The Algonquin Kids' Table

This Issue: The Wild Bunch

Robin Moran Miller - 11:40pm Oct 27, 2003 PST

I think that this analysis is an example of you, as the smart cookie you are, seeing depth that isn't there. Frankly, laughing to fight off the darkness is much more interesting than what I think Peckinpah was going for--brief moments of somewhat light-hearted connection to show us what holds these men together and to provide dramatic contrast with what they are about to go through.

Tom Block - 11:42am Oct 28, 2003 PST

Even if I accepted Hayden's interpretation of the laughing scenes (& I don't), I'd still be disappointed by their execution. They've always been overbearing to me, one of a handful of blemishes the picture bears, which also include things like Albert Dekker's Snidely Whiplash railroad baron & moments where the staging is a tad too transparent, as when after Dekker's tirade to the bounty hunters Ryan waits one theatrical second before shoving (I think) Strother Martin out of his way to exit the scene.

How much do these things, or the instances where the film morphs into a more ordinary Western, bother me? Well, I wish they were different or didn't exist, but they're merely a few scattered samples of poor execution lasting a total of maybe five minutes in a movie that has a thousand other ideas, all of them more rigorous & challenging, that've been executed perfectly. I mean, you can let the laughing scenes destroy the scene between Pike & the whore at the end of the movie if you want to, but you'd be missing out on a world of emotion (& great filmmaking) if you do. You can see what Peckinpah was driving at w/the laughter, & if it isn't the most satisfying or convincing way of getting there, well, that's too bad, but it doesn't detract from the film's ultimate meanings. (I can quickly think of another attempt to show group camaraderie that fails pretty miserably: the scene in The Right Stuff which climaxes w/the astronauts leaning forward in their folding-chairs during Sally Rand's fan-dance to exchange charged & soulful looks w/each other--silence there doesn't work any better Borgnine's guffaws do.) In any case The Wild Bunch is nothing if not a (at times quite startling) mixture of conventional & radical aesthetics, w/the two sometimes working w/their elbows jammed into each other's ribcages. And besides, the scene where the Bunch plays keep-away w/the whiskey bottle still works for me if only because it's always fun to see Warren Oates act put-upon...

Dana Knowles - 11:59am Oct 28, 2003 PST

Personally, I comfort myself with the rationalization that those klutzy laughing scenes are a sly way of reminding us that these guys just ain't too bright. Usually works, though not always.

Gary Mairs - 12:10pm Oct 28, 2003 PST

sly way of reminding us that these guys just ain't too bright

Not unlike Tector explaining what it means to "run whores in tandem" to his little brother Lyle, and Oates' perfect look of satisfaction when he realizes that he's not only run whores in tandem, but he's also learned a new 25 cent word.

Leonard Pierce - 03:43pm Oct 28, 2003 PST

I'm the last man to be talking about The Wild Bunch.

I've only ever seen it twice -- and once was in preparation for having this discussion. It's a movie that I enjoyed enormously, while at the same time feeling a little disoriented by its political and philosophical content. And, hell, who am I to like The Wild Bunch? It's a movie about hard men in hard times, directed by the quintessential tough-guy filmmmaker a movie about what it means to be a man and to make your choices with an absolute and certain finality no matter what the consequences. And me? I'm no hard man. I'm no tough guy; I sit around reading literary theory. And ethical certainty and the concept of manliness are ideas I'd just as soon see blasted off the face of the world.

But there I was, watching The Wild Bunch, and liking what I saw. I was trying to process the whole thing -- to figure out why I liked it, why I shouldn't, what I didn't like about it and why -- but it's not a movie that lets you wrap your head around it easily. The critical approach has to wait until the credits roll, and all the pure visceral gut-punch is souring in your bloodstream; it won't really let you get hold of it until then. So after it was all over, I dragged back to the computer to try and get my thoughts about the movie to cohere. And something kept nagging me: someone said something about this movie. Someone, some sissy soft sucka like myself, had mentioned something about The Wild Bunch that stuck with me, that haunted me, that nagged at me. I had to figure out what it was, because I remember it cutting deep at one of the key conflicts in this, a movie all about conflict. But who was it? What was it? Where did I read it? It must have been a film critic. Surely I didn't come across some insightful commentary about The Wild Bunch in the course of my rummaging around in the world of postmodernist theory, so many light-years removed from Peckinpah's grimy West?

Well, as it happens...


Leonard Pierce - 03:59pm Oct 28, 2003 PST

This is from the prologue to The Trouble with Principle, by the postmodernist-pragmatist philosopher Stanley Fish.

While I was writing the chapters of this book, a scene from Sam Peckinpah's classic western The Wild Bunch was never far from my mind. The wild bunch is an outlaw gang led by two grizzled veterans played ot a career-performance turn by William Holden and Ernest Borgnine. One evening, the two are sitting around discussing an old comrade who has gone over to the other side and now rides at the head of the band of railroad detectives pursuing them. The Borgnine character is incensed and can't understand why their old friend doesn't abandon the pursuit and come home to where he really belongs. You have to remember, the Holden character says, he gave his world to the railroad. So what? is the response; it's not giving your word that's important, it's who you give your word to.

I read the scene as a profound and concise analysis of the great divide in political theory. On the one side is the man of principle for whom a formal contract must be kept irrespective of the moral status of the other party; when you give your word, you give your word and that's it. On the other side is the man who varies his obligations according to the moral worth of the persons he encounters; some people have a call on your integrity, others don't, and the important thing is to determine at every moment which is which.

There is, I think, no doubt about which of these two visions is today the more generally approved. The Holden character speaks in the accents of Enlightenment liberalism; what he says is in accord with maxims many of us have long since internalized: "A man's word is his bond." "Ours is a government of laws, not men." "You can't justify the means by the end." "Respect for your fellow man must be extended to all and not selectively." Each of these maxims urges us to enter a perspective wider than that formed by our local affiliations and partisan goals; each gestures toward a morality more capacious than the morality of our tribe, our association, our profession or religion; each invites us to inhabity what the legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin calls "the forum of principle", the forum in which our allegiances are not to persons or to wished-for outcomes but to abstract norms that neither respect nor disrespect particular persons and are indifferent to outcomes.

Not that there has never been a strong argument on the other side. The Borgnine character is not alone in his sentiments, and among those who would support him in the exchange (though they would be an odd couple) is John Milton. Milton and his characters are always saying things like "You are not worthy to be convinced" (the Lady to Comus in the mask of that name) or "You don't owe any loyalty to a king who is not acting like one" (Milton to his countrymen in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates) or "Everyone should be allowed to speak and publish, except of course Catholics" (Milton to the Parliament in The Areopagitica). When Satan describes himself to the angel Gabriel as a "faithful leader" (Paradise Lost, IV, 933), the angel immediately replies, "Faithful to who,? To thy rebellious crew? Army of fiends?" Like the Borgnine character, Gabriel refuses a notion of fidelity that is indifferent as to its object; some are deserving of your faith, some others are not, and to maintain loyalty merely because you once pledged it is to mistake an abstraction for an object of worship and to default on your responsibility first to determine what (or who) is good and true and then to follow it.


Leonard Pierce - 04:12pm Oct 28, 2003 PST

Fish comes out, as it happens, "with Borgnine and Milton and against an adherence to principle". Likewise do I, and the more I think about it, the more the trouble with principle informs my whole viewing of The Wild Bunch. Being a man, being a professional, being a bearer of your word informs almost every film Peckinpah ever made, and yet, he was far too canny a filmmaker to betray easily where he stood on this extremely important question: were he for it or ag'in it? Clearly, in The Wild Bunch, Pike Bishop's conception of principle wins -- or maybe that's the wrong word. It prevails; it carries the argument. Dutch Engstrom's angry claim that you don't give your word to a railroad doesn't sway Pike. But it doesn't win; it ends up at the bottom of a huge pile of corpses simultaneously glorious and repulsive.

And, you know, maybe it doesn't even get that far. Pike ends up being selective about his word, his commitments, his principles after all: his loyalty to Angel trumps his contract with Mapache, and though it can't be of much comfort to Dutch at this point, you might be forgiven for thinking that it's his view that carries the day and makes the central moral decision of the movie. Fish's statement -- "some people have a call on your integrity, others don't, and the important thing is to determine at every moment which is which" -- is at the heart of Peckinpah's every movement as a director. It informs everything he put on the screen. His heroes may have been vastly different men, but they all shared the characteristic of being caught in the consuming fire of those agonizing moments where they had to decide who had the call on their integrity.

“These men don't have anything else to define themselves by--no family, no land, no real jobs for the most part--what else is there to for them to show the world and themselves who they are BUT their integrity?
------>More fancy-talking about bad men and Peckinpah on Page Four!