The Algonquin Kids' Table

This Issue: The Wild Bunch

Phil Nugent - 04:41pm Oct 28, 2003 PST

I confess that the laughing scenes--and as good as the actors in The Wild Bunch are, most of them could have put in a little more work on their fake-laughing skills--don't say much to me besides, "Gee, I love The Treasure of the Sierra Madre!"

Stanley Fish is cool, but I still think the movie's dialogue (Pike: "He gave his word!" Dutch: "He gave his word to a railroad!" Pike: "It was his word!" Dutch: "That don't count, it's who he give it you!") is pithier! Antonin Scalia would cut Dutch to shreds in court, though...

Hayden Childs - 10:09am Oct 29, 2003 PST

I just want to say that you're all wrong about the laughter; it's all about encroaching darkness and anyone who disagrees doesn't get a sip of whiskey.

Leonard's discussion about principle is also interesting in the context of Peckinpah's shifting attitudes towards personal integrity through his movies. Both Dangerous Companions and Ride the High Country exhibit the Pike attitude of absolute moral correctness in their heroes, but by the time of Major Dundee, it's safe to say that Peckinpah presented his titular hero as a hollow man whose personal integrity leads to his undoing as a man (I'm going to pretend that the final third didn't happen, and that the movie ends Sierra Charriba and Dundee killing each other to ultimately pointless effect).

I think that Leonard's right about The Wild Bunch: the conflict between Dutch and Pike over personal integrity -- and the relative worth of your own code of honor -- is central to that movie. Think of Dutch's little smile when Pike says "Let's go" right before the long walk to kill Mapache. Dutch has won, and he knows it. The times, they are a-changin'. Which makes Pike's push into the final blaze of glory that much more ambiguous. Is Pike's choice to shoot the German and tip the situation over into a bloodbath because Pike has changed or because the world has? Or both?

I'm a bit more confused about what, if anything, Peckinpah's trying to say about personal integrity in Cable Hogue, but Straw Dogs, Junior Bonner, and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid are practically obsessed with it, and their result may cast some light on the conflict in the Wild Bunch. For instance, in Straw Dogs, David Sumner gives his word to various people, such as his wife, the workmen, and Henry Niles, and betrays or is betrayed by all of them except Niles. Clearly, Sumner is a relativist, and just as clearly, Peckinpah thinks that he is a worthless human being.

Junior Bonner is generally beyond reproach, though. He goes out of his way not to give his word unless his has to, and then he follows through. I find Junior's attempt to bribe Buck Roan, which is presented very matter-of-factly, interesting in terms of the larger issue of personal integrity.

Finally, every character in PG&BTK -- including Peckinpah himself -- heaps scorn on Pat Garrett for his decision to hunt Billy the Kid down, but it's not clear why. Billy is an indecisive Hamlet who never acts in anyone's interest but his own, but all of the people he encounters treat him as a regular Robin Hood. Garrett's given his word to the governor and cattle interests that he'll chase Billy out of the territory or shoot him. Like Bonner, Billy gives his word to nobody, and ultimately can't and won't protect the people who trust him. Garrett's akin to Deke Thornton, the man who's given his word to power instead of his comrades, but Billy is no Pike or even a Dutch. He's more of a glorified Gorch brother, none too smart and constantly reacting to the world, rather than acting in it. His word is worthless.

So, in light of these movies, I think that Peckinpah finds relativism a necessary evil of the modern world, one that weakens men who've never lived by a more rigid code. The rejection of relativism is what leads Junior Bonner to stick to his rodeo life, and it's also what leads Deke Thornton and Pat Garrett to follow through on their obligations, even as they hate themselves for doing so. The embrace of relativism, though, leads to moral nightmares like David Sumner and Curly Bonner.

Robin Moran Miller - 11:34am Oct 29, 2003 PST

I think honoring one's word is central to this film. 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?

I have a question. Are there any cases of women who honor their word, in other words who exhibit personal integrity, in Peckinpah's world? There aren't in this film, that I can remember.

Tom Block - 11:46am Oct 29, 2003 PST

Are there any cases of women who honor their word, in other words who exhibit personal integrity, in Peckinpah's world?

There's Elsa Knudsen (Marriette Hartley) who, at the end of Ride the High Country tells Heck Longtree "I'll be there," meaning when he gets out of prison. Heck winds up not going to prison, but Elsa's conviction when she makes her vow makes it plain she's going to keep her word.

Leonard Pierce - 11:48am Oct 29, 2003 PST

Not in TWB, that's for sure. If I recall correctly, all the women are whores or backstabbers (Angel's girl dumps him for Mapache, and when she gets aced, her sister sells him out).

In "The Osterman Weekend", Ali Tanner is that rarity in a Peckinpah movie: a tough-as-hell woman who takes no shit from the men. She's not a doormat or a harridan or a toy like the other women in the film, and even though she's got more respect for her husband than she does his friends, she does plenty of rolling of those ice-cold eyes at his blowhard pronouncements. And in the end, when she arms herself and starts making pincushions out of the rogue CIA agents, you don't really get the sense that she's pulling a stand-by-your-man routine so much as she is working out some serious rage while protecting herself and her child. I'd say she's a Peckinpah woman who has a lot of integrity.

Tom Block - 11:56am Oct 29, 2003 PST

all the women [in TWB] are whores or backstabbers

Well, there's Pike's lover who gets offed in his flashback--we don't get to know her but she's portrayed positively. And even the whore that Pike winds up with at the end is sympathetic (she's the same woman he's eyeing right before Angel shoots Teresa), holding out as she does the calmer, simpler life Pike rejected years before.

Hayden Childs - 01:20pm Oct 29, 2003 PST

Many of Peckinpah's women aren't very well developed as characters beyond the madonna-whore axis, but most of them seem honorable in terms of loyalty. The easy ones are Senta Berger's character (Santiago?) in Major Dundee, Stella Stevens's Hilly in Cable Hogue, Ali MacGraw's character in The Getaway, Billy the Kid's girlfriend (did she even have a name?) in Pat Garrett, and Isela Vega's Elita in Alfredo Garcia, all of whom are loyal to their men, even if they are all to varying degrees outside of the central action of the movie (and all -- again, to varying degrees -- only conceived in terms of their relationship to their men).

I'd say that Ida Lupino's Elvira Bonner and Susan George's Amy Sumner are Peckinpah's best-rounded female characters, and they also have the most complex loyalty situation. Elvira has been betrayed by her husband so many times over the years that she's given up on him, although she hasn't given up on her children. She still remembers why she fell in love with him, though, and in the barroom sequence, the viewer can watch her be charmed by Ace despite herself and then remember why she stopped putting up with his bullshit. And Peckinpah lets her tell him off and lets them resolve their differences briefly for the old times. It's a lovely scene for a well-thought-out character -- she's still in love with the Ace she used to know, but the reason she loves him is the same as the reason they're separated. Anyway, I challenge anyone to find a reason to claim that Elvira isn't honorable.

Amy Sumner is in the same boat with a much worse man and much earlier in the relationship. She loves David and is loyal to him until the climactic moment when she tells him that she would feel safer out of the house with the townies. Dana has covered this moment much better than I could ever hope in her article, but I think that this is an interesting point in terms of honor and relativism, so I'm going to prattle on about it for a moment. Amy has learned over the course of the movie that her husband -- in a subtle way, mind you -- cannot be trusted to do what he says that he's going to do. She has been loyal to him to a fault, even throughout the traumatic rape, but she has also learned (during the rape, even!) that she can be loyal to her husband and honorable in terms of their marraige, and that she can reach out to another man to assert her humanity (as she does with Charlie). At the climax of the movie, she realizes that David's values are so screwed up that he is going to place her in danger in a pissing contest with the locals, and that she is, despite the rape and despite the shotguns, safer with her rapist, Charlie, who may be creepy and evil, but who at least cares for her. Hey, Leonard, I think we have another relativist hero here.

Leonard Pierce - 01:27pm Oct 29, 2003 PST

I'd say that Ida Lupino's Elvira Bonner and Susan George's Amy Sumner are Peckinpah's best-rounded female characters, and they also have the most complex loyalty situation.

I would add Ali Tanner from "The Osterman Weekend"; I think, if you watch it again, you'd agree.

Hey, Leonard, I think we have another relativist hero here.

Hmmmm. I haven't seen "Straw Dogs", but I think, from the discussions and critiques of it I've read, that it's going to be a serious proof of my notion of Peckinpah's ambivalent attitude towards the nobility of principle (Dana hints at this pretty heavily in her interesting article). We'll see.

Hayden Childs - 01:44pm Oct 29, 2003 PST

I would add Ali Tanner from "The Osterman Weekend"; I think, if you watch it again, you'd agree.

I've been meaning to do this since reading your article. Might just have to get around to it this weekend.

it's going to be a serious proof of my notion of Peckinpah's ambivalent attitude towards the nobility of principle

Damn straight. I thought Dana's article was about as sharp a reading of that movie as I've ever read. She opened my eyes to aspects of Amy Sumner's plight that had never occurred to me.

Leonard Pierce - 01:48pm Oct 29, 2003 PST

Hell, yeah. I actually sat down and read it alongside Kael's famous (infamous?) review of "Straw Dogs" and compared the two; I'm amazed that someone I know (well, sort of) wrote something that so favorably compares to the great Kael.

Of course, I really ought to see the fucking movie, because the experience of sitting around weighing the arguments of two very insightful critics about a movie I've never seen is sort of surreal.

Hayden Childs - 01:54pm Oct 29, 2003 PST

Don't waste any more time. Criterion released a lovely 2-disc transfer earlier this year (almost two months to the day after I bought my Anchor Bay version). I'm sure your local video/dvd guys have a copy.

Leonard Pierce - 01:56pm Oct 29, 2003 PST

Yeah, my desire to get it picked up when I read that Criterion version was out (the Onion did an excellent write-up of it). Maybe I'll get it next weekend at Facets.

Hayden Childs - 02:14pm Oct 29, 2003 PST

Facets? Why, the reader at home can check out their selection by using the High Hat links page!*

* They've paid us nothing for this endorsement! Nothing, I tell you!

More groovy Wild Bunch chat forthcoming!