Women of The Wild Bunch: Peckinpah, Misogyny and a Credible Moral Code

The Wild BunchYou know you’ve got a good marriage when your wife agrees to watch The Wild Bunch (1969) with you.

I must say, I was quite surprised that she made this decision in the first place. Trudi’s sole previous experience with the films of Sam Peckinpah was watching the disturbing, controversial Straw Dogs (1971) years ago—a picture she was highly offended by in part owing to its horrific rape scene, which suggests the victim (played by Susan George) enjoyed and/or deserved such monstrous sexual violence. It’s an ugly sequence, and it angered me when I saw it, too. In fact, after she told me her thoughts about the movie, I wondered if she’d feel similarly about The Wild Bunch as well; this downbeat, hyper-violent western features a number of scenes in which women are shot and treated like objects, and I worried that Trudi would become too disgusted with the proceedings to continue. For such a classic flick, there truly is a lot not to like.

But in the end, she stayed with it all the way through—without even mentioning the protagonists’ behaviour toward the female characters. I think I know why.

The Wild Bunch isn’t misogynistic.

OK, maybe that’s a stretch. There’s a scene in which one of the “bunch,” the volatile Angel, brutally shoots his former girlfriend Teresa after seeing her suck on the ear of the debauched general Mapache (Emilio Fernández)—calling her a “whore” in Spanish. And yet, his colleagues don’t ostracise him right then and there; in fact, they later note that Angel’s needed for the job Mapache requires them to do: robbing a train. You’ve also got a sequence in which the group’s leader, the grizzled Pike Bishop (played by the immortal William Holden) is shot in the back by a woman at the Federales’ camp; “Bitch,” he exclaims, wheeling around and blasting her with his gun. Not to mention the clips showing the dissolute Gorch brothers, Lyle and Tector (Warren Oates and Ben Johnson, respectively) carousing with their newfound, semi-dressed lady friends … one of whom is regaled with a comment about the size of her nipples.

Sounds like a hatred of women, right? Complete and utter misogyny?

Well, following my most recent screening of the film the other day, I’m not so sure. These are bad, hard men we’re following in the movie, folks you wouldn’t invite to dinner with your parents. They have no compunction about starting a shootout in the middle of a town where innocent people are milling about. They don’t feel bad about soliciting prostitutes—or, in the Gorches’ case, arguing about the cost of their services. And they certainly don’t show remorse about hurting or torturing animals ranging from horses to birds, though Lyle strangely chastises Angel about the treatment of the starving dogs in the latter rider’s village midway through the film. In other words, they’re rather mean, vicious characters, and their sensibilities when it comes to women are in line with their personalities. They’re not enlightened people. They’re ageing bandits on the edge.

But this doesn’t mean they don’t have a moral code. As Pike says: “When you side with a man, you stay with him! And if you can’t do that, you’re like some animal, you’re finished!” They may not all like or agree with each other all the time—and they often come close to brawling—but they’ve stuck together loyally and have to do that until the end. That’s why they don’t desert Angel. That’s why they continue to be a bunch.

The Wild Bunch William HoldenAs for their attitudes toward women, a sensitive scene toward the end in which Pike is getting dressed after engaging a local prostitute tells much about the gang. The Gorch brothers are quarrelling with the woman they hired about payment, but Pike is silent. He sees that the girl he just shared a bed with has a baby. He gives her the requisite money—and leaves. But he doesn’t quibble. There’s an odd kind of sympathy in his eyes, an understanding of the prostitute’s plight. No, he doesn’t help her any more, but he has somewhere to go: his doom. And he’s not about to wait for it longer.

Even the crass Gorch brothers have a mushy side. After drunkenly notifying his colleagues that he’s engaged to one of the women he has romped around with, he holds her closer in a protective manner to shield his “fiancée” from the raucous laughter erupting at his announcement. Could Lyle be—gasp!—husband material? He certainly doesn’t resist the idea at that moment.

I’m not saying these traits automatically preclude the characters in The Wild Bunch from being unsympathetic; for the most part, they are, and they have few redeeming qualities. Yet the protagonist of a movie (or, for that matter, any piece of art) has to have something likeable about him or her to some extent for the work to be successful—otherwise, the consumer will reject it and refuse to become involved in the story. Despite his violent nature and villainous activities (including rape and murder), Alex in A Clockwork Orange (1971) has quite a lot of charm … in part because of actor Malcolm McDowell’s charismatic performance. Oh, and he enjoys Beethoven, too, which means he has good taste. If he were thoroughly evil, the movie wouldn’t be watchable. The audience would want to see him bumped off in the first reel. He has to either change or undergo a transformation, and he does just that.

So what’s the transformation in The Wild Bunch—do Pike and his not-so-merry men change? I think they do. They come to the realisation that they’ve got to go out with a bang, remain loyal to their members. They also understand they’re a dying breed, and their bounty-hunter pursuers won’t stop tracking them. Loyalty to their men and their cause is more important than living. They’ve existed enough already. It’s finally time for them to go.

No, it’s not my cup of tea when it comes to snuffing it, but I don’t think that makes a difference. It’s what they believe, and their actions are completely credible in the context of the movie. It’s even, in some bizarre way, admirable. A last look at the prostitute he spent time with, and Pike is ready to fight to the death. He’s burning out, not fading, and that’s all right with him. As Pike says: “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” That’s his prerogative—not ours. And I’m satisfied with that cinematic decision.

Was Trudi? Let’s put it this way: The Wild Bunch isn’t her favourite movie, and I think she was glad when it wrapped up. But there were parts where I noticed she was intently following the film, especially during the scenes involving Pike and fellow brigand Dutch Engstrom (played by Ernest Borgnine), which shows the essence of their ideology: allegiance to each other and to their own, peculiar moral code. That Trudi didn’t express annoyance at the depiction of women in the picture was telling, as it suggested her understanding of the characters Peckinpah wished to present. The violence and anger directed at female personages in the film were exactly in tune with what Pike and the rest of his bunch represented—something that was disappearing, not because it was good, but because it was old, antiquated. We’re not looking at the West with rose-colored glasses here; rather, the tone is washed-out, dusty. Is it a positive that they’re being extinguished? Perhaps, but it’s also sad, because it’s the end of an era, no matter how brutish it was. No one will miss it, but it will always be a part of history, the history of the region. And the code of the bunch still lasts in the minds of viewers, despite its questionable morality.

In celluloid veritas, right? Right … because as we know, truth doesn’t always have to be right.

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse (criticalmousse.com) that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

7 thoughts on “Women of The Wild Bunch: Peckinpah, Misogyny and a Credible Moral Code

  1. In my opinion a Western masterpiece and a great double feature with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Great essay and it raises a lot of pungent questions.

    • Thanks, Philippe. That’s a fine double-feature idea–with two very different Westerns (and “Valance” is one of my favorites). One thing they do share: an elegiac quality. Certainly, they’re films I can watch again and again, yet still see something new.

  2. Great opening line, Simon, pulled me right in. Good piece on an uncomfortable aspect of being a Peckinpah fan. Alas, when I recently bought the “Wild Bunch” on Blu-ray I ended up watching alone.

    • Thanks, Rick. I’ve tried to convince myself throughout the years that a movie, if good enough, will appeal to both genders, but Peckinpah is so polarizing that I wonder if I’m being simplistic.

  3. By coincidence, I watched this again on TV last month. I always recalled it with great fondness from the original cinema viewing, and wondered if it would hold up. It did. It is a finale to the Old West, in so many ways. Even the overblown final shootout is something of a farewell to this kind of excess, at least in the Western genre.
    Holden, Borgnine, Johnson, Ryan, in fact so many of the cast, were also in the ‘autumn’ of their careers (and in some cases lives) at the time too, and I always believed that this was the perfect combination of casting and storyline.
    Best wishes, Pete

    • I completely agree, Pete–this is one of my favorite movies, and the orgiastic shootout at the end, though it may be completely unrealistic, is a fitting coda to the film and its characters. Upon my most recent viewing of the film, I was struck by how good the script was; it’s quite lean and economical, as well as full of depth and tension. A masterpiece in so many ways.

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