Film Studies: 'The Wild Bunch' is back - and this time, it's art

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The Independent Culture

Picture a small town on the Mexican-American border, in 1913. A contingent of soldiers rides in as a temperance meeting is in progress and blithely cruel children are playing with a scorpion on an ant-hill. What are the soldiers doing here? They seem unduly anxious. Then we realise there are men on the rooftops waiting for them - blood-crazed hunters, led by a man who despises his own followers. The soldiers enter the bank and demand its money. The leader, a haggard-looking man, gives an order, "If they move... kill 'em!" All hell breaks out. The military party is cut down. The ambushers take their toll. Innocent citizens are killed in the confusion. A few of the soldiers get away, and when they gather at a resting place, over the border, they find that the bags they have stolen contain not gold, but iron washers.

There are six survivors from the disastrous raid, and they are the Wild Bunch. More or less they know they are doomed. After all, this is 1913: the world is getting ready for the automobile, James Joyce, the machine-gun, jazz, female emancipation and the Somme. Only a few of those novelties appear in Sam Peckinpah's great film, The Wild Bunch, but now that it is out on DVD, restored to its proper length, it's easier to see that it is less a western, or a study in chronic violence, than a rueful and poetic attempt to stop modern times from settling in.

It is not that The Wild Bunch needs to be recommended. Ever since its opening, in 1969, it has been beautiful and ugly, noble and sickening. Then and now, it deserves to be controversial: yes, the film is scathing of women as anything except madonnas or whores; yes, it exults in the disruptive impact of bullets - made languorous and lovely by slow motion; and yes, it insists on the adolescent attitudes of dangerous boys who are old without ever having grown up. At the same time, the film is so utterly beautiful, so sad and funny in its remorseless fatalism, and so observant of real, brutal men, that it is irresistible.

So, many readers will reckon they know the film; yet many will never have seen the full version in which you get a good deal more on the history between Pike (William Holden) and Thornton (Robert Ryan), the old friend who is pursuing him. This central pattern is exactly akin to Peckinpah's other masterpiece, in which Billy the Kid is pursued by Pat Garrett (and a superb DVD of that film is on its way, too). Peckinpah relished the same old situation or wound, the struggle between loyalty and compromise, and the way old friends would have to become enemies.

The Wild Bunch was shot on locations in Mexico, edited, then previewed in the spring of 1969 at a running time of 151 minutes.

The previews did not go well. The public was shocked, confused and often horrified. There was no one to like in the easy way; and hardly anyone got away in the end. The story concludes in a terrible and prolonged pitched battle. There were cuts (at least six minutes) to avoid an "X" rating. And then Warner Bros made the fatal decision that this was a film for rednecks, the heartland and Texas - instead of a picture for the new, smart audience that had been raised on the French New Wave, Kurosawa (the great stylistic influence on Peckinpah) and Bonnie and Clyde. So the film was cut more, but the softening intent got nowhere. Peckinpah mixed outbursts of energy with a languid overall pace. Tidying him up only accentuated the violence.

So here is the best chance yet to assess the original intent - although the colour, the space, the landscape and the compositions cry out for a big screen. Alas, we can't have everything. But as the men in the Wild Bunch know, there are times when something is better than everything or nothing.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

'The Wild Bunch: the Original Director's Cut' is out now on DVD

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