(David) Sam(uel) Peckinpah

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Paul Schrader

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"The Wild Bunch is simply," says director Sam Peckinpah, "what happens when killers go to Mexico." And in the beleaguered career of Sam Peckinpah Mexico has become increasingly the place to go. It is a land perhaps more savage, simple, or desolate, but definitely more expressive. Sam Peckinpah's Mexico is a spiritual country similar to Ernest Hemingway's Spain, John London's Alaska, and Robert Louis Stevenson's South Seas. It is a place where you go "to get yourself straightened out." (p. 19)

Peckinpah carefully manages his violence [in The Wild Bunch], bargaining between the violence the audience wants and the violence he is prepared to give. Peckinpah uses violence the way every dramatist has, to make the plot turn. Then he applies vicarious violence to the plot mechanism. We don't really care whether it's logical if so-and-so is killed; we need more blood to satiate our appetite…. At the final level, the most difficult, Peckinpah goes beyond vicariousness to superfluity. We no longer want the violence, but it's still coming. Violence then can either become gratuitous or transcend itself. Peckinpah enjoys walking the thin line between destructive and constructive violence….

Robert Warshow wrote that the Western was popular because it created a milieu in which violence was acceptable. After years of simplistic Westerns, Peckinpah wants to more precisely define that milieu. Violence, Peckinpah seems to say, is acceptable and edifiable primarily for the spectator. It may also be edifiable for the participant, but only to the extent that it is suicidal. Like the Western code, it succeeds most when it is self-destructive. To be of any value violence must move from vicariousness to artifice. The spectator must be left "disinterested" in the Arnoldian sense, evaluating what he had previously reveled in.

In the post-slaughter epilogue of The Wild Bunch Peckinpah rubs the spectator's nose in the killing he had so recently enjoyed. New killers arrive to replace the old. A way of life has died, but the dying continues….

The film is not about an antiquated Western code, but about Westerners bereft of the code. The Bunch are not Westerners who kill, but are killers in the West. Ride the High Country gave a perspective on why the code was valuable; The Wild Bunch gives a perspective on the age that could believe the Western code was valuable….

In The Wild Bunch Peckinpah comes to terms with the most violent aspects of his personality. A long-time acquaintance of Peckinpah recently said of him, "I think he is the best director in America, but I also think he is a fascist." He was using the term "fascist" personally rather than politically. Peckinpah has a violent, domineering streak. There is in Peckinpah the belief that the ultimate test of manhood is the supression of others….

The fascist edge of Peckinpah's personality does not make him particularly unique. It is a trait he shares with directors like Don Seigel, Howard Hawks, Samuel Fuller, Anthony Mann and all the rest of us who have always wanted to believe that those horseriding killers were really making the West safe for the women-folk. What makes Peckinpah unique is his ability to come face to face with the fascist quality of his personality, American films, and America, and turn it into art….

In The Wild Bunch Sam Peckinpah stares into the heart of his own fascism. What had been formerly protected by the code is laid bare. The Western genre is ideally suited to such an examination; Jean-Luc Godard has noted that the Western is the only surviving popular fascist art form. In the past the...

(This entire section contains 880 words.)

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Western had been able to perpetuate the myth of its own altruism, but, for Peckinpah, that myth had died its honorable death inHigh Country. The Westerners of The Wild Bunch have lost their code—only the fascism remains. The power of The Wild Bunch lies in the fact that this fascism is not peculiar to Peckinpah, but is American at heart. The America which created the Western … is the America Peckinpah determined to evaluate in his own life.

Like America's former macho-in-residence, Ernest Hemingway, Sam Peckinpah fights his private battles in public, both in life and art, but unlike Hemingway Peckinpah comes increasingly to terms with his own persona as he ages. As Hemingway approached death he relied increasingly on his code; as Peckinpah grows older he progressively discards his prefering to confront death head-on. The Wild Bunch is The Old Man and the Sea without a boat, a great fish or a native boy. The great anguish of The Wild Bunch is the anguish of a fascist personality coming to terms with itself: recognizing its love of domination and killing, and attempting to evaluate it. (p. 22)

The Wild Bunch is a powerful film because it comes from the gut of America, and from a man who is trying to get America out of his gut. The trauma of expatriotism is a common theme in American art, but nowhere is the pain quite so evident as in the life of Sam Peckinpah. The Wild Bunch is the agony of a Westerner who stayed too long, and it is the agony of America. (p. 25)

Paul Schrader, "Sam Peckinpah Going to Mexico" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Cinema, Vol. 5, No. 3, 1969, pp. 18-25.


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