THE WILD BUNCH (1969)

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“It’s ugly, brutalizing and bloody fucking awful. It’s not fun and games and cowboys and Indians. It’s a terrible, ugly thing. And yet there’s a certain response that you get from it, an excitement because we’re all violent people.”

– Sam Peckinpah

Think of the Western in 1969.

Leone had just made his true wonder, sans Eastwood, sans cheroot: an elegy of the rail road (‘two great slime trails across this country‘) and all that it destroyed and laid bare. In two years, Altman would make McCabe and Mrs Miller, the most beautiful of films. And, of course, raindrops were tumbling and Redford and Newman went out in freeze-frame.

But this is Peckinpah’s West. And at the close, with nothing left, and the option to become frozen nowhere in sight, the most honourable of men is gunned down by a woman and a child. Peckinpah’s West, where the enemy are the sober, the whores and the innocents. Children burn scorpions for entertainment, and the bone-pickers ride off with the spoils. Civilians die and the good stern women of the Temperance Union are trampled to death and blown to hell.

Peckinpah is our spirit animal, the soul of our savage endings. It is regrettable, for he seemed to enjoy cruelty of all stripes. The Bechdel Test was created for hateful men like him. Women are treated with disdain in this film, and all of his films. Several are murdered in delighted frenzy. They are whores and saints; nothing more. And he was the least subtle of directors: there are children everywhere in The Wild Bunch, violent little bastards, visions of the passing of brutality into new and evil forms. Modernization is coming (and what is modernization but better and cheaper ways to kill?). The West is dead. Make the big score, sure, but where can a man back off to? Buy an automobile? Marry a whore? How could these men begin new lives, when they are so bone-tired and creeping towards death? William Holden and Warren Oates are crinkled and fucked. Nothing is won in this film: silver washers, and death. There is no legend to print. These men are obsolete, and so was Big Sam, even back in 1969.

It is 1913. As these men are killing and laughing, Louis Feuillade was making Fantômas. Worlds ending, worlds beginning. Death in the Mexican sun. They will never know the mystery of cinema. Leone had beauty, pathos; he understood things. Butch and the Kid led the Western towards some kind of aesthetic dead-end, where Redford gleamed and Newman shone in the magic hour, faces saved for idle photography. But Peckinpah was there to deliver us. Imagine Ernest Borgnine’s character in The Wild Bunch, sitting in a dark movie theatre, riddled with bullet holes, watching an ending like that.

It doesn’t bear thinking about.

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