This Friday's ASUW films in 130 Kane are Masaki Kobayashi's "Hara-Kiri" and Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch."
"The Wild Bunch" (Sam Peckinpah, 1969)
"When you side with a man, you stay with him and if you can't do that, you're like some animal! You're finished! We're finished! All of us!"This is the credo of the films of Sam Peckinpah. Throughout his film career--even before Peckinpah had William Holden speak those words in "The Wild Bunch"--it has been the thread that has bound his films together, formed their basis, given them a purpose. And this credo doesn't just apply to a band of outlaws as it does in "The Wild Bunch," but also to employer and employee (as in "The Killer Elite") or to husband and wife ("The Getaway" and "Straw Dogs") and to former friends, even if they are on opposite sides of the Law, as in almost all of Peckinpah's films. In the realistic morality of Peckinpah's worlds, the combatants, though on opposite sides of their battlegrounds, are neither totally pure or totally evil. They are amoral, with aspects of both, and thus that credo--the credo of loyalty--is the only means we have of separating them and determining the better men.
Peckinpah has always been accused of being nothing but a "macho" film-maker, and though it may be true that he primarily focusses on the male world, I think the term macho is inappropriate. If "The Wild Bunch" are macho, they are blithely ignorant of it. They are not dedicated to their maleness as much as to their survival, and to the spirit of the credo.
Another thing that is popular to hit Peckinpah on is his use of violence--his explicit use of violence. And while "The Wild Bunch" is violent--even by today's standards**--it might be wise to keep in mind the work of a lot of hacks around these days*** who make more violent films and do so with less imagination and regard for anything. Peckinpah's uses of slow motion violence are not prolonged, they are quick vignettes of an individual confrontation with death, that much like the life itself, is here, then gone, leaving an impression in one's mind no matter how many deaths one sees.
Also, it might behhove you to keep in mind that Peckinpah doesn't just make "Wild Bunch's" and "Straw Dogs'." He has made two recent films which I would urge you to see--"Junior Bonner" and "The Ballad of Cable Hogue" which are boisterous but gentle, apply Peckinpah's credo, but also celebrates life. Not only are they my favorite Peckinpah films, they are his, too. The reason he doesn't make too many films like them is that they don't make money.
"The Wild Bunch" has an all-star cast, uniformly excellent in their roles: William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine,**** Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, Edmund O'Brien, Strother Martin, and L.Q. Jones(who, only incidentally, wrote and directed the film of "A Boy and His Dog"). These are just the stars, but this film is filled with people and faces that you will never forget. Nor will you ever forget the experience of "The Wild Bunch."
Broadcast on KCMU-FM October 28 and 29th, 1975
I'm still a big fan of "The Wild Bunch" and "Junior Bonner" and "The Ballad of Cable Hogue," and "Ride the High Country" and "Cross of Iron" and "Pat Garret and Billy the Kid," and "Major Dundee," now that they've been released in versions that are closer to the way Peckinpah intended them. Producers had a habit of hiring him and then firing him and re-editing his films themselves, and I think that had a lot to do with The Peckinpah Credo about loyalty. He wanted them to know that if you hired him, you'd better trust him to make the film, but there's always disagreement about that when the red ink starts to flow.
I think Sam would crawl into a bottle if he saw how corporate loyalty invaded politics to create administrations of co-conspirators who couldn't think beyond their loyalty to their jobs and bosses. It goes to show that too much of anything can turn into a problem.
"The Wild Bunch" grows more interesting with age as a film about the old guard being unwilling to change in the face of the modern world, and convinced of their own transitory nature, while sticking to their code. It also shows layers of greed, between the outlaws and the members of Ryan's gang that have no moral hedge against body-robbing. There's a very fuzzy moral line there, but Peckinpah's morality could be very fuzzy. As fuzzy as the world lets it, I suppose.
The film was made part of The National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1999.
** Not so true today. Nowadays, "The Wild Bunch" looks a bit tame.
***Don't know who I'm thinking of here, but maybe Tobe Hooper, and Paul Bartel.
****I've become convinced that Ernest Borgnine played one of the atypical roles of his life when he played "Dutch" Engstrom--who, from the evidence I see in the film, is gay (Ernest Brgnine?). Dutch doesn't join in with the Bunch's whoring activities, and his cries for Pike Bishop during the finale show a definite emotion more than loyalty. Of course, there have been gay sub-texts before in Westerns, and in the classic ones, long before "Brokeback Mountain" made it seem revolutionary (Well, yeah, if nobody was watching...) Peckinpah snuck it right by--that's why I like the director so much.