Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Redefining the Western Genre

"What I like and what I need are two different things."

Deke (Robert Ryan)

The premiere of "The Wild Bunch" 45 years ago today was an important milestone in the movie western.

Gunfights have always been part of a movie western, but, in the early days, there were also parts of westerns that dealt with other things, too. Sometimes they addressed subjects that made viewers think. Sometimes they were partly love stories. Even "High Noon" dealt with nonviolent issues while Gary Cooper went looking for backup in the approaching shootout.

"The Wild Bunch" had other issues, too, but they were intimately related to the violence of the Old West. By and large, before "The Wild Bunch," Hollywood had idealized the Old West, but "The Wild Bunch" portrayed the Old West as the violent place the history books tell us it really was.

Along with the "spaghetti Westerns" that were popular at that time, "The Wild Bunch" redefined the western genre. If anything, the westerns that have followed have been increasingly violent.

Must have made it hard for the parents of the last half century to instill certain values in their children.

When we are young, we are told that might does not make right. It is a principle that is reinforced continually in stories and movies.

In "The Wild Bunch," it was understood that laws might exist, but, at its heart, the West was a lawless place, and it belonged to the new, not the old.

The story took place in 1913. The world was changing, and the "Wild Bunch," an aging gang of outlaws, knew their time was coming to an end. The frontier was making its transition to modern civilization.

I liked what film critic Roger Ebert wrote:

"In an early scene," he wrote, "the bunch rides into town past a crowd of children who are gathered with excitement around their game. They have trapped some scorpions and are watching them being tortured by ants. The eyes of Pike (William Holden), leader of the bunch, briefly meet the eyes of one of the children. Later in the film, a member of the bunch ... is captured by Mexican rebels and dragged around the town square behind one of the first automobiles anyone there has seen. Children run after the car, laughing. Near the end of the film, Pike is shot by a little boy who gets his hands on a gun.

"The message here is not subtle, but then Sam Peckinpah was not a subtle director, preferring bold images to small points. It is that the mantel of violence is passing from the old professionals like Pike and his bunch, who operate according to a code, into the hands of a new generation that learns to kill more impersonally, as a game or with machines."

William Holden played the leader of the gang, but he wasn't the first choice. Lee Marvin accepted the role but had to pull out to make "Paint Your Wagon." Before casting Holden in the role, Peckinpah considered such heavyweights as Burt Lancaster, James Stewart, Charlton Heston, Gregory Peck, Sterling Hayden, Richard Boone and Robert Mitchum.

Not to say that Holden wasn't a heavyweight, but the others had more heft for the role, I think.

Anyway, Holden and his gang (Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson, Edmond O'Brien, Warren Oates, Jaime Sanchez) wanted one last, big score before retiring; at first, they selected, as their target, a railroad office, but they were disappointed. They thought they would get a stash of silver for their trouble. Instead, they got a bag of steel washers. To add insult to injury, they were ambushed by Holden's ex–partner (Robert Ryan) but managed to escape to Mexico.

That was just the beginning of a long tale of double crosses and lawless maneuvers. The closest thing to a love story in "The Wild Bunch" was when Sanchez saw an ex–lover in the arms of a Mexican general and shot her on the spot.

"The Wild Bunch" was a bloody movie, but the violence didn't seem gratuitous. Still, there is no denying it was violent. It both started and ended with perhaps the bloodiest conflicts that had been seen on the big screen to that time — and, mind you, this was at a time when movies like "Bonnie and Clyde" had been showing up in theaters.

It seemed like an honest representation of a time and a place where the sword was mightier than anything else around.