Wild Bunch, The
4/10 (wow. . . just wow)
I’ve definitely seen movies that were as misanthropic, misogynistic, racist, sadist or ridiculous as this one. But never have I seen one single film that was all of these things combined, to such a superlative degree. This “classic” western is the definition of the word “gratuitous.” While I understand that director Peckinpah was revolutionizing the genre with this film, it’s worthwhile to ask toward what end.
The film opens with a heist gone wrong and erupts into a 7-minute slaughter with somewhere between 30 and 50 dead bodies (including women and seniors). It’s difficult to arrive at an exact body count, because the “revolutionary” jump-cut editing makes the violence all but incomprehensible. You see the same bloody body falling from a rooftop in five different slo-mo segments, interspersed with live action women and old men getting it in the back. Oftentimes they cut too fast for you to even know what’s going on. It’s a good hint of what you’re in for, as both robbers and bounty hunters shoot mercilessly at any moving target, without any apparent respect for human life.
After this, you find out that you’re supposed to sympathize with the leaders of this bloodthirsty criminal band (played by William Holden and Ernest Borgnine), and that we should be sad that they got stiffed on the loot and will be on hard times as their careers come to a gray-haired close. Maybe some people did find them compelling as anti-heroes or something, but I didn’t. You can’t build a 2.5 hour movie around unsympathetic main characters.
The rest of the film involves them with their “one last score,” stealing U.S. military guns for a rogue Mexican general, then engaging in a personal vendetta when one of their friends gets taken hostage. It’s pretty straightforward and gets boring due to crappy editing, poor script and underdeveloped characters.
I’ll grudgingly grant the action sequences their “revolutionary” status as they redefined the way action was cut (even if the technique as shown in “Wild Bunch” has a long way to go to be visually appealing), but the editing in the rest of the film is poor at best. The pacing is terrible and Peckinpah tells key segments of the story in cheesy flashbacks. Otherwise, he spends far too much time on pointless close-ups (which would be useful with better acting, I imagine), or 30 seconds of cackling, forced laughter in response to unfunny jokes.
This laughter really grated on me. It happened about 10 times during the movie. For a film championed for its realism in the face of the previous “romantic” westerns, I would think that these various moments of stupid group laughter would be an obvious rallying point for critics charging hypocrisy. They also tend to highlight the poor acting — even a great actor wouldn’t be able to realistically laugh so long and hard in response to something so lame. Perhaps Peckinpah mistook lingering shots of his protagonists laughing for character development. That would certainly explain a lot of the movie’s problems.
The plot’s not really as important to the rest of the film as is knowing about the gratuitous violence, lack of women other than whores, cruelty to animals, and racist treatment of the Mexicans. Everything is gratuitous. The entire film is gratuitous. To give you an idea, there’s a scene where the stupid Mexicans are learning how to use a machine gun, and for one full minute Peckinpah shows them accidentally shooting up their entire hacienda. One minute doesn’t sound like much, but count out 60 seconds to yourself and imagine for that entire time you are watching bullets hit walls, dishware, dirt, windows, and occasionally people. Most people would have used about 10 seconds on the scene, tops, but Peckinpah wanted to make sure you really got the point. And what was the point? I’m guessing either that machine guns are really cool and powerful, or that Mexicans are really stupid.
Speaking of gratuity, I realize after seeing this movie that Quentin Tarantino gets far too much credit for being provocative and incendiary with his films. He hasn’t done anything that Peckinpah didn’t do a quarter-century before, and he hasn’t done it nearly as full-tilt. Next to Peckinpah, Tarantino is a cowardly wannabe. As insane as Peckinpah’s vision was, at least he let himself go fully unhinged. Tarantino’s trendy violence is a mere half measure in comparison.
Peckinpah defended his violence by claiming that he was showing it in response to all of the glorified, bloodless violence from previous films in the western genre. He said he wanted to make audiences uncomfortable with the violence, and thus purge them of their attraction to it. He admitted later that his violence had the opposite effect than that he had hoped for, attracting instead of repelling audiences. It wouldn’t have taken Nostradamus to predict such an outcome.
He also said he wanted to show violence as it really was in the period. I’m sorry if I simply don’t believe it was like this, where you could shoot up literally an entire town without repercussion, killing 10-20 innocent bystanders. I don’t believe that people cared so little for human life. Much like in “Once Upon a Time in America,” I think that’s just the director’s excuse to show as much violent misanthropy as he can invent. I think it tells us more about Sam Peckinpah than the Wild West. Maybe I’m just being naive here, but until proven otherwise, that it actually was that way back then (and I don’t know how you can do it), it’s just my belief against yours.
That’s about it. The film ends with the four “heroes” massacring an entire Mexican battalion with a machine gun for five full minutes. The Mexican soldiers are uniformly portrayed as savage, hedonistic idiots (complete with exaggerated accents in English), so you don’t feel too bad about it. (You’ll probably feel worse seeing the myriad of ways that Peckinpah abuses horses throughout the film: tumbling them down sand dunes, dropping them 20 feet from a bridge into the river below, shooting them out from under their riders, etc.) Due to lack of character development you don’t really understand why they do it, but that’s not really the point I guess — you go along just to get it over with.
I was originally going to include this with the other much-ballyhooed classic “Once Upon a Time in America” on my list of 3s. They fit well together for their misogyny, misanthropy and incredible overrated-ness. But I can recognize that this is better. Peckinpah’s on-location shooting in Mexico brings a lot of authenticity to the film, and the cinematography enhances it (in spite of being overly-busy a lot of the time with quick zooms and pans, and also tending to zoom in when showing the binocular view, a technology I’m pretty sure they didn’t have yet in 1913). Peckinpah also appears to have some sort of respect for the indigenous and campesino cultures, as he spends (too) long shots showing them in intricate detail.
The movie also had a profound impact on westerns specifically and movies as a whole, which I have to factor in. Not only with its portrayal of violence, but also with its anti-romanticism and editing. It’s undeniable, even if I’m not necessarily in agreement with the direction of said impact. But ultimately, for my money and time I’ll take Sergio Leone’s westerns (“A Fistful of Dollars,” “For a Few Dollars More,” “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” “Once Upon a Time in the West,”) over this one. They came a few years later so weren’t too far behind the “revolutionary” curve. They’re as long but more engaging/epic, almost as violent but not as senseless, and all around more competently produced.
To sum up, you might want to see this movie just to have a point of reference for all of the people who call it a classic, but you also might be able to think of thousands of other ways you’d rather spend two and a half hours.
13 June 2010