An Appreciation – The Wild Bunch
“Let’s go.” – Pike Bishop
Two simple words, but to the men of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), it means so much more. To them, it means taking a stand, helping one of their own in desperate need. And, most importantly, it means that they will most certainly not live to see the end of the day. Their time has come; what they once knew to be the ways of the world are quickly slipping through their fingers, and what is left has no room for their kind. It is one of the greatest of all westerns, a gritty and raw look at a lifestyle that does not fit with the time during which it is set. The people that inhabit this story are lined with age and exhaustion, but they continue with their ways because they simply do not know how else to live. They would rather stick to what they know best than be anything else.
We are presented with the central themes very early on. A group of kids gather around in a circle to see a scorpion get devoured by an army of ants. As the scorpion gets buried out of sight, the children cover the mound with sticks and branches and light it on fire. The interesting thing to note is the look on the children’s faces. Notice how much fun they are having, the glee that they exhibit while an animal gets torn apart and burnt alive. This detachment—the lack of sympathy towards life and death—is the main focus of the film. As our protagonists move through the plot, they come against instance after instance of man’s loss of humanity and honor. Murder and carnage are what replaced it, along with advancement in technology and war just on the horizon. They see how people can kill without remorse or second thought, and try as they might to adjust and adapt, sooner or later Father Time will catch up to them.
The leader of The Bunch is Pike Bishop (William Holden). An old robber who sports a limp and what seems to be a permanent grimace on his face, Bishop is the man who notices the group of kids in the earlier scene. The sight of the kids has an effect on Pike that isn’t mentioned, but is felt throughout the film. He knows he can’t be a criminal forever; technology has become too sophisticated, authorities have become too smart, and people have become too dangerous in general for him to continue his life on the edge. The other members of his group realize this, too. Pike’s right-hand man, Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), knows this all too well. But, like Pike, Dutch is already set with himself; it is too late for him to change. In one of the quieter moments of reflection, Pike and Dutch talk next to a campfire, with Pike describing how he wouldn’t want his life to be any other way. Before going to sleep, Dutch turns to Pike and says, “I wouldn’t want it any other way, either.”
1913 is the year the story is set, and this is very important to know. With the twentieth century already in full swing, the code of the Wild West was already dying, if not already dead. Industrialization was developing rapidly, and the world was on the eve of entering WWI. When The Bunch notices an automobile (some of them seeing one for the very first time), they talk about how it would be used in the war, and how they hear of some actually having the ability to fly. Clearly, they are not aware of how fast the world is advancing, which makes their own predicament all the more fascinating. The Bunch—that includes Pike, Dutch, the Gorch brothers Lyle (Warren Oates) and Tector (Ben Johnson), the crazy old-timer Freddie Sykes (Edmond O’Brien), and Angel (Jaime Sanchez)—seem to be living in their own bubble. They are now on the outside looking in, and instead of trying to be a part of the change, they try to escape from it. It is not surprising that a big plot development involves their attempt to run to Mexico. Not only are they trying to outrun the authorities hot on their tail, they’re trying to outrun modernization, as well.
Perhaps the one major character that can understand their situation is Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan). Thornton was once a member of the group, but after spending time in jail, he gets hired by a major railroad company to lead the bounty hunters against his old partners. Thornton knows their style and predicts their movements, and can guess where Pike will take the men as if he were reading his mind. Yet, he can also understand them and feel the same things they do. Of all the major characters, Thornton is the one who looks the most tired, as if at any moment he could collapse in a heap. He represents the past, and that is evident in the company he keeps. The other men that are hired to accompany him are savage, dirty, and without discipline. They hoot and holler and fight amongst themselves—Thornton knows that they would not stand a chance against Pike and his men. In a telling scene, Thornton and his group ambush The Bunch as they try to rob a post office. After a bloody shootout that leaves many people dead (including innocents), those on Thornton’s side run around, picking up valuables from victims who were shot. The way they scramble around is similar to the movements of animals, and their disregard for the loss of human life reflects the laughing children of the opening scene.