Brilliant Carnage

Sam Peckinpah’s slow-motion bullet ballet

From left: Ernest Borgnine, William Holden, Warren Oates, and Ben Johnson in <em>The Wild Bunch,</em>1969 (Everett Collection)
From left: Ernest Borgnine, William Holden, Warren Oates, and Ben Johnson in The Wild Bunch,1969 (Everett Collection)

I have seen The Wild Bunch, Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 masterpiece, many times. The film marks the definitive end of the truly Western Western, a farewell to the time when desperadoes played poker in frontier saloons, gunfighters fought legendary battles, and the cavalry saved the day or died with their boots on. A righteous man could be John Wayne romancing Claire Trevor in Stagecoach or Gary Cooper taking on three killers in High Noon, and a little boy could end the movie by begging “Shane! Shane! Come back!” Once, when my teenage son and I watched The Wild Bunch together, he came up with the perfect two-word description of the movie: “brilliant carnage.”

Myths die not all at once but in stages, and the Western always owed something of its appeal to the knowledge that the era it depicted—and, to some extent, invented—was long since gone by the time talking pictures filled movie screens. With each year, the cowboy-as-hero, whether lawman or bandit, grew more distant. Of the horsemen making up The Magnificent Seven (1960), Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen are the only two who ride off into the sunset. Though they have defeated the bad guys who terrorized Mexican farmers, they know their days are numbered. “Only the farmers won,” Brynner says. “We lost. We always lose.”

In The Wild Bunch, Pike Bishop (William Holden) leads the eponymous outlaws with Dutch (Ernest Borgnine) as his right-hand man. Tector (Ben Johnson) and Lyle (Warren Oates) are brothers with bad tempers and a healthy lust for liquor and ladies. Angel (Jaime Sanchez) is the one Mexican among them, passionate and brave, while Sykes (Edmond O’Brien), a good-natured elder statesman, remains behind the scenes, because he can no longer meet the physical demands of a hold-up job. The bunch would have had one extra fellow, but Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), Pike’s closest friend, was arrested, flogged mercilessly, and blackmailed by a vicious railway baron (Albert Dekker) into leading a team of “peckerwood” trash to hunt down the gang. The actors up and down the line give sterling performances.

The movie begins on the outskirts of San Rafael, a small Texas town, with children gleefully burning straw atop a battle of ants and scorpions. It is a powerful image, conveying the idea that cruelty and an impulse to destroy may be innate in even the youngest and most innocent human beings. In sharp contrast, a salvation salesman leads an open-air temperance meeting in the center of town, where a pathetic crowd swears off alcohol and sings “Shall We Gather at the River?”

It is then that Pike and his men, dressed in U.S. army uniforms, ride in to rob the railway’s offices. Their plans have been anticipated, however, and an ambush organized against them. In the ensuing crossfire, only Pike and five others ride their horses to safety. One of them will die of his wounds minutes later. And their bags of stolen treasure turn out to contain no treasure—just dime-store metal washers.

After the ambush, the guys head over the Mexican border and stop for a spell of rest and recreation at Angel’s idyllic home village. It is 1913. The Mexican Revolution is underway and the First World War about to begin. Mapache (Emilio Fernández), the vainglorious warlord of a militia with ties to Imperial Germany, has killed Angel’s father and stolen the lad’s girlfriend. Given Angel’s temperament and Mapache’s appetite for gratuitous cruelty, conflict is inevitable—and only suspended when Pike and company agree to steal munitions and give most of the proceeds to Mapache.

Thanks in part to film composer Jerry Fielding’s glorious score, an air of elegy pervades the movie, though the romantic gloom lifts when—true to the generic conventions of the Western—the gang pulls off a daring railway robbery, blowing up a bridge along the way to elude the bounty hunters on their tail.

What made the movie the talk of the town in 1969 is its ultimate showdown: a slow-motion shootout between the gringos and the militia, our protagonists’ skills making up for what they lack in sheer numbers.

When the film was new, Stanley Kauffman of The New Republic advised viewers to focus on “the ballet, not the bullet.” The violence and bloodshed that once shocked moviegoers no longer seem quite so extraordinary. But Kauffman’s judgment has held up. He rated The Wild Bunch as “a Western that enlarged the form aesthetically, thematically, and demonically.” (For more on what critics have said, read The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film by W. K.  Stratton.)

The film is also a study in leadership. Pike Bishop leads the group by virtue of something more than the sum of his abilities and experience. Dutch is his loyal partner. Pike maintains his leadership despite the challenges mounted by brothers Lyle and Tector, who like doing things “in tandem”—watch the film to be in on that joke. When the brothers begrudge an equal share of any profits with Sykes and Angel, Pike spikes the rebellion: “I either lead this bunch or end it right now.” Later, he articulates the group’s ethic: “When you side with a man, you stay with him, and if you can’t do that, you’re like some animal, you’re finished! We’re finished! All of us!”

Pike, Dutch, Lyle and Tector mount their attack on Mapache, his ill-trained soldiers, and the Germans with whom they’re in league because Mapache tortured and humiliated Angel, violated their creed, and insulted their self-respect. But there is another reason, one bordering on nihilism, for going into a battle in which the bandits know they will die. The unspoken question is: What else do they have to live for? They know their time is up. The introduction of modern machinery—automobiles, jeeps, machine guns, even the rumor of airplanes—has made their occupation obsolete. They are wanted men, outcasts, without a vocation and with no future.

Carrying rifles and wearing gun belts, Pike, Dutch, Tector and Lyle convene after a final fling with a bottle (Dutch) or a compliant lady (the others). Pike: “Let’s go.” Lyle: “Why not?” This seems like a banal enough exchange, but it will ring in your ears long after you see the four men march slowly, menacingly, to Mapache’s headquarters. Spoiler alert: the survivors, including two original members of the bunch, get the last mirthless laugh.

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David Lehman, a contributing editor of the Scholar, is a poet, critic, and the general editor of The Best American Poetry annual anthology and author of the book One Hundred Autobiographies. He currently writes our Talking Pictures column.


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