Film: In praise of uncle Sam

Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch is notorious for its tough talk and bloodiness. But it also speaks worlds about guilt, love, loyalty and loss.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Thirty years on, Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch no longer has the power to outrage as it did in the summer of 1969. Yet its tragic grandeur and complexity have, if anything, waxed in reputation. I first saw the film, aged 11, on its TV premiere in 1975, and recall only the shock of its brutal, balletic violence - the memory of its climactic battle, of bodies spouting crimson geysers of blood and twisted in grotesque attitudes of pain, was never to be forgotten. I didn't see it again until the mid-Eighties, this time at the Notting Hill Coronet, since when the film has haunted me to the point of obsession.

Peckinpah had already made one terrific western, Ride the High Country, in 1962, and might have made another had the studio not fouled up the editing of the Charlton Heston-Richard Harris picture Major Dundee (1965). He came to The Wild Bunch after three years in the wilderness - the consequence of his reputation as a troublemaker - and one can discern in every painstaking frame an artist's determination to get it right.

The structure of the film is quite straightforward: it's an extended chase. A bunch of outlaws are pursued by bounty hunters from south Texas into Mexico, where they broker a deal of gold and guns with the corrupt despot, Mapache. The film is set in 1913, in a world trembling on the edge of calamity. The old West is dying, and the appearance in the story of a machine-gun prefigures the mechanised slaughter of the First World War. Pike Bishop and his ageing gang are running out of time and land. "I'd like to make one good score and back off," Pike says to his trusty lieutenant, Dutch. "Back off to what?" he replies.

The question reverberates through the story: the sense that the Bunch are heading towards a dead end becomes overpowering. That they will be destroyed is inevitable, but the manner of their demise, the honour and pathos of it, is what makes The Wild Bunch so extraordinary - is what raises it to greatness. In interview Peckinpah once said: "I was trying to tell a simple story about bad men in changing times. The Wild Bunch is simply what happens when killers go to Mexico." Yet the richness of detail and texture which Peckinpah invested in the film surpassed anything a "simple story" could contain. It is a work of formidable sophistication in which detail is absolutely integral to the larger picture, where every piece in the mosaic becomes vital to its overall design.

Take, for example, the film's astonishing opening sequence. So much aural and visual information is packed into the first 20 minutes that only repeated viewings can disclose its full impact. From the very first notes of Jerry Fielding's score - a low growl of strings followed by a broken piano chord - we are ushered into a scene of terrible foreboding, heightened by a military drum pattern that keeps shifting the emphasis of the beat. The Bunch, disguised as soldiers, ride into town, passing a group of children who are delightedly huddling around a thatched cage in which ants swarm over scorpions - a simile whose effect sends ripples of association through the whole movie.

The Bunch's progress into town, meanwhile, is contrasted with the tragicomic march of the South Texas Temperance Union, accompanied by the pious strains of "Shall We Gather at the River". As the hymn gets louder, the camera begins to close more tightly on the faces of the bounty hunters, perched in ambush, and of the Bunch, now in the railroad depot preparing to blast their way out. The tension becomes almost intolerable as the unwitting temperance marchers converge on the point of ambush, and just beneath the discordant swell of hymn and snare drum a heartbeat can be heard, thumping evenly before accelerating: Pike says "Set", then pushes the railroad official on to the street and the scene into a savage maelstrom of gunfire.

The film has more than its share of memorable set-pieces - the Bunch's departure from Angel's village, serenaded by the natives; the robbery of the munitions train; the blowing up of the bridge (perhaps the most famous of all Peckinpah's uses of slow motion); the Bunch's march into Agua Verde to reclaim Angel and, of course, the swooning, chaotic brutality of that final battle. Yet this is only to praise Peckinpah's technical bravura; what makes The Wild Bunch resonate is its depth of characterisation and the astuteness of its casting. I have honestly never seen a greater screen performance than that of William Holden as Pike Bishop. Fifty, overweight, wrinkled, Holden was, in Peckinpah's words, "no longer the glamour boy", yet it was precisely this gone-to-seed aspect that lent Bishop both his humanity and his loneliness. Paul Seydor, author of several brilliant essays on the film, has discussed the guilt that weighs so heavily on Pike, evinced in two flashback scenes that reveal how his own carelessness led first to his girlfriend being killed and then his best friend Thornton being captured - the same friend who is now reluctant leader of the pursuing bounty hunters. As Thornton, Robert Ryan is a haunting double to Holden and, in sad-eyed regret, he is almost his equal.

Strange to consider that the most fraught scene in a film notorious for its tough talk and fulminant violence is a wordless encounter between Holden and a young prostitute, just prior to the Bunch's last stand. Seydor calls this scene "the pivot point, and not the least of its attractions is how little it says explicitly, how much it draws together and concentrates". Indeed, the meaning of the scene depends entirely on Holden's body language and facial expression, and his awareness that the girl is watching him from the other side of the room, her baby crying in a corner. In Holden's eyes burn the shame and self-disgust born of a lifetime on the run, the girl a reminder of the family he might once have "backed off" to.

All that Peckinpah is trying to say about love and loyalty is compacted in the way he holds the empty bottle before throwing it aside; a last look at the girl and his mind is made up. Somebody once said that the cinema's greatest special effect is a close-up of the human face as it reveals a change of mind - William Holden brought that effect to bear quite wonderfully here.

If The Wild Bunch is ultimately Holden's film, let's not forget the exemplary ensemble playing - Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, Jaime Sanchez and Edmond O'Brien, who all, in Dutch's words, "play out their string to the end". The sense of loss one feels for each of them is underscored by the closing credits which reprise heroic images of the Bunch, to the stirring Mexican chorus of "La Golondrina". The director Paul Schrader described this ending as "one of the strongest emotional kickbacks of any film", and 30 years on its power to move remains undiminished. For a film that is about endings, closures, farewells, The Wild Bunch has revealed itself as an enduring, even transcendent work of art. And, pace the Citizen Kane fan club, it might just be the greatest of all American movies.