What happens the moment gunmen go South of the border in American westerns? Implied foreign policy, that’s what! Updating an old ‘MGM Video Savant’ article from 1999, CineSavant takes a look at a fistful of big Hollywood shoot-out epics that formed less-than-optimal public impressions of international relations. You know, the Friendly Neighbor Policy, only with guns. The essay rewrite was first reprinted at Lee Broughton’s Current Thinking on the Western page, ‘An Internet Resource for Scholars of the Western Worldwide.’
The Foreign Adventurism Western
Discussing the films
Vera Cruz (1954),
The Magnificent Seven (1960),
Major Dundee (1965),
The Professionals (1966),
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Directed by Robert Aldrich, John Sturges, Sam Peckinpah, Richard Brooks
While enjoying an escapist, ostensibly apolitical Hollywood western, did you ever get the feeling that the filmmakers were commenting on foreign policy?
Back in the early 1970s the best studies of American genre films seemed to emanate from English critics. Philip French’s book Westerns, Aspects of a Movie Genre (The Viking Press, NY 1973) contained a number of revelations concerning prevalent attitudes toward the western genre. Citing a July 1971 Films and Filming article on Italian Westerns, French mentions “…a filmography of 155 of them, which to me reads like a brochure for a season in Hell.” But about halfway through his book, French set our minds a-spinning with an examination of the way that popular Hollywood westerns reflected politics both national and international. Mr. French focused on the 1950s, when the name of the game was Cold War posturing and message-making.
Philip French’s Inspiration.
French articulated the idea that Hollywood westerns are a good barometer for the political mood of their times, and serve that function more clearly than than other genres because western conventions so frequently rely on an allegorical framework. The basic western setup almost always includes stated or implied value judgments of right and wrong, what makes a hero, and what does and doesn’t work in society. Both consciously and unconsciously, westerns reflect their makers’ views on contemporary politics. The messages seldom show much subtlety. They may even be comic, as when Henry Hull in Henry King’s Jesse James (1939) editorializes at top volume:
“If we are ever to have law and order in the West, the first thing we gotta do is take out all the lawyers and shoot ’em down like dogs!”
Some westerns were immediately flagged for topical political messages. John Ford cavalry western Rio Grande was released in November of 1950. Whether by design or accident, its premise seems to criticize the strategies of the Korean War that had begun just five months before. John Wayne’s Colonel Kirby is stymied by Apache raiders that conveniently duck across the Rio Grande river into Mexico, where U.S. troops are forbidden to follow. This aligns closely with the Red troops and jet fighters in Korea, that used the Korea-China border as a haven against pursuing United Nations forces. The inferred editorial statement is that neither Colonel Kirby nor the U.N. peacekeepers should be stopped by arbitrary boundaries. Diplomatic details and appeasement politics just gets in the way of Doing What’s Right.
Another political interpretation of a movie is far better known. Even when new, Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon was much debated as to whether its political statement was conservative or liberal. High Noon concludes with Gary Cooper’s marshal throwing his badge into the dust to show his contempt for his politically craven town. French points out that John Wayne once claimed that he had made Rio Bravo in direct response to Zinnemann’s film. Wayne reportedly took that gesture as a criticism of America, and opined that actor Gary Cooper had been tricked into making a subversive left-wing tract. By contrast, Wayne’s lawman in Rio Bravo is a professional supported by other professionals, seeking neither help nor approval from his community. There’s never any doubt who is in charge.
French and his associates took the idea further, categorizing westerns by the American political figures he thought they most resembled. Thus High Noon and Nicholas Ray’s blacklist-savvy Johnny Guitar were deemed to be McCarthy westerns because both show individuals abandoned or persecuted by hostile political environments. French judged John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven to be a Kennedy western by virtue of its American supermen that take their superior skills and firepower beyond U.S. borders to right wrongs. On the other hand, Goldwater westerns took the Republican/conservative tack of upholding traditional, patriarchal ‘old ways’ as the ideal to be aspired to. Young-uns need to respect their elders, and all conflicts personal or public can be solved with a humiliating lecture, a spanking, or a brawl. According to French, the John Wayne production McClintock! and later Howard Hawks films like El Dorado fit in that category. French further inflected his thesis by subcategorizing films having Kennedy content treated in Goldwater style (the LBJ western), and Goldwater content with a Kennedy style (the William Buckley western). I have to assume that this new breed of English genre critics followed U.S. politics very closely.
Phillip French’s idea is more than a party game for rabid western fans. It reads better now than it did in 1973. Considering the way history turned out, his grouping of Wayne, James Stewart and Ronald Reagan into a political force for ‘aggressive complacency’ seems incredibly prescient. When it came to electing actors and entertainers to high office, American politics has been ‘printing the legend’ for decades.
French’s ideas certainly apply to a specific subgenre of westerns that raise allegorical notions about U.S. foreign policy.
The ‘Mexican Adventure’ western Subgenre.
The U.S.A.’s shifting attitudes to foreign policy are best expressed in the sub-genre of westerns about gun-toting Americans adventuring in Mexico. One might call it a ‘cultural foreign policy’ — nothing defines Americans better than how they comport themselves when off U.S. soil.
Let’s begin with Vera Cruz (1954), which was co-produced by an actively liberal star Burt Lancaster and directed by the feisty liberal Robert Aldrich. It’s roughly 1866. Groups of American mercenaries fresh from our Civil War are drifting south to sell their services in the Mexican Civil War, Juaristas vs. French Colonials. Bandit Joe Erin (Lancaster) and ex-Confederate officer Ben Trane (Gary Cooper) are intent on stealing a fortune in gold even as the rebel Juaristas appeal to their sense of decency and honor.
Vera Cruz is a very modern ‘buddy’ picture, and astonishingly cynical for its year. It predicts the amoral mayhem of the Spaghetti westerns that were still a decade away. Not only do partners Erin and Trane constantly one-up each other with cold-blooded treachery, Erin’s psychotic joy for killing is presented as part of his charm: “Anyone else string with Charlie?” Force and advantage are the only respected values. Ben Trane doesn’t mind kidding the French lancer Captain Danette (Henry Brandon). Joe Erin openly mocks the preening militarist, a ‘toy soldier’ from a discredited system of chivalry. Although Erin is a brigand and Trane a cultured Southerner, being on foreign soil makes them comrades. Behaving like etiquette-free barbarians is a statement of identity: ‘We’re not the hypocrites here.’
Did any mainstream reviews in 1954 regard Vera Cruz in the context of France’s failing attempt to hold onto colonial Vietnam? The screenplay thumbs its nose at accepted adventure-film traditions: national loyalty and the right of Europeans to occupy 3rd World countries. This was the same year that the Eisenhower administration’s CIA was learning efficient ways to overthrow governments in Central America. Foreign movies with explicit anti-American themes were being censored on import, removing objectionable political content. The domestic release of H.G. Clouzot’s La Salaire de la Peur (The Wages of Fear) was cut by twenty minutes to eliminate its direct indictment of U.S. corporations for the misery and poverty of Central America.
Had Borden Chase, author of the film’s original story, set Vera Cruz in the 1950s the Production Code censors would have similarly intervened. But ninety years provides a ‘softening’ historical distance. The French elites occupying Mexico can be presented as greedy murderous parasites. The moral icon Gary Cooper can actively participate in such unsavory deeds as holding innocent children as hostages. Outgunned by the troops of Juarista general Morris Ankrum, Lancaster’s Joe Erin acknowledges that his gang can’t fight its way out, “But they can stop an awful lot of little kids from growin’ up, amigo.” Erin isn’t bluffing: his American freebooters behave with a ruthlessness usually reserved for filmic depictions of Nazis — and it’s a joke, too. In the absence of heroic role models, writers Roland Kibbee and James R. Webb assign moral ascendancy to the Juarista revolutionaries, stopping just short of endorsing their suicidal spirit. The Juaristas’ main function is to be shot down by the dozens. “Wars are not won by killing children,” Ankrum intones nobly. In the cynical world of Vera Cruz, Ankrum’s general is a fool.
In humane terms the hostage event is obscenely racist — in what western do ‘heroes’ threaten to massacre Anglo children? Yet Vera Cruz was enthusiastically accepted as light entertainment. The only conclusion is that when there’s a buck to be made Americans don’t worry too much about the fate of little non-white children. An ultimate materialist, Joe Erin shares much in common with the French parasites played by Denise Darcel and Cesar Romero. He regards the ethical Juaristas as saps, plain and simple. Even the relatively noble Ben Trane schemes to steal the gold, which the French have already stolen from the locals.
Because Vera Cruz functions as light escapism, critics only found it abnormally violent, not politically radical. Much of the film is played for comedy, including some of the most violent moments. The thrills center around our delight at seeing how cynically outrageous things can get. Joe Erin’s backstabbing is taken as good honest mayhem, as in Lancaster’s pirate movies. Joe’s sadism is overt, even gleeful. He murders several of his own gang including his most loyal follower, a black ex-soldier still in Union uniform.
Gary Cooper’s Ben Trane eventually sides with the Juaristas, but that weak shift of loyalty smacks of insincerity. Trane maintains that his intentions are just as mercenary as Joe Erin’s but his actions betray him — it’s as if movie star Cooper decided that his iconic ‘goodness’ had to prevail. Instead of maintaining Aldrich’s assault on American heroism, the conclusion of Vera Cruz reverts to a standard good guy/bad guy blueprint.
The cynical apocalypse and its romantic resolution also seems compromised. The demise of Joe Erin is appropriately unsentimental, even if Ben Trane expresses his frustration. The actual finale is a bit of an editorial fumble. Trane and his Juarista lover Nina (Sarita Montiel) are seen separately. They appear to acknowledge one another, but in the final wide angle of death and devastation they are not together. Was this a scheduling issue, or did Aldrich originally intend a less conventional ending? The spatial disconnect echoes the opening caption, “… And Some Came Alone.”
The common element in Foreign Adventurism movies is racism. The stories and situations unconsciously assert the notion that ‘life is cheap’ outside the U.S., as if extreme conditions in the Third World are cultural attributes, not the result of wars and economic hardship. Common to all of the films are scenes in which scores (if not hundreds) of anonymous Mexican peasants and/or soldiers are shot down by a small number of well-armed Americans. For handsome American adventurers, old Mexico is a combination shooting gallery and brothel.
The Magnificent Seven.
John Sturges’ 1960 production of The Magnificent Seven transposes Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai into western terms with as little alteration as possible. Instead of bandits foraging in feudal Japan we have bandidos systematically persecuting Mexican campesinos. Kurosawa’s original was already an historical anachronism, with its western-like fantasy of samurai might used for noble purposes across Japan’s rigid class lines.
The Hollywood adaptation had to make some changes: in no way would a western be tolerated in which gunslingers band together to liberate Americans from domestic oppression. There’s a reason why so few (if any) Hollywood movies took the approach of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, which exaggerates a range war to suggest an American genocide against homesteading immigrants. The final screenplay for The Magnificent Seven instead champions the John F. Kennedy notion of diverting America’s military heft to the moral task of fighting righteous battles for Freedom… a Good Neighbor Policy backed by guns.
The seven gunslingers go to Mexico on a highly dubious mission of liberation, just as in Kurosawa’s film. The fairy tale of peaceful farmers against nasty bandits ignores the political realities in a Northern Mexico ruled by warlord-like state governors. After spending centuries defending themselves against Native American raiders, the hardy Mexican campesinos were in no way sheep-like. If John Sturges originally conceived of Magnificent Seven as something more gritty and realistic, politics in the Mexican film industry prevented him from following through. Sturges discovered that new rules were in place to prevent Hollywood productions like Vera Cruz from running wild.
Partly to mollify the Mexican censors, the peasants of The Magnificent Seven are patronizingly idealized as simple, wisdom-spouting, docile nobodies. Although Yul Brynner and Charles Bronson praise the virtues of communal farm life, not for a moment did American audiences identify with the peasants or consider them equal to the individualized gunslingers. That’s the irony: they may be funny, wise or noble, but the peasants’ most important trait is that they don’t matter. Eli Wallach’s bandit leader’s assertion that they are but sheep to be sheared seems pretty darn accurate.
Mowed down by the dozens in Vera Cruz, here the peasants die slightly more individualized deaths and are afforded the great honor of hats-off respect from the Americans. Their widows and orphans grieve but their passing means nothing when compared to the glorious fates of the gunslingers. The little boys listen to Bronson’s sermon about their father’s responsibilities, yet it’s clearly Bronson they idolize.
Ah, but these American gunmen are soulful. Burdened by their expertise with violence and firepower, they express disillusionment with their lives as gunslingers. The noble mission of defending the weak from the strong gives them an opportunity for individual atonement. This is the Kennedy formula in a nutshell, the path to redeem all American ills. The bandits prey upon the poor like vultures and are therefore instant candidates for extermination. American heroes of the ‘fifties did a lot of killing. The targets of choice were rampaging Indians, Godless Communists, and mutated monsters.
A politically-oriented reviewer of Gordon Douglas’s Them! (1954) decided that the giant ants of that film were transparent substitutes for insidious, infiltrating Communists. The U.S. Army gleefully incinerates them. Philip French interpreted Charles Marquis Warren’s western Arrowhead (1953) as an anti-Commie tract as well. Eastern-educated Apache warrior Toriano (Jack Palance in maniac mode) returns to the West to make war against America — he’s a thinly disguised conflation of juvenile delinquent and Communist provocateur.
The conclusion of The Magnificent Seven copies its Japanese model yet couldn’t be more different. Kurosawa’s rootless ronin sadly acknowledge the impermanence of their warrior class in contrast to the farmers, who embrace life and endure. The farmers enjoy cultural continuity whereas the surviving samurai will go back on the road, to die unmourned and forgotten. The end of The Magnificent Seven inverts that statement. Sturges’ gunslingers will become local legends, because “Anything that happens around here becomes a song.” Little boys bring flowers to Charles Bronson’s grave. The fade-out doesn’t take place in a windswept graveyard. Brynner and McQueen instead ride toward the horizon with epic music blasting on the soundtrack. These giants are just moving on to more adventures. Keep yer sixguns polished, kids. There’s always another battle to be fought.
When at age thirteen I watched my older cousin go off to war, I perceived of Vietnam almost completely as The Magnificent Seven come to life. The war was sold to the public in terms as simple as a western, with an evil foe to be confronted and a helpless population of semi-human peasants to be saved. And they weren’t even grateful for our sacrifice on their behalf.
The finished version of Sam Peckinpah’s 1965 Major Dundee is a monument of confusion, an American National Epic that was unfortunately killed in the womb. Dundee’s tragic reduction from a three-hour roadshow to two hours of poorly paced and sometimes incomprehensible plotting is a story unto itself. Despite production battles and the beseiged director’s own stress meltdown on location Dundee still emerges as the film which best expresses American ambitions at the beginning of the larger Vietnam conflict. Just four years later Peckinpah would in a sense re-make Dundee as The Wild Bunch — structurally, almost every event and many character relationships are duplicated. Critics that remarked at some of the violent details in Dundee immediately described the ultra-violent spectacle Wild Bunch as a vision of Vietnam.
Major Dundee brings the sublimated ‘foreign policy’ hypocrisy of Vera Cruz and Magnificent Seven out into the open. Greed motivated Aldrich’s Yankee freebooters, while Sturges’ soulful assassins ended up risking their lives for a professional, existential pride. Peckinpah’s Mexican adventure accurately sums up the liberal view of America’s real rationale for its involvement in Vietnam. Written in 1963 and filmed in 1964, Dundee hasn’t the soured, apocalyptic outlook of The Wild Bunch. But its cynical stew of motives and motivations make it the logical successor to Vera Cruz for radical outrage.
Charlton Heston’s Major Amos Dundee represents not just the U.S. military but an expansionist, aggressive America that popular politics denies exists. Peckinpah dispenses with moral niceties: Dundee’s mission to rescue innocent children kidnapped by marauding Apaches is only a pretext, a lie from the word Go. Mirroring the un-formed and divided America of the Civil War, Amos is lacking in self-identity and accomplishment. He seeks to forge his destiny through willful ambition. Charmed by the quasi-Biblical justification for mayhem offered by Reverend Dahlstrom (R.G. Armstrong), Amos simply insists that his rescue mission is necessary. He pushes forward with the self-serving crusade despite Army orders to the contrary. He extorts cooperation from his Confederate nemesis Captain Tyreen (Richard Harris) with the threat of hanging. Neither personal loyalties nor expert advice can deter Amos. He ignores his first officer, who advises that the likelihood of success against the Apaches in Mexico is less than nil. For Amos, eliminating the Apache foe is not the goal but the means to an end, the rescue of his personal career.
Dundee remains stubbornly undeterred because his real motivation is to regain the glorious military career lost when the Union Army exiled him to prison duty in New Mexico. Amos’s recurring sin is exceeding his authority. Gettysburg may not have been his fault, but he’s just lost 36 men in his unauthorized pursuit of an Indian. Only a greater glory can erase those failures, which is why Amos needs a War, and any War will do. His illegal foray into Mexico adds more military catastrophes. Dundee callously uses an innocent Mexican village, knowing full well that it will be subject to reprisals by occupying French lancers (making their first appearance in an American movie since Vera Cruz). By provoking a fight with the French the Major might win the chance to make himself a military legend, and command attention back in Washington. Who Dares Wins.
Fortunately for Amos, when his divided troop crosses the Rio Grande their internal hostilities become secondary concerns. In confronting the formal hauteur of the French adversary, American identity-confusion vanishes, whether political (North, South, Texican) or racial (black, white, Mexican, Indian). No matter how poorly Dundee commands, he can count on his motley crew fusing into a fighting unit.
According to critic Jim Kitses the fantasy of Dundee creating his own war represents our confused, divided nation’s desire to establish its identity as a world military power. The Major reenters Texas with just a fraction of his troops yet his technical victory could very well find favor with ‘the generals in Washington,’ none of whom can claim to have successfully engaged a European force in battle. After its first taste of international conflict, America might be ready for more ‘adventures’ in foreign lands.
Writer-director Richard Brooks didn’t visit the western very often and critics seldom place his name in the company of acknowledged greats like Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann. But Brooks’ The Last Hunt (1956), a downbeat saga about the depredations of buffalo hunters, predates most revisionist epics about the Closing of the West. Brooks’ later Bite the Bullet accepts that the glorious opportunities of the frontier are finished, without the weeping and wailing of other ’70s westerns.
In the middle 1960s Brooks reunited with his Elmer Gantry star Burt Lancaster to make the biggest, slickest and most macho western adventure to date, the glamorously violent The Professionals. Despite the surefire casting of major action stars (Robert Ryan, Lee Marvin, Woody Strode) and the hotter-than-hot Italian import Claudia Cardinale, the movie did not become an automatic classic. Yet we recognize its pedigree: Brooks’ justification for huge battle scenes is the same as our other western auteurs with vague political agendas: his heroes go to Mexico.
The Professionals is perhaps the last big American Super-western before Sergio Leone hijacked the genre to Italy. Although the Clint Eastwood ‘Man with No Name’ westerns had already been released in Europe, their American debuts began roughly three months after the premiere of The Professionals. Brooks’ sharp and intelligent screenplay displays the willingness of Hollywood to compete with Europe in the depiction of sex and violence, as would very soon become evident in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde, John Boorman’s Point Blank, and Peter Yates’ Bullitt, et. al..
It’s hard to exaggerate the excitement delivered by these movies. The finale of Bonnie & Clyde hit us like a blast furnace, and when Steve McQueen broke the language taboo by saying ‘bullshit,’ audiences cheered. The teasing bits of nudity glimpsed in The Professionals and Point Blank showed us that theaters weren’t going to burn down if the Production Code wasn’t followed. The charge we felt was political: we had been bred and raised on Hollywood pablum where every hero was a gentleman and even the villains played by predictable rules.
The Professionals does not take itself as seriously as do the Peckinpah films, yet Brooks gives his characters and dialogue a practical edge that steers clear of the simplistic fantasy of The Magnificent Seven. The specialized experts recruited to rescue the kidnapped bride of a railroad baron have little contact with mainstream society. Pack master Robert Ryan loves horses but barely relates to people. Soldier of fortune Lee Marvin is disillusioned. Wastrel Burt Lancaster is working a chain gang in his longjohns because that’s how he was dressed when he was arrested. The sole unsullied mercenary is Woody Strode’s longbow ace. His perfect physique could have come straight from a Marvel comic book. Yet because of his race his loner/bounty hunter is as rootless and alienated as any of his colleagues.
The Professionals stages yet another Mexican incursion adventure, a little more self-conscious of its action escapism but realistic in many of its details. We aren’t expected to really believe the adventure, yet the characters are so vivid and the action so spirited that we are carried along anyway. This is the rare picture that acknowledges that horses on a long ride need special care and feeding; Brooks respects the horse-loving Robert Ryan even as he reserves the glamorous treatment for his macho stars. The Mexicans are portrayed with a range of personalities, good and bad. Continuing Major Dundee’s deflation of the ‘noble quest’ notion of Magnificent Seven, Richard Brooks doesn’t sell us a bill of goods that there are any peons begging to be liberated down there.
A now-famous plot twist makes The Professionals a turning-point film in relation to politics and Vietnam. The exciting opening defines ‘the noble mission’ in simple terms, as in a war movie. The millionaire that represents all American power is willing to pay for the return of his kidnapped wife. The job is ideal for Knights in Armor and the rich husband seems genuinely sympathetic. So off the adventurers go, risking life and limb and killing a number of fairly respectable Mexican foes along the way. It’s definitely the John Wayne / Green Berets view of Vietnam as a worthwhile, ennobling mission of mercy.
The adventurers succeed brilliantly, only to discover that they’ve been completely defrauded. They end up rejecting their reward, yet are newly ennobled as defenders of a higher value of right and wrong. The Professionals is a perfect expression of the military sentiment that the real enemy in Vietnam were the betrayers in Washington. Thousands of enlistees and draftees surely saw Richard Brooks’ film before shipping out to fight; perhaps the film gave some of them the idea that they could keep their personal honor no matter what they encountered in Vietnam.
The Wild Bunch.
Few movies have attracted as much continuing critical analysis as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. The epic of border bandits in 1913 has been discussed from the points of view of its violence, its male-bonding, and its re-structuring of most of the conventions (especially John Ford conventions) of the American western. Peckinpah engages with some of the same elements in his previous feature Major Dundee; it seems clear that Bunch became his opportunity for a major career reboot: “This time we do it RIGHT.”
The Wild Bunch is about the closing of the West and also the twilight of the western genre itself: the graphic poster shows the bunch marching into a sunset. And we haven’t seen as truly original a western since: high points like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven and Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves are returns to past forms, part-remakes, respectively, of Anthony Mann’s Man of the West and Samuel Fuller’s Run of the Arrow.
Peckinpah’s politics had soured since the ‘liberal intellectualism’ of Major Dundee. But the industry now accepted the elevated status of some film directors, which Peckinpah leveraged to amplify his on-set authority. The influential auteurist critic Andrew Sarris had dismissed Peckinpah with the taunt that the director considered himself “too intellectual to tell a story but may still develop a theme.” That was exactly Peckinpah’s game all along. The Wild Bunch rejects previous visions of the West in favor of a landscape of near-universal venality. Men fight not for the principles of tribe or nationality, but for greedy companies, corrupt warlords and outright personal gain. The bit of average America we see are the self-righteous hypocrites of Starbuck with their phony temperance march. When protesting the irresponsible actions of the Railroad and its subhuman bounty hunters, the town elders leap immediately to the subject of monetary compensation for carnage.
Between an America arming for WW1 and the wholesale slaughter in a civil war South of the border, the depredations of the little band of outlaws headed by Pike Bishop (William Holden) and Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine) seem petty and insignificant. Even they realize they have a credibility problem. Pike pretends that he has a plan, to make a big score and back off, settle down. Dutch seeks to rationalize their crimes: “We don’t hang nobody.” When Dutch calls the warlord Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) “Just another bandit out for all he can get,” he doesn’t claim any special dispensation for The Bunch.
It’s Peckinpah that does the anointing of Bishop & Co.. Critic Raymond Durgnat once wrote that he mistrusted The Wild Bunch because Peckinpah devoted too much of the picture to what Durgnat called ‘mythomania.’ The Wild Bunch emotionally exonerates Pike Bishop and his brigands by extolling the male bonds of loyalty and devotion as the higher values. Yet Pike is repeatedly forced to betray his self-professed code of conduct. This is perhaps Peckinpah’s most personal statement. The director never came to terms with his own inability to forge a trusting relationship with any of his producers, even those that were devoted to him.
The Wild Bunch’s cinematic accomplishment is so great that it is telling that Sam Peckinpah still adheres to the shortcomings of the ‘Mexican Adventure’ subgenre. While delineating a complex Mexico enmeshed in its own civil war, Peckinpah still trots out the hoary stereotypes, such as the earthy patriarch who lamely intones “In Mexico, señor, these are the years of sadness.” Once again, the American heroes find themselves facing down (and prevailing over) endless ranks of rifle-toting Mexicans that cover the landscape a la Vera Cruz. In both films the spectacle is intentionally funny. The audience laughs: any more Mexicans and the situation would become a Tex Avery gag.
Peckinpah also betrays a condescending acknowledgement/approval of Mexico as an American brothel, a place for Yankees to go for easy sex. The idea was romanticized in Major Dundee: a pretty young Juarista in a tiny Mexican village exists only to help a nice young bugle boy (Michael Anderson Jr.) lose his virginity. The Wild Bunch by contrast presents child prostitution as part of the natural order of things, and suitable to macho tastes. Of course such conditions existed and still persist. Peckinpah delights in presenting a world where macho concerns are paramount, and to one degree or another all of the women in The Wild Bunch are whores. Peckinpah’s sly conceit is the placing of a female figure at the center of several male identity crises. Angel (Jaime Sanchez) is betrayed by his great love Teresa. Pike’s love Aurora (Aurora Clavel) is echoed in his tender-tough tregua with the child prostitute near the end.
But most of the women are simply there to betray the Bunch, to give them a reason to be angry and frustrated. Angel’s own mother-in-law “Turned him in, like some kind of a Judas.” Pike refrains from killing Mapache’s mariachi songstress, and she promptly shoots him the back. An ugly truth of The Wild Bunch is its expression of violent resentment against women. Audiences of the early 1970s cheered shots of Mapache’s women being shot down in the final battle. Dutch doesn’t spend time with the prostitutes, but he uses one of the fancier muchachas as a human shield.
The overkill bloodbath finale appears engineered to out-kill the ending of Bonnie & Clyde; reviewers said that it made them think of Vietnam. In terms of the ‘Mexican Adventure’ subgenre it is the film’s least fresh idea. Here once more are the hundreds of interchangeable Mexicans, present for the glory of being mowed down by a nearly invincible American nucleus of shooters. Sheer willpower allows the Bunch to kill thirty foes for each wound received. Each absorbs a dozen direct hits before succumbing. The final battle is amazing yet suspect at its core … it resembles an entrance exam for Valhalla. In the movies, Mexico became the first place that restless, frustrated American males go to when they want a woman, or need to purge themselves of violent impulses.
The anarchistic outrageousness of Vera Cruz seems a bit more honest, even in its sublimated satire: when Lancaster is wounded in the shoulder he has Cooper ‘dig the lead out’ with a Bowie knife while he watches. A bit of tied rag later, and Lancaster is good to go. That scene was surely an intentional joke on the durability of Yankee action heroes. In The Wild Bunch the prolonged demise of Pike Bishop’s gang turns them into Swiss-cheese buckaroos. The exaggeration is no joke — Peckinpah believes in their nigh-invulnerable, God-like potency, especially in contrast to the Mexicans they massacre.
Peckinpah bestows a final benediction on the magnificent Wild Bunch via a broad hint that their violence was directed at the wrong goals. At curtain time, Old Sykes (Edmond O’Brien) and Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) team up with a group of Villistas, a band comprised of the survivors of Agua Verde and the pure Indios that even the Bunch realized were superior fighters. Ah, yes, the revolution: if only the Bunch had used their talent for a good cause. Peckinpah’s audience and critics didn’t pick up on this suggestion, which shows that Peckinpah was stymied as much as the next director by Revolution-chic, a major thematic sinkhole of late ‘sixties Hollywood. Thank heavens Peckinpah didn’t make the hint more explicit or The Wild Bunch might have suffered the critical drubbing given the (far more popular) radical-chic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
What makes these ‘Mexican Adventures’ rewarding on this political level is their freewheeling diversity. They’re all variations on a theme, each bending the western’s moralistic framework to present a point of view about American foreign policy. Each has entertained millions of viewers that neither came for a political message nor took one away, at least not consciously. Yet this kind of scrutiny is more than a critical game to argue the importance of a few action films. Back when we believed in the existence of a cultural and political consensus, the nuances of movies both reflected and influenced public thought and opinion.
I believe that all of these filmmakers actively worked to weave specific themes and messages into the fabric of their westerns, even if critics only pointed them out in long-delayed hindsight. The fairly non-political John Sturges would have agreed that his breakthrough film Bad Day at Black Rock wore its social commentary on its sleeve. Is it just coincidence that Vera Cruz’s ruthless view of the mercenary racket seems so politically applicable to 1954? I don’t see an overwhelming liberal streak in the filmographies of writers James R. Webb and Borden Chase, although Roland Kibbee was caught up in the HUAC troubles. But perhaps the show’s cynical politics best reflect the mindset of its star and co-producer, Burt Lancaster.
Richard Brooks was one of the original architects of the social protest movies of the late ‘forties, and The Magnificent Seven’s uncredited writer Walter Bernstein was a major figure of the Hollywood blacklist. Sam Peckinpah would claim Hollywood liberal status when it suited a point he was making in an interview. We don’t insist as some do that the politics of these films are unconscious — the filmmakers were too intelligent and self-aware for that. But even they would surely re-analyze some of their pictures. Both Richard Brooks and John Sturges would likely have agreed that producer Dore Schary had a big influence on their careers, and shaped the content of their RKO and MGM movies as much as any individual screenwriter.
It’s easy to assign credit for a film’s political viewpoint when the source book is All Quiet on the Western Front. The game becomes more complicated when a filmmaker subverts an author’s intentions, as in Joe Mankiewicz’s The Quiet American or in Robert Aldrich and A.I. Bezzerides’ Kiss Me Deadly. This article lightly sketches the evolution of political attitudes in a western subgenre that can’t avoid comparison to political realities. If a flippant critic has a personal bias to express, it’s much easer to plead ‘unconscious subtext’ and assert that coherent social messages routinely slip into movies without anyone realizing it. But nine times out of ten, if you feel that an idea is present in a movie it’s because someone deliberately placed it there. It’s much easier to justify an unconscious message in a rushed low budget program picture, one made so quickly that nobody vets its political content.
By Glenn Erickson
Reviewed: January 20, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021, 2022 Glenn Erickson