Tuesday, August 16, 2011

THE GOOD OL’ DAYS WEREN’T ALWAYS GOOD AND TOMORROW’S JUST AS BAD - Sam Pekinpah’s The Wild Bunch Revisited

What follows is a film analysis written for a “writing in film” course from Florida International University…it also served as a modest tribute to my father who had passed one year previous at the time of this paper’s submission. Heavy spoilers follow.

No matter what the medium, the best type of art is the one that becomes fresher when re-experienced.  Perhaps “fresher” is not the appropriate word to use.  After all, the painting does not change its landscape, the words on the printed page do not alter (unless edited), nor do the sequence of events in a film change.  It is not the art that has changed, but its perception.  It’s a transformative experience for it serves, if the viewer is honest, to realize how much they have changed; especially if the film in question failed to make an impression in the first place.  Such is the case with Sam Penkinpah’s The Wild Bunch.  My late father lived and breathed the western genre, and this film was his seminal favorite.  As a child I never understood why.  Unlike other films of the genre, all the characters were unlikeable to me and lacked the excitement and clear righteous lines of more accessible fare like The Searchers, The Mark of Zorro or The Lone Ranger on television.  My young eyes could not comprehend what so plainly resonated to my then near middle-aged progenitor.  What was played out in celluloid was not merely a morality tale with western trappings, but instead an internal conflict that resonates within the soul of every maturing man.  What must my father have thought when he watched “Pike Bishop”, “Dutch Engstrom”, and “Deke Thornton” as they went on their adventure looking for their particular brand of redemption and validation?   I do not know, for I never thought to ask.  However, as I watch with eyes as mature now as his were then, I can only speculate.  The film is exactly as it was when I saw it with him, but what was once boring now brims with tense electricity.  What seemed incomprehensible is now understood with a comprehension that only life experience can impart.  The appreciation of this work does not stem from its cinematography, its daring and at the time innovative use of camera angles, motion and technique, or even from its plot.  The appreciation stems from the film’s ability to transcend not only the genre that it was made, but also its ability to achieve a timelessness by touching upon universally cultural questions on the male psyche and the effects of his marginalization once he realizes that time leaves him adrift in favor of a younger generation and an uncertain future for which he may have no place.  It is a film that deconstructs more than a genre.  It deconstructs the male psyche and its preoccupation with its virility and relevance.

In The Wild Bunch, a bunch of outlaws seek to score on last heist while pursued by a band seeking to apprehend them.  As plots go, it seems as simplistic as any other western, but by no means does that imply that this film is simplistic.  Instead, it is an allegory for the plight of the aging as the world they once new transforms around them, threatening to leave them as nothing but dust.  It is about the eternal struggle between the old who have survived, if not tamed, the world and the youth that threatens to marginalize them to obscurity.  It is very much a post-modernist film in both approach and method.  This film was released in the turbulent year of 1969.  The country was in the midst of a highly contested, undeclared and unpopular war that caused a polarization between youth and authority.  The way of conservatism was losing ground against the growing liberalism, the civil rights movement and, most emasculating of all, feminism.  It is it any wonder, then, that The Wild Bunch resonates the way it does?  It is a product of its time, while at the same time rising above it.  The subject is the confidently resolute hero, and this film is for him an indictment, love letter, and farewell.

The strength in the film comes from Pekinpah’s ability to meld the conflicting viewpoints in a way that is both jarring yet dramatic.  His use of scoring is especially profound in this regard.  Jerry Fielding’s music is a discordant mix of the old western orchestrations and late ‘60s crime drama pop.  It’s a score that acknowledges to both while paying homage to neither but  when called for, it builds up a slow crescendo of tension that explodes when the gun fires and the blood is let.  Pekinpah eschews western romanticism for harsh reality, using quick cuts and slow motion filming techniques to emulate the responses that might occur for the viewer if he or she were actually there, presaging the MTV style of filmmaking by decades.  In moments as dire as those, time incongruously seems to slow down and move fast all at once.  There is no lyricism in the gun fights, no heroic moments.  There is only bloody finality, and it is neither sanitized nor glorified.

Technique, ultimately, must serve the master of character.  William Holden’s “Pike Bishop” and Robert Ryan’s “Deke Thorton” represent the “old” west; a time when men were men who, despite their illegal pursuits lived by their own code.  The irony of this film is that each of these men are now at odds, with Thorton working as a bounty hunter hired by the railroad to capture the gang dead.  Upon further scrutiny, the irony is sublimely rich.  In this film, both the railroad and the motorcar represent the ushering of the new age that eventually eradicates Pike and Deke’s way of life.  But by the same token, they are also symbols of the modernist industrialization that the post-modern counterculture rebelled against.  Another irony is found in the fact that this film’s eponymous bunch isn’t so wild.  Its membership is made up of grizzled, seasoned veterans and eagerly bloodthirsty youths.  What is fascinating is the scene that plays out at the films beginning.  As the bunch rides, the camera pans to a bunch of children who drop a couple of scorpions in a den of red ants, callously laughing as the ants overwhelm and devour the two scorpions.  These scorpions clearly represent Pike and Deke, two greater mature creatures overwhelmed by the passionate, mindless frenzy of a mob to which they share the most cursory of relation, the children a future indifferent to their plight.  As the kids burn the insects, it would not be a stretch to say that the flames are evocative of the power of time to eradicate all that is.  Perhaps this scene inspired the only memorable line “Time is the fire in which we burn, Captain.” From Star Trek: Generations (1994); coincidentally another film involving the themes of man’s mortality in the face of the next generation, if you will excuse the pun. 

Like William Shatner’s James T. Kirk acknowledging that there is a new captain of the Enterprise, so does Pike acknowledge that his time is slowly coming to a close:  “We gotta start thinking beyond our guns.  Those days are going fast.”   William Holden anchors this film with a weight and a gravitas that may have not have been wholly created out of the blue.  Holden was once a highly sought after matinee idol; a star.  As with all things, his looks, and his bankability, faded with time.  This adds an authenticity to not only the role but the proceedings as well.  One need only look at the scene where Pike rides over a hill after an embarrassing first attempt at saddling to note the brilliance of his performance.  He is slumped and hurt, but resolute in his convictions despite the lack of faith by his younger compatriots.  However, he is a man of his own warped convictions and a man who is no longer motivated by the passions of youth.  While the younger outlaws cavort with Mexican chiquitas, he hangs out in a sauna with his closer in age companion Dutch (Ernest Borgnine).  This is understandable given that other than a desire for profit, Pike has very little in common with Tector Gorch (Ben Johnson), Lyle Gorch (Warren Oats) or revolutionary wannabe Angel (Jaime Sánchez).  In fact, the film seems to be an indictment against youth, or perhaps it is a reflection of the establishment’s attitude towards the youth of the day.  The film is replete with images of children in the hundreds, their numbers a hovering reminder that Pike’s way of life is running out on him.  Young Crazy Lee (Bo Hopkins) can easily be an analogue for Charles Manson, who orchestrated the murders of Sharon Tate and others at the time of this film’s release.  The soldiers on the train are young with feminized faces, inexperienced and incompetent.  The young Gorch brothers’ ignorance is highlighted by their not knowing the meaning of “in tandem.”  The pair are also are content to leave old Freddie Sykes (Edmond O’Brien) behind, to which Pike disgustedly responds “We’re not getting’ rid of anybody.  We’re gonna stick together just like it used to be.  When you side with a man you stay with him.  You don’t do that you’re like some animal.  You’re finished.   We’re finished!  All of us!”  In Angel’s village, a wise man makes the observation that “we all dream of being a child again.  Even the worst of us.  Maybe especially the worst of us.”  It gets at the heart of the existential conflict of man wanting to return to the state that is ultimately destroying him.  It’s a marriage of conditions that seem to be doomed to divorce if not for the character of Angel.  He is the most marginalized and disrespected of the bunch.  However, for all of his passionate reactionism, he is respectful to Pike and everything he represents.  Angel wants vengeance on his woman for running off with the revolutionary Mapache, and no man could blame him for such emasculation, but at Pike’s order he temporarily abstains from the quest.

I must digress for a moment to call attention to the role of women in this film.  None of Pekinpah’s female characters are strong women, nor do they have much prominence.  In this film, they are objects of lust that bring men to ruin; especially to Pike.  His wound-induced limp is the result of an affair with a married woman.  It is further telling that, just before his final stand at Mapache’s village, Pike spends his last night with a whore and her child.  They not only represent the life that Pike could have had if he had settled down, but also that by engaging in a passionate role he is no longer suited for he rejects all that he was, which brings about his doom.  The female of any prominence is Angel’s woman who is portrayed as a cuckolding whore and pays the ultimate price for her effrontery.  Angel’s ruination is assured when the woman’s mother exposes his aiding the Mexican rebels.

For all his youth, Angel’s loyalty is solid.  Even when he is ultimately betrayed by Dutch and, by extension, the rest of the bunch, he holds his silence.  Unfortunately, Angel pays with his life by adhering to the ideals of the previous generation.

Betrayal is also an important theme that runs through this film.  In a man’s world, a man’s word is his bond.  Despite his assertions of living by a code, Pike betrays Deke by leaving him to the authorities.  As previously stated, Dutch betrays Angel; a man who saved his life earlier in the film’s train robbing sequence.  The old men have become the animals they decry against. Deke Thorton’s bounty hunters are also without scruples, robbing from the dead and wondering why that is such a problem.  Yet despite Pike’s betrayal, Deke still longs to ride with him again.  Circumstances may have put them at odds, but they are still united by a way of life. 

In any other western, Deke and Pike would be adversaries who would ultimately face each other in a shoot out.  In this film, however, they run a parallel course.  Yet Deke is allied with the railroad, the vehicle of the future.  In a very real sense, Deke is the ultimate survivor.  One whose passions to not rule him, yet sees the necessity in going along with the tide of time.  Despite his lapses, Pike finds redemption is standing for one of his own until his death.  Deke, by not accompanying the bodies of the bunch back, places him back to outlaw status.  He doesn’t much care.  Pike’s death is a redemptive moment for Deke, one of absolution.  He may have abandoned Deke, but by setting an example through death, Pike has balanced the scales by helping the other find himself.

Pekinpah presents these conflicts only to show at the end they do not matter.  Young or old, we all must meet the same fate.  The train robbing sequence forms a bond between the Wild Bunch that is further solidified when they take the famous “last walk” to save Angel.  The accord is unfortunately short lived, for they go out in a blaze of glory.  At the film’s conclusion, while trying to convince Deke to ride with his bunch, Sykes offers this bit of advice:  “Y’wanna come along?  It ain’t what it used t’be, but it’ll do.”  Such is the cyclical nature of life.  The more things change, the more they say the same.

I miss my father.  Like the characters of this film, the world he knew is gone.  The Cold War is a distant memory, as are the Duke, Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen and all cinematic bastions of male virility and manly fortitude. Yet what difference is there between Vietnam and Iraq/Afghanistan?  The challenges my father’s time faced are not so different than the ones facing society now.  My father’s world may be gone, as my own will be one day, but hopefully they will still resonate for generations to come with the understanding that young or old, we’re not all that different.  With a reminder as powerful as The Wild Bunch, that reminder is all but assured.

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