Few genres run the gamut of nervy nightmare to clear-conscience mirth like the Western. Some films have used the medium to push deeper and deeper on the world’s great un-bandaged wounds. But, traditionally, the genre has been enjoyed for its ability to set the mind at ease. Filled with grand, black-and-white archetypes which convince us of a world long-gone predicated on righteous morality, the Wild West is less reality than a dream, a moral vision of America’s mid-century hopes for a conservative world in an era where the world’s complications were increasingly boiling to the surface. In the 1940s and 1950s, the genre was the ultimate in cinematic comfort food.
Let’s just say that, to these earlier films, Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 film The Wild Bunch has a thing or two to say. Released at the forefront of the revisionist Western movement, Peckinpah eviscerates the contrarian vision of reality that quilted the Western pillow upon which America routinely laid its head nightly to dream of a moral simplicity to ward off the naughty nightmares of progressivism. By acknowledging and using the conventions of the Western to remind the viewer of their own expectations for the genre, and then rendering these expectations dream rather than reality, The Wild Bunch brilliantly subverts these conventions. Peckinpah turns his ravaged, piercing eye back onto the American dreamscape and comes up with a violent, ruined world populated by constructed personalities and put-on identities.
Thus, The Wild Bunch is wholly different from any Western ever released before-hand, and its differences have been rightfully analyzed. But what hasn’t been analyzed is the importance of its assumed similarity to the Western genre. After all, its subversive quality is not its rejection of Western conventions, but its seeming acceptance of them. It lulls us into a dream while interspersing the nightmare, rendering woeful cognitive dissonance accompanied by gallows humor to make our stomachs churn. It’s because we see that which we are familiar with in other films that the power of this film to subvert our expectations is enhanced.
Above all, the opening scene of the film draws out its themes and sets the stage for the brutality which will occur later in the film, subverting character dynamics and expectations and proving one of the finest openings to a Western yet made. As the film opens, we witness the titular Wild Bunch, a gang of outlaws, riding into town, dressed as soldiers. The film cuts to William Holden as leader Pike Bishop in a close-up and freeze frames on his face as the film switches from color to black-and-white for the duration of the freeze frame and very immediately reminding the audience of Westerns of old, which were largely black-and-white. Quite literally, it draws out distance and continuity through the brutal, oppressive transition between the color schemes of modern and classic film, bleeding the two together as it rigidly separates them.
The film continues to do this as the Bunch ride into town to reach their destination. We are witnessing the group, at this point – to our perspective – possibly traditional Western heroes, ride into town in the same manner as hundreds of Western heroes had before. It is a very self-consciously “Western” opening, but the color-work implies a darker underbelly currently left unstated.
In the middle of the shots of the Wild Bunch riding into town is a series of shots which depict the children of the town torturing scorpions in a pit of ants. The movie first cuts to the children looking at the Bunch as they ride into town. When one of the cuts shows them looking back at the pit they are surrounding, the next shot shows the scorpions being swarmed by ants, with a stick prodding the scorpions throughout. The heart of his critique here comes from the reaction shots of the children. The scene cuts back and forth between the shots of the scorpions and the children’s faces. Each time it cuts to the children, they are smiling, clearly enjoying themselves. Shots freeze frame and cut to black-and-white, recalling previous Westerns, as if to beg the question, “is this what you think of when you think of the West?” The black-and-white freeze frame also has the added effect of making the children appear slightly grotesque, as the film grain here distorts their expressions to make it appear more perverted when we might think black-and-white would restore their traditional morality.
The Wild Bunch is a famously violent, bloody film, but none of the violence hits harder or with more devious impact than here. The point, that we may want to pin a society of violence on those like the Wild Bunch to the extent that we miss the way that all people become products of violence and perpetuate it in their own way, is crystal clear. Children are everywhere in this movie – they reflect what we want to see as innocent in the Old West, and it’s telling that they are presented as the most unsparing figures of all here, those who not only commit violence but enjoy it more than anyone else.
The children, more than anything, are a profound challenge to the great lie of American society, the idea that individuals are largely personally responsible for fates which are more often than not socially constructed. Early on, we see Pike bump into a woman, while still in military outfit. He is very courteous in his demeanor, apologizing and picking up her fallen package. Another member, Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), then carries her package for her, and Pike walks her across the street. We’d like to think their actions reflected part of their ruse. This would console us into accepting this opening as a performance on their part to hide their merciless bloodthirstiness. But here and later on they are revealed to genuinely care and to, in fact, display a code of ethics about the world and what they are willing to do to it. Immediately after helping the old lady, they storm a bank – these are ruthless men, but naughty and nice here aren’t mutually exclusive.
Later in the film they display a sense of kind communalism that no other figures adopt, least of the lawman pursuing them. We have bad men here, but we also have ruthless figures elsewhere – the mercenaries hired by the law to hunt the Wild Bunch, headed by Deke (Robert Ryan) are as ruthless and more likely to actively put civilians in the way of harm. In this regard, The Wild Bunch emerges as a great equalizer, positing humans as both eternally courteous and savage, and eschewing false dichotomies. The Bunch have a reverence for each other, a friendship until the end of the film, when they go out guns blazing attempting to kill those perhaps more criminal than they. And their reverence often extends to outside society as well.
Above all though, Peckinpah’s treatment of the titular characters reflects some empathy with the Old West and its rugged, dreamlike vision of masculine justice and survival on the outskirts of “civilization”. He doesn’t demonize the Bunch, and in some ways highlights undeniable reverence for this spirit – giving us men who commit violence in ways perpendicular to the violence of civilized society, but not necessarily worse or better than it. Late in the film, especially in their final standoff – where they valiantly attempt to save someone from torture knowing it will likely lead to their deaths – Peckinpah films them with reverence. He “gets” the spirit of the Old West, in other words, and he gives it to us where we don’t expect it. He merely wants to call us out for seeing only the good in this spirit and applying it only to categorical “heroes”, or for assuming this spirit was ever a reality and not a dream constructed to counter nightmares. Peckinpah isn’t so much giving us a reality but subverting the dream by giving it to the nightmare figures of our youth -he sees it as wholly false but doesn’t invalidate it for this reason.
For him, the Old West was a way of life shot through and inseparable from violence that made and broke men, causing insufferable pain and hurt and, in fact, forcing men and women to become agents of destruction to survive another day. The Bunch’s way of life, as aging men rendered increasingly desperate for survival in a changing world (the film takes place in 1913 at the end of the Western era), renders them dangerous to society. And they are dangerous to that society – but the society is also dangerous to itself here, a cycle of violence to do “justice” to violence that welcomes everyone.
So this brings us to what I’ve been dancing around – The Wild Bunch is often noted for its violence, and this violence does contribute significantly to the revisionist Western sensibilities of the film. It is also a violence the film knows not how to treat. It does in some sense fetishize it, but it does so for a purpose equal parts excitement and malaise. It turns it into its own bloody ballet, done up with Peckinpah’s legendarily terse, non-conversational editing (cuts hit with the force of bullets), sun-scorched, mud-covered film grain that knows no tones but the brown of a barren earth, and multiple-angle shots (which he used to capture location in all its facets as a completely corrupted landscape of the mind thoroughly distant from any Western dreamscape of Old).
No other Western beforehand would have even come close to depicting such violence. Even a dark, cynical early Western like The Searchers, which includes such cold-hearted actions as Ethan shooting a dead Native American’s eyes out, hides its violence just off camera. Here, the death comes fast and furious. It’s multitudinous. While individual character deaths are highlighted, they often die with mounds of bodies already littering the floor around them. It gives little time to reflect on the individuality of the victims. Death becomes a part of the scenery – part of a dreary, drained opera that sucks the meaning and individuality of their deaths out of them. The film is unsparing in its blackened-heart depiction of the violence of the Old West, a violence we’re afraid to admit existed.
However, as exhibited in the opening of The Wild Bunch, the use of violence isn’t an end in itself for Peckinpah, nor is it the only means by which the film underscores its poison pen love letter to Westerns of old. His masterstroke isn’t the self-reflexive violence he uses to bring a much needed shot of energy to the Western, but the fact that he does this within a film so steeped in what could even be called love for Western traditions, namely the rugged band of outsiders, male bonding, and simpler lifestyles predicated on mutual respect filtered through communal responsibility. It is thus in the film’s simultaneous Western-ness and its critique of Westerns that it has a subversive energy – it refuses to demonize or glamorize its characters, but instead shows them as complicated, three-dimensional individuals. It is completely unsure of how to depict them – or how to depict its simultaneously exciting and dehumanizing violence – and this is even scarier and more undyingly tragic than painting them as heroes or villains because it acknowledges them as people. People it wants to love, people it must hate, people it can’t control, and, above all, people whose violence is not grandstanding but tired and tiring.
But it acknowledges more – it sees the characters as less “truth” than the product of a modern screenwriter struggling with how to depict the Wild West in a work of fiction, someone who by definition cannot understand the West as it truly existed and must work with the dreams of the West , the films about it, to make sense of the period. One could even accuse the film at times of sentimentality towards these necessarily fake men. But it’s a tough-love, the kind which acknowledges their danger and can’t abide by it; it wants to love them, like we want to love these clichés of male bonding and rugged masculinity, but it knows that it can’t and shouldn’t. It’s tired, hollow empathy for its characters – the way it wants to be what it knows it cannot – is what makes it so tragically scary, giving us what we want out of the Old West in a package that frightens us for wanting it.
Above all, this dried-out, hollow quality is what allows the film’s critique to go beyond these characters in this film and into the very problematized mythos of the West. If we don’t want to glamorize this crew, the film reveals, we can’t really honestly glamorize the image of the West ever again, for the end of the Wild Bunch is simply one form of violence giving way to the next. The violence of the Old West is not this film’s moral center, nor the violence of the New Society, but the lonesome, hungry people lost in between the two, choosing sides not out of an upright moral claim but out of dogged loss and years of marinating in a color-sapped, siphoned-off limbo of mud brown and neutral grey. When Peckinpah lets blood, he’s letting just a little color into their lives, but its not excitement, for the bright red is muddied and neutered too by the oppressive, omnipresent drained-out nature of the human existence captured in the muted cinematography and the wider than open spaces on display in the frame. The Wild Bunch asks us if we’re ready to reject both the traditional Western and the revisionist Western critique, to reject both the grubby, formless violence of Old and the mechanized, corporate sledgehammer violence of New. It knows that its own answer is a resounding unease; it can’t find a place to locate itself outside of this dichotomy. It doesn’t know what perspective to share – whether it be a respect for its outsider’s bunch of characters or fear of them or rage pointed squarely at them – and it knows we don’t know either. It is left, as so many great films are, with only one thing to do: sigh a great sigh, and press forward.