The Wild Bunch is not my favourite Sam Peckinpah film. There, I’ve said it. Even worse, though, is that I don’t particularly like it. The stylized violence in the opening and closing battles is everything I expected and more, but it’s all the stuff in between (if memory serves that is) that was thoroughly disappointing. The “characters” and their attempts at manly bonding felt forced and hurt the whole experience of the movie for me. Granted, it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen it and I owe it a rewatch, but I found that two other views of the Old West by Peckinpah – Ride The High Country and Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid – provided much stronger and more interesting characters while still splashing the blood around a bit. But they did it in very different ways…
Ride The High Country is, for the most part, a classic Western. Told mainly via interactions between its male characters, its straightforward story reveals its themes of good, evil and redemption fairly early on and builds on them. Steve Judd (Joel McRae) and Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) are two former partners who reconnect in their later years to help bring back a deposit of gold to the bank. With the Gold Rush winding down, many questionable characters are trying to get a final crack at a stake and the bank doesn’t believe their gold will be safe without some protection. What Judd doesn’t know is that his old friend Gil and his young impetuous associate (named Heck) plan to keep the gold for themselves – whether Judd wants them to or not. Along the way up to the mining town, they stop for a rest at a ranch run by a strict religious man and his daughter Elsa (an impossibly young Mariette Hartley). She’s looking for a way out of the restrictive setting of the ranch she’s never been allowed to leave, so she tags along with the men when they leave the next day. She’s decided to go to the mining town to marry her fiancee who works there with his brothers. Somewhat predictably, all doesn’t go as planned…Elsa’s fiancee and his progressively creepier brothers see her presence as being useful for only so many purposes – mostly sex and cooking – and to be shared by all. On the way to the mining town, Heck and Elsa flirt a bit and Heck makes a pass at her. She rebuffs him, but he insists and she needs Judd to pull him off. Judd knocks Heck to the ground and is followed by Gil giving him the same treatment. Though it shows the goodness in these two old timers (both saving the poor “defenseless” woman), it creates an awkward follow-up scene when Elsa actually apologizes to Heck (I guess for not allowing him to fully take advantage of her) and he seems to be sulking. It is quite jarring from a modern day perspective to see Elsa do this, but it almost makes sense given the obvious hierarchy of man over woman in this early part of the 20th century and her desperation to keep moving away from her father’s ranch. It also establishes firmly where Heck’s morality is based and how he can only crawl up from there.
The morality in Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid is somewhat sketchier. Most of these men have done bad things, but their moral centres revolve around respect and honour to their friends and partners. Pat Garrett and Billy are old friends, but when Garrett goes to meet Billy at the beginning of the movie it is solely to give him a warning: that Garrett will be his executioner. They part on good terms and Billy considers several options for leaving the town and his gang behind. With deputies in tow, Garrett manages to capture Billy after a shootout, but Billy escapes by gunning down two of the deputies (one self-righteous fool and one honourable man caught in the wrong place at the wrong time). From here, the chase resumes until its foregone conclusion. There really isn’t much more to the story than that. Given the scarcity of dialogue, some gorgeously shot scenes and an unspoken fondness for the Old West, one can easily understand why the film often gets described as being poetic, evocative and elegiac. However, the film as a whole is far too scattered and littered with half-drawn characters and scenes that it’s hard to see it as a complete work. There have been a few versions of it though: the studio edited theatrical release which Peckinpah disowned, a “preview” version which TCM put together that attempted to pull together Peckinpah’s vision (the version I saw) and a director’s cut which theoretically comes closest to Peckinpah’s intent. Along with numerous production issues, Peckinpah was in full alcoholic mode during the shooting of the film, so it ran over-budget, over-schedule and certainly caught the attention of the studio suits. And yet, for all its problems (e.g. way too many cutaway shots to Bob Dylan, an odd soundtrack, scenes left adrift, etc.), there are some absolutely glorious moments.
Many of those moments are created by the leads (James Coburn as Garrett and Kris Kristofferson as Billy) since how they say things (or more often, don’t say) becomes extremely important due to the paucity of dialogue. Whether it was Peckinpah’s direction or their own decisions, the actors bring these characters fully formed to the screen. Coburn’s silent glares speak volumes and Kristofferson has a natural charisma that definitely surprised me. And then you have Slim Pickens…Now it’s always great to see Slim in anything, but his short yet unforgettable appearance in the film is one for the ages. Even though we had just briefly met him a few minutes earlier, his death scene is both heartbreaking and beautiful. After being shot in a gun battle as another of Garrett’s recruits, he stumbles to the river and sits and waits for his life to fade out like the setting sun. Most of the other famous cameos in the film, though fine, don’t have any of that staying power. Perhaps Peckinpah was going for the feeling of a rich tapestry (mixing in a bit of Dylan, Jack Elam, Jason Robards, Barry Sullivan and more), but none of them are given much with which to play and instead they feel somewhat wasted. Ride The High Country, in contrast, does far more with its characters and provides enough meaty dialogue not just for its central roles (Scott and McRea), but also the supporting roles with weight (Heck, Elsa, Elsa’s fiancee) and the rest of the cast (the brothers, the drunken judge, the brothel owner). Both Scott and McRea truly stand out and, like Coburn and Kristofferson, add a great deal more to their characters. They manage to create something perfect in the delivery of their lines. It’s not that the line readings are particularly realistic, but just that the words seem to tumble effortlessly out of their mouths. Even when they say things like “The Lord’s bounty may not be for sale but the Devil’s is…if you can pay the price” (and other phrases that essentially state themes of the movie) it just sounds right coming from them.
Judd tell Westrum at one point: “All I want is to enter my house justified”. By the end of the film, after Judd’s consistent take on what’s right and what’s wrong, you feel as if he has succeeded in his quest and even tugged along Westrum and Heck while he was at it. Garrett, on the other hand, may very well have been trying to reach that same lofty goal, but by the time the opening scene replays itself at the end, you realize that he may have gone about things the wrong way. After deciding to throw in with the businessmen looking to clean up the West (in particular, to get rid of people like Billy), no amount of rationalizing his decision could make it feel right. Though we don’t see his life between the killing and the years-later bookends, one gets the feeling that Garrett has struggled with trying to justify his actions and has paid a price. In High Country, there’s an understanding of that grey area between good and bad: “My father says there’s only right and wrong – good and evil. Nothing in between. It isn’t that simple, is it?” “No it isn’t. It should be, but it isn’t”. That seems to be a statement about how people are always in transition – becoming bad from their natural good state or trying to get back to being good through redemption. In Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid, it’s more a statement of fact – everybody has some of both, so choose your actions carefully. Some have called Peckinpah’s final Western a eulogy for the Old West, but it feels more like one for the films about the Old West. One that leaves you feeling quite melancholy.
If Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid didn’t completely win me over with its ramshackle nature, it certainly left an impression – in particular in relation to its main characters. Ride The High Country has a much greater hit ratio (and even shows some early bits of Peckinpah’s different view of violence), but also leaves its strongest impression through its two lead characters. And that’s where The Wild Bunch left me cold – the characters. But both of these Westerns have left me considering Peckinpah’s other films (in particular The Wild Bunch) and has made me eager to revisit them and fill in the ones I haven’t seen (The Battle Of Cable Rogue and Major Dundee for example). I think that alone is pretty high praise.