Posted in: Essays, Film Reviews

Learning to Do It Right: “The Wild Bunch” – A Personal Reflection

Law and order and grace and understanding are things that have to be taught. … People are born to survive. They have instincts that go back millions of years. Unfortunately, some of those instincts are based on violence. There is a great streak of violence in every human being. If it is not channeled and understood, it will break out in war or in madness. … [The children’s torture of ants and scorpions at the beginning of the film is] an ugly game, but it’s a game children play—unless they’re taught different. They would have had to be taught not to play that game. And man was a killer millions of years before he served a God.

—Sam Peckinpah, interviewed by Aljean Harmetz, The New York Times, 1969

The Wild Bunch is certainly Sam Peckinpah’s clearest, most heartfelt and poetic statement of his deeply-held belief that we are born animals, and that if we become human at all, it is by learning—from others and from our own experiences. We are not what nature or God makes us, but what we make of ourselves.

"The Wild Bunch" - the original poster
“The Wild Bunch” – the original poster

Whether you share that view or not, you’re a fool if you don’t confront it, and an orphan if you don’t let Sam Peckinpah take you on this spiritual journey to the darkest and the brightest sides of human capability.

When The Wild Bunch premiered in 1969, most viewers and reviewers reviled its uncompromising and unprecedented depiction of violence. Peckinpah himself became widely regarded as a violent personality who reveled in displays of brutality; and that legend only widened with Straw Dogs (1971) and The Getaway (1972).

Rarely have a director’s vision and career been so willfully misunderstood. Peckinpah was haunted by violence, physical and psychological, in his personal life and his profession, and he dared to confront it as few artists in any era or any medium have ever done. The fact that, after forty intervening years of de-sensitizing reality, movie violence, and gore technology, The Wild Bunch still has the power to shock and disturb is ample evidence that this film is no simple-minded kill-spree.

As those who refuse to classify Peckinpah and put him away in the box marked “violence” can readily tell you, both the man and the artist had a big, loving heart, and it was apparent to anyone who had eyes, not only in the gentle, understanding Ride the High Country (1962), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), and Junior Bonner (1971), but also right alongside the savage violence of his masterpiece The Wild Bunch.

The Wild Bunch addresses violence not only as an individual but as a communal phenomenon, as a way of life and a facet of culture. It’s no accident that this tale of a band of outlaws who “share very few sentiments with our government” and take their last chance as gunrunners to a ruthless generalissimo in the Mexican revolution was written, filmed, and released at the height of our country’s ill-fated adventure in Vietnam. That the American experience has so often been a violent experience is part of the film’s core vision. But The Wild Bunch is neither pro- nor anti-Vietnam. Peckinpah was never as simple as that. And because he wasn’t simple about it, The Wild Bunch remains one of a very few films that capture the complexity of the upheaval in American politics and culture that occurred in the Sixties.

Of course, the film is “about” a lot more than violence, America, Vietnam, and the Sixties. It’s about growing old, about having and losing a sense of place in one’s world, about values, about loyalty, about beauty, and, ultimately, about learning—or failing to learn—what it means to be a human being.

"The Wild Bunch" - Posing from posterity
“The Wild Bunch” – framed for posterity

It’s also about the movies. You see in The Wild Bunch both a celebration of and a brutal overhauling of conventions of the western genre. To a large extent, the film is a gloss on the world of John Ford, whose visual magnificence Peckinpah embraces, but whose sentiments about life and death and good-hearted frontier folks he found no longer relevant to the pivotal era in which he lived and worked. His emphatic insistence, in the film’s opening, on Ford’s great horseman Ben Johnson and Ford’s beloved anthem “Gather at the River” announces his film as a paean to the great western auteur he is about to bury.

The film’s portrayal of violence also sets the traditional western on its ear: No more puff of smoke, clutch the chest, fall over dead. Let’s try to be honest about what bullets actually do to people, and in so doing perhaps we can be more honest about people themselves.

The terse, spare dialogue of the traditional “silent stranger” of western myth, in the “shucks, ma’am” mold of Gary Cooper and Randolph Scott, informs the poetic rhythms of The Wild Bunch‘s very special spoken language, from “If they move, kill ’em” to “you have no eyes” to “Let’s go” and “Why not?” to “It’ll do.” No John Wayne speechifying here; the longest monologues might run to two or even three sentences, and that’s all it takes to encapsulate a Code.

Visually, the film is breathtakingly gorgeous, its framings, movements, and rhythms utterly right, that self-assured rightness that the best films always have. A 2009 audience may not readily appreciate the stylistic innovations Peckinpah dared in this film, so many of them having become, through subsequent admiration and imitation, a fundamental part of today’s language of film.

If it isn’t already apparent, this movie means a lot to me. Not a day has gone by since October, 1969 that I haven’t recalled some line or gesture or image from The Wild Bunch in ways that continue to inform my sense of film, art, life, and human beings. I’ve never shrunk from telling people it is my favorite film and my personal nominee for the best film ever made. It’s often been a thankless task, catching such reactions as “A western?” and “But it’s so violent!” and “What’s that? I’ve never heard of it.”

Perhaps the most important of the many things that appeal to me about this timeless masterpiece is the fact that it exemplifies what I call the “second-chance movie.” It embodies a narrative motif that I have always found profoundly meaningful—that of the protagonist who has made mistakes in the past and who, often without recognizing it, is given an opportunity to try it again. In films as diverse as King Kong (1933), Casablanca (1942), Vertigo (1957), Chinatown (1974), Obsession (1976), Mulholland Dr. (2002), and Gone Baby Gone (2007), the test of character is the ability to learn from the past, and to find from it something of value in the endless effort to become human. “This is our last go-round, Dutch. This time we do it right.”

© 2009 Robert C. Cumbow

The Wild Bunch plays March 13-19 at Northwest Film Forum, as part of the year-long series “69,” an exploration of the films of 1969. Robert Horton will introduce the opening night 6:00 pm screening.

“This time we do it right.”