The Wild Bunch (1977)

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The Wild Bunch is a meditation on social being with something of the form of a classical tragedy, though clearly inflected with Peckinpah’s persistent concerns. Its essential tragic elements are its almost mechanical sense of inevitability, important in view of the role of machinery in the plot, and the simultaneous deferral of the moment of reckoning, which becomes only the more violent, represents only the greater triumph of the death drive. The social situation is in general that of male groups, but its particular context is the redundancy of a gang of outlaws during the early years of this century, in a nation now developed beyond the point of banditry, whose railroad interests are intent on exterminating such gangs.

However, the emotional power of the movie is a little more complex: historical redundancy might not be so tragic were the film not a Western, as the relative cheerfulness of another Peckinpah film, Junior Bonner, suggests in its dealings with what of the west has survived in the modern rodeo circuit. The Western is a genre in which we all have some investment and it lands us squarely within the question of ideology, understanding the term here quite simply as a notation for the way fictions persist in our society, for the way in which we believe in or identify with what we do not “believe” in. For the excess and exaggeration of The Wild Bunch seem to tell us that this carnage is what we have always wanted, that such a “ballet of death” (Kitses: Horizons West) is the logical conclusion of the Western form. More radically, and revealing still more of the workings of ideology, the film makes us realize that there was never more than an imaginary security in the codes of the Western, that “the Western” was indeed a fictional construction. Thus as Kitses points out, the critical viewer’s reaction to the film is ambivalent, both disturbed and thrilled by the climax of the film and the message that the genre is not only mythical, ideological or simply incredible, but also blood-soaked, engendering orgasms of death. As we recognise the allusions to Ford and Huston, we recognise as well that the Western is unlikely and possibly dangerous: we acknowledge the tragedy of the persistence of ideology, the distortion or loss intrinsic to any system of communication or society. The Wild Bunch is the Western which suggests the end of Westerns, poising itself between our desires and our knowledge, and continually revealing their coexistence and mutability.

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Unlike say Cheyenne Autumn, The Wild Bunch does not believe itself to be giving us a realism in favour of the myth of the west, but tends rather to attack the very basis of such a division. It is essential that the film be more “realistic” than our idea of the traditional Western, but what The Wild Bunch is really concerned with attacking is the unitary myth of the west, so that the tragedy of the persistence of ideology, seen through the return of the discontinuities and losses necessarily repressed in its construction, never allows us any unitary emotion. This may all sounds a little irrelevant, but The Wild Bunch is precisely concerned with a group which attempts to live according to a simple and unitary code, as if there were no contradictions in the world. It is clear that their effort is impossible from the start, and that it involves massive repressions, most notably of women, but also of all social relations beyond those necessary for survival. The extent to which we are moved is both the extent to which we share this desire of the Bunch and the extent to which we recognise it as fantasy.

The code of the Bunch is revealed in the various confrontations between Pike and Dutch, which forms one of the film’s motifs, along with group laughter, falling men and objects, group arguments, frozen moments with guns drawn, etc. Pike usually represents the Bunch’s impulse to be simply mercenary or professional, and Dutch is its conscience, the keeper of its embattled dignity. Thus Dutch feels sympathy for the Mexican parties and argues that “it’s not your word, but who you give it to that counts”, and prods the Bunch into returning to Mapache’s stronghold for the final hopeless effort to rescue Angel. The pact between Pike and Dutch is still more basic, however: their discussion in their beds after the opening robbery attempt is realigned, even desiring death. Neither “would have it any other way” than with Federales or troops waiting for them, as is clear in Dutch’s giggle when it becomes clear that they are about to take on an entire Mexican regiment, and in the enjoyment shared by Pike and Dutch in the middle of the final carnage.

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A scene evocative of the fragility of this code, of the fact that it speaks more of the Bunch’s desire than its reality, of the need for Dutch as ideologue, is Sykes’ fall as the Bunch descend a sand dune, and what follows as everyone except Angel is brought down with him. The motif of falls is persistent from the bounty hunter shot from the roof at the opening, to the horseman falling into the store window, the posse falling through the trapdoor of the dynamited bridge and the lines of Mexican troops machine-gunned down in the climax. Tector Gorch, who along with his brother Lyle tends to mock and pick fights with Angel and Sykes, who are thereby established as the marginal members, sometimes separated from the others, immediately draws his gun as if to shoot Sykes: he later throws some dynamite towards him for fun, and had earlier wanted to shoot Angel. His action here produces a short ideological lesson from Pike: “When you side with a man you stay with him. If you can’t do that you’re worse than some animal.” Angel meanwhile has descended the dune calmly; leading two horses: one supposes the ease of the native Mexican, as opposed to the displacement of the American members of the Bunch. Pike then falls once more, while trying to mount, and Tector gloats: “How’re you gonna side with a man if you can’t get on your horse?” In telescopic focus, Pike rides away, alone and defiant, and Peckinpah cuts to a conversation between him and Sykes, where we find out that the simple-minded boy left to the mercy of the bounty hunters that morning was Sykes’ grandson. Siding with a man takes a beating. Pike’s flashback completes the sequence, establishing the meaning of his wound, and suggesting the origin of all this falling in the impositions of the social world represented by castration, driving Pike and the Bunch he leads out into the desert of misogyny and death. Pike carries the wound in his thigh like Ulysses, blanching it in the steambath at Mapache’s, saying that “There’s not a day or an hour that passes when I don’t think of it”, and later falling yet again when mounting, in a scene which reverses the drift of the above. It seems at first as if Tector is about to taunt Pike once again, but he seems to take pity instead and offers him a whiskey bottle, which is then passed around to all except Lyle, who becomes the butt of general laughter, which is another of the film’s motifs. The reverses the position of marginality, and makes the code seem viable at least momentarily, although it seems clear that the fate of the Bunch is sealed.

The essence of the social world the Bunch has rejected is the family, which is to say women other than whores. Whether Peckinpah is a devoted sexist or satirically socially conscious is highly debatable, but I tend to believe the latter, against some evidence, and would certainly defend the possibility of this reading whatever Peckinpah’s intentions. Pike’s first dealing with a woman is when he helps one across the street at the opening — he is very soon using her for cover in the shootout, and probably helped her in the first place only to protect his cover as an army officer. In the escape from this scene, Pike gets a highly symbolic piece of woman’s clothing caught in his stirrup, which he stops to remove, giving him his first chance to say his ritual “Let’s go”. One supposes that women are identified with the town or with civilisation, but more importantly that they figure for Pike and the Bunch only as a troublesome interruptions or obstructions. In Pike’s flashback, both the scene in which he receives his thigh wound and the scenes in which Deke is captured are sexual scenes: in Pike’s terms they are scenes where he is caught with his pants down, and even here it is only the scene in which he is shot that the woman is not a whore. The implication is quite simple — any attempt to come to terms with a decent white woman provokes the socialising but terrifying threat of castration, here quite literal, with its implications of mortality. The inevitability of this implication asserts itself in that Mapache’s reason for taking Angel prisoner and thus sealing the fate of the Bunch is that Angel’s sexual jealously has made him shoot his former girlfriend while she is in the Generalissimo’s arms. In a sense, the Bunch is a paranoid institution, both denying and recognising the demands of the prevailing social organisation, wanting to replace it, at least at the level of desire, but also aware that this is impossible within its situation. The homosexual correlative of paranoia is not particularly evident, at least no more so than in many Westerns, but perhaps that only indicates how easily we will accept such male groupings.

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The central contradiction of the film is then that the Bunch is itself a social institution, presenting the contradictions inherent in such things while its social role (or its role in the broader society) is self-immolation. The Bunch is defined by the expertise in robbery and survival that Kitses mentions, even though the ambushes by Angel’s people and the Federales reveals its limits, but more importantly by the anomaly of their social situation, upon which Deke closes relentlessly, until he arrives like Fortinbras to view the corpses. The Bunch has no where to go but the desert, visiting settlements only to rob or get into fights, with the notable exception of Angel’s village, and managing to unite themselves only in laughing at Lyle and marching toward extinction. The power of Peckinpah’s film is its suggestion that any social organization is like the Wild Bunch, or that the Bunch is necessarily implicated with a larger social framework: once more, our reactions involve both identification and distancing.

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It is thus tempting to see the opening image of the scorpion swarming with killer ants not as some suggestion of natural or innate violence, but as a symbol of the Bunch and their fate at the hands of the Federales, or the posse, especially since it is so stringly and continually stressed that the latter are “chicken stealing gutter graduates”, while the Bunch are “the best”. (Deke’s words in both cases.) Thus the children who set the scorpion alight are like the audience of the film, whose desires set the drama in motion, who then manage to distance themselves from it, but who may very easily find themselves, like Matthew Peckinpah, caught in the crossfire. The crossfire may be quite beyond control, also — Deke has to prevent his men from continuing to shoot at random after the Bunch has left. If this idea is to be credited, it should also be noted that it is a child, perhaps the one so impressed by Mapache, who finally kills Pike, after a woman has wounded him yet again. The Bunch are not likely to have any children, but may still create quite an inheritance.

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The opening sequence suggests the social position of the Bunch further by having them masquerade as the army and thus setting up the distance between them and the other male group in the film. The U.S. army is incompetent, the Federales are villains and the posse is mostly riffraff, leaving only the Mexican partisans with any respect, though the Bunch is carefully separated here also, since it wants only money and no political complications. Such a position cannot be maintained absolutely, however, and just as the Bunch will compromise with social realities to the point of using U.S. army equipment, it does have a certain sympathy for the partisans, even if only because Angel has somehow achieved the mystical estate of Bunch membership and must therefore have his foibles respected to some extent. Dutch distinguishes the Bunch from Mapache’s “bandits”, but in the steambath there is general agreement that Angel nobility is “a pain”. The bunch is nevertheless lionised in Angel’s village, but finally it is only the most marginal member of the Bunch, Sykes, and its formers member, Deke, who join the partisans and thus move beyond the historical parameters of the tragedy. When this happens in the final sequence, the intercutting between the Bunch in flashback leaving Angel’s village and the partisans riding away from the devastated fort perhaps identifies the two groups, but may only suggest that the partisans are just as death-driven in their single-mindedness as the Bunch. It is certainly clear that the pact of the Bunch with Angel, their final success in siding with a man, is possible only as it also implies their deaths. Pike does break the spell of their existential moment and ensure the carnage by killing the German, after Angel and Mapache are killed, but this also is a death-wish, an act which denies the social world as it recognises it, and thus the typical act of the film.

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