The people who believe that Peckinpah and The Wild Bunch are exclusively pro-violence, that the director is a dumb, macho fiend whose work is outdated, do not notice the children in this movie. Why would they? All of the children, the young boys and girls who set fire to scorpions and ants alike, and the little boy who gleefully follows the Generalissimo’s rampages, defeat their argument. Peckinpah films them with a distance unusual for him as a filmmaker. I believe it is because the children, of all the bloody and sickening things he’d filmed, horrify him the most. Because they are already imitating their elders in the tiniest of ways, and by the end of the film they will have become them. One boy will even kill one of them. I had forgotten that shot and I won’t again. Violence begets violence. Blood begets blood.
Not to say Peckinpah was much of a liberal pacifist – it was a train of thought that he couldn’t have kept to, much as I can’t. But even as audiences thrilled and applauded the bloody and cataclysmic bouts of torture and gunshots in his films, that was never his intention. Peckinpah took death seriously, made the viewer feel the full weight of it by slowing down the images of bodies tumbling to the ground, sprawling backwards, ripped from their own movements. His use of slow motion was as if Death itself had entered the picture and he was showing you its inner workings.
The Wild Bunch is a depiction of people who live by a code of blood and of oaths, if only to each other, because it is the only way they can exist. And the ability to exist by that morality is fading fast as westward expansion declines, as people are kinder to each other, as Pike himself observes. As with almost all of Peckinpah’s films there is nowhere to go for them but the undiscovered country, far away from a fallen world run by evil, greedy men who do their misdeeds behind closed doors. (Peckinpah is one of the most Gnostic filmmakers I know, even if he’s driven by action, not knowledge, as a form of salvation.) Pike and Dutch know what comes ahead but Dutch tells Pike, in a moment of simple love, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Most tough guy films can barely depict any vulnerability, but here is one man telling another that he is happiest with him, with the Gang, in a life of crime and on the outskirts of the world.
Thornton, the Bunch member Pike fucked over by escaping from the sheriff without him, now reluctantly leads a posse to capture them (put together of course by the railroad). Neither man blames the other for their circumstances. One broke a code and the other was forced to do so because of that violation. Holden does beautiful facial work throughout the film expressing the ambivalence of knowing someone he loves is hunting him, and doing so because at the worst possible moment he failed. The rest of the film follows this thorough line: the posse attempting to stop them as the Bunch get tangled up in the Mexican Revolution, pull a final job for crackpot general Mapache, die killing his worthless ass once he betrays them and wreak utter, beautiful, horrible havoc in the process. (I kept watching the old women and the children hiding as the men brutally murder each other, caught up in machine gun ecstasy. What do the children grow up to be?)
In between scenes of carnage and disruption are those of the poetry and grace Peckinpah included in all of his work. It’s where his heart is, these moments of lyricism and joy that linger and tantalize, capture the characters before fading with the light of what must be done, the sins that weigh down the heart. One of the most famous sequences here is of the little Mexican village the Bunch visit, a place hidden from the world by greenery. There is life here, and music and dancing, and for a second there is no trouble. It is the last place they can go before they meet their fates. Appropriately when they leave they are serenaded by the village as if offered salvation. It’s the last moment of untroubled quiet, of peace.
The climax of the film has been written about often, but I want to finish this instead with the preamble, the build up to it. Pike can’t stand that Bunch member Angel has been captured by Mapache and his rebels for stealing a few guns. After going to a hooker, he gets dressed, barely able to speak to her. (I wish this movie gave a damn about women but it mostly doesn’t.) He pauses. Opens the curtain to the next room, where Lyle Gorch and his brother Tector are sitting. Both are surprised.
A firm hard stare, clenched teeth. “Let’s go.”
Lyle’s confused, looks at Tector. Tector gives him a look of “Eh, fuck it, should be good”.
Lyle looks away for a second, then gives the bravest line in the movies, full of defiance, calm, and quiet decency from an indecent man.
There is nothing else to say. Nothing else to do. Nothing else but to go and rescue the man some of them don’t even like much, but he’s one of them, and they will go down trying to get him back.
And so they walk.