‘The Men Who Came Too Late and Stayed Too Long.’


What I like about Peckinpah is that you never know what you’re going to get. You’re certainly not there to be ‘entertained’. Like David Fincher says, it’s going to leave a scar.

I’d heard another seminal Peckinpah film, Straw Dogs, described as a fascist film by the critic Pauline Kael, one of the greatest American film writers. I’d always intended to find out what she had meant, and with nothing else to do aside from limp around my apartment, googled her review.

It is fantastic, and entirely convincing. I could not disagree with anything she writes, much less argue against it.

I also googled her review of The Wild Bunch, and read Roger Ebert’s afterwards. ‘Great’ art evokes complex responses, and the test of time is a test of art; how does it allow the viewer to change as they interface with it?

As an older man, I find the Bunch far more sympathetic, especially while recovering from major surgery: instead of ‘just’ a western, I now see a film of mythic proportions; a film for an older audience.

What do you do when you’re losing your tools to defend yourself against the world? How do you respond as an older person when confronted by the cruelty of nature? The film’s famous image of the Scorpions and ants becomes ever more powerful.

Ebert describes his own complex response to the film, across two reviews. In the first, he sees a work of art that he experiences as ‘great’. In the second, he sees a film in which he cheers the climactic massacre embodied by William Holden’s Pike Bishop, the ‘man with the gun’.

There is something lodged much deeper in this film, deeper than Peckinpah the creator; it is what Nietzsche called the will to power, the fascist impulse.

Speaking for myself, I’ve always had a profoundly conflicted response to the film. The massacres that bookend it are horrifying. To think the lives of the protagonists culminate in murdering hosts of strangers seems like the ultimate horror: the ultimate failure. It’s their final gesture to other people.

Therefore, making a conclusive judgement about the film is something I remain reticent to do. Reading Kael’s review particularly, believing she is right but not being able to agree with her entirely – makes me think that there is no ‘answer’. The film does not build like an equation to a definitive value. Instead, I’ll opt for Bryan Dorries’ assertion that art is a kind of primitive technology that we plug into that tells us about ourselves.

Perhaps The Wild Bunch is a fascist film and just as Ebert cheers for the man with the gun, Peckinpah speaks to my inner fascist.

Again, we are confronted by another of life’s governing ironies: the one who watches us knows us better than we know ourselves.

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