Next Thursday November 12th, the Jules Verne Legendaire Award will be presented posthumously to the late great director Sam Peckinpah. It’s no secret that the iconic Peckinpah was no saint, tales of his alcoholism, drug abuse and general bad behavior which at times bordered on insanity are legion.
It can also be said that he was one of America's greatest directors, a man who to this day is revered for his cinematic vision and ground breaking style.
While the subject matter of his films varied in genre, location and time (“The Getaway,” “Straw Dogs” and “Cross of Iron”) it is without a doubt that the western was where his prickly heart found thorny glory and proved his perfect mate. Like a demented Comanchero pickled in tequila, he dealt out a fistful of masterpieces that redefined the pious saddle operas of John Ford by ratcheting them up into parables of stark realism inhabited by unsalvageable souls and cutthroat vultures bathed in desert dust and rot gut backwash.
As great as “Ride the High Country” “Major Dundee” and “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” were in part and whole, all were eclipsed by one that has not only been hailed as the greatest western ever filmed but in the minds of many including Martin Scorsese and a handful of the director elite, one of the finest American films ever made.
Yes that would be “The Wild Bunch.” Released in 1969, this violent saga of men out of time who seek violent redemption facing an army of revolutionaries in the plaza of a squalid Mexican town was vilified on release. What needled the pseudo intelligentsia and blinkered hacks were the opening and closing scenes awash in geysers of blood and epidemic carnage. Innocent bystanders are mown or ridden down as warring factions of dubious legality and limited human ethics lay waste to each other in a swirling slow motion ballet of mayhem and death.
No one had seen anything like it before and oddly enough although it has been aped, duplicated and copied to the point of parody, never has it truly been improved upon. Perhaps it’s because it’s no longer original or that it’s method has become just that over stylized, slick and clinical. Back then it slammed you against the wall, dragged you into its vortex and made you want to head for the showers when it was over.
While this element of the film begs further discussion and believes me when it comes to “The Wild Bunch” dinner conversation could stretch long into the night, it’s what happens in between the killing that grabs you eventually.
This is a morality play, twisted and carnal, its edges dipped in blood its center defined by loyalty won and earned. Like and dislike are options allowed but eventually non negotiable. If a shop worn cliché like “When men were men” was ever a sanctified catch phrase, this was it. You don’t have to like ‘em, hell you don’t even have to root for them, they wouldn’t give a damn anyway. All they trust and care about is each other, though they’d rather blow their own brains out than admit it. “When you give your word to a man it’s supposed to mean something” Borgnine’s character Dutch spits out at one point. This is it in a nutshell. Yes they’re killers, cold, hard and unrepentant. We don’t even want to ask ourselves what depredations they’ve committed. “Bitch” says Bishop as he unloads a shotgun into a treacherous senorita or the Temperance Society felled like ducks in a shooting gallery during a botched bank job (Whisky Sam’s dream of retribution no doubt)
I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess at how many times I’ve seen the movie. Enough times I can tell you so as I pretty much know every line and can visualize every facial tick and nuance just by closing my eyes. Obsessive? Yea maybe, we’ve all got a little geek fan thing tucked away somewhere. But in defense of my vice, there really is a titanic lesson to be learned by viewing what once was and is no more. It’s a multi-layered blueprint of how everything wrong can teach us everything right.
On so many levels this works in “The Wild Bunch.” There are scenes of aching sadness like the misty morning exodus from Angels’ village or unsettling dark humor as the Gorch brothers awkwardly court two corpulent prostitutes. There is the allegorical ride into town as the opening credits cut in and out intermingling with children herding a hill of ants to there own kind of slaughter, and then there is The Walk, the most impressive bit of striding to die ever committed to celluloid. Yes what comes at the end of this long languid march to meet all kinds of hell and reckoning is what most recall, but for me it’s the prelude that resonates like some magnificent overture.
There are so many subtle nuances in this scene that only repeated viewing allows you to pick up on all of them. Little is said other than muttered asides and grunts of disdain, it is in their eyes that we learn everything. Pike's disgust and resignation as he surveys the sad adobe room where he has spent the night. The frightened stare of the woman who has given her body to feed her child and the child itself wailing inconsolably in a bedside crib.
In an adjoining room Lyle Gorch bickers over the price of a night's tandem sex, while his brother lies idly by playing with a small bird tethered to his finger (a beautiful touch that seems improvised in its simplicity but speaks volumes in what it represents.) Outside on the stoop Dutch whittles on a stick waiting, his face a mixture of contempt and begrudging sympathy for the repressed empty souls shuffling by.
Inside, Pike pulls back the sheet separating the rooms locks eyes with his comrades and utters two words that define the film “Let’s go.”
Here it all comes together. As they step out into the blazing sun Dutch reads them easily and cracks a “Fuck yea” smile. A reconfirmation of glances indicates their consolidated agreement, the pact is mentally signed in blood, they lock and load, line up and stride into eternity.
(AUTHOR'S NOTE) Years ago this scene inspired me to write “Last Stand In Open Country” for the Farm Dogs album of the same name. If you listen closely right before the track begins you’ll hear Pike intone, “Let’s go.” The lyrics also name check the protagonist and Aqua Verde the town of the said last stand.
As I’ve said before, you could make a career talking up this film and I feel I’ve abused my time by missing out on so much and so many. The rest of the cast is stellar, a veritable cornucopia of character actors at their immoral carrion hovering best (L. Q. Jones, Strother Martin) The Bunch’s grizzled senior, erasable Freddie Sykes (Edmond O’Brien) long in the tooth, beard flecked with tobacco spittle getting under the Gorch’s skin with cackling diatribes “They, they who the hell are they?” And perhaps most of all the magnificent Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton one time Bunch member who in order to remain free of prison must track down his friends as the railroad's “Judas goat” Ryan’s performance is one of understated brilliance. Saddled with a group of bushwhackers and vermin to aid him in his pursuit his is a thankless and dishonorable task. This the actor conveys with an extraordinary mixture of world worn resign and utter contempt. “I wish to God I was with them” he exclaims at one point even in the knowledge that their death is immanent.
The dialogue throughout the movie is terrific and eminently quotable. On crossing the border into Mexico Angel breathes heavily of the air and proclaims “Agh Mexico lindo.” To which a cranky and saddle soar Tector Gorch replies, “I don’t see nothin’ so lindo about it, it just looks like more Texas to me.” Or Crazy Lee (Bo Hopkins) shot to pieces by bounty hunters and railroad dicks encouraging his killers to “Kiss my sister's sweet black ass.” Yea everyone’s a gem and they just keep coming.
You couldn’t remake this film today. Besides the sacrilegious aspect and insanity of even trying where would you find the manpower, Gerard Butler? The only person I can think of is Ray Winstone and he’s English. I mean William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oats and Ben Johnson, man you’d ride into Hell and kick the Devil's butt with those guys. Sorry I’ve got to say it, they don’t make ‘em like that anymore. Maybe Vigo maybe Ed Harris, love ‘em and I’m not saying they ain’t men, it’s just they're not THAT kind of men.
Why am I writing this now? Well I’ll be there next week to honor Sam and help hand out an award to the family of Jerry Fielding. Fielding was Peckinpah’s go to guy for scoring his movies and certainly in the case of “The Wild Bunch” it’s his atmospheric work that lends so much to the overall foreboding tension that pervades the film as well as his sweeping themes that marry so well to the parched vistas and epic action.
I’ll be honored to be there. Peckinpah was a true original, a one man Wild Bunch. Maybe not the most pleasant cat at times, perhaps not even a diamond in the rough but I’m prepared to cut him some slack because he made the best movie I’ve ever seen. How do I feel about seeing it for the umpteenth time? “Let’s go.”
For further reading I would suggest David Weddle’s “If They Move…Kill 'Em!”
It’s by far the best of several that have documented Peckinpah’s life and work and by far the most insightful on "The Wild Bunch."