(David) Sam(uel) Peckinpah Paul Schrader - Essay

Paul Schrader

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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...

(The entire section is 880 words.)