I watch a lot of films. Always have. And seem to remember the stupidest details; the teenage gang in ‘On the Waterfront’? Golden Warriors, Carlito’s bodyguard? Pachanga, the theme music for each boxer in ‘Gladiator’ (no not that one…). With so many films out there to watch why would you return to watch and re-watch the same piece of celluloid? When I was asked to write about a film I returned to again and again I sat down to have a think. There are many so I made a list of those I had returned to the most; “Carlito’s Way”, “The Omega Man”, “On the Waterfront”, “The Deer Hunter”, “Cross of Iron”, “The Usual Suspects”, “Dawn of the Dead”, “The Godfather”. After I made the list the one that stood out was Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch”. But another thing stood out when I made that list and that was the amount of these films that I watched, for the first time, and then re-watched, with my Dad.
Me and Dad watched a lot of films together, it was one of the things we did. Even when there were issues and problems between us the films were always there. They were out constant. Often was the time he’d simply throw me a look and say “Steiner, tonight?” and I’d nod and find the video for ‘Cross of Iron’. Films were part of our vocabulary; when me, or any of my siblings went abroad, Dad would mumble about taking care or else he’d come looking like Jack Lemmon in “Missing”. Many were the films he introduced me to, and many the time I’d stumble home and find him up watching the late night film or a video; “The Warlord”, “Ulzana’s Raid”, ”Charley Varrick”, “Valdez is Coming”, “Marathon Man”. So why “The Wild Bunch”? He loved it and I loved it. Did I love it because he loved it? Maybe.
From the off it is classic Peckinpah; the children burning the scorpions, the iconic bank robbery turning into an ambush that proceeds with little dialogue but did teach me some of the words to the hymn ”Shall we gather at the river”. But what was it exactly about this film in particular that claimed me as its own, more than any of those others I’ve mentioned?
As far back as I can remember I’ve loved westerns. I used to sit, right up to the telly, and watch the film at six on BBC2 every night – this was before the days when “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” ruled that spot. The film started at six, was usually a western, and was normally done by seven thirty when Dad got home from work and we had dinner. So you could say I was pre-disposed to prefer “The Wild Bunch”. One thing that drew me in was the moral code exhibited by Pike and the others – “When you side with a man, you side with a man”. Loyalty. This in turn plays with how we see these bad men, yes they’re outlaws but as we see there is much worse in the world than them. This moral code being broken by Deke, played by Robert Ryan, adds to the ambiguity which permeates the film. As Dutch says to Pike after Pike has said that Deke has given his word – “That ain’t what counts! It’s who you give it to”. When we see why Deke has turned his coat to the others, torture in Yuma Prison, it adds to the shades of grey that swirl through the worlds of these men.
One of the other reasons that I think I return to the film time and time again is the sense of men out of time. The Wild Bunch are men who have run to the end of their own era. They have run out of time like they have run out of land, the West has changed and they are forced south into Mexico. This sense of changing times is beautifully realised towards the end of the film when Pike and the others attack the General’s men to retrieve the body of Angel. Colt .45 automatics, hand grenades, pump-action shotguns and a Browning .30 cal machine gun – the men use the products of the modern world that is killing them to smite their enemies.
And then there’s Ernest Borgnine, that stalwart of so many films; “Escape from New York”, “Jubal” and “Ice Station Zebra” (yes, he made award winners but these are the ones I like), being shouted at by Holden’s Pike – “Get up you lazy bastard!”. The of course there is Pike himself. If Borgnine as Dutch is the heart of the group then Pike is the mind and soul hunting for that one last score before they fade into the history books.
The best thing though, the very best thing, about re-watching “The Wild Bunch” is that even though he has been gone for eight years I like to think that Dad’s watching it with me each time I sit down and drop the DVD in the tray. It comes down to that with lots of films I’ve watched since he died – would Dad have liked that? So before I start getting maudlin grab a couple of cold ones out of the fridge, stick the film on and sit back and watch Pike, Dutch and the rest ride south with one eye out for ‘big hats’ and another for Deke and the white trash bounty hunters he’s riding with. Cheers, Dad.
Bio: Benedict J Jones is a writer of crime, horror and western fiction from south east London. His work has appeared in magazines such as One Eye Grey, Pen Pusher, Out of the Gutter and Encounters, on a variety of websites including Big Pulp and Shotgun Honey and in anthologies from Dark Minds Press, Crystal Lake Publishing, Full Dark City Press and Dog Horn Publishing .