Seems like all the old McCarthy scholars are dying off or becoming lazy bastards, or simply too feeble to note the passing of Ernest Borgnine, the last of the Wild Bunch except for Jaime Sanchez (who played Angel) and Bo Hopkins (who played Crazy Lee).
Holden, ironically: “Well, I think we oughta say a few words over the dear departed – and maybe a few hymns would be in order. And a church social, with ice cream…”
An opening scene shows children torturing scorpions. The scorpions are not innocent-looking, but the laughing kids are a symbol of the mindless violence within us all, our animal origins. A la Blood Meridian: “He can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence.”
The Wild Bunch are in military uniforms, for this is, among other things, a parable of the insanity of war. Holden orders Bo Hopkins to stay behind and keep the bankers and the customers hostage in the bank: “If they move, kill ‘em.”
Hopkins is a good soldier, blindly following orders to his death. Dumb. Por nada, just mindless violence, killing for nothing.
It is a trap, for the Railroad Corporate Octopus has hired mercenaries to ambush and kill the Wild Bunch, who are betrayed by one of their own, Robert Ryan. Most of the Wild Bunch get away, but with only bags of washers instead of money. The psychopathic Railroad Corporation is only mindful of its profits, and their mercenaries kill civilians caught in the crossfire without a whim or a regret. This is a total war, after all. A merchant war.
We prefer the bad guys we know to the bad guys we don’t know. And these are the poor against the rich. Also, these guys are getting on in years. They look as old and bent as a typical gathering of Cormac McCarthy scholars.
According to Doing It Right: The Best Criticism on Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, edited by Michael Bliss, these actors are battle-weary veterans of many movie westerns: William Holden (8 westerns), Robert Ryan (14), Ernest Borgnine (10), Edmund O’Brien (10), Ben Johnson (16), and Warren Oates (8). Warner Brothers wanted to cast a young leading man in the role of Dutch but Peckinpah refused and instead cast Ernest Borgnine.
“This is what Bill Holden is today,” Peckinpah said, “fifty, middle-aged, wrinkled, no longer the glamor boy.” Holden speaks about giving up the outlaw existence, living beyond their guns. “I’d like to make one good score and back off,” Holden tells Borgnine.
|Robert Ryan: Seeking a separate peace.|
“Back off to what?” Borgnine says.
Indeed. What is it they all want? A vague stake in the economic pie and a chance to back out of the materialist duality toward love and decency and peace? Once they have the money, angst sets in. Money is not enough.
They cut a deal with another army, with a Mexican general, for guns. There is a complication in this plot, for Jamie Sanchez’s woman is either kidnapped or goes willingly to become the general’s mistress. This again is the subplot of the Trojan War.
In The Wild Bunch, this war over a materialistic woman is ridiculous but it costs Jaime Sanchez his freedom at the hands of the general. The rest of the men don’t like it but they all swallow it as the cost of doing business.
This parallels the swallowing and wallowing of Strother Martin and his vulture mercenaries, at whom Robert Ryan rants, “You think Pike and old Sykes haven’t been watchin’ us. They know what this is all about – and what do I have? Nothin’ but you egg-suckin’, chicken stealing gutter trash with not even sixty rounds between you. We’re after men – and I wish to God I was with them. The next time you make a mistake, I’m going to ride off and let you die.”
And Robert Ryan’s character does indeed escape to Mexico, but not to join in the war. He has learned to avoid conflict, to make a separate peace, avoiding confrontations with psychopathic authority. What does he want? Just to drift around and stay out of jail, he says. Just to exist, just to live. World enough and time.
Holden and the remains of the Wild Bunch take their money and get drunk and get laid. But that isn’t enough for them. Holden gathers up the three others that are left with a crisp, "Let's go." All of them seem to be thinking the same thing and they walk to the drunken general and demand the return of Sanchez. The general then cuts the throat of the prisoner, and Holden then immediately shoots down the general. Then there is a long pregnant silence as the camera flicks from face to face. The die is cast, we hear Borgnine giggle and we see that psychopathic animal smile, death hilarious in his eyes.
Holden then plugs the German mercenary and the final shootout ensues, a long cleansing bloodbath, absolving all tensions in death. And for what? Nada, nada, all is nada.
To discerning viewers, the movie points out the conflict between the ethical and material values within our society, as Owen Ulph pointed out long ago:
|Ben Johnson and Warren Oates|
“Settled in debilitating, easy-payment-plan comfort, the remnants of their shrunken minds transfixed by a square of jittering glass, the pitiable, spineless, sniveling, sycophantic slaves of the Gorgon-headed establishment revel in the antics of saddle tramps who are never gainfully employed, bonanza-ing rancheros whose fancy spreads miraculously operate themselves…Spellbound audiences thrill to the chivalry of noble mavericks who…always upholding principle over expediency and reaffirming justice…in the face of the grinding tyranny of a corrupt law and the apathetic gutlessness of an ossified community.’
“These same audiences, fatuous and fragmented, return to their respective offices, practitioners as well as victims of the vices they had vicariously deplored and hissed the evening before.’
“Throughout densely populated, suburban Squalidonia, the maverick is a hero as long as he confines his heroics to Stultavision, Blatherania, and Disintegral Paperbacks. But whenever he is so indiscreet as to materialize and venture into the lush pastures of the current establishment, he is hazed off to forage with the wild cattle as soon as possible. . .Such ambivalence, characteristic of the psychosis of nostalgia, betrays the confusion, self-deception, hypocrisy, and absurdity of homogenized establishmentarian society. . .Our society is hopelessly schizoid. Nobody really loves Big Brother, and inside the most timorous conformist a smothered rebel cringes in fear.”
“The discrepancy between our ideals and daily realities is manifest in the fascination with which even intelligent people view western fantasies depicting the achievement of social justice by maverick heroes who ride roughshod over all obstacles and ‘put things right,’ and the silent despair most of us suffer at the shoddy compromises and degrading sell-outs we incessantly endure.”
But the dualities of war and bloodbaths are not the answer. We'll never reform the psychopaths of the world. The answer is in personal kindness and love and empathy. The answer is a separate peace.