A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Monday, August 8, 2016

The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969)

"It ain't like it used to be, but it'll do." The last line of The Wild Bunch, spoken by Edmond O'Brien's Sykes, sums up the film's prevailing sense that something has been lost, namely, a kind of innocence. Myths of lost innocence are as old as the Garden of Eden, and the Western as genre has always played on that note of something unspoiled being swept away with the frontier, though seldom with such eloquent violence as Peckinpah's film. Notice, for example, how many children appear in the movie, often in harm's way, as if their innocence was under attack. The film begins with a group of children at play, but what they're playing with is a scorpion being tormented by a nest of ants. Finally, after the grownups have had a major shootout, endangering other innocents, including a mostly female prohibitionist group, the children set fire to their little game, creating a neat image of hell that sets the tone for the rest of the film. Children, Peckinpah seems to be saying, have only a veneer of innocence, one that's easily removed. So we have children not only under fire but also sometimes doing the firing. They treat the torture of Angel (Jaime Sánchez) as a game, running after the automobile that is dragging him around the village. Not many films use violence for such integral purpose, and not many films have been so wrong-headedly criticized for being violent. Before it was re-released in 1995, Warner Bros. submitted the newly extended cut of the film to the ratings board, which tried to have it labeled NC-17 -- usually a kiss of death because many newspapers refused to advertise movies with that rating. Ordinarily, I'd applaud any effort by the board to treat violence with the same strictness that it treats sex and language, but this decision only emphasizes the shallow, formulaic nature of the board's rulings. An appeal resulted in overturning the rating, so the film was released with an R. Film violence has escalated so much in recent years that if it weren't for the bare breasts in some scenes, The Wild Bunch might get a PG-13 today. I also think the real reason for the emphasis on violence in commentaries on The Wild Bunch is a puritanical one: The movie is too much fun for some people to take seriously. It has superbly staged action scenes, like the hijacking of the train and the demolition of the bridge. And it has entertaining, career-highlight performances by William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, and Robert Ryan. The cinematography by Lucien Ballard and the Oscar-nominated score by Jerry Fielding are exceptional. And it's "just a Western," so no high-toned viewers need take it seriously, though surprisingly the Academy did nominate Peckinpah, Walon Green, and Roy N. Sickner for the writing Oscar. They lost to William Goldman for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a movie that feels flimsier as every year goes by.