June 19, 2024

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AFI Countdown Challenge #80: The Wild Bunch

Sam Peckinpah's violent anti-Western, famous for its body count, but more about the end of an era.

The Wild Bunch has a reputation for brutal violence, and to be fair, it does have a good deal of it, but that violence is merely to be judged by the standards of 1969, the year it came out.  By today’s standards, it’s fairly tame.  By the standards of 1969, you’ll see and hear things that audiences wouldn’t have like how there’s some swearing you could hear on basic cable these days if not network television, a couple scenes of topless women, and squibs going off with the brightest-looking blood you can imagine.

But The Wild Bunch is about more than just the violence.

Set in the year 1913, The Wild Bunch opens with the title gang, led by Pike (the great William Holden), riding into a town to rob the local railroad depot.  The gang is disguised as Army cavalrymen, but they don’t know the whole thing is a trap set by a former associate of Pike’s, Deke Thorton, who was caught and then whipped until he agreed to hunt down his former associates.

Pike will never blame him for this.

But symbolically, before the first shots are fired or the Bunch even starts to commit the robbery, we see a group of children playing around a pile of…well, it turns out to be they are watching red ants mob a couple scorpions.  Individually, the scorpions are deadly creatures, larger and more powerful than the ants, but the ants heavily outnumber the scorpions.  As such, the scorpions will eventually fall to the ants, but not before they take a lot of the ants along with them.

That more or less mirrors the end of the movie.

The real theme to the movie is not so much the violence, though director Sam Peckinpah does famously make it more graphic than audiences were used to through the use of squibs and slow motion death, but the end of the Wild West.  Pike and his crew, most notably right hand man Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), are all growing older.  Sure, there are a few younger members in the group, noticeably Angel, a Mexican-born outlaw, but Pike and Dutch are seeing their way of life pass them by, as is Thorton on their tail.  The oldest member, Sykes, doesn’t even go on the jobs anymore, but we’re told he pulled some mighty impressive thefts in his day.

That theme of the dying West comes out again and again.  After escaping the trap, Pike and his surviving Bunch head to Mexico and are surprised to see a self-proclaimed general riding around in a car, the implication being they’ve never seen such a vehicle before.  Railroad tracks are everywhere.  And the final apocalyptic showdown is as bad as it is in part due to the Bunch getting their hands on a machine gun and various hand grenades.

But it’s not just the technology that’s changing.  It’s the moral codes of everyone around them.  Pike is willing to let Thorton and his increasingly smaller, increasingly incompetent posse slide because Thorton made a promise and a man has to keep his word.  That doesn’t matter to Dutch, seeing as Thorton made his promise not to law enforcement or an honorable man, but to a railroad.  For Dutch, it isn’t about making a promise.  It’s about who you make the promise to.  Furthermore, Pike keeps flashing back to tragic encounters in his life as an outlaw, including Thorton’s arrest.

On the other hand, there’s also a line or two about the Pueblo Indians fighting the Apache for a thousand years, indicating these people can fight the corrupt Mexican military figures that have already attacked the village Angel grew up in and killed his father.  The Bunch do a job for the Mexicans, robbing an American military shipment but opt to only hand over the exact agreed upon amount of crates and weapons, giving a single box of rifles and ammo to the local resistance as they followed the contract to the letter.  That ends up getting Angel captured by the Mexicans and eventually executed after hours of torture.

It’s actually Angel’s arrest that spirs Pike and Dutch, plus the already violent Gorch brothers, to spur themselves to action.  The movie opened with Pike sacrificing one particularly unhinged man (who he later learns is Sykes’ grandson) and then euthanizing another, leaving the man without so much as a burial due to the need to escape.  Dutch gets that too.  It was this self-preservation that led to Pike abandoning Thorton, and Thorton would still rather ride with Pike than with the people he’s stuck with.

As such, Pike and the Bunch going into what is certainly a suicide run to try (and fail) to retrieve Angel is a change.  They may not be good men (heck, they aren’t at all even in the end), but at least they aren’t acting selfishly.  Pike left Thorton.  He won’t leave Angel.

But then Angel’s throat is slashed in front of them by the general and the Bunch start shooting.  The next few minutes sees the Bunch all take multiple bullets as they mow down waves of Mexicans, and not just attackers.  Dutch uses a woman as a human shield at one point, and other women are hit in the crossfire while more women and children cower in terror.  The Mexicans are hardly saints, seeing as Pike is shot by a kid before he dies.  He returns the favor to a woman who shot him in the back, but the kid will get to live.

The Bunch die as the Wild West dies, and that leaves the survivors to meet up.  Thorton’s posse leaves with the Bunch’s corpses, leaving him behind by his own choice.  He’s found by Sykes and a rebel group and accepts an offer to join them.  The last words go to Sykes as he says, “It ain’t like it used to be, but it’ll do.”

Indeed, Peckinpah’s film is in many ways the end of the traditional Western.  The white hat/black hat dynamic was on its way out, and bloodless gunshots were likewise disappearing.  Heck, the Western genre itself wasn’t going to last much longer the way it used to.  Westerns today are much more sporadic, with superhero films taking over for the pure morality tales of the old Western style.  Modern Westerns are more like The Wild Bunch and less like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  The outlaws of Pike’s Bunch weren’t the only ones who died in that shootout:  they took a whole style of popular cinematic storytelling with them.

NEXT UP:  Back when I wrote up Platoon, I said that there weren’t many Vietnam movies aside from Apocalypse Now up to that point.  Then I saw I had forgotten about the 1978 film The Deer Hunter, which may be less about Vietnam and what war does to the men who fight it.  That’s up next.