Today’s topic: the end of an era in The Wild Bunch (1969). A lot of people consider the Western genre to be boring nowadays. My own generation, the youngsters, seem to be repulsed by the boring scenery, outdated dialogue and predictable action. Sure, Westerns are predictable; the good guy wins, the bad guy dies. The special effects sure look like nothing compared to today’s fast paced action blockbusters and yet, to all the non-Western-watchers, you’re missing out. Westerns were made to enjoy, to make audiences root for the hero who who would always come out victorious, to make them boo at the ferocious indians and ugly bandits, to make them laugh whenever the clumsy old sheriff’s sidekick would come up on the screen. Western set laws that didn’t apply to any other genre in the 1940s Hollywood. As movies they always followed a certain scheme, a plan that had a prepared route of what will follow. And yes, many times Westerns would get repetitive, tackling the same subject matter – that of a glorious Wild West, a land so rich and so beautiful that only the rightful hero can have. But then again, exceptions are made. The exception here was Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch that managed to destroy the myth of the good Old West.
As some of the more seasoned movie fans may know, Peckinpah was famous for his head-on, no-brakes concept of violence (Straw Dogs, from 1971, being the prime example), which in some way revolutionized the way audiences started to adapt themselves to the violent imagery depicted in movies. Until that time, most directors chose not to show blood on screen. Blood was considered a dirty element in the golden industry of Hollywood. However, Sam Peckinpah did not care. He was a true visionary who looked at film with his own eyes and mind. The Wild Bunch was his way of depicting the reality of what people considered a fairy tale. The very Wild but pretty West. Peckinpah does not talk about a good sheriff, or a handsome rider; he does the opposite – his movie is about the cruel passing of time. Time ignores the fact if you’re rich, poor, black, white, whatever. Time is time and in The Wild Bunch, it’s ruthless. Our main protagonists are no kids; they’re seasoned veterans, real filthy bandits who in the past have killed, raped, robbed and drank every little penny they had. Their best days are way behind them. Maybe they never had them. They’re not as quick at pulling the trigger anymore, and their only reason to live is the love they have for crime. That’s their addiction, something they can’t stop themselves from doing. Time is killing them. What they once considered an easy two minute job becomes a bloodbath of a robbery. The authorities begin to outnumber them and in no time out of a whole gang, only six of them remain alive and loyal. Running.
As the movie progresses we notice how Peckinpah plays with time; in the shootout sequences, which for 1969 were something out of this world, he tackles time by making the most out of slow motion and fast paced intercuts. When a bounty hunter is shot dead and falls down to the ground from the top of a building, as he slowly reaches the ground, the director intercuts with the wild motions of galloping horses, symbol of progress and immediate change. Right after the bloodshed that took place in the street of a peaceful border town, Peckinpah dissolves to an image of a scorpion being eaten by thousands of ants. What happens next? Children set the insects on fire, and Peckinpah keeps the camera rolling as the flames devour what seconds before was devouring a mighty predator. We get the message. It’s time for the old timers to step away. If they stay, time will swallow them up. Even technology is subject to change and here too, the director makes the most out of the available props. Revolvers are replaced by semi-automatic pistols, bolt action rifles are left off in exchange for modern shotguns, and horses can’t outrun an automobile. It’s these simple things that make the biggest change in the gangbangers’ lives. The Wild West is filled to the brim with criminals much more skilled than these six poor old sobs. This is no country for old men. Old men must go, but before they do, Peckinpah leads the gang into a brothel, just to show us that there is no class in being a bandit. It’s a simple reminder that makes us think about all those times we saw the hero prepare himself for his final battle by praying in a church or cleaning his weapon in a quiet hotel room. Not in this case. In this case, the brothel is the sanctuary. The holy temple.
As I mentioned before, what is so revolutionary about this movie is the use of epic violence: corpses riddled by bullets, a machine gun that rips bodies apart and grenades that destroy entire buildings. The final shootout is an example of a virtuoso working against a whole world of viewers by challenging the way they’d watch Westerns. This is a war movie. The remaining five bandits face a squadron of angry Mexican soldiers. It’s the scorpion being eaten by the never ending masses of ants. It’s five men against the inevitable passing of time. It’s the Wild West against the approaching twentieth century. It’s the beloved traditions against the modern age. The bullet-spraying machine gun, in this case, is seen as the last door to knock at. Each one of the wild bunch tries to hold the weapon for as long as he can, but in the end, they all let go, crippled by the enemy fire. Crippled by their dark past. Their mistakes. Time sinks its teeth into their lives, ending them once and for all. It’s never been about gold, silver or any of that. It was about living the fearless life no one would get to live anymore after that.
The dying breed of a dying era.