Day 303: The Wild Bunch 1969

Day 303
Sunday 29 April 2018   11.10pm
The Wild Bunch

A Sam Peckinpah Film

“Damn that Deke Thornton to hell.”
“What would you do in his place? He gave his word.”
“Gave his word to a railroad!”
“That ain’t what counts! It’s who you give it to.”

– Dutch (Ernest Borgnine) to Pike (William Holden) in The Wild Bunch

At the halfway point I was thinking, How is this a great film? At the three-quarter mark I was still asking that question. Then the last thirty-minutes provides a conclusion of the themes – not the storyline – that makes sense of all the different codes of honour at play in the four different major groups in the film.

Within any group there are different people who have an allegiance to something or another, or have a definition of what loyalty looks like, or what honour looks like. In The Wild Bunch they’re all bad people except that some are less bad than others, and some are worse than others. In that mix of different codes that people live by, the film leaves it to the viewer to peel away the levels of selfishness in every single character, to find the person or the people or person who is least bad or most honorable.

Everyone in the film is a bad person and almost everyone dies, but for three main characters. Thornton and Sykes have the least blood on their hands and they team up at the end. Harrigan, who is the American equivalent of the Mexican General, presumably pays out the greedy posse of players who are heading back to collect their bounty and now will have a successful, and content, life now that Pike Bishop and his crew are all dead. Ike Thornton is conflicted by what he’s doing and who he’s been in the past and what Pike has meant to him in the past. They were formerly partners. Where this story picks up, it is every man for himself – and boy – and woman. The Wild Bunch takes no prisoners. Literally, there are no prisoners. You’re either dead or free or free-and-on-the-run.

Its amorality is just as significant in 2018 as it was in 1969 or 1699. There will always be groups of people fighting other groups of people where the line between good and evil – often – doesn’t exist. It’s all about degrees of evil. It’s like this during civil wars. It’s like this in world wars. It’s like this in politics and the workplace. It’s like this as people fight against people who don’t believe the things that they believe. It’s a merciless war when a group of religious believers think their faith tells them to exterminate anyway who doesn’t believe what they believe. It’s mercenary when a group of people have no faith and have only their self-interest  and their personal creed to determine their actions.

The self-appointed Mexican General is the equivalent of Harrigan, the man in charge of getting rid of the robbers who threaten the railroad that the people he is working for are building. Then there are the people caught up in the circumstances in which they have grown up or in which they now live – the Mexicans and the Indians – at odds with the American invaders. Then there are the people who are trying to make a living using the only skill they have – the gun – once their particular war is over. They’re people without a conscience, like Bonnie and Clyde or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who are so absorbed in their greed for wanting more than they have, that it doesn’t give them any more pause than the General or Harrigan regarding who gets killed in the crossfire. Amongst all the scenes and all the dialogue where loyalty is held as the one thing that can measure a man, there’s nothing – no scenes or dialogue – about all of the innocent people who were gunned down in the opening battle in the streets where dozens of bystanders were nameless and meaningless victims.

In the modern world of the 20th and 21st century – the world of business sitting alongside powerful nations – all but a few acting like bullies – nothing has changed. For all the sophistication of the post-industrial world, it is still a dog-eat-dog world where self-interest goes hand-in-hand with corruption.

The Wild Bunch illustrates how most people throughout history show by their actions that they are the very essence and definition of greed. And with power, greed becomes corruption.

Survival of the smartest and the strongest is the lesson to be learned – with a sidebar that advocates keeping your word if you give it. Every single person in the film stays true to the code – or his lack of it – they live by: man, woman and child.