Forever Wild 

The Wild Bunch still astonishes

A group of children stand laughing in a circle; we assume they are playing a game. They are. They have tossed scorpions into an ant colony. They smile, watching to see which creatures get killed first. This scene is intercut with two separate actions: a group of Texas Rangers riding into a small town, and a minister conducting a temperance meeting. A martial drumbeat is heard on the soundtrack; a solarized freeze-frame bearing a different credit ("William Holden") punctuates each drum roll.

Suddenly, a new element is introduced: A posse of gunmen gather on a rooftop above the town streets. The Rangers walk into a bank. The gunmen load their weapons. The temperance band begins to march. A brassy version of "Shall We Gather at the River" blares on the soundtrack. A heartbeat pounds in time. In a shattering instant, we realize how these elements are about to combine—and what follows is a massacre that, 25 years ago, obliterated all previous screen standards for violence. Bodies whirl in slow motion, cut apart by bullets. Gunshots open holes as wide as silver dollars in their victims. When the streets are filled with blood, the movie cuts back to the group of laughing children. They have tired of their game. They have set both the ants and the scorpions on fire.

When Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch was first released in 1969, that brilliant opening scene—and the even more gruesome ones that follow—ignited a debate about screen bloodshed that has never been fully resolved. The movie was condemned as mindless mayhem, and its director's name became synonymous with gory violence. The outcry over the movie's still horrific killings often overshadowed the movie's artistry, its fearless and magisterial command of film technique.

Today, however, you can turn on a cable station and see sex and violence far more explicit than anything in The Wild Bunch. What seems shocking today about The Wild Bunch—which has just opened at the Belcourt for the first time in a newly restored director's cut—is its astonishing cinematic invention. Our senses have been so dulled by the gutless, carbon-copy mentality of contemporary major-studio filmmaking that The Wild Bunch stands out like a Faulkner first edition in a Danielle Steel boutique.

Like Peckinpah's marvelous 1962 debut, Ride the High Country—now there's a movie due for rerelease—The Wild Bunch is an elegy not just for the West but for the Western itself, with its codes of honor, and courage, and manhood. Pike Bishop, the aged Texas Ranger-turned-bank robber played by William Holden, joins the gallery of Peckinpah heroes—Joel McCrea in Ride the High Country, Jason Robards Jr. in The Ballad of Cable Hogue—whose integrity and personal loyalty have no place in a world dominated by corporations, mechanization and modernization. His men—Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, Edmond O'Brien and Jaime Sanchez, the most formidable assemblage of character actors since the days of John Ford—ride with him because Pike's code of mutual support is all they have.

Pursued by a former associate, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), who feels more kinship with the outlaws he's hunting than the bloodthirsty scum in his posse, Pike and his men settle on one last score: hijacking a train (which itself will soon be obsolete) and delivering its shipment of guns to a sadistic Mexican general, Mapache (Emilio Fernandez), in exchange for gold. An alliance with Mapache, however, is too low even for them. In the movie's breathtaking conclusion, Pike and his men seek redemption in a final blaze of glory against Mapache's entire army.

Peckinpah establishes his major themes—the cruelty underneath the veneer of civilization, the sanctity of masculine loyalty and honor in a world without God—in the very first scene, and the rest of the movie is a virtual tone poem about masculinity in pe whores, and woe to the man who turns his back on them. In later Peckinpah films like Straw Dogs, where female characters are more central, this view would calcify into intractable macho nonsense; in a Western, it seems appropriately archaic coming from characters who are themselves becoming anachronisms.

The Wild Bunch was made at a time when Westerns were beginning a slow fade into oblivion, and the movie has a mile-wide sadness, a respect for vanishing space: With the peerless cinematographer Lucien Ballard, who dapples the screen in shadows and sifted light, Peckinpah uses his wide frame to show both the expanses surrounding his characters and the boundaries that will ultimately imprison them. For this reason, seeing the movie on a wide screen is imperative: Watching it on TV counts no more than viewing the middle section of a painting.

The most surprising thing about seeing The Wild Bunch after more than a quarter of a century, though, is how well Peckinpah's style has survived after decades of imitation. Working with editor Louis Lombardo, Peckinpah captured the rhythm of chaos like no other director, mixing slow-motion shots with quick cuts to heighten the sensation of violence. The use of slow motion, however, has another purpose: Like the passages in epic poetry when a particular death is eulogized for several lines, it permits a moment of reflection on the end of a human life. As with the famous Robert Capa photograph of a victim in the Spanish Civil War at the moment of death, or Goya's pitiless recordings of wartime atrocities, a chill of mortality passes through you whenever one of Peckinpah's countless corpses settles to the ground.

Former television directors like Peckinpah and Robert Altman, among others, viewed feature filmmaking as an explosion from captivity. They looked at the vast expanse of the movie-theater screen, and they saw visions that could not be confined within the restraints of a little black box. They tried editing tricks and wide-angle compositions that couldn't be used on TV; they explored subject matter, language and actions that would never pass a network censor. Today, when you watch a blank, futile mediocriBye Bye Love or Man of the House, or even a clunky prestige picture like Nell or Legends of the Fall, you forget that you're not sitting at home clutching a remote control. Today there no escaping from TV.

There is no escaping the legions of imitators, also, who looked at Peckinpah's vision of hell on earth and saw only how cool violence looks in slow motion. Peckinpah himself never escaped the self-destroying creation that is The Wild Bunch; by the end of his career, he was the victim of his own macho mythmaking, a Hemingway killed by the burden of living up to his press, and he tricked out his familiar mannerisms until they became self-parody.

But I look at William Holden filling the billboard-sized screen once more at the Belcourt, his eyes like beacons, his deeply lined face like granite cut through by decades of wind and weather-beating, and I am reminded once more of greatness. When he slings on his holster to face Mapache, William Holden moves with the confidence and authority of someone who spent a lifetime commanding every inch of those giant screens. The little black box couldn't hold him any more than it could Sam Peckinpah or the movie that endures as his greatest creation. When The Wild Bunch leaves the screen, even after 25 years, it still leaves in flames of glory.

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