Friday, August 08, 2003
I had seen it in bits and pieces on late night TV, heavily cut of course, and I hadn't been impressed. Its heavily edited small-screen version seemed a relic of the era when Hollywood was deeply in love with the fascinating possibilities of the blood squib. But the theatrical viewing was a revelation for me. On the big screen, it was, simply, a feast. There are so many glorious things about this movie:
- The opening shot of a scorpion fighting and being devoured by a horde of ants, while children giggle at the sight, waiting to set them all on fire. That metaphor is one of my favorites, being equal parts profound and disturbing.
The breathtaking action sequences that open and close the film. In editing, cinematography, and camera angles, they are beyond influential: Watch these scenes and you can all but see John Woo, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino suckling at the teats of this movie.
William Holden’s final "Let's go" to his crew is shockingly minimalist when viewed from an age where everything has to be spelled out for the lowest common audience denominator, especially in “action” films. Rarely have two delivered words in a screenplay simultaneously conveyed so many concepts and emotional states: Courage, camaraderie, despair, anger, commitment, supreme confidence, loyalty. This and the immediately following scenes—featuring “The Walk” where the heavily-armed Pike and his men tramp resolutely into an armed encampment in full view of everyone, knowing they won’t be coming back—reminded me of lines from the last page of my favorite Solzhenitsyn novel, The First Circle:
But there was peace in their hearts.
The peace known only to those who have lost everything.
The very important things the film has to say about honor and ethics. The Wild Bunch is hardly a moral film in the conventional sense of the word. Pike’s crew are violent, bank-robbing, cursing [yet another way this was a breakthrough Western], whoring, hard-drinking, occasionally murderous and frequently disloyal outlaws: And these are the good guys.
For me, the overriding message of the film is that the moral imperative is, well, imperative. In a chaotic, nihilistic world where even the children are brutal and sadistic—especially in such a world—the only real transcendencies are the absolute rules of honor that cannot be broken, the principles that cannot be sacrificed. Even in a savagely immoral world, men seek moral certainties as much as they seek food or oxygen. In this case Pike and his men take their strength in the highest concept left in their awful universe: Personal loyalty. "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!"
The uncut final seven-minute battle between Pike’s gang and thousands of Mexican Federales is one of the most violent scenes in cinema history and takes pre-CGI warfare imagery to its furthest limits, and even today feels remarkably liberating and cathartic.
There are those who say that The Wild Bunch is the best movie ever made, and there are days when I can’t disagree with them.