The Wild Bunch (1969)—Tactics Alone Provide Nothing

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

“Let the dead bury their own dead,” said Jesus.

A scene from the 1969 western The Wild Bunch portrayed a perverse caricature of this very principle. Fleeing on horseback after their attempted railroad office robbery had turned into a gun battle, a group of outlaws led by Pike Bishop (William Holden) are slowed by the members of their band who had been wounded in the fight. One rider falls and can no longer continue. Bishop shoots him dead. Another senior member of the outlaw gang, Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine) looks on. When two others in the band want to pause to bury their fallen companion, Engstrom objects to the risky and unnecessary delay, saying:

“I think the boys are right. I’d like to say a few words for the dear, dead departed. And maybe a few hymns’d be in order. Followed by a church supper. With a choir!”

Engstrom’s mocking rejection advocates the same action and logic as the call from Jesus, though of course the parallels end there. Jesus’ command had to do with letting go of the burdens of obedience to this world for the sake of the kingdom already moving and transforming the world. “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and spread the news of the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:60). By contrast, the bandits wanted to get away with their loot. (And fitting to the comparison I am making here, that loot in this story proved illusory. The thieves stole a decoy cash box full of steel washers rather than coins.)

The point I am offering in describing the scene this way is this: The tactics contained within the commands of Christ have power and efficacy apart from the way of Christ. That way—the way of “Take up your cross and follow me,” the way of “If you love me, obey my commands”—consists of something other than effective tactics or wise strategies. Improvements to tactics can come to anyone over time. Wisdom will also come over time, and a clarifying of values or purpose might come as well. But a life or a mind that sees changes such as these, that becomes more mature and effective, might still be a life or a mind that is directed toward futility. The tactics of Jesus’ teachings about living for him can also be applied to aims that are pointless and deathly, so without him, we might resemble Jesus now and again as we are heading all the more effectively toward oblivion.

The Wild Bunch is the story of a group of characters who are appealing to us in their fellowship to one another, and in the fact that the story offers them as protagonists, but who otherwise do not merit our sympathy. The robbery in the opening scene was confounded by an ambush by bounty hunters, leading to a shootout in which not only robbers and bounty hunters were lost, but also innocents caught in the crossfire. We see no remorse; the movie is about the aging Holden and Borgnine’s desperate attempt to pull off one more daring and lucrative robbery to overcome the failure of this attempt before the end of their luck or abilities brings an end to their career.

I said fellowship. There is a certain code this group of bandits lives by. Or, at the very least, they believe there is such a code. Confronting a warlord general who brutally rules a small community in Mexico, Borgnine declares, “We’re not like him.... We don't hang people!” But as the viewer of this scene, I don’t know whether I am being asked to take his word for this. Borgnine’s character had never been in a position of autocratic power. Given the distance he had already gone in his chosen work to rationalize violent death, wouldn’t he be able to go farther still to rationalize hanging as well? (Indeed, how much of any of our success at adhering to a code is the result of simply the opportunities we have been given? Not for nothing does the prayer say, “Lead us not into temptation.”) We then see the same murkiness around the men’s seeming loyalty to a companion—their seeming fellowship—in their attempt to assuage the general’s anger over a murder this companion committed. The men end up not rescuing their companion from this enemy, but accepting a job in the general’s service.

The one clear aspect of the men’s code to which they remain committed is what drives the story of the movie: determination toward the goal. Bishop, Engstrom, and the remaining survivors of their wild bunch will not relent in their pursuit of gold. “These are men,” says Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), a former member of their crew who pursues them throughout the movie, having been caught and turned by the authorities. These are men, he says, meaning they have the strength that comes from mature self-knowledge, even character. Yet all of that power is directed toward an elusive aim that can only come to nothing.

At the start of the movie, we see children watching a scene on the earth at their feet: a swarm of ants overwhelming and devouring a pair of scorpions. The scorpions are more powerful, but the ants are ravenous, and in the end numerous enough to destroy them. The children watching this scene from above are watching with—God’s viewpoint? The children choose no winners in this particular contest, they just watch the event unfold. And at the end of the movie, we are given something like the same view. The general kills the member of the gang who has angered him, and the gang kills the general. Mexicans authorities who had been under the command of the fallen general overwhelm the gang. It becomes clear in this fight that there is no outcome for the Wild Bunch except for their lives to end. Which, it needs to be said, was their predicament all along.