*Prior to reading this article, check out Bill's review of the film, to which this is a reply.
While I was relieved to learn that your overall impressions of the film were positive, it was, perhaps expectedly, your criticisms which stood out most. Some of the comments elaborated on earned modest nods of approval, but in the end I had something of a bone to pick with almost everything you wrote about. Granted, not every criticism has the same amount of impact, so let’s begin with the simpler stuff.
So you weren’t sold on Enerst Bognine as a rough and tough bandit. I was, and in fact one of the principle reasons why his performance caught my eye was because he clearly has a twinkle in his eyes which denotes a happy persona. He even looks like a kind, maybe fuddy duddy sort of guy, and therefore to see him yell at the younger, less astute members of the posse, or to grab a handle on that Gattling gun and rip people to shreds was pretty neat. It was the contradiction between what he did and how he looked which got to me. One might think he'll be nice but he is quite naughty. The reason why in this argument I’m referring to the way he looks is because I cannot base myself on any of the actor’s other performances. I haven’t seen any. In your review you referred to a few other film’s or television shows he played in and I had never heard of them. It seems as though you had trouble letting the movie wash over you. Pre-conceived notions surrounding the actor were a significant barrier to your acceptance of him as a bandit. I was expecting much more from you, Bill. Sigh.
Then there is the issue of loyalty and the manner in which the theme is explored, which may or may not be a deconstruction of values typically found in westerns. You argue that the movie and its character live in a world where loyalty is fractured, and thus goes against the grain of the traditional western. Yes, there are prime examples of this, the most notable being the Deke character (Robert Ryan) who is on the prowl for Pike (William Holden). The two were former allies (possibly friends?) and now exist as opposites. When freedom is at stake, in this case Deke’s freedom, loyalty to someone one knows can o to hell. In fact, if you recall, this was something I had wanted the film to explore in greater depth, but the little screen time awarded to Robert Ryan prevented that from happening. For the most part however, I was under the impression that The Wild Bunch, while flirting with the idea of loyalty as a tenuous ideal, never goes full head into that territory. What about the Edmond O’Brien character who awaits the band after their failed bank robbery at the beginning? He helps them, no questions asked. The two brothers and Angel get into something of a scuffle after learning that what they stole was junk, but eventually come to terms and proceed to remain as one. Finally, there is Pike’s decision to come to Angel’s rescue after the latter has been captured by general Mapache. If there was anything in the movie that took stand on the side of loyalty, that had to be it. I think the fact that Deke’s group of mercenaries are not the most loyal actually reinforces that notion of loyalty found on Pike’s side. While Deke has little control over what his team does, all Pike needs to do to remind of finishing the job with the person they started it with and they’re on their way again. Maybe your assessment of what sort of loyalty was explored in the film was influenced by Peckinpah’s decision to show a more tenuous sort of loyalty. When you’re poor and tons of money is at stake, it becomes easier to think only about yourself. Yet, through it all, Pike’s bunch still remain together. In fact, they all willingly put themselves in danger in the end to help someone and consequently die together.
Lastly, the laughter. To be honest, I’m not quite sure what to say about this. I was even a little bit surprised that this was something you felt you had to write about and include as one of your ‘barriers.’ I’m not going to sit here and type about how crucial the laughter was to establish the bonds between the characters and the intricacies about what it did for character development. I do wonder if there is a link between your dislike of the laughter and how you felt the film undermined the notion of loyalty. Maybe you were under the impression that Peckinpah used the laughter as a feeble attempt to reinforce that idea that Pike’s men are loyal despite that you saw multiple examples why they maybe weren’t? I could see how that might be a poor choice, but then again, I didn’t see Pike’s men as disloyal people either, so I was never going to have a problem with the laughter, at least in that sense. Yeah, it goes on for a few seconds too long in a couple of scenes. We get it, they’re laughing at the expense of others or at how lady luck has just pissed on them, etc. A tad overindulgent? Maybe, but I’m thinking of other, possibly greater directors have done the same thing, Sergio Leone and Akira Kurosawa specifically. There’s a scene in For a Few Dollars More where the man with no name is beat to a pulp by the bad guys, and they’re just laughing, and laughing, and laughing… It’s a stylistic choice that won’t work for everyone. It’s far, far from the movie’s strongest aspect, but it didn’t bother me per say.
I think that about does it. All in all, we landed on the same page (again), but the problems we had each had with the film were different. I’ll see you next Sunday, vermin!