Steve Bannon & The Wild Bunch
It's shocking when someone you don't particularly like has passion for the same book or movie you do. It is worse if they are someone publicly reviled. So like people who love The Princess Bride, but hate Ted Cruz, I was confronted with an uncomfortable fact presented in an interview with Charlie Rose, Steve Bannon explained how the people who stuck with Trump and who didn't was a litmus test after the president's statements after the Charlotte incident and quoted from one of his favorite films.
"It’s a line I remember from the movie ‘The Wild Bunch. William Holden uses it right before that huge gunfight at the end. ‘When you side with a man, you side with him,’ okay? The good and the bad. You can criticize him behind, but when you side with him, you have to side with him.”
This mainly bothers me for the way the film can now be perceived by the people who haven't seen it and mainly know it only for it's violence and possible misconceptions of its director Sam Peckinpah. What I understand about the director from several documentaries and two insightful biographies (Peckinpah: A Portrait In Montage by Garner Simmons and David Weddle's if They Move... KIll Em'), he would not have agreed with Bannon or Trump's politics. Also, Bannon places the quote in the wrong place, missing the entire theme of the picture and it's a point that he should take to heart.
For the uninitiated, The Wild Bunch, written by Waylon Green and Peckinpah, follows a group of mainly aging outlaws in pre-World War One Texas, lead by Holden's poetically haggard Pike Bishop. As well as the times closing in on them, so is Pike's former partner Deke Thorton (Robert Ryan, even more poetically haggard), trying to avoid Yuma prison by tracking down the gang for the rail road. After a botched robbery, the gang high tail it to Mexico to hide out and find one last score.
It's at this point, roughly between the first and second act, not before the climax, where Pike delivers the monologue-
"We're gonna' stick together, just like it used to be. When you side with a man you stay with him and if you can't do that you're like an animal, you're finished, we're finished. All of us."
It is delivered with conviction and with one of the most moving visuals moments of action after it. However, it contradicts many of Pike's actions in the robbery and as we learn, key moments in his past. Part of the the film is about a man struggling to live like the ideals he states. One could see it as Pekinpah's critique on the fair weather liberals during the late sixties period that this film was created in.
For the last job, Pike aligns himself with General Mapache, a false revolutionary fighting Villa to take Mexico for himself. Mapache is a crude mysoginist, bloated with self importance. He also the puppet of a foreign power wanting to upend North American politics. It wouldn't surprise me if the general had a background in real estate.
The bunch steal a trainload of guns from the U.S. army in trade for gold from Mapache. During the exchange, the youngest member, Angel, is taken by Mapache for giving a crate of guns to the real freedom fighters. Pike leaves him for his own survival.
When trying to get back to Texas, they encounter Deke and his bounty hunters. After they escape, Pike, sympathizing with Deke's actions, argues with his right hand man, Dutch (Ernest Borgnine)
Pike- What would you do? He gave his word
Dutch- Gave his word to a rail road.
Pike- It's his word.
Dutch- That's ain't what counts, it's who you give it to.
It's at this point Pike is hit with the true meaning of honor that leads to a poignant dialogue free scene in a whore house, one of the best walks to destiny, and what is still one of the greatest shoot-outs in cinema history. I don't know if Mr. Bannon got this message though.
I had an odd yet educational evening almost twenty years ago drinking with writer-director Paul Schrader in the bar of Austin's Driskill hotel. Before becoming a filmmaker, he was a critic and writer on film doing one of the first seminal pieces on Peckinpah, who spent time with him. He told me that in The Wild Bunch "...Sam was saying I'm a fascist and a misogynist and here is why I love it." It's not hard for me to link this interpretation to Bannon's love of the movie. While I won't deny Schrader's point, I'd like to add that Peckinpah viewed those loves as addictions, along with racism, that plague our country, constantly plunging us into turmoil. The story closes the violent wild west before we go global in The Great War.
In thinking of he Wild Bunch and how each of us view it, especially as we revisit it during our maturation, we see the beauty of Peckinpah. The film was Peckinpah's response to Nixon and Vietnam. It speaks for our current times just as eloquently. I could see if it was made today, some critics having problems with the allegory being too on the nose. As film editor and Pekinpah scholar Paul Seydor (Peckinpah: The Western Films- A Reconsideration and The Authentic Death and Contentious Afterlife of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: The Untold Story of Peckinpah's Last Western Film) said in discussing his films, "When an artist is fully engaged with his time, his work becomes timeless."
Like Bannon, I was drawn to The Wild Bunch because of it's poetic machismo that paints its surface. That was when I was in my teens. Every time I see it, I see another piece each time, whether dealing with aging, being a man, our my country, or another entirely new theme I discover. Let Bannon have his Wild Bunch, mine's better, and gets better every time I see.