The Wild Bunch (1969, Sam Peckinpah)

Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch is like an Irving Thalberg movie mutated by the New Permissiveness of the late ’60s. It knows its audience and gives them what they want. The unfortunate part seems to be eithermexi that Thalberg had a better sense of how to form base impulses into entertainment or that “what the people want” was far less savory in 1969 than it was in the Depression. It’s hard to say which.

For what it’s worth, The Wild Bunch is about as fun as a mediocre movie gets; it literally shoots down all attempts to box it into genre regulations (a conventional romantic heartbreak scene ends with a brutal slaying of a beautiful woman because her tongue is in the wrong guy’s ear), but it ends up blazing away too much until all that’s left is confusion, male angst, and hardheaded moralizing. The crux of Peckinpah’s problem is that he seems to think the steps he takes to pull down the pants of basic “western” clichés are enough to carry the story, which in fact is almost oppressively traditional. (Goddamn band of outlaws steals some goddamn shit to help some goddamn dictator and there’s a whole lotta Sierra Madre copping.) It’s a tease.

If The Wild Bunch lasted fifteen minutes instead of 144, it would be something special: intense, bloody, visceral, exciting, even mildly funny. The violent opening sequence may not get any farther than The Great Train Robbery, but it’s a solid reenactment of the same audience realization and basic brutish biological outpourings on film. It’s ugliness for the sake of ugliness, and maybe in some mirror-of-reality sense there’s nothing wrong with that. But one would expect and hope that the two hours extrapolating from that moment would be revealing in some way, would comment on the violence or expand on its implications somehow. Instead, the film never grows any more sophisticated. It stays at the same level of involvement and identification throughout, which is quite a copout. (And even with that in mind, there are numerous slow spots; in no way whatsoever does The Wild Bunch actually live up to its earliest promise.)

The story isn’t really worth talking about. It’s not boring but never terribly interesting. I doubt it’s as tiresome as it seems to me, it’s just consumed with stuff that doesn’t intrigue me very much. I find it too plotty and scummy, and while I see in my old writeup that I praised William Holden (one of the greatest Hollywood actors and usually a solid reason to watch anything), I find now that he and Ernst Borgnine are both terribly miscast. Holden’s long silent scene with a prostitute transcends its theoretical cheapness and he lights it up, but there’s little else to recommend here. Peckinpah spends a lot of time lingering on Holden’s face, and with good reason; it tells plenty of the story on its own, like the faces of the great silent film stars, but he can’t do the movie’s work for it; to spend quality time with him, watch Stalag 17 or Network instead.

Actually, all of the film’s performances feel somewhat misdirected to me, and the unchecked masculinity of the whole shebang, while it doesn’t necessarily offend me outright, does put me right to sleep. But I can’t say this is either a good film or a bad one, just one I don’t really “get.” There are two reasons to watch it, nevertheless. The first is that first scene and the few moments thereafter that capture its energy, specifically during the extended train robbery bit halfway through. The second is that it’s worthwhile if you are in the mood for raw male urges as enacted by a group of skilled filmmakers who are good at presenting violence. Movies are rarely targeted so blatantly at men; this thing has those fake self-pitying masculine “ethics” the guys who watch movies like The Godfather and Scarface and, hell, High Noon like to pretend reflect some kind of deep navel-gazing complexity of character. It’s got all the camaraderie and beer-guzzling and no-homo cuddling and eye contact that never actually happens. It’s also got Mexican whores who are there whenever needed, who show their tits and get shoved around and damn do they like it. When one of them (in a purple dress) gets out of line toward the end and fires a gun at Our Hero, Holden turns around and kills her, muttering “bitch” with studied disdain, all presented as if the film were designed simply to infuriate any writers for Ms. (or, you know, civilized humans) who happened to be watching.

Peckinpah probably thought all this guy’s guy posturing was honest in some way, but it isn’t. I laughed off accusations I saw everywhere that Straw Dogs was sexist; this shit is sexist. I’m not against having women playing prostitutes show their breasts in a movie, but there’s a way to do it that suggests eroticism and not across-the-board contempt. All it would really take is to provide one of them with a whiff of personality. The Holden character’s behavior is one thing, but it’s well beyond difficult to take a film seriously that shows a man (played by Puerto Rican character actor Jaime Sanchez, a regular on Sesame Street two years after this!) shooting his ex to death because she’s fucking another man, then an hour later expects us to see him as a fallen hero when his enemies are dragging him by rope on the back of a car. Who comes up with this fucking shit?

Being a fan of Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, I’m disappointed at how unintelligent and simplistic the film ultimately is, western or not. When I saw Straw Dogs for the first time in 2006, I thought I was on the cusp of discovering a director of considerable integrity and imagination. I’d like to see the rest of his movies eventually, but looking at his filmography none of the others jump out at me as looking at all interesting. Yet another potentially great director self-victimized by the cruel banality of genre filmmaking.

[Originally posted in 2006, with a few additions.]

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