A thrilling and infuriating burst of movie id, The Wild Bunch makes you want to slump into the dust and stare dumbly into the distance – which is exactly how we find Robert Ryan’s beaten bounty hunter at the film’s end. Before you despair, though, remember: someone offers Ryan a hand as the credits begin to roll.
Which is to say that The Wild Bunch is not an exercise in nihilism, despite the endless, indiscriminate bullets and the savage reputation of director Sam Peckinpah (Straw Dogs, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia). The movie stops just short of saying nothing matters. Instead, it says that something does matter, something has to matter, but humanity is mostly incapable of recognizing it.
For the collection of thieves and hired guns of the title, not much matters aside from a tenuous sort of loyalty to each other. “When you side with a man you stay with him and if you can’t do that you’re like some animal,” declares their leader, Pike Bishop (William Holden). Trying to uphold this ideal are the likes of Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Jaime Sanchez and Edmond O’Brien. Occasionally they threaten to kill each other, but mostly they’re united, whether robbing a railroad company or stealing U.S. Army weapons for a marauding Mexican general (Emilio Fernandez).
On their trail is Ryan’s Deke Thornton, a former partner of Pike’s who is now cooperating with the authorities in order to stay out of jail. Not that he’s really changed sides. In Peckinpah’s world, the law and the lawless are one and the same – destructive agents of chaos. Consider the aftermath of the opening shoot-out, in which the “good guys” callously step over the bodies of the citizens they’ve accidentally killed, declaring, “We represent the law!”
One thing is for certain in a Peckinpah film: there’s never any doubt as to what he wants you to be looking at.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like to witness such a scene in 1969, even if Bonnie and Clyde did redefine movie violence two years prior. Perhaps something akin to seeing Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction for the first time (though I’d argue Peckinpah’s use of violence is more complicated than Tarantino’s). It’s not just the explicitness of Peckinpah’s imagery – the number of bodies, the amount of blood – it’s the fetishization of the action through the camerawork and editing. That opening gun battle includes a sequence in which a bullet-riddled thief falls off his horse and goes crashing through a store window; Peckinpah intercuts slow-motion footage of the body flying through glass with insert shots of the chaos on the streets. Back and forth, back and forth – it’s as if the movie is doing everything in its power to prolong the savagery.
Whether you read such technique as a celebration of violence or an in-your-face condemnation of it will depend on a variety of factors (including your mood). But either way it’s certainly in line with Peckinpah’s overall style. He tends to belabor both his points and his shots, whether it’s the infamous image of children giggling at the sight of a scorpion being devoured by ants (the movie returns to it many times) or the oddly extended scene of horses tumbling down a sand dune, the slow motion again dragging out the action. One thing is for certain in a Peckinpah film: there’s never any doubt as to what he wants you to be looking at.
Which makes the treatment of the female characters especially problematic. To explore this isn’t to force a post-1970s political correctness on one of cinema’s most macho figures, for to Peckinpah’s credit, The Wild Bunch gives time and space to a variety of women characters. And though it’s true that they are mostly compliant conquests, the movie has notable exceptions: the funeral procession of a woman who has been caught in the crossfire, which interrupts a manly meal; a sorrowful “celebration” with prostitutes after the gang completes their gun deal, which leads to a doomed climactic decision on Pike’s part. Then there is the jarring throwaway shot of a woman bringing an infant to nurse at her breast, with the camera zooming out to reveal that she also has a belt of bullets strapped across her chest. There is much to criticize about the way women are portrayed in The Wild Bunch, but you can’t say those women aren’t complicated.
There is another group that stands at the outskirts of the action yet is still integral to the film: children. Whenever there is a group scene, Peckinpah takes time to turn the camera on the little eyes watching. Yet it isn’t meant as a pointed commentary, in which the killing on display is juxtaposed with youthful innocence. Whether it’s that sadistic scene with the scorpion or a later one in which a gaggle of urchins tosses pebbles at the adults from a balcony above, kids in The Wild Bunch are really no better than the adults. We’re rotten from the start, the movie suggests. Honor lies in not pretending otherwise.