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The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969)        Stasia McGehee 10/28/97


Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch is both a revival and a revision of the Classical Western. Peckinpah makes use of the wide screen to depict the wide open spaces of the classical western. However, unlike the classical western, usually situated between 1865 and 1890, The Wild Bunch takes place in 1914, during the Spanish Civil War, after the closing of the frontier. Thus the intrusion of technology may be represented by icons of a more mechanized society, such as the railroad, which bisects the wide open spaces, threatening the outlaws’ freedom. Also note that horses travel alongside motor vehicles, and rifles are augmented by submachine guns. The Wild Bunch also takes place during the temperance movement, a further indication of the restrictions upon the individual’s freedom. Note that the outlaws drink with wild abandon, in sharp contrast to the social mores of their time.

Also in accordance with the classic western, the hero is posited as a loner. A rugged individualist who rides into town and then leaves, the hero is a social outcast with his own sense of values. Pike shows a sense of justice when he insists that Angel keep his share of the loot, exclaiming that one should stand by his partner no matter what. Yet in an earlier scene, one of their band, too blind to ride, is shot like a lame horse, thus demonstrating the fragility of their male bonds.

In accordance with the classical western’s inherent misogyny, the woman is relegated to a minor role. If present at all, she is the cause of misfortune, the problem that spins the plot. The beginning of Pike’s physical demise occurs when a jealous husband shoots him and kills his lover. This is the cause of his partial lameness, which becomes a later source of humiliation. Similarly, the Bunch use women as if they are expendable. Only Angel’s shows a sense of honor, and inadvertently shoots his lover while aiming at Mapache. Mapache is not at all concerned with the loss of his mistress, and pardons Angel’s impulsiveness when the Bunch claims that he had merely aimed to kill Teresa for her infidelity. By having Pike killed during the finale by a woman and a child, the female is implicated, if not blamed, for her ultimate role in this spectacle of destruction.

The classic western usually portrays an unproblematic conflict between good and evil, based on a clear-cut moral position; yet in this film, distinctions between hero and adversary are blurred. At the beginning of the film, The Bunch pose as chivalrous cavalry, while the Bounty Hunters are seen as uncouth mercenaries. Later Pike steals guns for Mapache while the idealistic Angel works against him. Thorton’s enemy is not so much Pike, but the corporate institutions that would have him put back into prison. We empathize both with Pike, the pursued, and Thorton, the pursuer. Angel is the only truly positive character in the whole film, and in the end he is cruelly tortured.

In the classic western the moral center usually concerns the concepts of freedom and manifest destiny. However the demise of the American Indian no longer allows for such ready distinctions between good and evil; and with the closing of the frontier, The Bunch is forced to seek refuge in Mexico. There they get involved with Mapache’s army, perhaps calling attention to our own misguided intervention in Vietnam.

Whereas the classic western always erupts in a shoot-out, the finale of The Wild Bunch, highly choreographed and affected, erupts in epic proportions. Peckinpah uses a revolutionary editing style, relying upon many cameras at various speeds to produce an apocalyptic western. Influenced by the televised carnage in Vietnam, The Wild Bunch dramatizes the effects of modern warfare through hyperbole.

The opening scene is a microcosm of the entire film in that it establishes the setting, introduces the main parties in conflict, and sets the plot in motion. During the introduction, children amuse themselves by throwing scorpions into an anthill, then dosing the entirety in flames. This conflagration foreshadows the finale, where ultimately the leaders will be consumed, leaving only the resistant masses. Peckinpah contends that the fascination with violence and warfare is an inherent aspect of human nature.

This leads us to the opening scene, where a conflict between the parading temperance movement and the less zealous townspeople is disrupted by the conflict between the outlaws and the bounty hunters, led by Thorton, a prison inmate. Thus the conflict between Pike and Thorton is established while the distinction between hero and adversary is clouded. Thorton’s task, to capture Pike or return to Yuma, establishes the clicking clock motif, setting the whole plot in motion, as they embark upon the chase. Although the robbery is successful, The Bunch has been duped; the money bags were full of washers, symbolizing the futility of their attempts to circumvent the system.

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This page last updated on December 10th, 1997.
Copyright 1997 Stasia McGehee.

Written for History of Cinema, Susan Tavernetti, F/TV-042.-0IL, DeAnza College, Cupertino, CA, Fall 1997.