Sam Peckinpah might have been a film director who hated humanity (not in itself a disqualifier for an artist in expressing himself), or at least held a healthy contempt for many people who populated the American West. Out of tune as I am with all the critics of the day when supposedly his best film was released, obviously I’m missing something very central to Peckinpah’s oeuvre. Either that or I’m getting soft in my old age. But I can only call ’em as I sees ’em — and stand to be corrected. His Ride the High Country (1962) was a refreshing adventure movie that somewhat recalled John Ford’s The Searchers of six years before in having a hero substantially more staunch — read ruthless — than the invariably white-hatted tv cowboys of the time. By the time of The Wild Bunch (1969) his villains were still utterly despicable but the hero was only slightly less so. I believe, with this film, Peckinpah’s thrust went way overboard in depicting violence for its own sake without including any balancing elements of positive humanity and enlightenment. Straw Dogs (1971), in a modern setting, saw a young Dustin Hoffman in the uncharacteristic role of a homicidal, vindictive newly-wed. He carries out brutal vengeance on a gang who raped his wife, including his wife’s ex-boyfriend, maybe because he suspects his wife enjoyed it. Peckinpah’s films are peopled by those definitely on the margins not only of society but any human feeling. Forget tenderness entirely.
The Wild Bunch took the ambiguous good guy in Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone movies — who in the late Sixties turned out in the end to be good at the core — way beyond to unambiguous callousness, the tack Eastwood would follow in upcoming westerns like High Plains Drifter (1973). The movie opens with a botched raid on a town bank by a gang led by the nominal hero, played by William Holden. To date, the Holden type that had won the star enormous popularity in Sunset Boulevard (1950) after 11 years in insipid lead roles had been the too-handsome, somewhat cynical and exploitive flyboy who does good in the end. Again, Peckinpah’s ‘progression’ would see him go one better in Straw Dogs by totally reversing Hoffman’s pipsqueak-milksop image (The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy) to vengeful killer. But in this the townspeople, organized in ambush by the railroad bosses, kill off half of Holden’s dozen men. Literally dozens, plural, of uncomprehending townsfolk caught in the crossfire are slaughtered — from old ladies and men, to kids — and Holden’s only regret is when he finds out the railroad has planted washers in the moneybags supposed to be full of gold coins.
The central problem of the movie morally — if you look for morality in movies — is that the only three men painted as winners are also the most ruthless and destructive: Holden, his enforcer Ernest Borgnine, betraying something of a crush on the boss, and despicable railroad exec Albert Dekker, who makes Machiavelli look like Shirley Temple. Others in the gang, Warren Oates and Ben Johnson, lowlifes as they are, display at least some sense of fair play and are ridiculed for it by their colleagues. Two more lowlifes in the characters played by Strother Martin and L Q Jones, in the pursuing posse led by Robert Ryan, provide comic relief and happily do not have the power or basic competence to inflict the destruction of Holden. They too are losers, tortured and killed by Comanches.
Holden, after years of alcoholism at 50, is a grotesque caricature of the pretty boy he was on screen from age 20 to 45. His character is said to be “the best” by Robert Ryan, playing his former outlaw partner, a figure of contempt to Peckinpah (and in the person of Dekker?) by being a hired man of the all-powerful railroad company and working for a man he hates, blackmailing him, holding him over a barrel under pain of being forced back to prison. But Ryan is only in this position because Holden messed up their last job and ducked out on him to save himself. Now Holden has failed again, but is still portrayed in the movie as the figure to be admired. Taking their rest and recreation at a Mexican whorehouse, it’s all Holden can do to flip a couple of pesos at his chosen one, a teenage solo mother with babe in arms.
With nowhere to go, at the very end in the celebrated climax, the four surviving of the Wild Bunch mow down many, many Mexican Federales — in slow motion, with a Gatling gun. They are the heroes because giving up their lives though for no discernible cause. (Underneath it all, the audience is supposed to know that these none-too-bright outlaws suddenly gain the insight that they have outlived their time, like Joel McCrea’s and Randolph Scott’s characters in Ride the High Country.) And Robert Ryan, still alive, is the loser, not willing to return to uphold the law on the terms he was forced to, and forced to be an outlaw with Wild Bunch hanger-on, old coot Edmond O’Brien, and doomed to constantly ride on the run.