Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Wild Bunch...Sam Peckinpah's masterpiece.

The other night I came home from the play and began to wind down from the evening. I skipped around on the TV. Couldn't find anything I wanted to watch. At first I started watching Viva, Zapata, an old Brando/Kazan film I hadn't seen in years. Twenty minutes into it I'd had enough. So dated. Not even Brando's usual genius could save it. Angie had gone to bed. Skipped around some more on the tube and came across, just as it was starting, The Wild Bunch. Well, I thought to myself, I really don't like this movie much, but maybe I'll get sleepy while it's on. So I sat back and began the viewing.

Within a few minutes I realized I'd made a terrible mistake. Somehow in my head I had confused The Wild Bunch with a silly little movie made around the same time called The Magnificent Seven. I'd never seen The Wild Bunch, at least not all of it. It is considered by some to be the best Western ever made. Many consider it to be Sam Peckinpah's masterpiece. I believe it is. As a mild cinamaphile, I'm a little ashamed to admit I'd never seen it.

The film is decades ahead of its time. As I watched I kept wondering how Peckinpah got these actors (William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine) to do it given the anti-heroic, ambiguous, existential script. But he did. And all three give amazing performances. It is unquestionably the best thing William Holden ever did. I never really cared for Holden as an actor. I thought he was okay in Network but abysmal in his early stuff like Picnic or Sunset Boulevard. He's very much a 'spit the words out and never slow down' kind of fifties actor that always made me roll my eyes. Not so in The Wild Bunch. It's a fascinating performance: faltering, gruff, pathetic and vulnerable. Borgnine is even good.

But mostly this is a director's picture. Peckinpah is at his bleakest. No one in the film is all good or all bad. He tightropes a fine line of storytelling morality from beginning to end. These are not nice people. Although at times they are admirable people. And the two bookending sequences of extended violence are masterfully shot. Ballet-like composites of gory violence. Kids, women, pets, everybody gets unapologetically gunned down. Peckinpah famously slows his camera down for slow-mo killing effects. Even though I've seen clips from it and read about the sequences for years, I was still not prepared for it. Just mesmerizing film-making.

This was the director's cut, too. Twenty minutes longer than the theatrical release in 1969 with a lot of the flashbacks edited into the film. Needless to say, I watched the whole thing and didn't get to bed until around four in the morning and then couldn't sleep because I couldn't get it out of my mind. I'm astounded that I'd never gotten around to seeing this movie before.

We know now that Peckinpah and Holden led very sad lives off-camera. Both were severe alcoholics and eventually died from it, both directly and indirectly. And booze figures into the picture as prominantly as it does in Eastwood's masterpiece, Unforgiven. Not sure that 'severe alcoholic' isn't redundant, but you catch my meaning.

As in most great pieces of writing, there's a line in the film that personifies the film itself. Holden, at one point, defensively yells at Borgnine, "I gave my word!" Borgnine responds, "It ain't our word that counts, it's who we give it to!" Not a bad lesson for life, that.

Another beautiful day in Southern California. I understand from the weather channel that my home state of Missouri is getting pounded by a blizzard. My condolences.

See you tomorrow.