Dir. Sam Peckinpah
The end of the Wild West era was an interesting time. The west and east coasts were getting better-connected to one another by the day thanks to the development of railroads. Towns were slowly starting to overtake the land everywhere. And it was getting more and more difficult for the Wild West criminal to do his job properly.
This is the main theme in The Wild Bunch, released in 1969. Set 1913, the film focused on many themes such as the state of being a criminal and how it depends on the time and location you’re in, as well as the inhuman violence people can commit against one another. The film literally opens with a group of civilized children forcing scorpions into a swarming ant colony, taking delight in watching the creatures slowly kill one another before getting bored and setting them all on fire. Who in The Wild Bunch are the scorpions and who are the ants? I’m not sure, but it’s an unpleasant scene to watch nonetheless.
As stated, the film begins in 1913 with Pike Bishop, an aging outlaw played by William Holden, about to execute his final job before retiring by robbing a railroad office’s cache of silver. Along with his gang, who are all dressed as some type of ranger as a disguise, Bishop slowly travels through town before beginning their robbery. Unbeknownst to the gang, they are being watched by a stakeout of bounty hunters, led by Pike’s former partner Deke Thornton, played by Robert Ryan, who have all been deputized by the railroad. Pike’s gang eventually notice the bounty hunters, and a bloody shootout occurs in the streets of the town. Pike uses a convenient temperance parade to cover his gangs escape, but not without causing some casualties and leaving one of the more unstable gang members, “Crazy” Lee, behind to guard their hostages. Due to “Crazy” Lee’s craziness, he is too preoccupied with harassing the hostages to notice that his gang has left him and, after shooting them for attempting to escape, casually strolls away before being gunned down by the bounty hunters.
The bounty hunters, who are mostly poor, violent and stupid men, loot the bodies before taking them in for the bounty. Deke’s boss, the head of the railroad, commands him to go get the rest of the gang or Deke’s parole will be ended and he will be sent back to prison. It later turns out that Deke was imprisoned because of Pike’s carelessness in getting the two of them caught in a brothel, with Deke getting injured and arrested while Pike fled. The townsfolk also complain to the railroad manager that the bounty hunters caused just as much, if not more, carnage than the criminals they were trying to capture, but the railroad manager just brushes their concerns off.
Pike and his remaining men, Dutch Engstrom, brothers Lyle and Tector Gorch, and the Mexico-born Angel, all meet up with another old criminal named Freddie Sykes, who supplied fresh horses for them after the robbery in exchange for a share of the silver. At least, he would have, except the robbery was a setup and the bags of silver were filled with steel washers instead. Angry at the deception, all the men turn against each other before being calmed down by Pike, who promises them that they’ll get their final score some other way. All of the men cross the Rio Grande and take refuge in Angel’s home village. Unfortunately, the town is under the control of the corrupt General Mapache, an officer in the Mexican Federal Army who has been ravaging the area while fighting Pancho Villa. Angel’s father was killed for his rebellion against Mapache’s rule.
Pike and the rest of his men plan to make contact with the general and his German military adviser Commander Mohr for a real final job, but Angel sees his former lover taking in with Mapache and shoots her in a jealous rage. Pike is barely able to restrain Angel and, in order to defuse the situation, makes a deal to work for Mapache. General Mapache and Commander Mohr want the gang to re-cross the Mexican border to rob a U.S. army train of a weapons cache so that Mapache can resupply his men and so that Mohr can obtain samples of America’s weapons. In exchange, Mapache offers the men a cache of gold.
Pike’s gang relaxes, with the Gorch brothers being entertained by three prostitutes and large barrels of wine while Pike, Dutch, Sykes and Angel enjoy a sauna. In the sauna, the men discuss what they wish to buy with their share of gold. Angel, still upset over his people’s oppression, wants to use his money to kill Mapache, but Pike makes a deal with him. In exchange for Angel’s share of the gold, Pike will allow Angel to send one crate of guns and ammunition to his village to rebel and defend themselves from Mapache, and Angel agrees.
The robbery is a success, until Deke’s posse finds out and tries to capture Pike’s gang. Thankfully for Pike’s gang, they are able to cross a bridge and blow it up before the posse reaches them, sending their pursuers down the river. Still, now that they have the weapons, Pike tries to figure out a way to prevent Mapache from double-crossing his gang by only brining half the weapons at first and telling him they’ll bring the other half after getting paid. However, at the second drop-off, Mapache informs Dutch and Angel that he knows Angel took a crate of guns because he was told about it by the mother of the woman Angel shot. Angel attempts to escape but fails, and Dutch leaves him to die claiming that they knew nothing of this and informs Pike of what happened.
Meanwhile, Sykes gets injured by Deke’s men when he tries to secure their spare horses, while Pike and the rest of the men return to the village for shelter. At the village, a celebration is being held in honor of the military’s newly received weapons. Mapache drags Angel behind his car as a part of the celebration, and Pike’s gang does nothing to stop it. However, after drinking and having sex with some prostitutes, the men have time to think about how they used to have honor through their loyalty to one another, so Pike, the Gorch brothers and Dutch plan to force Mapache to release Angel. Mapache appears as if he’s going to do it, before suddenly slitting Angel’s throat, leading Pike and Dutch to shoot him.
Mapache’s men are so awestruck by the sudden violence that Pike’s men have an opening to start killing the rest of them before they can shoot back. After an extremely bloody shootout, involving a machine gun from the weapons cache, Pike, his men, most of Mapache’s troops and Commander Mohr are all dead.
Deke finally arrives with his bounty hunters and tells them to take the corpses back for the reward without him. It turns out that Deke knew of the Mexican rebels in the area, and that Sykes had teamed up with them to kill the bounty hunters and retrieve the others’ bodies. Sykes, who plans to stay and help the Mexican Revolution, asks if Deke will join him. Deke agrees.
This film is bloody and violent, and like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, has some fascinating stances on morality. Pike and his men, while obviously not good people, are shown to be honorable in their own way through their strong loyalty to one another. However, as displayed at various points, Pike and his men are more than willing to sacrifice one of their own if it ensures one’s survival, such as when Pike abandoned Deke to be arrested or left “Crazy” Lee behind. Pike likes to claim he has honor, but in reality he’s more than willing to make selfish decisions and justify them later, no matter how much the guilt eats away at him.
What makes Pike and his men so interesting on a moral level is that they see themselves as almost legendary figures of the Old West, an Old West that is slowly morphing into a completely different landscape that is getting more and more difficult for them to navigate. The reason Pike wanted to retire, aside from his advancing age, is that he recognizes that gang won’t be able to sustain their way of life the same way for much longer. There is a point where the gang sees Mapache’s car and claim that the future is moving in on them quickly, making a reference to the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903 as further evidence.
Other than their inherent criminality, its interesting to see where the lines between criminal and non-criminal blur as the narrative progresses. Pike’s men are no longer criminals once they reach Mexico and the Mexican government is willing to let them stay in exchange for committing more crimes against America. The Mexican government itself are clearly bad guys in this story but aren’t criminals, and Angel is deemed a criminal due to his rebellion against them. Even the bounty hunters, who as previously mentioned are just as violent and unconcerned with other’s safety as Pike’s gang, get away with it because they are legally sanctioned. At the end of the day, the audience is supposed to sympathize with criminals, whether it be with Pike and his gang or with the Mexican Revolutionaries, especially as the end of the story involves the remaining characters going to fight for Pancho Villa.
As stated, the men are quick to abandon their own comrades to save themselves, but it is clear that none of them are proud of their cowardice. Pike feels intense guilt for what happened to Deke and doesn’t blame Deke for coming after him, even though he has no intention of getting caught. Pike also feels guilty when he realizes that “Crazy” Lee was related to the old man Sykes, as he realizes that he abandoned him for no good reason. The last straw is when Mapache tortures Angel, as even though it takes Pike and his men a long time to gather their courage, they realize that they are nothing because of how quickly they were willing to turn against a partner they claimed to care about. To an extent, Deke also is reminded of this honorable loyalty, as he shows no loyalty to the men under his command because they don’t have any loyalty to one another, instead fighting over each other like dogs over scrap meat, which is why Deke is more than willing to let them get slaughtered by the Mexican revolutionaries and eventually joins the Revolution himself.
Going back to the extreme violence of this film, the director and co-writer, Sam Peckinpah, said that it was an allegory for the Vietnam War, because the violence of the war was televised nightly, in stark contrast to the bloodless, anti-violent entertainment of the time. Peckinpah wanted to show people how violent the Old West really was, where innocent civilians would get killed along with law enforcement and criminals. Peckinpah didn’t do this because he thought violence was entertaining, but because he wanted the American public to be used to such violent imagery, as it was everywhere in the Vietnam War and he wanted to desensitize people to it for their own mental health, because people would be purged of violent thought by witnessing it so viscerally. Unfortunately, Peckinpah eventually realized that people were coming to his film not to be horrified by the violence but to enjoy it, something that deeply troubled him (Weddle, 1994). Interestingly, this relates to the opening scene again, where the children let scorpions loose in the ant swarm. Even if Peckinpah didn’t intend this film to be enjoyed for its violence, he certainly was able to convey that mindset accurately within the first few minutes of his film, and I have to agree, it is kind of disturbing in that framing. But then again, I was the pansy kid who didn’t like others crushing water striders with rocks or poking lost baby bats with sticks, so what do I know?
The Wild Bunch is a very good film, but it is not necessarily a fun watch. I was kind of uncomfortable watching it at times, disturbed by some of the violence but especially by the nonchalance of the main character’s cruel and hedonistic behavior. However, I like a good, unique story, and seeing such flawed characters was interesting. I especially liked to see the evolution of how Westerns became more violent, as this film was only three years after The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. While the spaghetti western genre was criticized for its violence, it surely didn’t take long for the violence to be emulated in America, and truly, the genre was never as innocent as it was again.
Weddle, David (1994). If They Move…Kill ‘Em!. Grove Press. p. 334.