Monday, April 21, 2014

The Wild Bunch's flashbacks and other structural issues

Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch is known as one of those late Westerns that shows the encroachment of the future--the running out of land and time for a bunch of old outlaws--and as a very violent film. It reminds me a lot of Blood Meridian on both counts: a revisionist Western where all our usual ideas are twisted by age and by the dirty reality of what these guys live through.

That said, and before I split the movie up into beats, I want to talk about two interesting things. First, you could easily tell this as the story of the outlaw leader; or of the ex-outlaw who is hunting the outlaw group. But Peckinpah cuts back and forth between Pike Bishop, aging outlaw with a tenuous grasp of his outlaw group and Deke Thornton, ex-range rover who has been co-opted by the railroad to hunt Bishop down. (I'm a little unclear, but it seems like Deke is working with the law to obtain pardon for his past misdeeds.)

Now, this doesn't make them co-protagonists: a film could easily show the protagonist running and then the antagonist chasing as a way to ramp up tension. And a film could parallel the two characters' journeys and stories: as here, both Pike and Deke are leading groups of unruly men, looking to get out of the game through one big score. Peckinpah also gives Pike and Deke both their own flashbacks, where we see some part of what motivates them: Deke's capture and terrible experience of jail, Pike's failure to settle down.

The film is also curious because with so many people, it might be hard to figure out who to look out or care about. Do we care about Pike or Deke? Do we care about Dutch or the German consultant? Or the Mexican general or etc., etc. The flashbacks help with that, as do some of the monologues: Pike and Deke are the only ones with flashbacks, the only ones working off some debt, the only ones whose ambitions we know about. So we know that Dutch wants to make money, but what for? We never really get a sense of what he considers the good life. So the flashbacks--which might be clumsy--help to focus our attention on what we should be watching.

Now, for the beats and scenes:

  1. Bank robbery: we meet Pike's group in the midst of a robbery (which is at least half a heist, as they've dressed in army uniforms as disguise); we meet Deke's posse trying to stop the robbery 
  2. Aftermath: we see the posse being rather terrible bounty hunters, arguing over who killed whom and not caring about the town getting shot to hell; we also see Pike's team deal with the fact that their robbery is all scrap metal, not silver--which strains the group.
    1. The aftermath sequence is actually a few scenes, with Deke's men being terrible and the townsfolk yelling at the railroad man; Deke yelling at his men and the railroad man reminding him of the deal; and with Pike killing a wounded man and then the team resting at their rendezvous place
  3. Matched memories: Deke notes that Pike is the best and he knows since he rode with Pike; Pike remembers how Deke got caught and he didn't; Pike comments on the old feller (Sykes) who sticks around them.
  4. Trouble and triumph on the trail: There's some hard travels and Pike is getting older. But he gives a speech that keeps them together, all the way to Mexico, where fellow robber Angel's village gives them a warm welcome--even though they've got problems: the crooked federales, led by Mapache, who lured away Angel's sweetheart.
  5. The general, the deal: Which brings us to Mapache, the general who needs good American rifles to defeat Pancho Villa, and who agrees to pay Pike a great deal of money. These scene ends well for the Americans, though it begins with danger as Angel confronts his sweetheart and then shoots her. Which brings us to a big party scene and a discussion of what they'll do with the money--and how much Angel hates Mapache, which launches the plan to give Angel's people one of the cases of guns.
  6. The hunter: We get some info on Deke and his hunters, who suspect Pike of trying to rob the very train full of guns that we know Pike will rob. Ruh-roh.
  7. The robbery: another fun heist/shootout as Pike robs the train, Deke's posse chases, and the green US Army chases them.
  8. Mapache's problem: We see Pancho Villa's men kick the hell out of Mapache, which reminds us that he needs the guns.
  9. The two gun transfer problem: Pike gives guns to Angel's friends. To make sure they get paid, Pike's men first wire up the guns to explode, then plan to transfer them in small shipments, while getting paid each time. The only problem is that Angel is fingered as the guy who stole the missing shipment of guns--the mother of the woman he killed told on him. So Mapache takes him.
  10. Deke on the trail: Pike doesn't want to go rescue Angel, but with Deke men on their trail, he decides to go visit the general for save haven. (One of Deke's men shoots Sykes in the leg; wounded Sykes eventually is found by an Indian.)
  11. Disgusting party: Just as we had a party at 5, we see Mapache celebrate his guns, and also celebrating by torturing Angel. Pike doesn't like it, but can't do anything.
  12. On Deke's trail: meanwhile, Deke is being hunted by US Army, since some of his men shot at them in 7. His only hope is to take down Pike.
  13. Endgame: Next morning, Pike is disgusted with himself and gathers his men to take back Angel, which leads to the massacre when Mapache slits Angel's throat and they shoot Mapache and then the German consultant.
    1. Notable: Deke looks on as Pike and the federales fight it out.
    2. Pike shoots a woman, reminiscent of his memory of his lover getting shot by her husband.
    3. Pike gets shot by a child soldier.
  14. Deke's reckoning: Deke's posse comes on the scene, acting as loutish as usual; Deke grabs Pike's gun and decides to stay behind. He runs into Sykes and the Indians who offer him a place: "It ain't like it used to be, but it'll do."
One other thing I want to say about this film is that it's very long, partly because many scenes follow people from one situation to another--for instance, 13 features the men getting dressed, armed, and walking down the street before we get to the next bit of action. We get lots of other similar scenes of travel, usually as a means to build up tension. But there's also some extra length to many scenes that are just talking scenes. So when the robbers find that their treasure is worthless, we get lots of Tarantino-esque chatting.

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