An Idle Word: A column
by BILL CUNNINGHAM
I like to accommodate my readers and I received an e-mail this week from one calling to my attention an issue of great relevance to me.
My good friend Charles Sims-mailed me a copy of Esquire magazine’s listing of “75 Movies Every Man Should See.”
“They have some right. They have some wrong. They missed a lot,” he mused, citing “Zulu Dawn” and “The Longest Yard’ as two omissions that bothered him. But it is his last line that hit a nerve with me—”The Wild Bunch? Where is the Wild Bunch?”
Well I know where they are with me—number one not just as the greatest man’s movie, but the greatest American movie. The American Film Institute rates it the 80th greatest American film of all time but I’ll take Sam Peckinpah over Orson Wells and Pike Bishop over Charles Foster Kane any day.
I’m not even a big fan of Westerns—although I love John Ford’s “The Searchers” and Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns—but the “The Wild Bunch” is not just another Western, it is a movie of the great issues men face—aging, coping with changing times, betrayal of friendship and the quest we all seek for redemption.
At the time of its 1968 release, it was the most controversial movie of the year.
Time wise, it’s hardly a movie of the Old Wild West. The year is 1913 and America and its West are changing— a fact brought starkly home to Pike Bishop’s aging band of outlaws when they encounter a German military advisor presenting an automobile to a corrupt Mexican federale general, signifying that the days of riding your horses away from the pursuing posse are a thing of the past.
It begins with a bank robbery as Wild Bunch leader Pike Bishop, portrayed by William Holden (Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster were also considered for the part) with his veteran gang of Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson, Warren Oates—great characters actors all– along with their youngest member Angel (portrayed by Mexican stage actor Jaime Sanchez) and a psycho kid named Crazy Lee (Bo Hopkins) are hoping to make their final big haul.
Missing from the group is Pike’s former partner — Deke Thornton who had been imprisoned after being abandoned by Pike in a trap laid for the two outlaws.
Unbeknownst to the robbers, the bank heist is a set-up by the bankers and railroad magnates who have been so victimized by them. The silver is fake and atop the buildings on the opposite side of the street awaits Deke Thornton, played by the great Robert Ryan, and a ragtag bunch of bounty hunters to ambush them. Thornton has been promised immunity if he can finally bring Pike and the Bunch to justice.
Unfortunately for the ambushers, fate and the temperance movement intervene as a Prohibitionist rally chooses the moment of the getaway to begin their march through downtown.
It’s the marchers who get caught in the crossfire and unlike Westerns of an earlier time, the victims do not lie down and quietly expire. Bullets rips through their bodies, blood flies everywhere, the Wild Bunch escapes leaving only Crazy Lee behind and the controversy over Peckinpah’s graphic depiction of violence began.
With the silver from bank revealed as fake, the Bunch heads south into Mexico with Thornton and his band, who he repeatedly refers to as “gutter trash” in hot pursuit. Ryan, noted for playing nuanced villains, serves what moral compass there is to the movie—anguished over pursuing his old partner even though it was Pike who betrayed him to prison life.
In one scene, he curses his crew for their overconfidence, which is matched only by their incompetence, “ What do I have? Nothing but egg-sucking, chicken thieving gutter trash with not even 60 rounds between you. We’re after men, real men and I wish to God I was with them!”
It’s not only great dialog such as this that make the movie essential viewing for the viewpoint of what it means to be a man but moments where the message is carried simply by expressions on the faces of the characters, bursts of the laughter that comes from friendship and silent moments of meditations on what life has been.
To capsulate the movie, the Wild Bunch—after an idyllic stay in Angel’s hometown, a small village loyal to Pancho Villa’s revolutionaries– throw in with the aforementioned corrupt General to steal a train load of American weaponry for use in suppressing Villa’s revolution and receive a payment that will finally achieve their nest egg.
The meticulously planned train heist is Hollywood cinematography at its very best
Angel’s political sympathies lead him to forego his share of share of the loot and smuggle some of the cache to the revolutionaries and when he is caught, Pike gives him up to the General for the appropriate punishment. That is until his conscience and memories of past betrayal of a comrade kicks in.
There’s a great scene as Holden, Oates and Johnson relax inside the fortress town’s bordello where Holden mediates on friendships and betrayals past, gets dressed and goes into the adjoining room were Oates and Johnson quibble price with their escorts.
Standing in the doorway, he calmly tells his cohorts, “Let’s go.” After a quizzical look, Oates responds with a smile and a simple, “Why not?”
As the fully dressed and fully armed old-timers exit the bordello, Borgnine ceases his whittling and breaks into his trademark gap-toothed grin joining the march to their certain doom.
What follows pales any portrayal of violence on the big screen before (did I mention that the stolen armaments included one of those new-fangled mounted machine guns) but the movie could easily be subtitled “Blaze of Glory.” And if body count was the key statistic, “The Wild Bunch” set a new scoring record.
There’s one final great moment at the end as Deke’s “gutter trash” arrive in time to plunder the numerous bodies left by the battle. Deke doesn’t bother, finding a resting place against the outside wall, to wistfully ponder past times and remains behind as his gang departs, now freed from his legal obligations.
After hearing gunfire from the direction in which, his “men (?)” were headed, a spectral group of horsemen approach the fort, emerging from the windswept dust. The leader is Edmund O’Brien, a grizzled semi-retired member of the original Bunch, left for dead earlier in the movie at the hands of the bounty hunters.
He’s accompanied by a band of Villa’s sympathizers. Told by Ryan that’s he done what he was supposed to do and doesn’t plan to go back, O’Brien asks him, “What are your plans?”
“Drift around down here, try to stay out of jail,” Ryan succinctly replies.
“Me and the boys here, we got some work to do. You wanna come along?” O’Brien asks and then chortles, “It ain’t like it used to be but it’ll do.”
As both of them break into laughter, Ryan mounts his horse and rides off with the reconstituted Bunch to the strains of a beautiful Mexican ballad, while images of moments of laughter from their departed colleagues flash across the screen as if visions of outlaw Valhalla.
That, my friend is a man’s movie. That’s what I keep reminding myself about life, “It ain’t like it used to be but it’ll do.”
(To be continued with a chick friendly man’s move and one for the whole family.)
BILL CUNNINGHAM is a San Marcos public relations and policy consultant. He is a former chair of the Texas State University System board of regents and San Marcos city council member.