This is post #22 in my series, 100 Movies … 100 Posts. In this ongoing series, I’m watching and writing about each film on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest movies from #100 to #1. I’m not just writing a review of each movie. I am going to write a piece about whatever I find most pressing, as a critique of the film, an address of the issues it brings up, or my own experiences with the film. It will serve as an examination of the list itself and of political issues in Hollywood and the film industry.
Without further ado, #79 “The Wild Bunch”
Before 1969, Hollywood was a safer place. Yes, there was murder, corruption, violent betrayals, domestic violence, and even bloodshed on occasion. But there was nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to upset anyone.
But then Sam Peckinpah and his “Wild Bunch” rode into town and took over.
Then, there was a new sheriff who took over the town, one with a murkier sense of morality and a thirst for blood. And he brought with him a band of outlaws that would change this place and upset that feeling of security and safety. In 1969, it was outlaws. Today, their descendants still run wild as gangsters and thieves. And … robots?
From most accounts, “The Wild Bunch” was the first to feature violence, not as a means to advance a plot or explore themes, but as a theme in and of itself. It was the first to feature bloody shootouts, with spurting blood and scores of dead bodies in their wake. Certainly, Quentin Tarantino and others have drawn their inspiration from Peckinpah’s most highly regarded film.
Violence in film is kind of a controversial subject. It’s important not to portray stylish violence in a way that glorifies it, but making it realistic should be a priority. As much as we’d like it to not be the case, violence is an inherent part of life. As the beginning of this film shows with the scenes of the ants killing a scorpion, violence is a natural aspect of the animal kingdom, which humans belong to on the evolutionary tree. Some societies have come to a point where violence doesn’t have to be a part of everyday life. Then again, as this past week’s events show, in some places, such as the Middle East and Eastern Europe, it’s an all too common occurrence.
Violence stems from a strong survival instinct. People kill to eat, and they kill to protect themselves from other people who would try to steal from them. As much as we’d like to hope and dream for a reality where there’s much less competition and ill will, violence has always played a role in humankind’s development since the beginning of human existence. We hope there are better means of solving problems, but certainly some people get to a point where they see no other option.
But as it pertains to film, the important thing is that violence serves as a reminder that these things really happen. Many directors have tried to clean it up, to make it more “family friendly.” But when it comes to real guns and weapons that can seriously hurt someone, toning it down not only seems cheap and fake, but it’s also somewhat irresponsible. People might find graphic violence in film disgusting or disturbing, and perhaps violent films are not for everyone, and that’s OK. But if we’re disgusted or disturbed by violent acts we see on a screen, that’s just a sign that we’re reacting the way we should. We should be disturbed by seeing violence, and if it’s just there to be “cool,” then all we’re doing is desensitizing ourselves and our reactions to the real thing.
In particular, Peckinpah makes a good point with the ridiculously violent opening shootout, where a band of outlaws is trying to rob a bank in broad daylight in a busy section of town, while a group of bounty hunters is trying to stop them. The outcome, of course, is that most of the people who get killed are the ones who aren’t holding guns, but the ones who were just going about their daily business who had no involvement on either side. This scene alone says a lot about the nature of violence in people.
One of the main ideas to take away from this is that in a war of any kind, the people who suffer the most are the innocents. Make no mistake, this is a war. Whether war is fought by opposing militaries or opposing gangs or opposite sides of the law, it’s still war. Obviously, that statement has different implications today than it did in the early 1900s or 1969, but it’s still true. Even though the bounty hunters are simple guns for hire, they still are paid by law enforcement, and so they do represent that kind of authority. Parallels can easily be drawn between this and the many acts of police brutality that still happen today. Whether law enforcement is willfully committing acts of violence against innocent people or is doing it out of a lack of regard for those people, the point is that the people with the weapons are the ones who do the killing. There’s no way around that fact.
The film was a departure from the norm in Hollywood in other ways as well. In contrast to other Westerns of the time, take for instance, Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy, the outlaws in “The Wild Bunch” act like outlaws. They aren’t nice guys. They adhere to some strong moral code but constantly break it as long as it’s convenient. As Ernest Borgnine’s Dutch says in regard to one authority figure, “We ain’t nothing like him. We don’t hang nobody!” He has a point, but the bunch has no problem taking people down when they’re in the middle of a robbery. Sure, the situations aren’t exactly the same, as the group isn’t in the position of power that some authorities in this film are, but they still should be accountable for their actions. They are bandits by trade after all.
In addition to the thrill of making that big score, the men live for booze and hookers. There’s no woman for them to come home to, just the guys and the road.
In this way, the film also serves as either a deconstruction or a celebration (maybe a bit of both) of that certain sort of macho masculinity especially characteristic of Westerns and other action movies. In keeping with the anti-violence theme, the film shows that the ultimate end for a violent lifestyle is generally a violent death. The guys aren’t invincible, and the lifestyle catches up to them eventually. As one man says, “We all dream of being a child again, even the worst of us. Perhaps the worst most of all.” That boorishness rears its ugly head in many ways in this film, and it’s an important takedown of that “manchild” mentality that is still too commonly espoused today.
Of course, although this film was considered excessively violent back in 1969, film connoisseurs would hardly bat an eye at it today. Back then they couldn’t get away with anything nearly as graphic as, say, “Saving Private Ryan,” or even “Pulp Fiction.” But the body count is rather ridiculous, though in this case, it serves as a reminder that violence begets violence, and sheer revenge for the sake of “honor” doesn’t really solve anything.
As in any good Western, there’s a great heist, involving, what else, a train. There are multiple opposing sides, each with their own agenda, and a detour into Mexico that turns into much more than the boys had bargained for. And of course, a dinner around a campfire’s worth of teasing and prodding jokes to help take the edge off. The Wild West serves as a good backdrop for many of Peckinpah’s ideas that were likely especially spurred on by the Vietnam War, which the U.S. was in the thick of at that time.
The film isn’t particularly friendly to women, unfortunately. Most of the women in the film who actually get any screen time are sex workers and are basically used as scenery. One of them is supposedly a former lover of one of the outlaws, Angel (Jamie Sanchez), and he takes offense to the fact that she is hanging around a certain powerful, corrupt individual, Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) when she’s supposed to be “his woman.” So he shoots her. It’s not totally clear who he was aiming for, but everyone else treats it like it’s no big deal that he just killed a woman. Mapache doesn’t even care, since he has lots of other women around anyway. Why be sad about just one? The leader of the bandits, Pike (William Holden) previously had a fling with a married woman, a relationship that ended when her husband killed her in the midst of their passion. That haunts Pike to some degree. The problem is that women in this film are mere accessories to the men, and although the film doesn’t necessarily portray the bandits in a positive light, it isn’t helpful when those women don’t have any personality or character of their own.
As the time of cowboys and the Wild West were winding down in 1913, it’s fitting that the old men of this group of outlaws were making their last score before their planned retirement into obscurity. But instead of fading away, they went out in somewhat of a blaze of glory. As the ’60s were winding down, a new era was around the corner. Thanks to Peckinpah, they went out with a bang (or many).
“The Wild Bunch” was incredibly influential for the film industry. If Peckinpah’s intent was to put an end to violent films, he succeeded in producing the exact opposite outcome. Contemporary directors, from Martin Scorsese to John woo, who love to stage stylish and bloody action sequences have this film to thank for their inspiration. And even Michael Bay, though he goes more the sanitary, bloodless route with his mounds of highly choreographed chaotic scenes, owes homage to this movie as well. So, if any of that is your sort of thing, you owe it to yourself to check out this movie. It’s rarely been done better since. Even as Peckinpah intended for it to be an ending of sorts, it also served as a beginning for a whole new generation of filmmakers.
Next up, #78 “Modern Times”