(This is the 43rd of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)
After The Wild Bunch, it was impossible to look at westerns the same way. It dealt with the end of an era, but there was nothing new in that; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, from the same period, trod similar ground. But the freeze-frame that concludes Butch Cassidy allows our nostalgia to survive. (“A freeze-frame!”, David Thomson wrote. “You can hear Peckinpah’s sneer. He might slow down the fatal frames, but that is only so we can see every bullet bursting in flesh and blood.”) The excessive violence at the end of The Wild Bunch rubs our noses in the era’s end; nothing seems to survive. After that, what else is possible? From that point on, if you made a western, you had to deal with the line The Wild Bunch drew between then and now.
Ironically, for a film that blasted away the past, The Wild Bunch is extremely nostalgic itself. The characters, and the film, pine for a time when a code mattered, and the characters, like the film, know that their time has passed. It is as if Peckinpah couldn’t bear the anguish of nostalgia; even as he felt it and expressed it on the screen, he was making sure the objects of our nostalgia would be destroyed.
Ultimately, The Wild Bunch is a confusing film. Kael claims that Peckinpah tried for so much, it overwhelmed him in the end, that what began as a realistic treatment became “an almost abstract fantasy about violence.” The bloody conclusion is orgasmic; these men love what they are doing, which may not have been Peckinpah’s intention, but then, he loved what he was doing, as well.
Peckinpah’s career was a mess. There were mediocre films, there were films where the studio interfered, there was the vile Straw Dogs. His attitude towards the women in his movies is bad enough that you wish there weren’t any female characters … absence would be better than misogyny. But at his best, and often at something less than his best, he was a great film maker, the antithesis of the efficient competence of Clint Eastwood.
Near the end, one of the Bunch has been captured by the “bad guys.” The gang has left him behind, because they are outnumbered 50-1, because to do anything else will result in certain death. But then, in a few minutes almost completely without dialogue, William Holden’s Pike Bishop knows what has to be done. Earlier in the film, he had famously said, “When you side with a man, you stay with him! And if you can't do that, you're like some animal, you're finished!” It was time to stay with their man. The exchange between Holden and Warren Oates is so simple, yet it tears at me every time I see it: “Let’s go.” “Why not?” The long walk was improvised on the set. As they walk, knowing what is to come … I’m not sure it has anything to do with “being a man,” but it has everything to do with the social construct that is “being a man.” Peckinpah romanticizes it, but nonetheless, it leads to their death.
There were more than a dozen comments on this post, although it was confined to three of us. Perhaps most noteworthy was my reminder that the group got its name from The Wild Bunch: “If They Move, Kill 'Em! Steven, Jeff & Phil Count Down Their Favorite Films.”