In 1969, the movie-going public were introduced to a new and controversial genre that featured hard-bitten, laconic characters in perpetual moral crisis and slow motion death sequences that looked mesmerising on the Big Screen. The Wild Bunch was an alternative view of the Old West, by the maverick Director Sam Peckinpah. Its central themes of masculinity, nihilism and exploitation are still relevant today, questioning the individual’s role in a rapidly changing society.
Perhaps misguidedly, Peckinpah hoped that his stylised screen violence would shock audiences into rejecting violence in real life. He was deeply troubled later to learn that his films had the opposite effect, inspiring an avid blood lust in many fans, who revelled in the carnage and missed the moral point. Although his career suffered many setbacks, exacerbated by alcohol and drug abuse, critics recognised the depth and originality of his work and hailed him, posthumously, as one of the all time greats.
The Wild Bunch featured some of the Sixties most enduring actors – William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates. Their portrayal of disaffected outlaws, running from a gang of vicious bounty hunters is made all the more convincing by their brooding masculinity and understated screen menace. It’s hard to imagine Hollywood’s current male elite pulling off the same effect.
Times have changed. Audiences have moved on. While the appetite for gore and titillation has continued unabated, the public’s identification with the hero has undergone a major synthesis. The American West, once the staple of film and television drama that launched the careers of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, has become dated. Occasional forays into the genre, like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, have been well received both critically and at the box-office. But, generally speaking, the ageing gunslinger with degenerative lumbago and a barely audible drawl, has been edited out of the mainstream consciousness.
Sam Peckinpah got the best from his ageing crew of actors. Perhaps they responded to his pioneering vision and staunch rejection of stereotypes favoured by the studio. He also had a hand in rewriting screenplays that didn’t come up to the mark, hence the sparse but compelling lines uttered by his characters. Internal conflict was another common theme in his work. How desperate situations bring about calamitous and irreversible consequences for the people forced to endure them. Idealistic notions of compassion and morality are eclipsed by the basic instinct for survival.
We live in an age where everything, including Art, has a relatively poor shelf-life. The films and books hailed as masterworks today may well be forgotten tomorrow. The only true judge of quality is time. Anything that manages to stick around for fifty years can be considered a work of some distinction. Public tastes are notoriously arbitrary, but real craftsmanship survives these fluctuations to make a lasting impression on future generations. The Wild Bunch has some eight years to go to make the half-century benchmark of longevity, but already it bears the critical stamp of approval.
Sam Peckinpah drew parallels with Ernest Hemingway, both for his fascination with machismo and violent death, and with his tortured private life. Hemingway died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Peckinpah died from complications brought on by decades of heavy drinking and drug taking. His legacy, like Hemingway’s, has influenced scores of imitators and few, if any, equals.