GREAT MOMENTS IN CINEMA: A MOMENT OF CLARITY, “THE WILD BUNCH” (1969)

“I saw one just like it in Waco.” I can’t find the scene in question, so here’s the original trailer for the greatest movie ever made.

ART, IT SEEMS TO ME, IS LIKE LOVE. Not only is it indefinable, it tends to hit you where you didn’t know you were vulnerable. In other words, you have little to no control over it, and we’re ultimately at a loss to explain it when it hits. Why do I like Albright and Ravel and Graham Greene and not, say, Picasso, Mozart and Ernest Hemingway? Why do I find “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” profound and “Se7evn” profane? There are thousands of blogs out there dedicated to answering similar questions, including this one, but they seem to be more about sharing an experience than explaining it. There are good, logical reasons, no doubt, for what attracts and repels us, but ultimately they’re buried so deep we’ll never know for sure.

No piece of cinema makes me think about this more than Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” (1969), which intrigued me the first time I saw it and makes more sense the older I get and each time I see it. When people ask me what my favorite movie is, “The Wild Bunch” is the easy answer, the way “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” was the easy king of my 100 Greatest Hard Rock Songs of All Time. In my small, internal corner of the universe, there is no contest.

Why? I believe I’ve found the moment. But first, the easy answers:

—  It stars, almost literally, all my favorite actors – William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates. I always wondered why Lee Marvin wasn’t in it. Maybe he figured it was too close to his great gringos-in-Mexico movie, “The Professionals,” though that didn’t stop Ryan.

—  It’s a western, or more broadly, a genre movie, which affords a writer/director the dramatic license to kill people to make a point. It’s a comforting rule for someone who finds grey irritating and unproductive.

—  It is technically superior. Peckinpah, an erratic visionary with an epic drinking problem, was at the top of his game and as a result, so was everyone else on the project. There isn’t a false note in the entire movie, from locations to the performances to Jerry Fielding’s score. Every visual composition, edit, piece of dialog is beyond the right one; it’s as if everyone hit the right note, then found the only one that could improve it. I defy anyone to watch this movie and pick something to change.

And yet … “The Wild Bunch” is not pretty. It’s a brutal story. Animals were no doubt killed while making it – certainly that scorpion in the opening shot didn’t make it. If there is positive narrative thread, it’s the moral code the men share, but that isn’t particularly original, especially in a western, and was handled eloquently in Peckinpah’s earlier “Ride the High Country.”

So what is it? I think it aims higher. “The Wild Bunch” is a movie about the human condition, about men dropped in a place and time who did the best they could. Like history, they can’t be redeemed by time, only understood.

The moment of truth comes, of course, at the start of the third – or this case, fourth – act, the group’s decision to rescue, or buy, Angel back from drunken paramilitary general Mapache. Holden’s Pike and the Gorch Brothers (Johnson and Oates) have used some of their spoils — they sold guns, stolen from the U.S. military, to Mapache — to get laid. Borgnine’s Dutch, following an unknown code within the code, sits against a wall and whittles.

Chased into this small slice of hell, and unable to find solace in false intimacy, Pike finally figures out that, as they used to say in the beer ads, it just doesn’t get any better than this. There is no “one last job” and retirement to the ranch, and, more important, there is no chance to evolve. This is what he does; he is obsolete, historically and physically.

Holden gets dressed and contemplates the young prostitute  — underage and a mother, her baby crying on the floor and a sad life ahead of her — and has a final moment of clarity. Shame, remorse, hopelessness … acceptance.  If life’s for living, as Ray Davies once trenchantly sang, what’s living for? If it’s killing and gold and tequila and prostitutes – if it’s perpetuating his way of life – maybe it’s time to bow out in the only way he knows how.

Pike throws some gold on the table — his only means of connection — and bursts in on the Gorch brothers. “Let’s go,” he says.

Johnson (Tecter) and Oates (Lyle) look at one another. They know what Pike wants.

“Why not?” Lyle finally says. The first several times you see this, Oates’ reading seems stilted, but then you finally realize it’s because Lyle legitimately thought about his response. Four against four hundred?

Why not?

They’re going out and they know it. Is there a sliver of hope that it will work? Sure. They’re survivors and have always beaten the odds. And when they shoot Mapache and see the soldiers freeze, there is joy in their faces — genuine, holy shit joy. Maybe, just maybe, we’re getting out of this. And if not, we’ve got at least a few more minutes.

What follows is now infamous, but like the rest of the movie makes perfect sense. When Robert Ryan’s Deke Thornton, the former Wild Bunch member blackmailed into pursuing them for a railroad baron, stumbles upon the windswept carnage, he has a similar epiphany. While the survivors stagger out of town, he sits against the wall, nowhere to go and nothing to do, envying the dead.

But when Freddie Sykes (a completely transformed Edmund O’Brien) shows up with the band of peasants who had tried to kill him, Thornton is given a last chance to run with a gang. This bunch has aspirations – Sykes’ new friends are revolutionaries – but that’s irrelevant.

“It’s not like the old days,” Sykes acknowledges, “but it’ll do.”

Thornton laughs and finally stands. Yes. I’m still alive, so it’ll do.

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