Four Frames: The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969)

Proverbs 3:31: “Envy thou not the oppressor, and choose none of his ways.”

To die for a righteous cause is one thing, but to die just for the hell of it is another. To somehow do both at the same time is pure Sam Peckinpah.

The life and film-making of Bloody Sam are full of conflicts and contradictions. He had been to China with the Marine Corps after World War 2. He saw brutality there, violence that shook him and stayed with him.

He later spent a lot of his time revisiting, reframing, recutting moments of violence, employing a new mastery of montage editing, perhaps the most significant step forward in the craft since Battleship Potemkin (1925, when Eisenstein “took the infant art of cinema, threw it in a baby carriage and kicked it down the Odessa Steps into history”, as Renny Bartlett would have it).

In Agua Verde, at the Battle of Bloody Porch, the climactic massacre of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, the remaining members of the gang make their last stand – four grizzled killers, surrounded by an army, boxed in at the end of their time, seemingly unaware of any concept of an authentic “future”.

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The Bunch’s leader, Pike (William Holden), and his old friend, Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), shoot and kill the villainous Mapache (Emilio Fernandez). And then there is a wonderfully off-kilter moment of poise and calm, almost of contemplation – a delirious freedom.

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Pike crouches, swivels, watches while the world holds its breath. Dutch grins a mischievous, mad grin that could stay the hand of Death himself, at least for a second or two … before Pike takes aim, kills again and all Hell breaks loose.

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In gunning down Mapache, his cohorts and hangers-on, the Bunch are dying for a cause – they’re leading the revolution against the plundering warlord, high on his self-created pomposity, who has been ravaging the area’s villages. It’s also a personal cause, as Mapache has tortured and murdered their compatriot, Angel (Jaime Sanchez), a member of a band of desperate freedom fighters.

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But the Bunch also die just for the hell of it – Dutch’s demonic smile a nihilist forerunner of a pure punk ethic and a precursor of Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) unloading his handgun at the finale of Scorsese’s GoodFellas, as Sid Vicious sings My Way.

If Peckinpah’s oppressor was the system, the moneymen and studios he battled to get his films on screen the way he wanted them, it now seems, at least at this remove, that Sam, like Pike and the rest of the Bunch, “wouldn’t have it any other way”.

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