The Wild Bunch was released in 1969, the year of the moon landing. I remember watching Neil Armstrong live on a small black-and-white TV, with rabbit ears, in a broken-down and nearly abandoned hotel in Silver City, Nevada. That was late July. By then, I'd already seen The Wild Bunch half a dozen times, and of course dragged other people along. Which suggests perhaps an odd sense of proportion.
In truth, The Wild Bunch has almost certainly had a deeper and longer-lasting effect on me than the moon landing. It's not an exaggeration to say the movie changed my life. I've remarked before that it was Lawrence of Arabia when I first realized for myself how conscious the movie-making process was, that the effects weren't accidental but calculated. And then, with Kurosawa and Frankenheimer, seeing how expressive the vocabulary could be. Later still, and after Peckinpah, I discovered how transformative guys like Ford and Ophuls were, but I needed that first galvanizing moment, that sudden spark of coherence.
Most of us can say, Oh, such-and-such was a watershed moment. We can also say that there were probably a few starts and stammers, so there was more ground preparation than we imagine. The apotheosis, the insight, the revelation, was waiting to happen all along. But not knowing the object of desire (or once found, how necessary it becomes), how do we recognize the steps in between, the foundation, the accumulated weight on the scales? In hindsight, it's easy enough. I remember specific jolts. The beak of the giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or Jimmy Stewart's fingers smearing the Frenchman's make-up in The Man Who Knew Too Much. Things that made you catch your breath, but on a visceral level, not something you were ready to appreciate as a device. The evocative image, in isolation.
You might call these moments proto-conscious, meaning we don't consciously process them. As we get more sophisticated - as our vocabulary widens, speaking in movie terms - we begin to see this stuff in context. For me, a good example would be Wayne, in The Searchers, shooting the dead Indian's eyes out. Or more exactly, the way he draws the gun, spinning it up and cocking it at the top of the arc, and then letting the gun's weight bring it down to point of aim. It's very economical, showing he's got such an easy familiarity with the gun, all muscle memory. The shock comes in realizing what he's actually done, when he shoots, not once, but twice. And he explains it, completely matter-of-fact, as common knowledge. The point here is that it tells you something about the character, without expressing it in literal terms. Cinema is nothing if not literal. We see what it is. But in this sense, the evocative sense, what we've seen is more than we've been shown. And we realize it. This is perspective. The image both recedes and expands, like memory.
The third stage, I'd suggest, is when we've become aware we're being manipulated, and we're enjoying the process. We take pleasure in it, because we're an active participant in a passive medium. It isn't that an increased technical fluency gets in the way of immersion (or suspension of disbelief), it heightens the experience. Orson Welles once called it 'looking behind the curtain.' Hitchcock, for one, can't contain his glee, when he both plays the trick, and shows his hand at the same time. It's to my mind, a compliment. Hitch takes us into his confidence.
I don't think, though, that in 1969 all that many of us were quite ready for The Wild Bunch. Yes, we'd had Bonnie and Clyde, in '67, but without taking anything away from it, Bonnie and Clyde really had more of a European sensibility, an art-house feel, than an American one. (Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn had made Mickey One together, two years earlier, and that was very much French-influenced - Shoot the Piano Player - it could have played with subtitles.) Not that Penn was any stranger to violence, either: The Left-Handed Gun is startingly abrupt, and for 1958, no less. And in 1966, we saw Richard Brooks' The Professionals, Anglo mercenaries south of the border, tangled up in Mexico's revolution. John Sturges' Hour of the Gun came out the year after, a decidedly brutal and melancholy version of the Earp legend. The Wild Bunch didn't happen in a vacuum.
But it changed the landscape.
Even when the gunfight starts, outside the freight office, in the opening robbery sequence, you might not know what you're in for. By the time that scene is over, most audiences would be in shock. The obvious influence is Kurosawa, but it was a collaborative effort between Peckinpah, cinematographer Lucien Ballard, and editor Lou Lombardo. They shot with six simultaneous camera set-ups, running at different speeds, 24 frames per second, 30, 60, 90, and 120. Over-cranking generates slow-motion, and Ballard was using long lenses on some of the cameras, which foreshortens the depth of field. Lombardo's rough edit assembly ran twenty-one minutes. He and Peckinpah cut it down to five. Some of the inserts are no more than three or four frames apiece, which on-screen is nearly subliminal, almost too fast for the naked eye. The result is elastic, both in time and physical space. The aspect ratio, how much visual information the screen itself can manage, seems to yawn open and then contract, crowding the edges, optically swollen.
And yet, in the confusion, you don't lose track of the geography, the sight-lines, the physical relationships between the different elements, the composition. I think it's pretty amazing, because it's so easy to stumble into incoherence, particularly in action scenes. Peckinpah has an absolute genius for keeping the spatial dynamics all of a piece.
There's a story that Jay Cocks, the movie critic for TIME, took Marty Scorsese to an advance screening, and the two of them looked at each other afterwards in utter disbelief. They were astonished at what they'd just watched. This wasn't an uncommon reaction. There were also people who were horrified by the picture. Urban legend has it that audience members ran out of sneak previews and threw up. When it screened at Cannes, out of competition, the leading American critics who were there took turns blasting it. It was left to Roger Ebert, in the back of the room, and not a brand name at the time, to stand up and tell them he thought it was a masterpiece.
I'm with Roger, as if you hadn't already guessed. I saw the movie ten or a dozen times that first summer. Some time later, when I had a 16MM projector and an anamorphic lens, I rented the scope print from Twyman - this is back when film schools showed features on actual film, and Twyman was the default source. Then there were the many VHS tapes I stretched and wore out, and the Restored Director's Cut released on DVD.
Peckinpah goes in and out of fashion. Most people agree on Ride the High Country, but that Dundee is a dud. Cable Hogue is a sentimental favorite, and Junior Bonner. The Getaway is technically accomplished, expert and without substance. Straw Dogs will certainly get you into an argument. I know I'm very much in the minority, thinking Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is a masterpiece, and likewise Alfredo Garcia. Killer Elite, a misfire, but the Chinatown shoot-out is a gas. Cross of Iron is I think very underrated. And we'll leave it at that.
What's the bottom line? I'm fond of the exchange in The Wild Bunch when they get to the river, and Angel looks across the Rio Grande.
"Mexico lindo," he says.
Lyle says, "I don't see nothing so lindo about it."
"Just looks like more of Texas to me," Tector says.
"Aah, you have no eyes," Angel tells them.
Damn your eyes, Sam. God damn your eyes.
Jim Kitses, Horizons West
Paul Seydor, Peckinpah: The Western Films
David Weddle, If They Move, Kill 'Em
W.K. Stratton, The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in
Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film