A Book Review Essay by Jeremy Carr.
While there’s some inevitable overlap…on the whole, this anthology adds, with each chapter, discerning passages of unique insight and interpretation.”
There’s a lot of substance proposed in its title, but then again, there’s a lot delivered by the film in question. A Uniquely American Epic: Intimacy and Action, Tenderness and Violence in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, edited by Michael Bliss, collects nine essays from a range of highly-qualified authors, each approaching Peckinpah’s groundbreaking Western from varying avenues of analysis. While there’s some inevitable overlap – placing the film in the context of the late-1960s, the picture’s trademark violence, Peckinpah’s tumultuous biography, etc. – on the whole, this anthology adds, with each chapter, discerning passages of unique insight and interpretation, all contributing to the scholarship of what Garner Simmons calls “a watershed moment in American cinema” (21).
The Wild Bunch was indeed a defining film for a new generation of audiences and other filmmakers, and after decades of debate and study, one may wonder what else there is to say about Peckinpah’s opus. As evinced by this collection, there’s still a good deal. But what stands out in A Uniquely American Epic isn’t so much the novel information gleaned from the included work (although there is plenty of that, particularly when it comes to the film’s making), but rather the deeply personal nature of these essays. Peckinpah’s films have a way of touching audiences in a sometimes-indiscernible way, often involving such weighty foundational themes as death, aging, the brutality of humankind, friendship, and redemption, and though such topics have undoubtably been covered in innumerable texts, relatively few have taken these fundamental aspects of the director’s oeuvre beyond the realm of objective scrutiny. That’s not the case here. Several of these selections are written in revealing first-person, including subjective narratives and memories to illustrate how The Wild Bunch affected the respective writer on a particular, individual level. This informality, which does absolutely nothing to take away from the “academic” class of such a compilation (published by the University Press of Kentucky as part of its estimable Screen Classics series), in fact testifies to how profoundly the film – and Peckinpah’s work in the main – can impress the emotional and private sensibilities of the viewer.
Take “‘La Golondrina’: The Secret Text of The Wild Bunch,” by Jerry Holt. Holt opens his essay by recalling the time he heard this recurring song from the film while boarding a flight from Oklahoma to Pennsylvania in 1973. The weather was bad and Holt was nervous. Yet he found a peculiar significance, perhaps even solace, in hearing the song at that incongruous moment. This recollection is just the preliminary impetus for Holt’s broader discussion of the refrain’s history, its role in The Wild Bunch, and his further consideration of composer Jerry Fielding, a frequent Peckinpah collaborator, but it’s the sort of memory countless filmgoers have had, where a cue from a certain film suddenly springs to mind and infuses a real-life scenario. Peckinpah’s films, as effective as they are on such a visceral level, are no exception. Holt’s coda returns to a more personal summary, again emphasizing the ways in which a film like The Wild Bunch stirs someone in hindsight, especially after a period of their own life lived. “For half a century,” he writes, “I have tried to articulate what is in my heart about this film” (61) and now, fifty years on, “and much closer to death,” he finds himself “viewing Peckinpah’s masterpiece in a much more contemplative way” (62).
Kathryn Jones also begins her essay, “Revelation in the Desert: Making History Personal,” with the sort of individual association suggested by her title. Examining the complex composition of the Texas/Mexico border as an environmental and cultural setting, she notes that she grew up in “one of the bloodiest parts of Texas, the so-called Nueces Strip or El Desierto Muerto – the Dead Desert – between the Rio Grande and the Nueces River” (65). The scenic characteristics of this area were undeniably crucial to Peckinpah’s visual inclinations, but the region’s turbulent history also provided a contextual backdrop for the fictitious drama, and to this end, Jones utilizes her own knowledge and experience to clarify and situate the reality as it diffused germs of historical inspiration. W. K. Stratton takes a similar approach in his contribution, “Just Looks Like More of Texas Far as I’m Concerned,” providing additional understanding of what distinguishes west Texas from the rest of the state and adding even more historical perspective, but Jones strikes at the heart of the subject as it relates to Peckinpah’s specific approach, acknowledging the artistic license he took with the timeline and setting. “Peckinpah took a chapter of history,” she states “crumpled and tore up some of the pages, rewrote some of the parts, and told a personal story that remains relevant” (74).
Jones alludes to troubling contemporary conditions when The Wild Bunch was made, an era marred by the conflict in Vietnam, anti-war protests, and the Kent State shootings, and as she points out, Peckinpah’s film had a distinctive way of tapping into the present via its depiction of the past. This, combined with the director’s ability to poignantly disclose his own demons and anxieties in his most idiosyncratic work, leads Michael Sragow to comment on The Wild Bunch’s “low-down transcendence” (10). In his “The Homeric Power of Peckinpah’s Violence,” Sragow observes how Peckinpah “infused every frame with his complicated, fractured, and impassioned spirit” (10) and imparts an intriguing review of the film’s various iterations: in domestic theaters, for international distribution, and later on home viewing formats. Discussing how the film received a revised NC-17 rating from the MPAA in 1993, he surmises a potential reason for the curious appraisal, especially as it relates to Peckinpah’s perpetually prescient slant on violence. He wonders if, owing to its assessment of instinctive carnage, the film was “penalized because its galvanizing violence is emotionally and aesthetically complex and thus challenging?” (13)
Sragow also provides an extended description and breakdown of The Wild Bunch’s jarring opening sequence, a scene likewise discussed, alongside the film’s equally notorious conclusion, in “‘Through a Glass, Darkly’: Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch,” by Garner Simmons. But aside from positioning the film as a second chance for Peckinpah, arising as it did after a series of disappointments and career setback, Simmons’s most valuable contribution is the backstory he provides concerning the film’s creation. He discusses how Peckinpah entered the production and how extensive and complicated the location was in terms of logistics, supplies, and its precarious milieu, and he also focuses on three “critical members of [Peckinpah’s] production team [deserving] special recognition” (25). This includes Lucien Ballard, cinematographer, Gordon Dawson, wardrobe, and Cliff Coleman, assistant director. Simmons, who visited the film’s locations and supplies a thoughtful analysis of how and why Peckinpah shot where he did (again, there is always the personal touch), includes a concise rundown of the crew member’s role and remembrances, complemented by their enlightening anecdotes about the shoot.
On the other hand, the actors are foremost in Steve Vineberg’s “Sam Peckinpah, Actor’s Director.” Noting how routine Peckinpah players were almost unwaveringly devoted to the director, Vineberg states their loyalty went “beyond their personal affection for him and their feeling of protectiveness toward him.” He rightly remarks that they “also knew he could elicit remarkable work from them” (96). Mentioning not only The Wild Bunch’s key triumvirate of William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, and Robert Ryan, but also the stars of Peckinpah’s 1962 Ride the High Country, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, Vineberg’s assessment of the character types and respective actors fixes on Peckinpah’s ability to “build so fascinatingly on what audiences recognize in these actors from their previous work that it is impossible to imagine the movie with any other trio in the leads” (101). His biographical abstract and character study is quite revealing and he, like the other authors in this anthology, ultimately comes around to the two-fold qualities of Peckinpah’s work, linking the viewer with the filmmaker in a kindred revelation: “Those of us who love Sam Peckinpah’s movies see in them a broad, varied, and complex moral landscape that derives from his refusal to take anything at face value and his own thorny, sometimes contradictory response to abstractions such as violence, loyalty, and masculinity” (111).
The unique status of The Wild Bunch, still today but predominantly at the time of its release, is first mentioned by Cordell Strug in his foreword to A Uniquely American Epic, where he declares the film “really wasn’t like anything else” (ix). “With its power to mesmerize and to provoke,” he writes, “The Wild Bunch still gathers watchers—as well as disciples—to itself: keeps us enraptured, keeps us brooding and puzzling over its images and clashing destinies. It lives with us as a kind of talisman, the gift of a desperate pilgrim we can’t turn from or refuse” (ix). In his introduction, “The Wild Bunch at Fifty,” Michael Bliss argues that one vital aspect of Peckinpah’s film (then and now and in both cases emphasizing the relationship between film and filmgoer) is its presentation of violence, which promises redemption “but not before investigating aggressive behavior and our potential complicity with it…” (1). Such observations are echoed in “Justified,” Bliss’ concluding chapter, in which he calls The Wild Bunch a “morality play of mythic proportions” (148). The Wild Bunch “presents without judging,” he declares early on. “Its accomplished task is to compel its audience to understand that although life can be brutal and unkind, it’s also peppered with moments of such compassion and friendship that we’re as torn by its beauty as we are eviscerated by its occasional shocks and pains – that is, in sum, like the nature from which it springs and back into which it must return” (7).
As a commentary on American politics and political violence, Bliss states that the film one might correlate with The Wild Bunch is Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), but in that picture, the “opposition between rich and poor fails to make any lasting impression because it’s never adequately developed, while the movie’s romantic subplot seems layered on” (1). Instead, closer in spirit to Peckinpah’s film is Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) and Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969). Like Wexler’s film, “Peckinpah repeatedly makes the point … that there’s voyeuristic complicity in filming or viewing violence… No viewer of either film can disclaim responsibility for the violence that the films depict” (3). Returning to The Wild Bunch’s primary genre, though, Bliss writes that the film didn’t “redefine the Western” but “broadened and deepened it” (4). This argument is the decisive basis of Paul Seydor’s “Originality and Convention: The Wild Bunch as a Western,” in which he also compares Peckinpah’s film with others of the genre and considers how the “revisionist” trope is “not very helpful because throughout its long history the Western in both fiction and film has shown itself to be a remarkably malleable and adaptive genre, one that has been in an almost continual state of being revised, constantly reacting to or otherwise conditioned by large-scale changes in society, politics, and culture” (123). Applying his considerable genre familiarity and frame of reference, Seydor concludes that Peckinpah didn’t so much discard the convention of the Western but instead “[remade] the convention in a way that nobody has ever made it before” (126).
In this regard, and in what is the most beautifully written chapter of A Uniquely American Epic, Gérard Camy speaks of the film’s “abstract beauty” of violent images (112) and describes how time “contracts and expands, abolishing all of the spectator’s realistic references.” This “virtuosity of directing,” he adds, “forces the viewer to constantly pass from fascination to repulsion” (113). In “The Wild Bunch: Cinema’s Founding Act of Violence,” Camy declares that Peckinpah “dedicated his entire work to violence with a founding act: The Wild Bunch” and “made it his intellectual and artistic horizon” (113). Connecting Peckinpah with such sundry fellow directors as John Ford, Alain Resnais, Anthony Mann, Akira Kurosawa, and Nagisa Oshima, Camy writes that The Wild Bunch “demonstrated that [Peckinpah] was a filmmaker of frightening lucidity, which plunged him into the entrails of destruction and the abyss of disillusionment and finally left him devastated” (113). The “violence’s seductiveness is deceptive and ugly” (115), he observes, but in a phrase suitable enough to define the sweeping commitment of A Uniquely American Epic in general, “[t]hrough its lyricism, its power, its complexity, and its formal beauty, through the rigor of its interpretation, The Wild Bunch has the fascinating dimensions of a masterpiece.”
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the collections ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press, and David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (forthcoming).