Western Wednesdays (Thursday Edition): ‘The Wild Bunch’

The moment I started up this crazy column, people have been asking me when I would write up The Wild Bunch.  It’s not my intention to snub Sam Peckinpah (though he has been poorly represented here) at all. When I started this column, it was meant to inspire discussion of older films, and encourage people to seek out classics they hadn’t seen.  With online streaming, it’s easier to do than ever, and I tried to focus on films that were on Netflix or Hulu because the format removed any excuses you had not to watch The Searchers or Stagecoach.

The past few installments haven’t been on Netflix Instant due to the luck of the draw — if The Great Silence or Hannie Caulder arrives in the mail, how can I not write it up? — and time constraints. One of the reasons I had put off The Wild Bunch was that I was hoping it, like The Searchers, Stagecoach, and much of Sergio Leone, would pop up on Instant Watch.  But it hasn’t.  Instead, it played on TCM.  A more savvy writer may have timed this piece to go up prior to its airing.  Oh well.  Chances are, this is a film you’ve seen. But it’s always a film worth talking about.

The Wild Bunch is a significant Western, obviously. It’s the first American western to get as down, dirty, and violent as they had in Italy.  (Vera Cruz paved the way though, remember?)  Sergio Leone considered Sam Peckinpah his only rival in the genre. That said, it’s not one of my favorites — I prefer a cool flip of the serape to scorpions being eaten alive, because I like my cathartic violence to be a little more stylish. But that’s just me.

Audiences have a funny relationship with the Western. We revere it and ridicule it, and we hold certain images of it as That’s How It Really Was. Yet the post-revisionist Western is just as much overblown fiction as Gary Cooper’s crisp shirts.  I find it curious that the only way Sam Peckinpah could show the “real” violence of the West was to focus on the same outlandish scenarios and characters as any Western before him.  He wipes out two entire towns in the course of this film. Other than the squibs and mangled bodies, how is it any more authentic than John Wayne’s carefully dusted vision?

It’s not, and it’s difficult to condemn the violence (as Peckinpah wanted) when the film lures you into sympathizing with its antiheroes. Our lust for screen violence can probably be summed up entirely in the Western, as this is a film that encourages you to root for those robbing and maiming the commonfolk.  You feel worse for Deke Thornton than you do the weeping Mexican peasants. It’s not unlike The Godfather Trilogy — mourn the crime lords, but disregard the carnage and poverty they ultimately create and uphold.

I’ve always wondered why those who sought to tear down the Western myth didn’t choose to focus instead on those sad settlers.  I found myself drawn into rereading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series  and discovering what thin biographical material there is on the “real” story of the books. There are horrific, gruesome, sad stories lurking underneath the jolly pioneer tale. Stories of taverns that murdered travelers, people who froze to death between their house and barn, the selling of infants, and madness caused by loneliness and the howling winds. While there were gunfighters, bounty hunters, bandits, and revolutionaries, the pioneer experience was the larger and more common one.

Those are stories that have never been filmed because audiences still cherish the Western myth.  We’ve just adopted a new version of it — one created by Leone, Peckinpah, Deadwood,  and even Red Dead Redemption (which borrows more than I realized from The Wild Bunch ) — where a man is only as good as his gun. We tell ourselves this is the real West because there’s a lot of blood, prostitution, and swearing. We mourn alongside Deke Thornton, Jack Beauregard, or J.B. Books as the “old West” vanishes and a “civilized” one rises and makes them obsolete. When will we ever sympathize with those who didn’t ride with the gangs and vigilantes, and who were glad to trade them in for schoolhouses, banks, and general stores?

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