“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
Hello, and welcome to “The Ten Percent,” a regular column here on Biff Bam Pop! where every other week K. Dale Koontz and I look at the corollary of Sturgeon’s Law: the ten percent of everything is not crud. This week, we’re dipping into what is perhaps the most quintessentially American film genre: the Western. It’s a broad field, with a history that stretches back at least to Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, and can arguably be traced as far back as the captivity narratives of the 18th and late 17th centuries. In any case, the mythic space of the American west has fascinated filmmakers and movie goers from the very beginning, and America has had an on again/off again love affair with the Western ever since when audiences were amazed by Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery in 1903.
Indeed, the affair has been mostly on, although the number of Westerns produced has declined dramatically since the mid-1970s. By then the days of Tom Mix, Roy Rogers, Trigger, were long gone, and even John Wayne was fading away (but not before making one final, great Western: The Shootist ). The genre itself had been reinterpreted again and again in the face of a changing world and culture: McCarthyism brought forth High Noon (1952), the bleeding wound of racism led to The Searchers (1956), The Unforgiven (1960), and Sergeant Rutledge (1960), and American involvement in Southeast Asia gave birth to the Mexico Westerns like Vera Cruz (1954) and The Professionals (1966). These and many others challenged the simple mythology of the “good man with a gun” fighting battles where good and evil were easily discerned, and right made might.
In the end, Vietnam ultimately inspired what has been considered the ultimate explosion of the myth: Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969). Starring William Holden (Pike Bishop) and Ernest Borgnine (Dutch Engstrom) as aging, unrepentant, violent outlaws, and Robert Ryan (Deke Thornton) as their former partner turned enforcer for the railroad, The Wild Bunch shreds expectations and conventions from the opening sequence, where a group of laughing children at play are revealed to be engaged in forcing scorpions to fight to the death with a swarm of red ants – until they become bored and throw burning brush on the entire conflict in an apocalyptic end game. Trust Peckinpah to sum up the entire film in the first five minutes.
For Pike and Dutch’s gang of outlaws are the scorpions writ large, anachronisms in a changing world that they ultimately do not understand, and which they cannot alter, but only immolate in a final orgy of slaughter. Chased into Mexico in the 1910s after a bank robbery (for which Pike & Co. disguise themselves as US Cavalry soldiers), they find themselves in the middle of the ongoing Mexican Revolution (1910 – 1920), where Federal troops, revolutionaries, and bandits could be the same people depending on the time of day. Earlier films like Vera Cruz and The Professionals portrayed Mexico and the Mexican Revolution as a kind of exportation of the American Revolution, where a group of trained, special forces – like Americans went south, figured out which side was in the right and used their skills to bring victory, democracy, and equality to the land. The Wild Bunch, on the other hand isn’t willing to concede the right to any side in a conflict that proves so bewildering and treacherous that the very ideas of right and wrong, or even of sides, are increasingly meaningless.
Importantly, the bad guys (Pike & Co.) are the good guys, while the good guys (Deke and the posse) are the bad guys, and Mexican forces of law and order are the source of social collapse, while the rebels are desperately trying to hold onto a way of life that even in victory is doomed. Holden and his crew can’t go back, they can’t go forward, and they ultimately have no future, for the world has already moved beyond them, and their increasingly irrelevant notions of loyalty and honor.
Pike is more right than he knows, and a later confrontation with Dutch over Deke’s choice to work for the railroad drives home the hard lesson of times changed:
Pike: What would you do in [Deke’s] place? He gave his word.
Dutch: He gave his word to a railroad.
Pike: It’s his word!
Dutch: That ain’t what counts! It’s who you give it to!
The samurai-esque myth of the good man in honorable service to a bad master no longer holds, and no longer excuses. In a word where right and wrong are interchangeable, it becomes each individual’s duty to figure out where he stands, and with whom, for himself. The world is utterly amoral, the large actors in it too often immoral, and the manly virtues are at best outmoded, at worst, laughable.
Pike, Dutch, and the rest are not Billy Budds, too good for the world. Rather they are bad guys who find themselves not bad enough for the world. As such, they have only one way out, and it solves nothing: the Battle of the Bloody Porch. This roughly five minute action sequence may well be Peckinpah’s masterpiece, and was a groundbreaking bit of cinematography and editing. Shot over twelve days, Peckinpah used six different cameras shooting at different speeds, using 333,000 feet of film in 1,288 different camera set-ups. Editing the sequence took six months and the final result contains 325 edits in five minutes, and average of one edit every second. At the time, the sequence was considered so violent that the film was threatened with an “X” rating. For violence. In an American film (!!!). People were outraged when, as Pike, long-time film hero and Western star Holden responded to being shot by a woman with an epithet and a deadly return of fire. The Battle of Bloody Porch is simply an astonishing piece of filmmaking:
The Wild Bunch ends in blood and futility. The good bad guys are dead, and the bad good guys are alive and looting, and the chaos that is the Mexican Revolution goes on. For Peckinpah, The Wild Bunch was a deliberate protest against the Vietnam War, and of the increasing American tendency to attempt to solve the most complex of problems with military intervention and governmental double-dealing. It is a haunting film, and leaves the viewer raw, without any exalting illusions for comfort. It is, inevitably, firmly in the Ten Percent.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2017). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.