others have pointed out he wasn't at all sure at the time that he'd ever be allowed to make another picture. More than a mere line of dialogue, "Why not?" was probably something like a mantra to him...


Robin Moran Miller - 08:52am Oct 27, 2003 PST

Door creaks open, Devil's Advocate tiptoes in

I was underwhelmed by almost everything in this film but the walk and Ryan's brilliant, nuanced and understated performance. I think this is a very good Western, and certainly had hand in raising the ante on the amount of violence seen onscreen, but its greatness escapes me. It seems to me tthat its depth is something which it's viewers bring to it, rather than something which is already there. As a woman, somewhat on the outside looking in, the vaunted exploration of male camaraderie here is way too ,any scenes of sweaty men, arms akimbo, engaging in long bouts of forced, hearty, manly, and ultimately fake laughter about every 20 minutes. When last watching this film with my boyfriend, I stood up and did the "laugh" every time they did, and even he, a huge fan of the film, began to find it a little silly. And not only silly, but embarassingly unreal.

The reason I say the film lacks greatness is that it fails to draw me in or win me over. I think the devotion to an overriding code of behavior--one that takes precedence over common sense or self-preservation--is more admirable for men than women, for the most part. However, a truly great work of art transcends those kind of distinctions. Instead of feeling "My God, this is stupid, it's ridiculous, it's short-sighted, and it changes nothing," I believe if the film was truly great, my essential lack of respect for the driving motivation of its characters would disappear or cease to matter in the face of the human truth on display. "This is stupid and and ridiculous short-sighted and changes nothing, but it's noble and heart-breaking and goddammit, I am proud and sorry to be alive." I feel for the men and their last futile gesture, but the film never allows me to make the leap into their world view. Great art makes us connect on such a profound level that it erases those distinctions. I don't think this film can do anything but preach to the converted. It lacks the power to actually convert on its own.

Hayden Childs - 02:35pm Oct 27, 2003 PST

Hi, Robin! Glad you made it. We need some healthy disagreement to keep us from degenerating into a Wild Bunch fanatics' club.

engaging in long bouts of forced, hearty, manly, and ultimately fake laughter about every 20 minutes.

Speaking as one of the converted, I thought that the fake, dry laughter was one of the smart touches in the movie. When the Bunch laughs, they have to force it; there's nothing funny about their situation. Their laughter is bravado to hold back the encroaching darkness. It sounds to me like the last drop of whiskey in a freezing West Texas night.

“Pike ends up being selective about his word, his commitments, his principles after all: his loyalty to Angel trumps his contract with Mapache, and though it can't be of much comfort to Dutch at this point, you might be forgiven for thinking that it's his view that carries the day and makes the central moral decision of the movie.
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