The Wild Bunch: premiered June 18, 1969
When Warner Brothers screened Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch for the MPAA and assorted film critics in 1969, the reaction was decidedly mixed. It was a Western, but a Western without heroes. The protagonists spend the film working for the villains. The Wild Bunch themselves was a broken-down pack of worn losers, and the film’s moral center was a tool of a fascistic railroad. The film started with a robbery and cold-blooded murder by the protagonists, and ended with an entire village being slaughtered, including the angry murder of a woman. 1969 was the beginning of an era of anti-heroes in cinema, but even then, seeing William Holden play a cowboy who angrily calls a woman “Bitch!” before shooting her dead was shocking. And none of this takes into account the violence of the picture. The Wild Bunch is easily one of cinema’s most artistically, realistically violent pictures. Peckinpah started by using advanced camera techniques, hundreds of extras, and hundreds of thousands of bullets. But the true violence was in the glee of it all. When the Mexican Army drags one of The Wild Bunch behind a car, the villagers cheer and celebrate. Children hop on for a ride. It was all too much for some critics, who stormed out. When the film ended, critic Rex Reed attacked Peckinpah’s character and amorality during the post-screening press conference. But Roger Ebert, when given a chance to speak, offered up a defense. He knew that the film was brilliant, and would usher in a new era of cinema. But what was the film’s message? That the West (expansion, imperialism, manifest destiny, pioneering) was dead? That violence is pointless? That the world is a morally ambivalent place? That you can’t trust the good guys?
The genius of The Wild Bunch is that all of those are true. It’s a film so rich and contextual that it truly can mean multiple things to anyone. And it has always been in my list of Top Five All-Time Favorite films for different reasons, at different times. Lately, I’ve been viewing it through an entirely different perspective.
If you’ve read or followed this blog at all, you know that my purpose for writing it is to show my gratitude for the people, places, and things that have helped shape my worldview. I started it at a time in my life when I was very lost, and I used the process to try to understand how these things which have moved me so much were either reflections of my beliefs or beacons that I had altered my life to follow. I wrote sporadically. Generally, I wrote when I believed that I understood my world. And so long periods of silence would occur as things grew busy or confusing, and when the dust would settle I would start to write again. Sometimes it would last a day, sometimes a week, sometimes longer. Life would be good and I would write. Life would turned bad, and I would retreat to being a spectator of the things I love, and try to figure out some perspective. Today is the first time I’ve written when things were bad, and it seems that The Wild Bunchis the perfect topic.
The sad and scary part of failure is that there is no clear path. There is no path to eventual success. As a result, there is no real path. You just move through life with the hope that your mistakes don’t harm too many people, that your presence doesn’t leave too many dissatisfied, that your love doesn’t leave too any people scarred, and that your existence doesn’t leave the world too damaged for having been here. And so you walk. Not to redemption. You walk to the next failure, you walk to certain death, you walk to whatever. But you just keep walking. Because… why not? _________________________
- Roger Ebert’s review of the re-released The Wild Bunch