Flickadaweek: The Wild Bunch

There aren’t many more famous images in cinema than the one that kicks off The Wild Bunch. It’s just after the turn of the twentieth century, and we’re in a tiny Texas border town. A bunch of kids are giggling at something in the street, and the camera pans in to see what it is: an enormous, venomous scorpion being overrun by hundreds of tiny ants.

You don’t need to be a film critic to see the metaphor at work here.

The Wild Bunch is the kind of major-studio picture that can’t be made anymore. We don’t have the actors, we don’t have the attention span, we don’t have the studio will to get this kind of unsettling tale made any longer. We need happy endings now, or violence so far detached from our reality that we can keep it at a distance. The Wild Bunch has neither.

It’s the story of a group of aging bank robbers on the run from bounty hunters, trying desperately to bargain their way out of the end that they know is imminent. You’ve got crusty guys like William Holden and Ernest Borgnine, guys who don’t know how to live life within shouting distance of the law. They watch as one of their number, the young, impassioned Angel, methodically gets everything stripped from him-wealth, dignity, his girlfriend-with a kind of sad detachment. They know that time’s a bitch, and as they look at the wreckage of their lives, you can’t help but look at your own history in the same way.

I’m not enough of a film scholar to talk in more than the vaguest terms about this, but this sort of apocalyptic ennui runs through a lot of the films of the late ’60s and early ’70s-Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, Bonnie & Clyde…hell, even Planet of the Apes has this kind of end-of-the-world vibe to it. Maybe it was the specter of Vietnam, the end of American invincibility, the end of JFK’s Camelot, Nixon’s betrayal of the American people…whatever it was, this was a seriously dark period for movies. (Star Wars stopped that movement dead in its tracks, and we’ll never recover from the big-budget excess it inspired.)

Like many of the films of the era, The Wild Bunch these days works more as metaphor than as story; there are too many fits, starts, and pregnant pauses for contemporary audiences to digest easily. But it’s still a worthwhile film, one with ambition and meaning. Well worth seeing.

Jay

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