By Tessa Groszman
Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch is set during the Mexican Revolution on the Mexico-United States border, in the waning days of the old Wild West. At the time of the films’ release, the Vietnam War was in full swing, as was the decline of “American exceptionalism”—the belief that the United States is the greatest nation on earth, unrivaled not only it its wealth and power, but in the quality of its institutions and values, and the character of its people (Appy 31). The film’s characters find themselves in a time of rapid change, as do its viewers. Most notably, it operates according to generic conventions while simultaneously defying them. This (dual motion of abiding/challenging) is achieved through the manipulation of the hero and villain binary, which provokes an inquiry into the audience’s relationship to violence. This paper analyzes a scene in which the setting and iconography situate themselves within the conventions of the western genre, only for these conventions to be revised. More specifically, the opening scene of The Wild Bunch demonstrates an alteration of the structures of the classic western genre by undermining the use of violence as a force for good, alluding to the brutality of the U.S. military presence in Vietnam. This critique is developed through Peckinpah’s emphasis on the ramifications of violence, drawing parallels with the emerging understanding of what it meant for America to engage in unthinkable violence for no rational reason.
The scene opens with the generic western trope of cowboy-hat-wearing men authoritatively marching through a peaceful Texas town (The Wild Bunch). Artistic freeze-frames lay bare the dirt of the Wild West with their grainy composition. The presence of horses, guns, and a small-town main street with false front architecture, as well as the southwestern colours of the landscape, all identify this movie as a western. The western’s classic system of motifs is also evident in the first line uttered by Pike Bishop, whose deep voice resonates with that of John Wayne, and whose gang members are rugged and independent enough to embody the stereotypical masculinity of the western. The iconography of the western genre is thus easily identifiable from the first minute of The Wild Bunch, leading the audience to expect a classical western narrative (Matlby 86).
Nonetheless, from the moment Pike declares, “If they move, kill ‘em” (The Wild Bunch), certain elements lose their consistency with the western genre of the 1930s, as ambiguities at the visual level begin to emerge. This line identifies Pike’s gang as the “bad guys.” When their enemies, whom the audience would normally deem to be the “good guys” (given their opposition to Pike’s gang), are introduced, a sense of uncertainty regarding them emerges. The Wild Bunch more closely resemble the classic civilized hero than the empty-headed members of Deke Thornton’s disheveled-looking gang do. These indicators result in the film’s ambivalent distinction between the civilized and the “savaged.” The scene dismisses that which the genre is indebted to—the moral clarity of distinguishing the “good guys” from the “bad guys.” As it progresses, viewers come to understand that the storyline will not include the conventional settling of this town, as a “civilized” white population has already conquered and grown within it. The railroad detective which the bounty hunters work for proves to be a menacing and corrupt “bad guy,” uninterested in impeding the Wild Bunch. Altogether, this scene complicates the generic elements of the western film to prepare the viewer for the approaching bloody battle.
In turn, by blurring the line between the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” The Wild Bunch establishes that its imminent violence will not revolve around the expected fight between the western heroes and the town’s villains. As bloodshed erupts and carries on for five minutes, an immense amount of firing is heard. At certain points, however, the camera intercuts footage of the innocent women and children found in the midst of the fight (The Wild Bunch). Their shrieks emphasize their presence, and their tragic images denote the deplorable chaos taking place within the town center. The focus is not on the two sides battling each other. Instead, the screen alternates between the shootout and the innocent children, thereby highlighting the indistinguishability between the “good” and the “bad.” As a result, viewers are forced to come to terms with the fact that both sides contribute equally to the destruction. In this manner, the contrast between the civilized and the “savaged,” already softened by the film’s iconography and narrative structure, is underscored by the two gangs’ equal contribution to a violence that obliterates life instead of acting as a necessary evil to protect it.
By drawing attention to their equal pursuit of violence without framing the bounty hunters as heroes, the film portrays a form of ruthlessness that mimics the United States’ exertion of violence against the very people it claimed to protect during the Vietnam War (Appy 57). Peckinpah refrains from conceiving the actions of either group as morally correct, unlike what traditionally occurs in westerns when two opposing groups come into conflict. He alters the genre to underline the concept of unjustified violence. A bounty hunter’s classic role of thwarting the “bad guys” is, in this film, countered by the fact that they do more harm than good, symbolizing the shift in society’s perception of necessary violence; many moviegoers at the time were beginning to reject the idea of seeing American military power as an invincible force for good (Appy 188). Peckinpah portrays an unproductive armed conflict, just as the country was involved in one. The pain of the town’s innocent people evokes the United States’ infliction of suffering on Vietnamese civilians. Just as the bounty hunters injure and kill ordinary townspeople on screen, the uncritical belief that Americans only use force as a last resort was being shattered by horrors abroad. That year, horrifying photographs of My Lai were published in newspapers and magazines around the world (Appy 145). Thus, Peckinpah’s decision to avoid presenting the Wild Bunch’s enemies as heroes, as well as his decision to vividly display the sense of innocence of the people caught in the mess, has enabled his audience to question the use of violence as a means of bringing “civilization” to the Wild West or “liberty” to Vietnam.
Although Peckinpah incorporates Maltby’s theory of repetition to reference the western genre, the difference in this repetition (Maltby 76) reflects the audience’s new sense of unease about violence as a tool for protecting humanity. The director sheds light on America’s new relationship to violence as an unnecessary war played out in Asia. He achieves this by surfacing the resemblance between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” and increasing the on-screen prevalence of children and civilians. The bloodshed of the local people changes the viewer’s affective experience of the film as it depicts a disturbing, graphic representation of the real cost of violence. At the end of the scene, no side is victorious, and the law and the lawless wind up on the same plane of existence. As the film had taken place at the end of the traditional Old West era, moviegoers had found themselves at the end of another important era, as the Vietnam War challenged a central tenet of their identity—the idea that they are the greatest force for good in the world. When The Wild Bunch was released in the turbulent time of 1969, Americans were rethinking their use of violence as a necessary force for good and freedom. This assault on their national identity would haunt the United States for decades to come.
Appy, Christian G. American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity. Penguin Books, 2016.
Maltby, Richard. Hollywood Cinema, “Genre.” Blackwell Publishing, 2003. 44-110.
The Wild Bunch. Directed by Sam Peckinpah, Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, 1969.