… which bothered me to no end because, as my former University of Illinois film professor David Desser* was fond of saying, “You cannot claim to love film and NOT love Westerns.” He was right, and The Wild Bunch is one of the easiest Westerns to love..
I always felt that, in my students’ eyes, The Wild Bunch had one big strike against it because one of its prominent themes is age and mortality. As I approach retirement, this theme appeals to me immensely. My students found it (and me) a disagreeable bore. Kids, I have news for you: Death comes for everyone. Also, quiz on Friday.
In the movie’s defense, I used to point out to my students that The Wild Bunch has been selected for preservation by the Library of Congress for “its cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance.” The Wild Bunch has also been included on two Important Lists created by the American Film Institute: it ranked sixth on the list of the Ten Best Westerns Ever Made and 80th on the list of the 100 Best Films of All Time. “What makes you think those old men at the Library of Congress and the American Film Institute know anything?” my students would argue. Then they would LOL and instant message and tweet duck-face selfies, and part of me would die.
“You think THAT’s violent? That ain’t violent.”
“Then what is more violent? What film have you seen that is
more violent than the climactic bloodbath in The Wild Bunch?”
I can’t fight that kind of logic. And then one of them would shoot me.
The Wild Bunch is famous for its groundbreaking depiction of violence, and not just by 1969 standards. When the restored director’s cut was released to theaters in 1993, the MPAA changed the film’s original R rating to an NC-17. Many theaters now have clauses in their leases that prevent them from showing X-rated or NC-17 pictures; after the new rating was announced, negotiations hurriedly ensued between Warner Brothers and the MPAA to get the rating back down to an R.
After shooting their way out of the payroll robbery, the bunch escape to Mexico. Hot on their tails is a rag-tag posse assembled by the railroad and led by former member of the bunch, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan).
The bunch rides into a town run by Mapache, a Mexican warlord fighting against the forces of Pancho Villa. Mapache and his minions convince the bunch to rob a train containing arms intended for U.S. government troops. The bunch commit the exciting robbery flawlessly, but just when it looks like our movie anti-heroes will actually complete “one last big score,” all hell breaks loose in the most violent finale in motion picture history.
QUIBBLE: The film does have one flaw: in trying to establish the group’s easy camaraderie, Peckinpah often overstates his case by showing the bunch laughing hysterically together over something inane. I understand the desire to show the men united by laughter, but if that’s the intent, make sure that the provocation is honestly amusing. “Gorch didn’t get no booze” just ain’t gonna cut it.
By rejecting The Wild Bunch out of hand, I always thought my students were missing the big picture. Though the movie is ostensibly about an aging group of men chasing a “last round-up” experience before they—and the untamed frontier that shaped them—are gone, The Wild Bunch explicitly speaks to youth and the choices that young people are called to make:
• Director Sam Peckinpah focuses on children throughout the film. For example, when the Bunch rides into town for the film’s opening robbery sequence, they pass a group of children torturing a scorpion in the noonday sun.
• During every major action sequence, Peckinpah goes out of his way to portray children put in harm’s way by the violence around them.
• In Angel’s burned-out village, an old man recites a short monologue about how “all of us wish to be children again, perhaps the worst of us the most of all.”
* You too can enjoy the dulcet tones of my former movie sensei. Desser contributes to the audio commentary on the Criterion Collection edition of The Seven Samurai and does a solo commentary track on the Criterion Collection Tokyo Story.