Film & TV

The Wild Bunch and American Disillusionment

The Wild Bunch actor and lifetime achievement honoree Ernest Borgnine waves after receiving his award at the 17th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles, Calif., January 30, 2011. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
Fifty years ago, its nihilistic vision of the Old West was shocking.

Washers. After a gruesome, drawn-out shootout at a railroad headquarters in Texas over some bags of silver, a band of outlaws pauses to examine the bags of loot it has stolen at so much bloody expense: Washers. In 1969, this was starting to become American culture’s take on Vietnam: What were we fighting for, anyway? What was the point of all the mayhem?

Hollywood would not really take on Vietnam until after the war was over, the conflict being stubbornly popular with the American people while it was ongoing. But after some of the media began taking a skeptical view of American actions in Southeast Asia in 1967, the attitudes of filmmakers began to shift too. Even Sam Peckinpah, a crusty cynic who wanted no part of psychedelic hippie pacifism, began turning movie tropes inside out, with The Wild Bunch, a Western like no other before it.

Released 50 years ago this week, The Wild Bunch kicked off with a scene that doesn’t seem particularly noteworthy today but would have shocked and perhaps horrified 1969 audiences. A troop of cavalry men ride into a quiet Texas town, even stopping politely to aid a little old lady. Then, the reversal: The leader of the band, Pike, played by William Holden, who has just been welcomed into a railroad office, reveals that he is actually robbing the place in a single harsh sentence. “If they move, kill ’em,” he says. These were pitiless killers in disguise, probably wearing the uniforms of men they’d dispatched. Pike’s line would later serve as the title for a biography of Peckinpah.

Holden had built his career as an easygoing pretty-boy actor turned devilishly funny charmer. Now he was as charming as barbed wire. Deep lines were etched into his forehead. The scamp of Stalag 17, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Sabrina had become a cruel thug. At his side was another brute played by a previously lovable actor, Ernest Borgnine, who had won an Oscar for playing a sweetheart butcher in Marty and was best known for playing an affable sailor in his sitcom McHale’s Navy. The effect in 1969 must have been approximately like walking into a theater today and seeing Robert Downey Jr. and Adam Sandler playing cold-blooded killers.

Soon Pike’s band will use a group of Christian temperance advocates as human shields as they carry out a horrific firefight with a group of hired guns lying in ambush. After a shootout of an intensity unprecedented in Hollywood history, the gang completely forget that they’ve left a dim compadre behind to be cut down by the hired guns, though he senselessly takes out a few of them with his dying breath. Peckinpah cuts to children torturing a scorpion for fun and reenacting the shootout with delight.

Peckinpah’s nihilistic vision would later become a cliché, as would some of his cinematic techniques. The chaotic editing of the opening gunfight, calling in images from several angles and intercutting with a slow-motion sequence of a man falling to his death, was groundbreaking for its time but today looks hokey, as does Peckinpah’s frequent use of the zoom lens, which when used today usually signals a spoof of 1970s-style filmmaking. Peckinpah was making a point that Americans were becoming desensitized to violence, among the first of many filmmakers to argue that violence was a kind of pornography even as he reveled in detailed, balletic bloodshed. The line between real human suffering and staged entertainment had become blurred, Peckinpah thought. His gloomy sense was that there is something twisted in our souls that makes us thrill to the sight of others’ suffering.

Though The Wild Bunch was not particularly successful upon release, in years to come critics began to line up behind Peckinpah’s corrosive take on the human spirit, and they were equally delighted to retroactively claim it as one of the first films to take their side about Vietnam, albeit in stealth mode. In 1998 the American Film Institute declared The Wild Bunch the 80th best American film of all time. (Today, I suspect critics viewing it for the first time will take exception to its depiction of essentially all its female characters as contented prostitutes.)

Hollywood Westerns built from the assumption that the savagery of the frontier ramped up dramatic possibilities, but The Wild Bunch implicitly castigated all previous Westerns as far too tame. Its setting is a truly chilling moral wilderness that doesn’t even grant women protected status. The desperadoes are so evil that Dutch (Borgnine) makes a joke of it when someone suggests pausing to give a decent burial to a fallen comrade. The mercenaries chasing the wild bunch are both incompetent and venal — “egg-sucking, chicken-stealing gutter trash,” in the words of their reluctant leader, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), a former member of the wild bunch who must either neutralize them or go to prison. When a woman gets shot because her ex-boyfriend is furious about being dumped, the Mexican warlord whose lap she is sitting on is angry only because he thinks he was the intended target of the bullet. When this little misunderstanding is cleared up, everyone has a laugh about it. The woman’s bloody corpse is shoved aside.

Unlike Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, released the same year, or even (to a lesser extent) Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch doesn’t sweeten its antiheroes into appealing rogues via Warren Beatty’s adorable facial expressions or the witty one-liners sprinkled throughout Butch Cassidy’s script. This gang is mean, unsentimental, never cute. Like Holden, an alcoholic who was 50 at the time of shooting and looked older, the desperadoes are well past their prime, and they know it. Peckinpah didn’t even give the audience handsomeness as a hook for its sympathies. Redford’s mustache, as the Sundance Kid, is sexy; Holden’s, as Pike, is harsh. If his band laugh about anything, it’s about their lack of standards. When asked to supply guns to Germans (who for some reason are preparing for war against the U.S. in 1913), the gang hardly bat an eye because there is money at stake. “Ten thousand cuts an awful lot of family ties,” says Pike.

Pike and the rest of the gang do scrape together their honor at the end, when they go on a doomed mission to rescue their captured friend Angel from the Mexican warlord, an act that comes at spectacular cost. Finally there is some scrap of honor among thieves, not that it matters. The Wild Bunch conjures a chilling landscape in which there is neither goodness nor mercy. None is sought, though. At best a man can behave like a man until he meets his fate with his eyes open and his shoulders squared. Peckinpah was among the first to pick up on an impulse that would become a preoccupation of Seventies cinema — a fear that America had become a land where old standards had collapsed and only suckers tried to play by the rules.

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