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VIOLENCE IS GOLDEN

I once spent a morning in Los Angeles with Sam Peckinpah, watching him breathe fire. On the table in his hotel suite lay a stack of dirty dishes, an unkempt pile of movie scripts and a huge, unsheathed knife. There was also a .45 automatic the size of a toaster. Loaded, of course. And a half-gallon of tequila. The world-weary movie director and I were drinking this, touched with splashes of orange juice, from a couple of big shaker glasses he'd had sent up from the bar.

These accessories to the Peckinpah machismo suited the occasion perfectly. He had recently turned fifty and was still fuming about the butchery studio executives had performed two years earlier on Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which he had envisioned as his masterpiece. He was holding forth, quietly and steadily, about the punk bankers now running Hollywood and about the flabbiness of life in the United States. Never one to ignore the larger picture, he raved about the corrupted soul of mankind itself. He was certain he would soon move to Mexico.

As he drank and talked and drank, Peckinpah occasionally waved the big knife around his head. Once, he cocked the pistol. I wondered which one of us, if either, would read the story in the papers next morning.

These years later I don't remember much of what this ferocious, uncompromising artist said that day, aside from a raft of expletives. But I do remember looking into his weather-beaten face half a dozen times and seeing not Sam Peckinpah but Pike Bishop.

Pike Bishop is, of course, the aging, last-stand gunfighter who led Ernest Borgnine and Warren Oates and Ben Johnson and the other members of The Wild Bunch straight into hell. And The Wild Bunch is, of course, Peckinpah's real masterpiece. Twenty-six years after it shocked and enthralled audiences around the world, Warner Bros. is bringing the newly restored, 144-minute "director's cut" of Bloody Sam's groundbreaking Western back to theaters. In Denver, it opens Friday at the Mayan.

Presumably, audiences have been sufficiently Rambofied, Seagalized and VanDammed over the years that The Wild Bunch no longer will be the visceral stunner it was when much of a preview audience in 1969 Kansas City walked out of the theater before the gory opening massacre sequence was even finished. And the re-release isn't likely to provoke the kind of fierce arguments about movie violence that erupted the first time around. For better or worse, you can see lame imitations of the Peckinpah style every night on the boob tube.

What you can't see is Pike Bishop.
Played by the underrated William Holden, who was then 51, this memorable rebel personifies the darkness and regret of a life violently misspent--but also fierce pride in the purity of that life. The Wild Bunch was made fully ten years after the "heroic" period of Western moviemaking was over, and it was set in 1913, an entire generation later than most hayburners. For its graphic violence and its attitude, which is at once romantic and cynical, it has been variously labeled an anti-Western, a revisionist Western, and a crypto-Vietnam movie reflecting the disillusionment with myths and institutions that marked America in the Sixties.

Whatever you call it, Bunch remains a great film made in a revolutionary style. And Pike Bishop remains the embodiment of the unregenerate criminal-as-hero, annihilated by the forces of law and order in a West where there's no longer a place for him.

In the movie's climax, Pike Bishop and the Wild Bunch go out in a final blaze of glory against an overwhelming force of Mexican troops. It is also a senseless blaze of nihilism. But Pike and the others remain true to what they've always imagined to be best about themselves, even though that quality has long been doomed.

"We gotta start thinking beyond our guns," Holden tells his men. "Them days is closin' fast."

The director's cut contains about ten minutes of footage we haven't seen before--including three flashbacks that reveal to us, at last, the sources of Pike Bishop's regrets and his past failures. The restorations enrich a great film even more, a film that serves to remind us that long before Clint Eastwood's worn-out gunfighter hauled himself out of retirement in Unforgiven, there was Sam Peckinpah, raging against the dying of the light.

The Wild Bunch, Stanley Kauffmann wrote in 1972, was a Western that "enlarged the form aesthetically, thematically, demonically."

Meanwhile, it is no wonder that a visitor could see Pike Bishop all over Sam Peckinpah in a hotel suite in 1975. By then the director's fourteen-film career, too, was winding down into the self-parody of The Killer Elite and Convoy. By then he had fallen as out of tune with his time as any member of the Bunch, a fierce individualist discarded by the revamped "industry" cookie-cutter mentality and its seemingly boundless enthusiasm for the young hotshots of the film-school generation. Like Bishop--whose very name suggests holiness--Peckinpah was still living by a code that had been dishonored in the modern world. He wouldn't die until 1984, at the age of 59, but his day had passed. Like Bishop he had only his rage to shore up against the treacheries of time.

Here's one belated victory, though: The Wild Bunch whole, as he meant it. And you know Sam Peckinpah meant it.

 
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