'Wild Bunch' rides again

April 02, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

One of the more amusing follies of the last several weeks has been America's film critics trying to come to some kind of terms with Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch," the newly restored "director's cut" of which has just been released 26 years after its original, shocking arrival in 1969.

Most agree: It's a great movie. One even called it the greatest American movie ever made. But no one seems quite to understand why. There's a lot of blather about how it's really "anti-violence" and it shows the logical consequences of violence etc. etc. etc., blah blah and blah, none of it convincing.

That's to be expected. "The Wild Bunch" is a confounding piece of work, and one could argue that its very greatness lies in the contradictions it so happily endorses. It's a movie that young people adore, but it's about old men. It's theoretically anti-violent, but it is clearly one of the most violent movies ever made; more troubling, its fundamental attitude toward violence is enigmatic, possibly unknowable, certainly unexpressible in the bromides that, then as now, pass for public discourse. It struggles with the issues of loyalty to brothers, or loyalty to a larger "code" that underlies not only the American West but the American East as well and all of Hemingway and his clones, the boy-division in American literature; but unlike Hemingway and his clones, it comes to no clear conclusion.

It does not really, endorse anything healthy. In fact, it bubbles with delight in making a fetish of America's most dangerous pathologies: gun worship, the will to violence, tribalism. It is aggressively racist; it is incidentally sexist. Its heroes are scum and the lawmen chasing them even scummier.

It is the ultimate chasm movie. If you like it, your passion for it goes beyond words, a fact brought home by the reality that it is one of the most visually influential movies ever made, and one sees echoes of its imagery in hundreds of other movies. There isn't a director alive who doesn't wish he made "The Wild Bunch," with the possible exception of Nora Ephron. (Possibly somewhere there are women who care for it as powerfully as men do; I certainly never met one.)

For those who hate it, no critic can salvage its reputation, no argument can resurrect it, no theory can justify it. It is simply an unspeakable object, an outlaw work. It might be the beginning of the tidal wave of vulgarity that has overwhelmed the American motion picture and the culture in general. It's the original and best pulp fiction, obsessed with the impact of bullets on flesh, that proudly beats out its anthem of anarchism throughout, reaching a last-act Gotterdammerung of carnage the likes of which had not been seen before and has not since.

All this from a western?

Yes. "The Wild Bunch" is, to reduce it to genre, of the set western, subset caper picture, sub-subset Mexican division. Its tone, in legend, derives from the fact that director Peckinpah was once talking to a genuine old-timer who informed him that the gunmen of the West weren't the paragons of virtue played on the screen but mean and bitter as tomcats -- and that's one of the film's radical values, the way in which it clearly reinvents the image of the western hero by inverting it.

Its melancholy spirit, however, derives from another fact. It's a road picture, but a subset therein also -- it's the best end-of-the-road picture ever made.

The road is the road of the American frontier, which illuminated this country's imagination for a century, bright with hope and possibility, full of freedom for personal expression but also nascent with that fundamental American promise, which no European country could ever offer its common citizens: the freedom of room, of space.

The doomed warriors

But in 1913, the room is running out. The frontier is closing down, and like Vikings or Samurai, two other doomed warrior classes, the professional gunmen at the center of the movie are at least self-aware enough to realize it, even if they can't quite articulate it. They are caught between epochs, caught, as it were, between two kinds of .45s.

Pike Bishop, the outlaw chief, carries a Colt single action, beloved six-shooter of 50,000 cowboy movies, the gun that Gene Autry and Roy Rogers and the Duke himself carried. But he also carries two .45 automatics, the Army 1911 model, much faster to shoot and reload. You laugh at a critic's obsessions with firearms? Fair enough, but in "The Wild Bunch," the firearms are more articulate than the men: They put Pike and the Bunch right on the cusp of the romantic old days turning into the mean new ones, as the movie, with its machine guns, trench shotguns and hand grenades, looks forward to a modern world where personal honor is impossible.

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