One of the painful things about writing a major Blind Spots review is the fact that I have to admit I’ve gone XX years as a snobby cineaste without having seen something important. It can be embarrassing to admit you haven’t seen a film like The Wild Bunch, especially when you’ve seen most of the rest of Peckinpah and admired his oeuvre. Some films, like Andrei Rublev, or Seven Samurai, require a major time investment, but I can’t latch on to that excuse here.
In the case of The Wild Bunch, it wasn’t for lack of trying. I’d started the film many times, probably half a dozen, but could never make it past the first reel. Peckinpah seemed to be building a mean, nasty nihilism that my entire body rejected. The images of ants torturing scorpions, and children eventually burning both alive, read to me as suffocatingly heavy-handed. (Emphasis on ‘suffocatingly.’) After the initial shoot-out in the middle of the temperance parade, I always turned the film off with a sense of relief. Well, I’d think, at some point in the future, I’ll be able to get into its groove.
Maybe that will never happen. In watching The Wild Bunch for this essay, I felt the same overwhelming sense of resistance I’d always felt, as if I were eating a tin of strange meat that had turned. It is a heroic feat of willpower that will allow you to eat the entire tin without retching, and I feel a similar sense of accomplishment having made it to the end of The Wild Bunch. And like most exercises in nihilism, once it’s over you ask, ‘What’s the point?’ (‘There is no point!’ is an answer that may be true in some cases, but is never very satisfying.)
Warner Brothers released The Wild Bunch in 1969, two years after cinematic violence achieved new heights with Bonnie and Clyde, and one year after the introduction of the MPAA ratings system. This newfound freedom allowed Sam Peckinpah to craft a new kind of Western: one freed from the bloodless, gung-ho, Cowboys & Indians style popularised by John Wayne vehicles. And craft he does: the blood spurts and sprays as flesh is ripped open by guns, knives. Nary a scene goes by without gunfire or an explosion. It’s clearly a Western of a different colour.
But The Wild Bunch doesn’t deserve praise for its violence any more than The Jazz Singer deserves praise for having a soundtrack. It’s like watching a kid play with a new toy, without understanding what the toy is for. A film like, say, Man With a Movie Camera, exudes joy and a feeling of newness, freshness, discovery. In The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah doesn’t seem to be discovering anything new. He seems to be punishing us for not letting him play sooner.
Honestly, Sergio Leone was doing more interesting things with the Western in his Man with No Name trilogy than what’s going on here. As a serious and sophisticated examination of violence, men, and violent men, Peckinpah would later give us Straw Dogs—an actual masterpiece. As far as I’m concerned, that renders The Wild Bunch moot. It wouldn’t be until Clint Eastwood’s own High Plains Drifter that we’d see a true dissection of Hollywood’s Myth of the Old West.
Truth be told, the only time any of the violence really worked for me were the times anyone directed some against Ernest Borgnine. I never understood the appeal of Mr Borgnine so took a small satisfaction from watching him become Swiss cheese. Take that, Marty.
Honestly, the centrepiece of this Blind Spot essay was to be an examination of the iconic opening bank robbery. I just can’t muster it. It would involve me watching the sequence several times again, and once again may be too much.
I’ll admit that I’m somewhat perplexed by my own reaction to The Wild Bunch. It is absolutely not the violence I am reacting to; you can read my positive reviews of much more violent films elsewhere on this site. It’s the whole attitude. The film is just so heavily, oppressively jaundiced—nihilistic. And, like Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, I feel that once I get the point, it keeps on going for at least another unnecessary hour. Or more.
Look. The Wild Bunch is on AFI’s Top 100 list. It has received the Great Movie treatment from Roger Ebert. Many critics and directors voted it as one of the ten best films of all time in the latest Sight & Sound poll. It is in the pantheon, regardless of my opinion. I accept, not without indifference, the possibility that I may just be dead wrong about Peckinpah’s film. My intense emotional revulsion to the film has overwhelmed my ability to analyse it dispassionately. It will be a very long time before I reconsider my position, however; I am in no hurry to repeat my experience.