United States, 1969
Directed by Sam Peckinpah
With William Holden (Pike Bishop), Ernest Borgnine (Dutch Engstrom), Warren Oates (Lyle Gorch), Ben Johnson (Tector Gorch), Jaime Sánchez (Angel), Edmond O’Brien (Freddie Sykes), Robert Ryan (Deke Thornton), Albert Dekker (Harrigan), Emilio Fernández (General Mapuche)
This Wild Bunch (a phrase coined by newsmen to name famous groups of outlaws that shocked and awed folks across the American West) is a large and organized group of dangerous horsemen robbing banks and whatever stuff that can be sold for gold in Texas circa 1913. They are chased by a railroad baron, Harrigan, who has set up his own wild bunch to get them, a collection of trigger-happy riff-raff led by a paroled convict who used to be part of the wanted gang, Deke Thornton. These surrogates for law enforcement manage to thwart the new bank heist carried out by the Wild Bunch, more by blunder than by cunning, killing many innocent people in the course but also some gangsters.
What is left of the bunch, leader Pike Bishop, his deputy, Dutch Engstrom, two grumpy brothers, Lyle and Tector Gorch, and a Mexican, Angel, the group’s junior, flees south of the Rio Grande, with another outlaw Freddie Sykes. They get enmeshed in the political troubles shaking Mexico and accept to steal a trainload of Americans rifles and ammunition for one of the warlords vying for power, General Mapuche. The gangsters carry out flawlessly the job, which is supposed to fetch a huge sum and to be the final big score in Pike’s career, but they run into trouble as Deke’s group relentlessly hunts them down and as Mapuche tries to double-cross them and then takes revenge at Jaime, who killed Mapuche’s mistress, who happened to be his own sister, and stole arms to help peasants fighting the warlords. The Wild Bunch’s odyssey ends up in another bloody gunfight.
When Mapuche arrives in his garrison in a sparkling red limousine, the vehicle amazes the gangsters. The anecdote makes you realize this is not a story from the distant 19th century but occurring on the eve of the First World War – the American frontier has long been claimed as reached, the United States is in the midst of an Age of Reform, and Mexico is gripped by a social revolution. The Wild Bunch’s lifestyle seems to come straight from a pointless past and the naïve remarks the guys make about the car only emphasize the point.
Archaic this bunch is, and ageing, too: close-ups highlight the wrinkles and the graying hair of Pike and Dutch while fuller shots capture their clumsy walk and gestures. The camera even dwells on a perfectly unheroic incident: the fall of Pike as one of his stirrups just snaps from its strap and the hard time he has getting back on saddle as Lyle makes scathing remarks. But the Gorch brothers are not young either – they are rather forty-something fellows. All these men tend to complain and to reckon how to take the big prize allowing to hang up their bandoleers. This is not a band of young, gung-ho daredevils (and not always that greedy: Jaime is more fired up by politics than by guns).
They are also an incredibly violent and savage group of people. They do not refrain from putting a lot of people in the crossfire to exit the bank and display a relentless lack of mercy, from the young sidekick viciously frightening and shooting down three hostages to Pike cold-bloodedly killing a badly injured companion. The final slaughter in Mapuche’s garrison is just an orgy of shooting, performed with zest, which stun and horrify, though they are at the same time disturbingly mesmerizing. These are natural-born killers and they are unconcerned by the trail of blood and despair they leave. That violence is graphically depicted, out of an overriding concern to show as realistically as possible what it is to get shot at – hence the famous thick splatters of blood gushing from the back of the victim, ugly wounds and scars, and the obscene postures of some dead bodies. The outbursts of violence are shot with multiple cameras and editing in a fast fashion, a whirlwind of action reflecting forcefully the chaos of the gunfights. Director Sergio Leone’s films have already been landmarks in the depiction of violence and its toll in the American West – but this time this is a young and determined American director who shoots and Sam Peckinpah becomes instantly an iconic and scandalous figure.
The question raised by this description of the Wild Bunch is obviously what could make them, if not acceptable, at least interesting to watch – do they have a respectful trait? They do; it transpires in the numerous, unexpected, yet pleasant lulls in their rush to the mythic big score and away from the law. A night chat around a campfire, a drunken walk with prostitute in a winery, a conversation spiced with childish pranks in steam baths – these are banal behaviors of roguish characters shot with the same care and brilliancy as the rest of the film (pictures are constantly remarkably clear, crisp and precise). They disclose how tired the men are and how seriously they figure their next move but also their eccentric, funny side. They can quarrel easily but relish having good times together; they live a manly and friendly experience.
Twice Deke makes clear he regrets not being part of it. The first time he expresses it in curt remarks to make his silly aides silent but the second time he just acts. The Wild Bunch has been killed but so have been the bounty hunters he has abandoned. He is found sitting against a wall of Mapuche’s garrison by Freddie. Both men start to chat and Freddie invites Deke to follow him; he does, laughing out at Freddie’s funny words; the montage then blends this laughs with those made by the late outlaws and images from past and present are mixed. This is the sense of camaraderie that defines the bonds between this sort of men, a mix of trust, friendship, shared experience and common goal which holds them together and fosters memories. This is this camaraderie that drives Pike to try to grab Jaime from Mapuche’s hands, sparking the final slaughter and the demise of the group. It also makes their group stronger and more decent compared to other groups, in particular those usually associated with the idea of camaraderie. In this film armies are not respectable at all: the American one is made up of inexpert and clumsy rookies while the Mexican one is a ragtag and vicious group.
The film’s deepest pessimism and ambiguity lie on the narrative’s fringe and are embodied by the most unexpected and innocent characters. Children do have a peculiar place in the film: their faces open the narration and they seem omnipresent, from villages to battlegrounds. The arrival of the Wild Bunch in the town where the bank heist occurs is interspersed with shots on kids playing – but the play is not innocuous but wicked and disgusting as they torture a pair of scorpions before burning them alive. At the other end of the narration, the final bullet shot at Pike, killing him right away, is fired by a kid who is Mapuche’s courier.
Children look at the gunslingers with curiosity, even awe, but the adults look back at them with indifference – and children are among the victims of their violence. They are above all the silent witnesses of the chaos (they barely talk or cry). Innocence cannot exits in this West; evil seems to be the defining character of the human nature; anyway, violence is bound to last in memories – if not in future behaviors. Yet Pike made up his mind about Jaime’s rescue while observing the baby of a hustler. And kids do also have innocent behaviors. So does the film hold really a final and pessimistic moral judgment on the hellish West? Perhaps it does, perhaps it does not, but most certainly it compels the audience to face unpalatable facts and forcing them to think about the meaning of violence in the American West.