Monday, 21 April 2014

The Wild Bunch - Brian Fox


There's a certain type of book that I've always had a fondness for and that's the movie tie-in, particularly those from the 1960s and early 1970s. Even though all these books are is essentially an addition to a movie, a kind of souvenir of it, they're still wonderful little artefacts and pretty cool things to collect. Not that I do collect them, I should point out. Published as paperbacks by publishing houses such as Tandem, Corgi, or Fontana they always came in stylishly designed covers and when an old copy of one one falls into my hands it's always a joy to read.
Needless to say, whenever such a book is donated to any charity shop in Exmouth (which isn't very often at all - these kind of books seem to be getting ever more rare) then I nab it immediately.
The Wild Bunch by Brian Fox is one such book.

As a summary, this is the story of a gang of ageing outlaws known as The Wild Bunch pulling off one last robbery so as to enable them to retire, whilst all the time being pursued by a posse of bounty hunters hired by the railroad and led by an ex-Wild Bunch member.
As I say, that's just a summary because in actual fact it's about much, much more than that. I even would go so far as to say that actually it's almost Shakespearian.
As a novelization of the film, it's a pretty faithful rendition of the script. It's fast-paced and doesn't go in for any unnecessary descriptions of anything. The action and the dialogue is all. The depth and the substance of it as with the film, however, is in its underlying themes.

On one major level, The Wild Bunch is all about violence and in the hands of director Sam Peckinpah this was fully and even extravagantly realised. Peckinpah's films are famous, of course, for their slow motion depictions of specific moments, particularly at the point of when somebody is being killed. Peckinpah shows people being shot in all its bloody yet beautifully balletic detail and The Wild Bunch was the full, florid flowering of his cinematic vision.

Released in 1969, just a year after Arthur Penn's Bonnie And Clyde, The Wild Bunch upped the ante ten-fold in it's unblinking depiction of violence. Penn's film had ended with the two gangsters being ambushed and shot to bits in a hail of bullets, their bodies flicked around like bloody puppets. Cinema-goers had never seen anything like it before. The Wild Bunch was not only visually more shocking with its scenes of violence but emotionally more shocking too. Peckinpah showed that the whole world in which The Wild Bunch traversed - that being Texas and Mexico of 1913 - was drowning in a sea of violence. This was the world of the classic Hollywood western - the world of Henry Fonda and John Wayne - but turned upside down.

The Wild Bunch are violent killers themselves: from the start whilst holding up a bank, the leader, Pike Bishop, barks out an order to his men in regard to the bank staff and members of the public caught up in the robbery: "If they move, kill 'em!"
The railroad bosses are men of violence who have no qualms about massacring women townfolk in a bid to ambush The Wild Bunch. The bounty hunters are obviously violent men as they kill then strip the dead of their boots and guns. The Mexican army deal in nothing but violence as (led by the psychotic savagery of General Mapache) they massacre their own people in raids on villages. The presence of German officers alongside Mapache signifies the impending violence of large-scale war. Even the children who bear witness to all this play games involving the feeding of scorpions to red ants before burning them all alive. Significantly, it is a child who fires the final shot that kills Pike Bishop and even more significantly, it is the children who are so obviously the inheritors and future perpetuators of this violence that they've been born into.
The story starts with a bloody massacre as god-fearing, gospel-singing men and women are caught in the crossfire between The Wild Bunch and the bounty hunters; and it ends in a final, monumental massacre as The Wild Bunch take on the Mexican army, puting to good use a Gatlin gun to even up the odds.

So if this was the world in which everyone was drowning where might hope, salvation or redemption lay? This is where the other major theme comes into play. According to Peckinpah, it was in loyalty and friendship as again and again Pike Bishop is shown informing his gang in no uncertain terms how they need to stick together:
"When you side with a man, you stay with him and if you can't do that you're like some animal. You're finished. We're finished. All of us!"
It is in the betrayal of that loyalty and the resulting guilt that the other themes come into play, being also an explanation as to why the bounty hunters in pursuit of The Wild Bunch are being led by an ex-Bunch member.

Come the end of the film, The Wild Bunch's loyalty to a fellow gang member held captive by Mapache eclipses any amount of gold and any dream of a better life, and it is this very loyalty that separates them from everyone else. Adherence to such an idea in this changing, violently turbulent world of the west, where cars are soon to replace horses and machines are being built to enable man to fly, marks them out to be men with no future.
Walking into final battle, their fate already sealed, The Wild Bunch suddenly become heroes amongst men with their epitaphs about to be written in the blood of friend and foe alike.

The Wild Bunch is arguably one of the greatest westerns in the history of cinema and as the years go by its stature only grows. It brilliantly captures the end of an age and an end of an epoch not only in cinema and how the west might ever be shown again but in the way that the world is and might forever now be viewed. The fact that all the main players in the film - William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Warren Oates, etc - are all now dead in real life simply adds further poignancy and pathos to the tale.

It's unlikely you'll easily pick up a copy of the book of the film so I would urge anyone to instead watch the actual film. It's an action-packed, full-on visual feast but probably more importantly it's food for thought.

John Serpico

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