Like The Professionals, The Wild Bunch is driven by questions of loyalty, honor, the integrity of identity (both group and individual), and the ways in which the past mediates the present. The film revolves around an aging gang of outlaws who, after the fiasco of their latest robbery, attempt one last job before “retiring.” In the course of events, the Bunch aligns itself with a Mexican warlord, who forces them to choose between their own survival, or the betrayal of one of their own. Without any other organizing principle except the pact that binds them together, the Bunch choose to keep faith, a decision that sets in motion an apocalyptic shoot out as they take down a small army of corrupt Federales with them.
When the Wild Bunch first appear, they do so disguised as Army soldiers. The disguise acts as a sign of inverted identity, through which the prevailing cultural discourse of law and order is repudiated for the Bunch’s own internal code, as well as undermined for personal profit. Unlike the professionals, or Ben Trane, the Bunch do not see themselves belonging in any way to the larger discourse, nor are they concerned with re-affirming their identity by revisiting the sites of memory. As outlaws living on the margins, they have formed their own discourse, thriving on what their culture has excluded. More than Trane or Rico and Dolworth, the Bunch’s leader, the fiercely determined, yet melancholy, Pike Bishop (played by William Holden), registers the anxiety of this anchorless position when he remarks on the need to “think beyond our guns” since the days of the frontier are “closing fast.” This recognition carries an anxiety for him which no re-connection with the past can renew, as evidenced by this pointed exchange early on between Pike and his second, Dutch (Ernest Borgnine, who also appears in Vera Cruz):
Pike: “I just want to make one good score, then back off.”
Dutch: “Back off to what?”
The predicament of the Wild Bunch is that they are men without a past, outlaws whose lives have denied them even the de-ritualized sites of memory to which Pierre Nora refers. All they really share in common is the expansive anodyne of their laughter, which as a marker of the absurd hopelessness of their lives temporarily immunizes them from despair, permitting them to embrace their rootless situation. Laughter – crude, raucous, celebratory – as in the scene where the aging desperado Sykes mocks the Bunch after the loot from the payroll robbery turns out to be nothing but sacks full of metal washers – “here you are, with a handful of holes, a thumb up your ass, and a big grin to pass the time of day with” – laughter erupts as a singular gesture of defiance that is also the recognition of a life saturated by the melancholy of violence; a life that is nasty, brutish, and short, demanding a transgressive response that is a-historical. Laughter is the true site of memory for the exiled Bunch and while it is not enough to provide them with an enduring hedge against oblivion, it nevertheless stubbornly marks the boundary of the body inside a history that will not remember them.
Unlike the Professionals, the Bunch’s crossing the border carries no promise of hope, but rather is done disconsolately, after their disastrous shoot out in Starbuck. Surveying Mexico from the banks of the Rio Grande, Tector Gorch remarks that it “just looks like more of Texas.” To which Angel, the passionate idealist for whom Mexico is home (and thus, more than a site of memory, but a real, living place), retorts, “You have no eyes.” Later, when the pursuing bounty hunters, led by Pike’s betrayed companion, Deke (Robert Ryan, again intertextually cast as the hapless man of action), arrive at the river crossing, Deke asks, “What’s in Agua Verde?” (the nearest town), one of them derisively replies, “Mexicans. What else?” In The Wild Bunch, Mexico represents neither a site of memory for the central characters, Pike and Dutch, as it does in The Professionals, nor an opportunity for renewal as in Vera Cruz. Initially, it is merely a place for the Bunch to lay low, a region not of rebirth, but of derision and defeat.
This changes in the scene in which Angel takes the weary Bunch to his village. Here, they are feted in gala style by the friendly villagers. Even the fearsome Gorch Brothers frolic like children with a village maid who is the very picture of innocence. No longer a dusty watering hole, Agua Verde takes on the idyllic aspect of Paradise regained. As one of the village elders remarks to a bemused Pike, over the languid sounds of a guitar: “We all dream of being a child again, even the worst of us. Perhaps the worst most of all.” Fittingly, the dispossessed Bunch, who have nothing to “back off” to, find solace, however fleetingly, through a family of foreign strangers. This unabashed romanticism forms one strand for the film’s critique of the Western genre. Its brutal nihilism forms the other. By juxtaposing these strands, The Wild Bunch delivers a more complex and ambiguous reading of the possibility of renewal that is taken for granted in both Vera Cruz and The Professionals.
When Pike agrees to steal a shipment of Army rifles for the corrupt local tyrant Mapache, in exchange for the freedom of Angel, who has killed Mapache’s woman (Angel’s former lover), a chain of events is set into motion that irrevocably compromises the Bunch’s amoral spirit of anarchy with the idealism and honor of the impoverished rebel Mexicans. Though never explicitly suggested, the subtext of this arrangement seems to signify the formation and recognition of a familial bond between the dispossessed rebels and the equally dispossessed Bunch.
The story of the Bunch’s doom is in effect the story of their politicization. Dutch and Pike both state on several occasions their extreme dislike of Mapache’s bloodthirsty avarice and corruption, expressing a desire for a general uprising of the populace. When Pike initially suggests that Mapache’s simply another crook like themselves, operating on a larger scale, Dutch vociferously objects: “we don’t hang nobody!” Here, in its brutal kernel, is all we need to know about the code that bonds the Bunch together. Their politicizing – which is nothing more, really, than an uneasy, ad hoc alliance with the pueblo villagers (and by association, Pancho Villa, a distantly glimpsed presence in the background) who oppose Huerta and Mapache – remains in the end a deeply personal affair, one defined and motivated by their sense of loyalty (to Angel) and to their own honor.
Led by this code, then, the Bunch’s choice to join the cause of liberation is as close as the movie comes to attempting a resolution to the “crisis of memory” – the utter lack of any family or roots to which the Bunch can back off to. While little more than a pact for mutual survival, this code contains a kind of nascent social contract, one most forcefully expressed by Pike after the disastrous payroll heist in Starbuck, when the Bunch threatens to unravel. “When you side with a man you stay with him. If you can’t do that you’re like some animal. You’re finished. We’re finished. All of us.” Later on, Pike tells Angel, “If you ride with us, you don’t have a village.” These two statements form the moral underpinning of the film, and give rise to the final crisis for the Bunch.
In effect, the Bunch are their own village, and Pike’s struggle to give them some sense of identity, despite their inability to share in a site of memory, however debased, is one he cannot maintain for very long. In siding with Angel, the Bunch unknowingly take on Angel’s own fierce commitment, his deep sense of belonging, to the land and to his people. Without quite fully realizing it, they slide down the slippery slope of communal identity simply because it is the only thing, perhaps, that has ever resembled something in their lives to which they could “back off.” This is confirmed in the film’s final image of the border: the bridge over the Rio Grande which the Bunch destroy by dynamite after escaping over it with the stolen guns. The act of demolition, which symbolically bars them from returning to the United States, foreshadows the film’s bloody climax – a line which, once crossed over, permits no return.
The Wild Bunch, then, offers perhaps the ultimate expression of the logic of “regeneration through violence.” It is regeneration by violence carried to its final and lethally all-consuming endgame: apotheosis by apocalypse. More than that, though, the film demonstrates how the anxiety over the closing of the frontier – essentially, the foreclosure of the future – can collude with issues of collective memory, or its threatened erasure, in such a way as to create not redemption, as in the first two films, but nihilism and self-destruction. Ironically, it is The Bunch’s inability to ground themselves in a truly viable symbolic, as opposed to actual, past, as represented by sites of memory, that denies them access to an achievable future. For it is not only the frontier that is closing. It is memory itself – the localized, personally felt bond with a group or a region – that is being eradicated by the looming specter of history.
History, “analytical, critical, and secular,” is replacing the unstable text of memory, which Nora characterizes as existing in a state of “permanent evolution.” Like a new kind of cultural technology, history, which Nora observes is “perpetually suspicious of memory,” institutes a new mode of meaning production with which memory cannot compete. The Bunch’s separation from culture, then, is permanent and so, too, is their regression. Genuine regeneration, at least in the terms offered by the culture they have rejected, cannot occur. Engaged in what Richard Terdiman describes as “the intense struggle between repetition and innovation, between past and future,”the Bunch are destroyed because they do not possess a sufficient link to a past larger than themselves and therefore capable of funding a viable future.
Thus, the flashback montages of the Bunch’s raucous, life-affirming laughter, which director Peckinpah inserts at key moments in the narrative, do much more than serve as simple sentimental touchstones designed to cue a certain response from the viewer. They stand as pointed occasions for the force of living presence to spontaneously assert itself, reminding us that the fate of the Bunch is not simply that of outlaws living beyond the pale, but of humans who could not successfully negotiate the future because of their vexed relationship to the past. Nora notes that “memory is blind to all but the group it binds.” Simply put, the Wild Bunch are destroyed because they choose memory over history. In this sense, we are invited to compare their end to the tragic fate of similar marginalized groups, like the Mexicans peasants and native Americans who resisted assimilation into the cultural hegemony.
It is from out of this poignant framing of loss, I would suggest, that the film is able to generate such a tremendous attitude of warmth toward these savage and wayward men, paradoxically humanizing them at the point where, in another film, they would seem to be least human, namely, in the climactic bloodbath. As Pike says, “when you side with a man, you stay with him. If you can’t do that you’re like some animal.” It is precisely because this form of the social contract draws its power from memory, rather than history, that marks it as doomed.
Unlike the examples of psychological rebirth displayed in Vera Cruz and The Professionals, The Wild Bunch depicts a world in which Mexico can no longer function effectively as a trope for renewal. Instead, it offers a picture of the land south of the border as the place where the restorative powers of memory are chimerical, or bankrupt; where the past no longer has the power to mediate the present; and where anxiety for the future assumes its ultimate form: the last horizon, the final border, which is the crossing from life to death.
Though often referred to as both an elegy for the American West and for a certain style of more genteel filmmaking (after Peckinpah, the deluge), The Wild Bunch may also be read as a powerful elegy for memory itself. Its Götterdammerung-like staging of one last fatal border crossing sounds the knell not only for the frontier’s closing and the diminishment of local memory by absolutist history, but also for the kind of naive Western mythmaking by which Americans were able to reconcile themselves to the barbaric price they paid for their empire. With the eclipse of memory, the totalizing force of history becomes inescapable. More than that, though, the eclipse of memory marks a sea-change for the inner frontier where re-invention takes place, foreclosing the possibilities set in motion by desire, which is always exceeding itself, always yearning for what lies beyond its borders.
As Vera Cruz and The Professionals suggest, and The Wild Bunch powerfully enacts, the unstable logic of American nation-building, sutured together in the name of a dream of belonging, binds the drive to limitless expansion and aggrandizement on the one hand to the conserving movement toward stabilizing community on the other, only to fissure and split apart when followed to its inevitable and violent end.