By Melvin Cartagena
The Wild Bunch – 1969 – dir. Sam Peckinpah
It doesn’t matter that the credits state that it’s a screenplay written by Sam Peckinpah and Walon Green, a fiction developed from a story by Walon Green and Roy N. Sickner. It doesn’t matter that Pike Bishop’s (William Holden’s) command to his men in the robbery that opens the film is “If they move, kill ‘em.” And that this is followed by DIRECTED BY SAM PECKINPAH, simultaneously a bold statement and a way to defuse Pike’s order. It doesn’t matter that the fight sequences are entirely subjective in their staging and editing, we want to believe that there were once guys like these running around loose. We want to believe that these weary, battle-scarred men are the cowboys that made the west wild, as their name implies. They are not above shooting civilians (as they do, when we see the parade marchers mowed down in the crossfire between the Bunch and Harrigan’s bounty hunters), but they’d rather not. They stand by each other against the world, and in their circumscribed universe (which is shrinking with the paving over of the west) that is the loftiest ideal they can hope for. It’s this commitment to each other that drives Pike and company to forsake their retirement score and engage in a suicidal shootout with Mapache’s men after Mapache slits Angel’s throat.
Time and glory may have passed the Wild Bunch, but by snuffing themselves out of the space-time continuum in such spectacular fashion, they have taken a chunk of time out of the west, and carved their names on it. In the Bunch’s frame of reference, time stands still (which we get to see when Thornton (Robert Ryan) finally catches up to the Bunch, and finds the garrison littered with bodies, the remainder of the Bunch among them). Thornton kneels outside the garrison, staring into space, thinking the same thing we are: the Wild Bunch is immortal now, and his only regret is that he wasn’t with them in their finest hour.
So they were not nice guys, but we like them, and we root for them, because they were real. They were losers, people we could relate to, people we could trust to tell us about the real west, instead of the mythological Old West. They were not oil prospectors or railroad barons (like Harrigan.) They were not iconic, larger-than-life do gooders (like Gary Cooper in High Noon, a most untrustworthy type. Too noble, too hellbent on doing the right thing in the face of no visible reward.) Whether choosing a life of crime or being ‘forced’ into it, it’s safe to say that the Bunch’s prospects as young men were very limited ones. They were not part of the privileged elite that got to settle the west, and therefore got first pick to have towns and roads and buildings named after them, and by extension got first dibs in chronicling the history of the west.
“History will be very kind to me, because I intend to write it.”
– Winston Churchill
Indeed it was, but in The Wild Bunch, we get to see the history of the west from the point of view of the losers. The helpless unarmed villagers being systematically robbed by Mapache, the corrupt General serving in the Mexican Federal Army; Thornton, once Pike’s right-hand man, now chases the Bunch with a pack of uncouth, unreliable men, because his only other option is jail, and maybe hanging from a tree by the neck. Stripped of all romanticism, the history of the west is no different than the history of the Roman, German, French and British Empires, where a civilization thrives on the broken bones of the trusting and helpless, a peoples unprepared for the darker motives underneath. As the train tracks advanced westward, bringing yellow journalists along with seekers of emancipation, subjectivity started creeping into the unrolling scroll of history. Greed and venality were revised under the twin guiding poles of capitalism and Manifest Destiny, and if a rancher’s plot was in the way of incoming tracks, he was just in the way of progress. A man’s dream of owning a piece of land is rolled over, becoming a footnote in the history of the west, which is nothing more than a subset of that larger, even more subjective scroll, the history of the world.
In Peckinpah’s best known films, the main characters are victims as much of their independent natures as of history itself. In The Ballad of Cable Hogue, after making a fortune for himself and claiming revenge from his betrayers, the title character meets his end when a car’s emergency brake disengages and runs him over. The new age runs over the last rugged frontiersman, literally. In Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, for all of Billy’s bragging and Pat’s stoicism, the men are suffocating under the weight of their own legends, and the laws of the new west—financed by neo-colonizers, rich eastern prospectors—will punish them for it. The greatest sin the Bunch has committed is being born at the wrong end of the timeline of the west’s chronology. There is no room left for proud independent men to make something of themselves, and the anachronistic Bunch’s only selfless, noble gesture—taking some of the guns they stole for Mapache and rerouting them to Angel’s village—seals their fate. Mapache has Angel arrested and tortured for hours. Unable to buy Mapache’s forgiveness, the Wild Bunch engages in one last savage battle were they are both redeemed and damned. In a hail of bullets, the men of limited prospects, the outlaws with a shady past and no future, manage to escape the confines of the space-time continuum.
“We’ve got to start thinking beyond our guns,” Pike instructs his Bunch. “Those days are closing fast.” And right he is, but in embracing their guns and their outdated ways one last time, the Wild Bunch chisels their name in the tablets containing the history of the west. In doing what amounts to the visual equivalent of a graffiti artist tagging a revisionist-nostalgic ‘classical’ painting, the Wild Bunch accomplishes the same with pure mayhem, adding their name to the list of swindlers, conmen and outlaws that put their unique stamp on the west.