ONE OF MY FAVOURITES… THE WILD BUNCH
My reaction to The Wild Bunch, Sam Peckinpah’s claret soaked classic of a Western, is probably not the same as yours. For anyone even passingly aware of the film, they’ll know how it ends. With the shoot out to end all shoot outs. A gun fight that seems to go on for ever. The scene famously used more rounds of ammunition than the entire Mexican revolution used for real. Over 90,000 blanks were fired. It is the most violent, insane display of carnage ever captured. It is a slaughter and it is as horrific as it is totally thrilling. And it brings a tear to my eye every single time.
Yes, The Wild Bunch makes me cry.
But before you call the men in white coats to come and take me away, let me explain why.
The Wild Bunch is primarily about men out of time and the end of an era. The men that make up the titular bunch are old. They aren’t quite done yet but they see the end of the line fast approaching. The world has changed around them and they were too drunk and too mean to change along with it. They come from a time when being good with a gun and fast on a horse were the only skills needed to get by and make enough money to stay drunk. But those days are over and there is no place left for those type of men. The only job available to a man like that is to hunt down his own kind. So the Wild Bunch run. Not from the law (though they are running from that as well), but from the truth. The truth that it is over.
Throughout the film the each member of the bunch lies to himself and each other about who they are and where they are going. They all claim that each job will be their last. That this one final score will put them over the top and they can finally leave the wild life behind. They also spout constantly about siding with the men you stand with, but every time trouble rears its ugly head they leave one of their number to his fate in order to save themselves. They are selfish, and they are cold, and they live for it. The only one among them who is different is Angel, a fiery Mexican outlaw who is working to get money and guns for his people so they can defend themselves from Mapache, a violent Mexican General. Angel is the only character whose motives go beyond serving himself.
For most of its running time The Wild Bunch ambles along at no great pace. Director Sam Peckinpah taking his time showing how there is nowhere these characters truly belong, except perhaps with each other. As vicious as each of them may be they are still the closest any of them has to a family. This is especially true of the leader Pike Bishop (played with iconic grit by William Holden) and his right hand man Dutch (a never better Ernest Borgnine) who share a bond so deep that they seem to communicate without speaking. They are all brothers in blood. Angel’s morals keep him at a bit of a remove but he still feels like part of the gang.
They continue running from the things they dare not face, but they can only hide from the truth for so long and after Angel is captured and brutally tortured by Mapache, Pike and the bunch come to a realisation. They’ve been paid. They made that one final score and they are done. But the cost was to admit to themselves who they really are. These brothers, this Wild Bunch who claim to stand together had once again left another comrade to die for something they were responsible for.The truth is out and their time is up. To walk away would be admitting to themselves that they don’t stand together and they never did. That they’ve been stepping on the corpses of their brothers to save themselves. It’s a truth that eats at them. In a sequence that gives me chills every single time, the bunch all come to a decision without saying a single word. Pike looks to his men wearing an expression of world weary regret and they look right back at him. And they load their guns. They decide to chase the lie. To maybe, probably, almost definitely die for it. They’re getting Angel back. Because you stand with the man you side with.
And thus begins the greatest action scene of all time. It’s not pretty. It’s not an expertly choreographed ballistic ballet. It is a cacophony of carnage. A non stop barrage of bullets and death. Blood flies, men fall, women and children scream in the crossfire. It is insane. Four men taking on seemingly hundreds. And yet it never seems implausible, such is the stability of Peckinpah’s direction.
That scene has influenced every single action filmmaker since. The ample use of slow motion, the quick cutting between a slo-mo action beat and shots of further chaos unfolding at normal speed. These are techniques synonymous with action scenes. They were perfected here. And on top of that the film also invented exit wounds. Bullets had been shown puncturing countless bodies in countless films before The Wild Bunch, but they never came out. Peckinpah wanted his violence to be even more visceral, to hit even harder, so he filled squibs with blood and scraps of raw meat and had them explode on a bullet’s impact and, for the first time ever, its exit. The scene is, needless to say, very, very bloody.
So why does it make me cry?
Because it’s beautiful, man. The unspoken agreement to go back for Angel puts the lump in my throat. Their slow walk to meet their fates head on quickens my pulse. These four men no longer belong in the world but they wont just slink off and fade away. This is them giving time and progress the middle finger. Pike pulls the trigger. There is a pause as though no one can quite believe that these men are actually doing this, and then all hell breaks loose. They admit the truth, that they are no good, and decide to change even though it means their destruction. To go down together instead of running until the last man. And when only Pike and Dutch remain, both of them riddled with bullet holes and not long left for this world, and Dutch yells to the closest friend he’d ever known “Give ’em hell Pike!”, well, the tears start flowing. I’m even welling up now.
To me there is nothing more moving in this world of ours than doomed heroism. To fight a fight that cannot be won because it is the right thing to do is beyond heroic. What the Wild Bunch do isn’t entirely heroic, but it is as close as that group of rouges could ever get. They are morally bankrupt men who find the smallest of lights inside themselves and decide that dying for something good, for some small redemption, is better than living as who they were. They may be criminals, killers and thieves, but when they side with a man, they stay with him. And it gets me every time.