The opening of The Wild Bunch is a perfectly constructed sequence that uses oft overlooked techniques like screen direction, repetition and bookended images to illustrate what is most important to Peckinpah: the theme. It was theme that was in the director’s mind when his friend Don Emilio offhandedly said to him that the opening of the script–when the bunch enters the town–reminded him of when he was a kid, he’d drop a scorpion on an anthill and all the ants would attack the scorpion. The remark prompted Peckinpah to immediately call his producers and demand “I want ants and I want scorpions, and I don’t care how you get them down here!” From that point on, Peckinpah rewrote the script with that image in mind.
At the beginning of the film, the leader of the bunch, William Holden’s Pike Bishop, looks screen left at a circle of children watching a scorpion being consumed by hundreds of ants.
Pike’s look is one of disapproval, even bewilderment—these children are delighting in their spectatorship. It’s very possible that Pike doesn’t see exactly what it is the kids are delighting in; however, Peckinpah makes the viewer aware of it. In fact, he makes sure we don’t miss it.
The expression on Pike’s face is the expression we, as viewers, wear as we’re introduced to the activity as well as the kids’ gleeful reactions to the activity in close-ups. In a movie called The Wild Bunch, the first close-up of the bunch, is a bunch of children who are complicit in the torture of an arachnid.
Meanwhile, the other bunch (the one we assume the movie is named after) has moved screen right together as they head into town.
The entire sequence that opens the film is split in two by screen direction; namely, in the direction Peckinpah’s bunch moves.
Alfred Hitchcock was a director who valued screen direction as a means of conveying character. In the opening of Strangers on a Train, Hitchcock films one man walking from right-to-left, the direction traditionally associated with an antagonist; while the other man walks left-to-right, suggesting he’s the protagonist.
Hitchcock intercuts their walk, which makes it effectively appear as though the two characters are on a collision course. A little later, the pairs of feet do meet, which satisfies the sense of anticipation Hitchcock has created on screen.
While films in the past have coded left-to-right to mean “good” and right-to-left to mean “bad,” that doesn’t necessarily mean filmmakers can’t change up what’s been done before. In The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Smeagol/Gollum has a conversation with himself. The good half of himself, Smeagol, is looking right-to-left, and the bad half of himself, Gollum, is looking left-to-right, as Peter Jackson jump-cuts to different close-ups of him, each on opposite sides of the 180 degree line.
It is interesting to note, however, that after Gollum disappears from the scene and Smeagol is left alone with himself, Jackson films Smeagol where Gollum once was, looking left-to-right. Perhaps indicating that good has conquered evil, at least at this very moment, and that part of his character has been restored to its rightful position.
In The Wild Bunch, Pike leads a group of men dressed as soldiers toward the bank they’re planning to rob. Of course, no one thinks they’re robbers—not even the audience, and we’re not meant to. The entire journey to the bank, as “lawmen,” is staged moving left-to-right.
This literal turn of events—the bunch goes from the “lawmen” to the “lawbreakers”—is punctuated by the shift in screen direction. As Pike turns screen left, he barks to his crew, “If they move…kill ‘em.”
Perhaps Peckinpah is coding here, establishing screen direction toward the left as “bad” and screen direction toward the right as “good?” After this reversal, the gunmen out to stop Pike’s crew shoot from the left to the right,
As they gallop out of town, they pass the same group of children, still hovering over the scorpion and the ants. However, this time, they are not merely watching the torture of the creature, they are the ones who are torturing it.
I can’t stress enough how important theme is to filmmakers. It’s the most important aspect of creating a film that resonates, a film that works, a film that means something, even if the world the filmmaker is creating is, in a sense, meangingless. The theme of a movie should, for better or worse, become the filmmaker’s obsession—an obsession that we see explored over and over in the filmmaker’s work. It’s common practice for painters—from Monet to Picasso to Munch—to paint the same version of a painting over and over again, exploring the same theme in different works, for years, if not entire lifetimes. That’s the nature of art: it’s all-consuming, personal, primal.
Martin Scorsese recently wrote, “Whenever I hear people dismiss movies as ‘fantasy’ and make a hard distinction between film and life, I think to myself that it’s just a way of avoiding the power of cinema. Of course, it’s not life—it’s the invocation of life, it’s in an ongoing dialogue with life.” Movies should aspire to be art (the invocation of life) not artifice (the inhibition of life). Sam Peckinpah made The Wild Bunch because he believed “in the Greek theory of catharsis: by watching the violence, we would be purged by pity and fear and get this out of our system.”
The theme of The Wild Bunch is that violence is natural—it’s born into us, it’s somehow planted within our innocence. However, the point of the movie is that we must not ignore it; we must be cognizant of it in order to control it.
Peckinpah strongly believed that violence was, and continues to be, the cancer of our world, and he used film to put that cancer under a microscope to see, examine and, subsequently, renounce. He used repetition the way Bertolt Brecht used repetition in the theatre, to “alienate” the viewers’ emotional attachment to the subject matter. Brecht called it Verfremdungseffekt and likened it to someone describing an accident that occurred on the street, “The street demonstrator’s performance is essentially repetitive. The event has taken place; what you are seeing now is a repeat.” The demonstrator describes and performs what he has seen, “the man was stepping off the curb like this, and then the truck hit him.” Often, the demonstrator repeats the action he just demonstrated, but repeats it slower, and/or from a different angle, in order to give the audience around him a visual autopsy of the event.
Peckinpah filmed violence in a similar fashion, applying this technique to cinema, and it ultimately became his staple as a director. In the opening sequence of The Wild Bunch, he captures moments of violence in slow motion, and in the editing room, chops those moments into three parts.
In this particular scene, Peckinpah intercuts his triptych of ultraviolence with close-ups of children watching in horror. While the shots of the death are not, technically, repeats of action; they remain stuck in time as Peckinpah cuts to other moments—it’s as though the images stand outside of time, their lasting and traumatic effect on the children watching, timeless.
After all, it’s a child who picks up a gun and shoots Pike at the end of the film.
The potential for violence is born into us, and in this film, the realization of that violence is passed down from one generation of killers to another as though it’s a gene. When this movie was released, America was in the throes of the Vietnam War, and for the first time in our country’s history, its citizens were being confronted with images of the death and destruction of the war on television news.
Peckinpah’s intention was to sicken the viewers with the way he filmed violence. The culture was being bombarded with disturbing images—the heinous results of violence in the war—and there was a concern that people might become desensitized to it and, therefore, become complacent with a world in which this kind of violence is tolerated. Movie critic Pauline Kael wrote of this type of filmic device: “People became particularly incensed over the balletic, slow-motion scenes; although there’s a psychological rationale, as well as an aesthetic one, for this ‘eternity in an instant’ treatment of falls and accidents and horrors, it began to seem a mere device to force us to stare at gruesomeness.”
Kael’s description speaks to Peckinpah’s point; however, while his depictions of violence disturbed some people, many were thrilled by it, and cinema—specifically Hollywood—co-opted the technique to entertain, rather than caution. There’s an inherent beauty in the way he filmed these scenes, and as a result, the aesthetic has been embraced and copied by filmmakers relentlessly.
In attempting to cleanse audiences of violence, by subjecting them to that violence in his movies, he achieved the opposite of what he set out to do: people enjoyed the violence, they romanticized it, they fell in love with it.
Pike’s wild bunch had a code. They were killers, but they had a code. The code was to stick with your friends and fight together against an unfair world. Perhaps the sheer act of rebelling against a meaningless world might provide those rebelling with the meaning they’re looking for—or perhaps not.
Peckinpah publicly expressed regret over his ethos, particularly in the latter years of his life, but that neither altered the power of the movie, nor diminished the importance of its theme. Peckinpah was an explorer: in searching for the best of humanity, he found the worst. Bertolt Brecht said, “Art is not a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it.” The Wild Bunch is a hammer that Peckinpah used to shape society; however, the way he shaped it was by holding a mirror up to our violent nature. It is the recognition and subsequent self-awareness of what we’re capable of—and the horrifying fact that we, collectively, embrace what we’re capable of—that flickers from this movie in twenty-four frames a second.
Recognizing who we are as a society is the first step to changing ourselves and changing our society. Without that step, a hammer is useless.
William Dickerson received his Master of Fine Arts in Directing from The American Film Institute. He is a writer and director whose debut feature film, Detour, was hailed as an “Underground Hit” by The Village Voice, an “emotional and psychological roller-coaster ride” by The Examiner, and nothing short of “authentic” by The New York Times. He self-released his metafictional satire, The Mirror, which opened YoFi Fest’s inaugural film festival in 2013. He recently completed his third feature, Don’t Look Back. His award-winning work has been recognized by film festivals across the country. His first book, No Alternative, was declared, “a sympathetic coming-of-age story deeply embedded in ‘90s music” by Kirkus Reviews. His latest book, DETOUR: Hollywood: How To Direct a Microbudget Film (or any film, for that matter), is available now. He currently serves on AFI’s Alumni Executive Board and is a Faculty Member at the New York Film Academy.