The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah’s magnum opus is an epic tragedy about the wild men of the old West who find themselves out of place and out of time in a new West

The Wild Bunch(1969), directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Jonson, Robert Ryan and Warren Oates in lead roles, is a violent, seminal Western that set benchmarks in American Cinema.

“We’re not gonna get rid of anybody! We’re gonna stick together, just like it used to be! 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!”

The above words spoken by Pike Bishop(William Holden), the leader of the “The Wild Bunch” of desperadoes operating along the Texas-Mexican Border in 1913 in Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 Western magnum opus, The Wild Bunch might make it appear that we are dealing with a an age-old tale of “honor among thieves” and “Outlaws with heart of gold and strong moral codes”. But as it will be eventually revealed, Bishop’s so called code is a sham, and that’s not all, through this brilliantly ironic film. Peckinpah proves that very aspect of outlaw life depicted in Westerns up until that time is a sham As the title suggests, the film tells the story of a bunch of desperate, violent, immoral outlaws, who kill, pillage, plunder, torture and fornicate at will, but who pretend that they live and die by that code. The stinging irony in Bishop’s above words comes to the fore when we realize that all through his life he had set aside that code as and when it was convenient for him: Bishop once rode with Deke Thornton(Robert Ryan); and when they were ambushed by Pinkertons, Bishop ran for his life like a coward, while Thornton was arrested and taken to Yuma prison in chains. This betrayal has been gnawing at Bishop ever since, and now more than ever, because Thornton has been sprung from the prison by railroad baron Pat Harrigan for the express purpose of capturing Bishop and his gang- who has been systematically raiding him. It’s not a job Thornton enjoys doing; for whatever it’s worth, he would still have preferred riding with Bishop rather than pursuing him with Harrigan’s ragtag posse consisting of, what he himself describes as, “egg-suckin’, chicken stealing gutter trash with not even sixty rounds between them“. But Thornton has no choice- if he refuse to do Harrigan’s bidding he will be sent back to Yuma prison: a situation worse than death for Thornton. Thornton reluctantly accepts the job and leads his posse across the border in hot pursuit of his old comrade and his gang. The reappearance of Thornton forces Bishop to come face to face with, not just his own cowardice at betraying Thornton, but of every instance in his life where he had broken his lofty code to protect himself at the expense of someone who has been a comrade.

At first glance, Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch appears to be a slick, ‘Gringos south of the border’ action blockbuster in the mold of Vera Cruz(1954), The Magnificent Seven(1960) and The Professionals(1966)– which by the way was set in the same time period and same historical context of the Mexican revolution. But it’s these great characters and the great relational dynamics, especially the Pike Bishop-Deke Thornton one that make this film what it is: an epic Western tragedy of Shakespearean proportions about terribly flawed heroes who live by and live for violence. And Sam Peckinpah gives us a powerful vision of the violent world into which these men are born into, and are nurtured by, in the very opening sequence of the film. We see a bunch of Mexican kids torturing a giant scorpion by throwing it into a red anthill. This image, which is at once repulsive and fascinating, forms a giant metaphor for the story of the film that’s going to unfold. We see the Wild Bunch, dressed as soldiers, riding past these kids into the parched, sunburnt Texan town of San Rafael (also called Starbuck) which houses the railroad office from where they intend to steal a cache of silver. But unknown to them, the railroad bosses, who had figured out that this is going to be the Bunch’s next move, has already staked out the town, with Thornton and his fellow bounty hunters placed at strategic points to take the Bunch down when they ride in. So, like the scorpion caught in the anthill, Bishop and his bunch are ambushed in the town square by Thornton and his men in ,what’s one of the greatest, bloodiest and most unflinching shootout sequences in movie history.

Well, millions of words have already gone in service of celebrating the sheer bravura of this sequence, which is truly a path breaking and seminal moment in American cinema as far as staging and editing of action scenes go: we have scenes shot from multiple camera angles with varying frame rates rapidly cut together to create a surrealistic elasticity to time. A guy on top of a building is shot in slow motion, and as his corpse takes a dive, the film cuts to someone else getting shot on the street below, even as one of the Bunch is hastily escaping on a horse, and then we see the corpse hitting the ground. But more than the action sequence, it’s the build up to the sequence that i find even more brilliant: it’s a three-way build up between Bishop and his men robbing the railroad office, to Thornton and his men getting ready on rooftops, to a temperance union parade that’s steadily advancing through the town square. The way Peckinpah cuts between these three events, as he steadily builds towards the shootout, is a masterclass in filmmaking. Also, what happens in midst of the shootout is what we least expect in an American Western- Bishop and his Bunch uses the members of the Temperance union- especially women- as a shield to escape from town, even as Thornton and his men are raining down fire on them. It’s these innocent civilians who becomes the biggest causality in the shootout, while the Bunch escapes with the loot and pretty much all of its main members intact. The aftermath of this bloody battle is even more shocking and repulsive: we realize that Thornton’s men are worse than how he had described them; there are members in his gang like Coffer(Strother Martin) and T.C.(L.Q. Jones), who are more thieves and scavengers than killers; swooping down from rooftops like vultures and undressing and stealing from the bloodied corpses lying on the streets. Thornton is degusted by the sight and he aggressively confronts Harrigan- who’s also facing the wrath of the townsfolk for allowing such a bloody massacre to take place in the town. But Harrigan is unmoved- he represents the law and he can use any tactics to take down the outlaws- and only repeats his threats to Thornton, referring to him as his “Judas goat”-“You’ve got thirty days to get Pike, or thirty days back to Yuma

Here we get the contrast between the two men, Bishop and Thornton, and what’s at the root of their conflict: it’s the classic battle between ‘Men who change with the times’ and the ones who do not. This is a recurring theme for Peckinpah, which he will explore even further in his next Western masterpiece, Pat Garett and Billy the Kid(1973). Bishop is a relic of the past, who, perhaps, understands, but cannot accept that his way of life is finished. The encroachment of modern technology into the West, with the arrival of motor car, machine gun, barbed wire and telegraph has made him obsolete and ineffective, while Thornton is a man who has changed with the times, the stallion who has been broken, and now adapted himself to working for capitalists like Harrigan. So Thornton, who had earlier rode with Bishop now is contend to ride with Harrigan, even though he doesn’t like it, but there’s one thing that links the two men- Bishop and Harrigan- that Thornton had worked for at different times: they both are very sure for themselves-“Being sure is my business” blurts out Bishop at one point in the film, while in another Thornton rails at Harrigan for his self-assuredness “How does it feel to be so Goddamned right?” – and hence are more than capable of holding power over Thornton. But Thornton is intuitive enough to predict Bishop’s every move and that makes him a dangerous adversary. Thornton rightly guesses that after the railroad office debacle, Bishop’s Bunch would cross the border into Mexico- which is exactly what they do. He goes even further to intuit that they will soon be working for General Mapache, one of Huerta’s local warlords, in his war against Poncho Villa’s rebels, and it would most probably involve stealing a shipment of arms from a U.S. Army train. So, when the Bunch are there to steal the shipment, Thornton and the bounty hunters are waiting for them. But as always, Thornton is one step behind Bishop; also, Bishop manages to hold his gang together much better than Thornton does with his, and hence, Bishop is able to outfox and outrun Thornton again. So the pursuit continues all the way into Mexico, and Thornton manages to catch up with Bishop in the end only because the latter is dead with the rest of his bunch.

As for Pike Bishop- the real (anti) hero of the story, who’s relentlessly hunted by his old friend and who’s both psychologically and physically wounded; after his desertion of Thornton, Bishop manages to cobble together a bunch comprising of Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), brothers Lyle(Warren Oates) and Tector Gorch(Ben Johnson), and Angel(Jaime Sánchez), the Mexican. They were more in the Bunch, but they were either killed in the opening shootout, or were executed or abandoned by Bishop to save himself. Thus, right at the beginning of the film, we see him going against the very code that he passionately espouses. While Thornton and Bishop never meet face to face, Thornton’s constant presence reminds Bishop of how he abandons his associates when the going gets tough. Also, it was his abandonment of Thornton years before that now causes his old comrade to pursue him.  In essence, Bishop is really being pursued by his own guilty conscience in the person of Thornton. As for Thornton, he’s hunting his own former self: killing Bishop means freedom for him to survive in the new world as a changed man. Bishop, who refuses to change, leads his bunch into Mexico, which is a facsimile of the American West in the 1860s and 70s- racked by civil war and lawlessness. In a way, Bishop is trying to rewind time to stay relevant. He’s fully aware that his time is coming to an end: the Railroad office job was supposed to be the last one for Bishop and his gang; they had hoped to split the loot and go off somewhere. But after that failed- the loot from the robbery turns out to be a decoy: steel washers instead of silver coin, they have to find another job fast , and they know it cannot be again on American soil. Hence, the Bunch reunite with old-timer Freddie Sykes(Edmond O’Brien) and head for Mexico.

Mexico of 1913 represented in the film by Peckinpah is more fantastical than realistic. There are two major Mexican locations covered in the film: First is Angel’s village, which is a sort of idyllic, “Garden of Eden”, where ruthless killers like the Gorch brothers start behaving like children- leading the village elder, Don Jose to make one of the most poignant statements in the film: “We all dream of being a child again, even the worst of us. Perhaps the worst most of all“. After an evening of celebration, music, carousing and dancing, the Bunch are given a romanticized, ceremonial farewell by the villagers the next morning. From there, the Bunch move on to the second location, the town called “Agua Verde”, the fortress of Mapache, which is literally “Sodom and Gomorrah”, filled with soldiers, whores and children packing guns. We see Mapache making his dramatic entrance into the town’s gate in a shiny-red, open-top touring car causing a startled Dutch to respond to the strange vehicle that honks: “Now what in the hell is that?“. Indeed, the modern technology the Bunch hoped they had left behind in America has followed them here also. Mapache is a tyrant who has German advisors , and who rules the land around him with an iron fist. The life of the Bunch is suddenly placed in grave danger when Angel, enraged to see his former lover Teresa has become Mapache’s whore, impulsively shoots and kills her. To diffuse the situation, Bishop accepts an offer from Mapache and his German advisor Mohr to steal a shipment of guns and ammunition for the General from an American Army munitions train. Moreover, the Bunch will be well paid-in gold-for their efforts.

This is the second brilliant action set piece in the film, where once again the buildup- achieved through rapid editing- is as good as the action scene that follows. It begins with views of passengers aboard the train – the sleeping bounty hunters, incompetent & green cavalry soldiers and a vigilant Thornton, who has correctly guessed the Bunch’s plan. When the train stops to take on water from a tower, Angel is hiding in the water chute, and the others emerge from under the tracks. Angel, Bishop, Dutch, and Lyle seem to outwit Thornton by uncoupling the engine and shipment of crates of guns from the passenger car, and pulling away from the rest of the train. Realizing what’s happening, Thornton gets himself and his men on the horseback and give chase. The grenades and rifles from the train is unloaded and transferred onto a wagon and hauled away. Bishop then reverses the train’s engine, and sends the hijacked front portion of the train speeding back toward into the stranded cars on the track, resulting in a collision. Then, Bishop sets dynamite to explode the main bridge across the Rio Grande River on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, so that Thornton and his men cannot catch up. Before the dynamite detonates, Bishop removes his hat and salutes Thornton. The resulting explosion rips the bridge from underneath the feet of Thornton and his men and they plunge into the water along with their horses- an absolutely dazzling cinematic moment caught in slow motion that’s at once beautiful and terrifying. This sequence also shows why Bishop has remained an unchallenged leader of his men and – in Thornton’s own words-“Never been caught”. Bishop also shows his skills when he preempts betrayal from Mapache and has the weapons booby-trapped so that General’s army will not get the ammunition if they kill them. Therefore, he’s successful in making a deal to deliver the weapons to the general on his own terms.

But Bishop knows that Thornton has only been temporarily delayed, and he will be along. So they have to hurry their business transaction with Mapache. Meanwhile, Angel’s revolutionary followers arrive and claim their case of guns, fulfilling Bishop’s deal with Angel for his participation in the weapons heist. To avoid being double crossed by Mapache, Bishop concocts a plan to exchange guns for gold in gradual installments in which each member of the Bunch will ride into Agua Verde, deliver information about the location of each shipment of ammunitions, in exchange for $2,500. As a goodwill gesture, Bishop also throws in a machine gun which they had managed to steal along with other weapons, and which was not part of the deal. The transaction goes as planned, until Dutch and Angel arrive to collect the last installment: Mapache has been informed of Angel’s treachery- in transferring one case of weapons to arm the Mexican rebels- by Teresa’s grief-stricken mother. Angel is caught and held in their custody by Mapache’s men. Seeing his own safety in danger in the midst of 200 soldiers, Dutch decides to leave Angel behind and ride out. His decision to do so is endorsed by Bishop, summarizing their chances against Mapache’s forces as “No way at all.”-once again abandoning a comrade for the sake of his own safety. But he and his men are still hunted by Thornton’s gang, who shoots and seriously wounds Sykes. Bishop’s had enough of being hunted, and decides to go back to Agua Verde to enjoy Mapache’s hospitality. And as he expected, Mapache, who’s “so tickled with those newly delivered guns” receives them warmly. But the Bunch is not prepared for the kind of wanton debauchery and decadence that is on display in the fort: a loud fireworks celebration is in progress, and Mapache is seen drinking in his open car that’s full of whoring women as it drives in circles, dragging Angel in the dust from a rope tied to the rear fender. Children gleefully shout and run after Angel’s body as it is pulled around in the dirt by the car. This methodology of torture shocks even the hard as nails Bunch, and Bishop offers to buy Angel’s freedom with his share of gold, but Mapache refuses, and instead, asks them join the revelry. Bishop once again goes along with this, much to Dutch’s chagrin. So as Bishop and Gorch brothers seek solace in the company of young Mexican whores, Dutch sits outside in the dirt disgusted with himself.

But something has changed in Bishop. He’s tormented and restless. The young whore and her baby he’s with brings back memories of his lost love- a married women who was killed by her husband, once again, due to Bishop’s carelessness. Finally, Bishop cant take it anymore, and he decides to go in and save Angel, making good on the code that he’s so passionately fond of quoting. This sets up the final big action sequence in the film that’s going to top even the first one in its balletic bloodletting: a violent, seven minute suicide-attack of monumental proportions by the Bunch in the open courtyard of the fort, where Mapache holds court. But before that there’s the epic buildup: Bishop gathers his men with his usual clarion call “Let’s go“. The four load their rifles and march across town, confront the drunken Mapache and demands the return of Angel- now bloodied, maimed and near-death from torture. Mapache responds to the Bunch’s demand by slitting Angel’s throat in full frontal view, bringing about immediate retribution from the Bunch, who shoots him down mercilessly. There’s total silence for a moment- as the leaderless Mexican army is too stunned to react- finally broken by the maniacal laugh of Dutch. Bishop then shoots down Mapache’s German advisor Mohr, thus triggering the bloody, apocalyptic shootout, in which the members of the Bunch perish one after another, even as Mapache’s entire army is decimated. Thus, in their deaths, the Bunch are redeemed and have become liberated, and they have also liberated the territory from Mapache’s dictatorship. This is the point were Thornton rides in and finds the corpse of his once closest friend. But Thornton is emotionless on seeing Bishop’s corpse; eyeing Bishop’s Colt .45 pistol still in its holster, Thornton claims it for himself, thereby reclaiming his former self. Thornton’s fellow bounty hunters find Thornton sitting in the blowing dust at the outer gate of the town, electing to stay and not return to America with them. A few moments later, Sykes, who was rescued by the rebels, rides up with Don Jose and the revolutionaries, only to find Thornton still sitting by the wall. A cryptic conversation ensues between Thornton and Sykes, after which, Thornton mounts his horse and decides to ride off with them and join in the Mexican Revolution.

Since the violence was its most obvious and much discussed aspect, the true merits of “The Wild Bunch” took a long time in being analyzed. But like other important, but notorious works of its time, like “A clockwork Orange“, this film too has been finally appreciated for the extraordinary film that it is. This end-of-the-West Western truly marks the end of the era of classical Westerns. Actors who inhabit the film, like Holden, Ryan, Borgnine Johnson have all made their share of traditional Westerns with the likes of John Ford. So, having them, now way past their prime and completely devoid of their golden boy good looks-especially true for Holden, makes this a fitting farewell. The performances of the actors are top notch- they don’t act, they behave, and they slip into their roles with such ease and perfection that it also illuminates another aspect of Peckinpah’s directorial prowess: that apart from his technical virtuosity, he was also a great actor’s director. Even though the film is very violent, there is a pall of gloom that envelops the entire film. There’s a sadness about the characters that becomes more pronounced as the film progresses. Peckinpah was a man of contradictions and was driven by his personal demons in his artistic life; a man who, having served in WWII and the Korean War, was well-versed in the violence that war and revolution begets; a self-destructive drunkard who loved to fight and alienate the studios that financed his works of art; and perhaps, very much a misogynist, who treated every women in his life badly, Peckinpah infused his films with a high-voltage intensity and style triggered by his own inner demons and insecurities. “The Wild Bunch” marks the zenith of Peckinpah as a cinematic artist. Aided by superb widescreen photography from the great cinematographer, Lucian Ballard, a powerful music score by Jerry Fielding and the trendsetting, virtuosic editing of Lou Lombardo-in his feature film debut- and above all a terse and acidic screenplay the he co-wrote with Walon Green- that literally drips with one caustic line of dialogue after another, Peckinpah crafted a technically and generically path breaking, emotionally walloping cinema classic that will live on for ages.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s