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The Wild Bunch (1969)
Directed by Sam Peckinpah
Written by Walon Green and Sam Peckinpah
Starring William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O’Brien, Warren Oates, Jaime Sanchez, Ben Johnson, and Emilio Fernandez
144 minutes, Rated R
Recently, some friends and I paid some hard-earned cash to go to the theater on opening night and watch John Wick, Chapter 3: Parabellum. As a fan of the previous films in this franchise, I was pretty excited to see it. In that regard, I think my expectations were set a bar or two too high, and I walked away disappointed. But my friends and I had a great discussion afterwards.
A discussion about violence in films.
When is a film too violent? I think by any definition, John Wick , Chapter 3: Parabellum would belong on the list. This is a movie that revels in its violence. Its not enough to shoot an adversary. One must shoot him in the chest, and then in the arm, and then three times in the head for good measure, preferably at close range for maximum cranial explosion. It’s not enough to have John Wick kill three villains in a well-choreographed knife battle. Let’s have him fight nine villains. Let’s have him kill each one differently. Let’s have each of these kills be subsequently more and more gory, and let’s make sure we have lots of blood spatter on the walls and include a close-up of one of the knives puncturing the bad guy’s eyeball.
The violence in John Wick 3 is unsettling and gratuitous. It bothered me. And I’m not one too bothered by violence in films. I’ve already mentioned that I am a fan of this franchise. But is this installment more violent than the others? I’m unsure. I saw the first two installments on DVD and we all know that there are major differences in seeing a film on the big screen versus the comfort of your own home. Perhaps the other two films are just this violent, but it was less noticeable because the images weren’t thirty feet tall and my home entertainment set-up isn’t equipped to parse out the sound of every bone breaking and every skull cracking into the wall. Maybe the filmmakers knew they had to up the stakes to make this film BIGGER AND BETTER so they intentionally made everything way too over the top.
That’s cool if they did. Movies like this are made to make money, and you gotta give audiences something new if you want to keep making money. But this sort of BIGGER AND BETTER is only bigger and better to people who get off on this kind of violence in the first place. I pray that the population in that particular group is smaller than it appears to be.
You’re probably asking by this point, “What the hell does John Wick, Chapter 3: Parabellum have to do with a western filmed in 1969?” The connection is simple: The conversation that John Wick 3 incited betwixt myself and my friends is the same conversation being had when The Wild Bunch was first released. It was agreed back then that The Wild Bunch had pushed the boundaries of acceptable violence in a feature film too far. None other than John Wayne, the patron saint of cowboy films, disavowed The Wild Bunch, stating that it killed the “myth of the American West” that his films had successfully perpetuated. Poor Duke probably thought that his career was over if this was the direction westerns were heading in.
John Wayne had a point. Westerns before The Wild Bunch were violent, but in a more rated-PG sort of manner. There were gunfights, to be sure. People were killed. That which couldn’t be handled with guns was handled with fisticuffs. But not until The Wild Bunch was the violence in westerns so visceral. You didn’t see blood spurting out of fresh wounds. You didn’t see horses trampling the corpses of those too slow on the draw. And you certainly didn’t have such a seemingly-casual body count (one sequence in this film has two factions shooting at each other while a public parade passes between them– the innocent bystander death toll is shockingly astounding). Sam Peckinpah, the co-writer and director of this ground-breaking film, had intentionally made a western with the intent of freaking people out.
The Wild Bunch, which is, in my opinion, Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece, centers around a gang of outlaws led by Pike Bishop (played by the late and great William Holden) that are looking to make one last score before they retire. They attempt to rob a railroad office of silver, but are intercepted by a posse hired by the railroad before they can make off with the goods. This posse is led by Deke Overton (played by Robert Ryan, who has never been better in any film than he is in this one), who used to be a member of Pike’s gang. A member of Pike’s gang, that is, until Pike betrayed him and saved his own skin by leaving Deke to get arrested. Deke’s need to apprehend Pike is more personal than business, but he can’t get a good posse together because posses nowadays are not compromised of tough men who stick together and believe in loyalty. Posses nowadays are well-staffed with young idiots who only got the job because they’re incapable of doing anything else.
From here, the plot gets delightfully complicated. Pike escapes to Mexico with the surviving members of his gang (Ernest Borgnine as Dutch, Jaime Sanchez as Angel, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates as the Gorch Brothers, and Edmond O’Brien as Sykes) where they seek sanctuary in the home village of Angel. Here, they discover that the village has been siezed by the corrupt General Mapache, an officer in the Mexican Federal Army. Mapache (played by Emilio Fernandez) has been ravaging the local villages to feed his troops and gain supplies for a losing battle against a group of Mexican revolutionaries. Angel discovers that, in his time away, the love of his life has become a whore for the General. In a jealous rage, Angel shoots and kills her. To defuse the situation, Pike agrees to put his gang to work in assisting Mapache in the war.
Mapache tasks the gang with a difficult job: rob a U.S. Army train of armaments. The robbery goes as planned until Deke’s gang turns out to be passengers on the train. Another glorious escape attempt is enacted, complete with the explosion of a trestle bridge and Deke standing totally agog as his team of imbeciles screws up one thing after another. Safely back in Mexico, Angel convinces Pike that no good can come from Mapache having access to these weapons and he offers to give up his share of the gang’s rewards in exchange for keeping one box of rifles and ammunition to arm his home village against Mapache. I won’t go any further into the plot. Instead, I will just say: if you think this turn of events is going to turn out well for Angel, you could not possible be more wrong.
It occurs to me as I type this that it’s taken me three paragraphs to describe the plot of The Wild Bunch and there’s still a good hour left in the movie. The plot of John Wick 3 can be summed up in one sentence: John Wick is made excommunicado and spends two hours running away from assassins that want to collect on his bounty. And I think that’s the most important difference between the violence in these two films. John Wick 3 seems to be violent for the sake of being violent. Whereas The Wild Bunch is violent, but it also has an engaging, complicated plot and something of note to say. John Wick 3 is only about finding new ways to kill people with knives, hatchets, guns, swords, motorcycles, horses, German Shepherds, and massive library books. Between plot points, of course.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of violence in this film. The final fifteen minutes in particular, in which Angel faces the wrath of Mapache for his betrayal and then Pike and company make Mapache pay for it, is especially difficult to watch, but never, in multiple viewings of this film over the years, has it ever seemed gratuitous. Never has it felt like The Wild Bunch is peppering its violence with an occasional story beat. In fact, Peckinpah seems to be using the violence in this narrative to not only serve his plot, but serve his theme. This movie is very strongly about betrayal and the repercussions of it.
Every single character in this film has either been betrayed or is in the act of betrayal. Just a few examples: Pike betrays not only Deke, but another member of his crew, a young man left behind during the first raid of the railroad office. Angel is betrayed by his girlfriend, betrays Mapache in retaliation, and is only caught by that betrayal because Dutch betrays him to save his own ass. Deke has not only been betrayed by his best friend, but by a system of law enforcement that wants to hire outside help cheaply instead of effectively. And in the end, Deke winds up betraying his own newfound belief system because he’s just not comfortable with how the world seems to be betraying him on a daily basis. There’s not much room for aging men in a world consumed by progress. At heart, despite its violence, The Wild Bunch is about loyalty. To your friends. To your crew. To your beliefs and to yourself. The Wild Bunch effectively and masterfully depicts a world that provides punishment to those who cannot stay loyal. As Pike says, “When you side with a man, you stay with him . . . “.
Loyalty, or, at least, the idea of it, is a prevalent theme in most westerns. Traditionally, westerns are about men who stick together, either through necessity or camaraderie. Even the classic “loner” types are depicted with a magical charisma that leads others into banding together in loyalty toward a cause or ideal. Even John Wayne’s least popular films have an element of this, and it’s too bad that John Wayne could not look past this film’s violence to see this film for what it really was. It’s not about “destroying the myth of the American West”. It’s about establishing a new myth because the times are changing and the old one’s outdated. It’s about mixing up the status quo and telling the same story in a new way.
And consider this: Yes, the classic westerns were optimistic about the nation and its future, but by 1969, with the Vietnam War going so poorly, with student protest and assassinations in the nightly news, perhaps Sam Peckinpah wondered what we had to be so optimistic about. Perhaps The Wild Bunch is his way of telling us that the “myth” of the American West is exactly that. Maybe Peckinpah believed that this particular myth was one that needed destroyed. How can we move forward if we are longing for the past?