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The 50th Anniversary of ‘The Wild Bunch’: Born to Fade Away

I remember hearing about a potential upcoming remake of The Wild Bunch, starring Will Smith. Without a doubt, Will Smith’s involvement made the prospect even more grotesque. Remember, this is the same guy who asked Quentin Tarantino to change the ending to Django Unchained to fit his own moral code. The shooting script, even with the best intentions, will end up becoming some easily digestible Will Smith fluff piece.

Will Smith aside, it’s hard to imagine a remake of The Wild Bunch succeeding in the current era. A part of it certainly has to do with the current political zeitgeist. From a modern perspective, The Wild Bunch, has more than its fair share of problematic elements.

For one, none of the female characters have any depth to them. One of the most noteworthy female characters in the film, Teresa (Sonia Amelio), is brutally gunned down and her gory demise becomes the subject of mocking laughter.

It’s as far away from modern sensibilities as one can imagine. It wouldn’t surprise me that many people condemn this film to be a glorification of toxic masculinity.

The film never makes any moralistic statements except for the end, but considering the moral controversies surrounding largely inoffensive films like Blade Runner 2049 and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, this will likely be missed by these viewers.

Yet, the film has been treasured for five decades, been hailed as one of the greatest westerns of all time, been regarded as culturally, historically and aesthetically significant by the U.S. Film Registry.

And for good reason. It’s a bloody masterpiece. An unrelenting depiction of not just the Wild West but of human nature and where a moral code, to abide by one’s friends, is the only salvation left.

John Wayne and The Wild Bunch

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William Holden as Pike Bishop, the leader of the titular Wild Bunch. Image via Military.com

John Wayne didn’t like The Wild Bunch. He didn’t like any film that challenged his simplified vision of Western Americana. In an ironic twist, Wayne’s disgruntled view of the film mirrors its themes: how time moves on and doesn’t care whether people adapt themselves to it or not.

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Wayne’s popularity decreased as counter-culture began to grow. People started getting into revisionist-westerns — dirty, sweaty, unromantic views of the American West. It was a trend that started in the mid-sixties and peaked in the seventies — though one might argue that Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven is the definitive revisionist western — in a time when the status quo or “traditional” morality was questioned.

The counter-culture began hopeful enough. The era seemed for many to promise an enlightened growth, a possibility for an eventual utopia. Eventually, many of these idealists became cynical as they became increasingly aware that the past was never what they thought it was and how their current leaders continued sending young men to die for an unjust war. The system could not be changed, human nature could not be changed. The glory of the American experiment was forever gone.

In actuality, it never really existed. And this utopia was always doomed to fail. It was all perfectly summarized by the despondent biker Wyatt during a poignant moment of clarity in the 1969’s counterculture classic Easy Rider: ”we blew it.”

The Wild Bunch is one of the greatest revisionist westerns, and part of it lays in its most infamous aspect: the violence. There’s nothing heroic about any of it. It’s just carnage. There’s nothing badass about any of it. Innocent people are accidentally killed in the crossfire, people watch loved ones die. The film slows down, just so we can see the death rattles of gunslingers, seeing their agonized faces as their bodies are pumped with lead.

And while the blood might not look as realistic compared to what we see on screen nowadays, its signature editing illustrates perfectly the brutality of gun violence.

As the film progresses, the central gang begins to realize that they are men out of time. The outlaw freedom they enjoy so much cannot be sustained. Soon, just as the ancient farmers did to the ancient hunters, the new world will push them towards extinction. It was bound to happen. Just as the Western Myth, engineered by such loyal agents such as John Wayne, would be deconstructed. It was all born to fade away. 

Mad Men

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Aim and shoot. Image via IMDB.

It’s hard to talk about The Wild Bunch without talking about the mad man behind it all: Sam Peckinpah. Peckinpah, on even the most conservative accounts, was not an easy man to be around. And when given complete freedom, he can even be a liability as the behind-the-scenes insanity of his ill-fated trucker’s saga Convoy proved. 

It has to be said that Peckinpah’s problematic qualities should never be lauded. He was apparently cruel to film crews, verbally abusive and firing them on a whim. He was lax when it came to the safety of his stuntmen. Reportedly appalling misogynistic. A fervent alcohol and drug abuser. To boil it down: he was probably an ass.

But disregarding all of this, The Wild Bunch is a Sam Peckinpah film, through and through. It’s merciless when it comes to its depiction of cruelty and violence. Sometimes a little too much — I can never watch the opening scene when the young kids are feeding a scorpion to ants, for instance, a scene I admittedly do find monstrously problematic.

At the same time, The Wild Bunch is not just an exercise in cruel nihilism. What makes it so special is the humanity between these men. The friendship between these bandits and murderers. When the film does get sentimental, it feels earned. It works in wondrous ways. Peckinpah might have been a masculine filmmaker, but he was honest.

The film never romanticizes these men yet never forgets to remind us that they are human, not mindless sociopaths. The ending proves this above all.

A Man’s Gotta Have a Code

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General Mapache (Emilio Fernández ). A man without a code. Image via RareFilm

As previously mentioned, the opening sees a bunch of cruel kids feeding a scorpion to hundreds of ants. This illustrates the savagery inherent in human nature. The morbid fascination to violence and bringers of death.

The central outlaws realize that if they were to survive, they must soon retire. They are tired of looking over their shoulders, of being hunted down. One last score is required, however.

They sell their trade to a brutal warlord, General Mapache, leader of the Mexican Federal Army, despite protestations by one of the most passionate gang members, Angel (Jaime Sánchez), who knows about the horrors he’s brought to his country. He’s intimately aware of the villages he’s raided, the food he’s stolen from hapless Mexican villagers, the innocents he’s murdered and the women he’s violated.

Yet the suffering of the Mexican people isn’t their fight, so they do a job for Mapache, stealing a weapon shipment from the United States Army and giving it to Mapache so he can continue his carnage.

In secret, however, a part of the shipment goes to the Mapache’s opposition and when he finds out, he tortures and enslaves Angel.

The Wild Bunch has a choice: live the rest of their lives in luxurious retirement or risk their lives for Angel. Initially, they opt for the former, as they use their money on prostitutes and liquor. But it doesn’t feel right, they can’t seem to enjoy their spoils. It’s like the classic Robin Hood gangster from HBO’s The Wire so infamously states: ”a man’s gotta have a code.”

“Let’s go” says Pike, and the gang knows what he means.

“Why not,” quips Lyle.

So they confront Mapache, knowing they are heavily outnumbered. It’s unlikely they’ll survive if the confrontation escalates to a gunfight.

Initially, Mapache seems pliant and lets Angel go. But in drunken anger, he suddenly raises a knife and slits Angel’s throat. Mapache, in turn, is gunned down. It’s then awkwardly quiet, as the gang stares down the army that surrounds them. Nobody knows what to do. Dutch laughs, enjoying the madness of it all.

He gives Pike, his closest friend, a look that says “go for it.” Pike chooses a mean face to gun down and all hell breaks loose.

What follows is one of the greatest shoot-outs in cinema history and even after fifty years, it’s still a gloriously horrific spectacle. Fueled by adrenaline, the gang manages to take down countless soldiers. “Give em hell Pike!” wails Dutch, as Pike mows down soldiers with a Browning Machine gun.

But it isn’t built to last. Like the scorpion confronted by the ants, eventually, the army closes in on them. In the film’s most moving scene — which always gives me goosebumps watching it — Pike collapses and Dutch screams for his lost friend “No Pike…”, and he keeps repeating his friend’s name as he dies alongside him.

The film ends on a bittersweet note, as former gang member turned bounty hunter Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) reunites with the last surviving gang member Freddie Sykes (Edmond O’Brien). “It ain’t like it used to be, but it’ll do,” says Freddie, making peace with the changing world and enjoying whatever little time they have left together. The final scenes show us former scenes of the gang laughing among themselves, accompanied by a melancholic Mariachi tune.

In the cruel world they live in, in which human lives mean little to nothing, a moral code can make all the difference. “When you side with a man, you stay with him!” Pike reminds a bickering gang member when he threatens to kill one of them, “and if you can’t do that… You’re finished! We’re finished! All of us!”

It’s telling that for all the gun-toting mayhem, it’s the strange warmth between these four men I remember the most.

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To die like real men. (From left to right) Tector (Ben Johnson), Lyle (Warren Oates), Pike (Holden) and Dutch (Ernest Borgnine). Image via Film.


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5 Responses

  1. Sam Simon says:

    Great review! I love how you explored several aspects of the movie and thought about how it would fare according to modern standards. Actually, you made me want to rewatch it…

    • Thank you for your compliments. It’s unfortunate that these movies are dismissed simply because of current politics. I’m happy I made you interesting in seeing this film again!

  2. Vuava says:

    I love this movie. I suppose anyone talking about ‘toxic masculinity’ would be right, but isn’t that the point? It’s a revisionist western, it’s not supposed to be nice. It is a brilliant work, so I would encourage anyone who hasn’t seen it to give it a go.

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