Say what you will about “The Western” as a genre of film, or television, but it had way more versatility than some credit it. For something that seemed limited, stories set in the 19th century in the American “Old West”, it’s spawned quite a pedigree. Told tales of adventure (Vera Cruz, The Professionals), satire (Support Your Local Sheriff, Blazing Saddles), along with the drama (The Big Country, The Gunfighter). The barbarity, too.
Varying degrees of such foreshadowing whatever morality lay within.
Why one of my all-time favorite westerns, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, continues to fascinate. An aridly bitter revision of the classic “oater” of say John Ford or Howard Hawks. Cascading off the venerable “changing times” theme, Sam Peckinpah fostered a timeless saga in the trail of the once promising 60s as it drew to a rancorous close. A particularly grim ride of the last hard men biding their remaining days the only way they knew how.
Telegraphed blithely in the film’s stark opening titles sequence.
Delivered by the casual entrance of the “Wild Bunch” as it moseyed into a quiet southwestern border town. Accompanied by Jerry Fielding’s languid score, the sequence masked the violence to come with seemingly courteous order. Much like Pike Bishop’s gang of aging outlaws, masquerading as soldiers, looking for one last score. Warily finding the underlying cruelty amid the civility on approach — children gleefully pitting scorpions and red ants in a merciless match.
Lucien Ballard’s close camera work neatly captured the manifestation of what lay ahead for the band, and those unluckily caught in their wake1.
The sequence’s distinct use of interspersed high-contrast, monochrome titles noteworthy. Stylishly intercut with dirt-tinged freeze frames2 during the gang’s opening ruse in their attempt to steal a cache of silver from the railroad. Both effectively eye-catching and depicting a fast-fading past. An elegant train of images featuring laconic, brutish outcasts encased in their ways. Peckinpah removing any and all doubt by the final frame of the film’s credits.
What you’d expect by the combative auteur who made a name depicting the social values, ideals, and corruption of violence through the western. None other than William Holden conveyed the filmmaker’s quintessential eloquence with typical cynical bravura, which marked the director’s title credit. The irrevocable that’ll light the fuse to bloodshed; set the death dance in motion across the Rio Grande, and “The Wild Bunch” prophetically on to their destiny:
“If they move, kill’em!”
- Any illusion this was to end happily, or have a winner, with the harsh pairing of desert arachnid and insect is made quite clear by the filmmaker when the whole lot are set ablaze. ↩
- Note most of the actor titles freeze on character faces, with one glaring exception. Perhaps it’s Sam way to label the traitorous deed by Pike’s former partner, Deke Thornton, tasked to ambush his friend, by freezing Robert Ryan’s next to a horse’s ass. ↩