Sam Peckinpah - The Wild Bunch

This is not a boxing post per se but is related to the Bad Left Hook podcast. So close enough. During the 2nd episode of Prophets of Goom, Scott mentions Sam Peckinpah, a great American movie director. It reminded me of a paper I once wrote for a college class.

It was during a long interval since I graduated college and was thinking about going back for a Masters degree. I decided to take a Continuing Ed class to see if I still liked school and studying and all that. I landed on a class titled American Film Genres and I had to write 2 papers for the class. One of the paper so wrote was about The role of laughter in The Wild Bunch.

Should mention that my professor was truly brilliant and I learned a lot and her feedback on this paper I wished I included was how all the laughter in The Wild Bunch was mirthless. An insight that seems obvious to me in retrospect. Here’s he paper:

Laughter in The Wild Bunch

Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face. – Victor Hugo

In The Wild Bunch laughter exhibits a joining or rejoining of the group, a way of acknowledging certain truths about life, and a moving on with life. It is because of the brutal nature of the Wild Bunch’s lives that laughter is used as an intermission between events in their lives. At first glance the laughter by the characters may seem inappropriate due to the excessive violence in the film. But we will see that, more than a simple coping mechanism, laughter is both a closing door on the recent past and a springboard to the next event. This paper will examine the role of laughter in The Wild Bunch and how this may differ from the traditional conventions of the western genre.

In the opening scene, laughter by children precedes a robbery attempt turned ambush. This laughter brings the audience into the first event. The Wild Bunch, stern-looking and stoic, pass by the children who are laughing while observing a fight between red ants and scorpions in a dirt pit. The camera stays on the children even after the Wild Bunch pass them. We see most children smiling or giggling, checking to make sure that others laugh along with them. One child laughs as he prods the ants and scorpions with a stick. Two children are stone-faced and catch the eyes of other children but laughter is more contagious. The film comes back to the children as the Wild Bunch leave town bloodied from the ambush. The children continue laughing as they drop burning twigs on the pit ending the insect fight once and for all. While what just occurred in town is no laughing matter for the Wild Bunch, the children, distanced from both the battle between the ants and scorpions which they facilitated, and from the shoot-out which they did not witness, continue to laugh as the Bunch ride on past.

The children’s laughter and their actions with the ants and scorpions are different than what is seen of children in other western genre films. In films such as The Searchers and Shane children are looked on upon by the traditional western hero as representations of civilization worth protecting. The Bunch notice the children but don’t pay any particular attention to them; some even seem to be taken aback by the enthusiasm surrounding the ant and scorpion battle. While the children, ending the battle with the burning twigs and dispersing, can be seen as analogous to the shoot-out that just occurred in Starbuck, it is by no means looked upon as worthy of protection or symbolic of civilization.

The Wild Bunch’s first group laugh comes only after the realization of what an utter failure the robbery attempt was: they were ambushed, lost several men, and the sacks of coin they pilfered turned out to be metal washers. Old Sykes, who was not part of the failed robbery, so he is already distanced from it, begins smiling and laughing at the sight of the washers. Tension has already risen among the Bunch because the Gorch brothers, Tector and Lyle, wanted to get more pay than Angel or Sykes. Sykes, whose demeanor is that of the caricature of the demented 49er dancing and exclaiming, "There’s gold in dem dere mountains", continues to laugh. The group only begins to laugh after talk turns to the Gorch brothers whoring while Pike was planning the robbery. The laughter starts as Dutch says, "And Pike was dreamin' of washers... you were matching whores... in tandem!" Not only does this change the subject from the botched robbery and payment issues, it allows the Gorch brothers to rejoin the Wild Bunch. The laughter begins as the truth of the situation unfolds. As in Aesop’s fable, Pike was like the ant, setting up and planning everything, while the Gorch brothers were like the grasshopper, out playing and whoring. The shared laughter acts as forgiveness of past transgressions and allows the Bunch to move forward. Now that they are back as a Bunch they can all distance themselves from the violent episode that just occurred.

Further use of laughter as a result of revealed truth can be seen as the Bunch recover from the ambush in Angel’s village in Mexico. While most of the Bunch are busy enjoying themselves, Don Jose, the village elder and leader, tells Pike, "We all dream of being a child. Even the worst of us." Laughter ensues as Don Jose indicates he knows the truth about the Bunch. Once again laughter occurs after a truth is revealed. Along with this laughter is acceptance from the village as the Bunch enjoy a festive night. The night in the village will also be their last before they venture into Agua Verde and the next event.

Laughter is used not only to signify a joining or rejoining of the group but to show acceptance within that group. This can be seen after the Bunch steal munitions off the military train and escape Thornton’s posse by blowing up the bridge. After Sykes stops any revelry after the get-away by mentioning that Thornton will be back, a whiskey bottle is passed around. The whiskey bottle makes its way through the members of the Bunch while Lyle looks on longingly. At one point Lyle is like the monkey-in-the-middle reaching for the bottle as Sykes throws it to Angel. Angel finishes off the bottle dumping what dregs remain on the ground in front of Lyle and then drops the empty bottle into Lyle’s arms. Lyle drops the bottle to the ground and walks away while the rest have a good laugh. Just as with the first group laugh scene after the failed robbery, this acts as a way for the Bunch to distance themselves from what just happened and begin to move forward to the next event. It just happens to be at Lyle’s expense that the group laughter occurs. This happens to Lyle once again after the Mexican revolutionaries come into the Bunch’s camp to collect their rifles. Tector says to his brother, "Now you listen to me, Lyle. You get up and help once in a while, I wouldn'a got caught near s'easy." This again causes laughter from everyone after a particularly tense moment. It is also a moment where the Bunch begin to move forward to the next event and go deal with Mapache.

This action of laughter to indicate a completion of an event begins to manifest itself after Mapache is gunned down in the showdown at Agua Verde. After Mapache slits Angel’s throat and is killed, Dutch and Tector smile and laugh. Then Pike shoots the German officer causing the explosion of violence. Pike realized that just killing Mapache was not an end. Angel was dead and Mapache’s army had them surrounded. This was not something that the Bunch would be able to distance themselves from and move forward. Laughter could not be used as an intermission as seen earlier. Although Mapache was dead, the showdown - this event - had to continue.

The film also shows truncated scenes of laughter in areas where some truths are too hard to face and laughing is made more difficult due to a rejection of that truth. In talking about Mapache, Dutch describes him as "just another bandit grabbing all he can." Pike responds laughing, "Like some others I can mention." Dutch takes umbrage to this, stopping the laughter and stating emphatically that the Bunch "don’t hang nobody." Although Pike was willing to laugh at some similarities between them, Dutch was rejecting it as a whole truth.

Rejection of the truth is also seen in all of Thornton’s scenes with his posse. This occurs as Coffer explains what is found in Mexico: "Mexicans, what else?" and also when Coffer yells "Bang!" and acts as if to draw on Thornton, while joking around with T.C. Never once does Thornton even crack a smile and his steely gaze stops the cackling of his men immediately. Thornton is rejecting the truth of his situation – chasing the Bunch rather than being part of them - and not capable of using laughter as an intermission between events. Only when Thornton hears gunshots off in the distance indicating the posse has been killed after the massacre at Agua Verde does he crack a smile. Thornton does not laugh until after Sykes asks him to join the Mexican revolutionaries. Sykes expounds truth in saying, "You want to come with us? It ain't like it used to be; but it'll do." Thornton’s laughter closes the door on his posse-leading Bunch-chasing recent past. Laughter is used by Sykes to welcome Thornton into the new Bunch. Echoes of laughter from all the main members of the Bunch are used to show acceptance of Thornton, as he joins Sykes, in the final scene of the film.

The scenes of laughter in The Wild Bunch are not during any light or comic relief scenes. They occur before or soon after highly tense, violent scenes in the film, particularly the Starbuck robbery and the Agua Verde massacre. This may explain how the laughter can be seen as inappropriate, uncomfortable, or annoying, as expressed during class discussions. The need of the Wild Bunch to laugh is not the same as the viewer’s need to laugh. The laughter of the characters is for themselves and not the viewer. Although there are a couple of scenes that elicit a chuckle, as when the Temperance Union attempts to repeat the alcohol abstinence vow of the preacher only to murmur some of the words back, and when Mapache, after shooting up Agua Verde with his new machine gun, exhorts his men to "put in on a tripod!", the film does not use comic relief in order to allow the viewer some breathing room from one scene to the next. Although the characters have their intermission between scenes by laughing, the viewer is pulled along without being made to laugh by the film. This is in stark contrast to a film such as The Searchers where interaction between Laurie and Martin and most scenes in the Jorgensen’s house are light in nature if not overtly comic. While it can be argued that these comic scenes are out of place in The Searchers it does allow the viewer a respite from the unfolding drama of the film. No such respite is provided in The Wild Bunch, even though characters such as Coffer and T.C. come close. Scenes of bickering from Thornton’s bumbling posse over booty from dead bodies never reach the point of comic relief based upon the circumstances surrounding its occurrence.

The scenes of laughter may also seem out of place due to the western setting of the film. The members of the Wild Bunch lack the traditional qualities and ideals associated with the tropes of the western genre. Not only are the Wild Bunch outlaws and killers but they have the temerity to laugh after terrible events unfold. Western heroes are normally not seen laughing especially when gunplay is involved. Laughing is reserved for the likes of the grinning, black attired, gunfighter Wilson in Shane. Will Kane from High Noon and Shane take their duties as protectors too seriously to laugh. Ethan in The Searchers may laugh after uttering "That’ll be the day" but it is always a derisive laugh. These heroes, unlike the Wild Bunch, never get to have an intermission between events; their idealized role as protectors is continuous.

This juxtaposition of the Wild Bunch committing violent acts and laughing afterward as they regroup is what allows the Bunch to continue to the next event and continue to function. The Bunch existed before the laughter of the children in the opening scene and Sykes and Thornton will continue on after the departed Bunch’s laughter in the closing scene. In this way, although the film is contained between these scenes, the audience is invited to keep thoughts about these characters open. Even after the film ends there is no intermission granted to the viewer.

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