Volume VII, Number 2, Fall 2011


"An American Take on Mythic Mexico and its Revolution in The Wild Bunch" by Alia Haddad

Alia Haddad is an MA Candidate in Cinema Studies at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts. Email:

Mexico takes on a peculiar role in some Westerns as it not only serves as a location for the action and plot to unfold, but it also often plays a role as central as the protagonists. Mexico, as not just merely a setting but also as a mythic space and character, has been incorporated into the Western genre since very early on. In his book Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America, Richard Slotkin traces images of Mexico in Western films, from their roots as stereotypes in American dime and pulp fiction novels, starting from about 1910-1916 (411-12). Slotkin goes on to identify John Huston’s 1948 Western, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, as a turning point in the portrayal of Mexico in the Western. It is this film, according to Slotkin, that portrays the multifarious mythic Mexico that finds its heyday in Westerns made in the late 1960s and early 1970s (417).

The Mexico portrayed in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and then subsequently promulgated in later Westerns is that of a mythic space with four distinctly separate parts, which incorporate the four main stereotypes of Mexico at that time: the city, starkly divided between the corrupt wealthy and the downtrodden poor; the primitive pueblo which heralds simple justice under one person, such as a mayor; the wilderness camp in which no law exists save for guns; and the village, an Eden-like paradise (Slotkin 417). For example, George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) depicts these four mythic social spaces in its representation of Bolivia and even despite its taking place in Bolivia and not Mexico, Slotkin argues that it should be studied within the context of other Mexican Westerns as its depiction of Bolivia was clearly influenced by mythic Mexico as presented in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Throughout their time in Bolivia, Butch Cassidy and Sundance see glimpses of all four representations, coming across the juxtapositions between the wealthy and the poor in the cities of the banks they rob, both gun law and patriarchal law at the mining camp where they work for a short time and the Eden-like paradise in the lush forests in which they hold their final robberies.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s Mexican Westerns, that is, Westerns that take place the majority of the time in Mexico, seemed to overwhelmingly incorporate this image of mythic Mexico. Such depictions can be seen in Robert Aldrich’s early film Vera Cruz (1954) and John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven (1960) in which both films’ protagonists use a stereotypical Mexico for moral regeneration. In Vera Cruz, Benjamin Trane ends up siding with the Mexican peasants and returns the gold which he and his partner had planned on stealing to them and in The Magnificent Seven, seven American gunslingers eventually take on a Mexican peasant town’s cause for no pay when they see the townspeople are in peril. It is no surprise, then, that this image of Mexico found its place in not many Westerns of the period.

Additionally many of these Mexican Westerns during that era were set in Mexico during a seminal time in Mexican, and American, history—the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). Fittingly, the Mexican Revolution also took on mythic proportions in these Mexican Westerns, yet these mythic portrayals seemed to vary widely within many Mexican Westerns. For example, when contrasted, two such films taking place in Mexico during its Revolution, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker (1971), are successful in highlighting these stark differences in representation.

Notwithstanding the fact that both The Wild Bunch and Duck, You Sucker constitute different films in national terms—that is, the former is made by an American and the latter, by an Italian—-both films manage to portray Mexico as a setting in a similar light, even despite Christopher Frayling’s claim otherwise (224-225). Rather, both films, set in Mexico during the Mexican Revolution, present somewhat mythic views of the country of Mexico, ones that originated, according to Richard Slotkin, in John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (417). While these films do contain comparable depictions of Mexico itself, each film clearly differs from one another in their overall approach to and stance on the Mexican Revolution. Whereas the films’ representations of Mexico as a country and setting for the respective unfolding action are alike in portrayal, each film takes on very different standpoints when dealing with the role and effects of the Mexican Revolution. As this is the case, it is then in each Mexican Western’s different portrayal of the Mexican Revolution in a similarly portrayed Mexico where allegories can be traced back to the culture each film was made in. Therefore, when looking at The Wild Bunch it is first necessary to understand the film’s depiction of Mexico as a country and then to understand the film’s take on the Mexican Revolution before attempting to understand the intellectual thought and critiques it produced in America during that time.

The Wild Bunch and its Portrayal of Mythic Mexico

The Wild Bunch, unlike many Mexican Westerns, does not start off in Mexico, beginning instead in a border town on the American side. Peculiar to most classical Westerns, the film focuses on a group of aging outlaws in 1913 as they attempt their last big score before retiring—the robbing of a bank in a small Texas town. As the bunch, led by Pike Bishop, hold up the bank in the midst of a town-wide religious function, they quickly realize they are being watched and followed by Pike’s former partner, Deke Thornton and a gang of bounty hunters hired by the railroad. A blood bath ensues, leaving not only members of both crews but also many townspeople dead. With that the remaining members of the Wild Bunch—Pike Bishop, Dutch Engstrom, Lyle and Tector Gorch, and Angel—meet up with Freddie Sykes, an original and oldest member of the bunch. After the bunch realize they have been duped by Deke and have stolen nothing more than steel washers, they head to Mexico in an attempt to throw Deke and the bounty hunters from their trail and look for a new score that would allow them to retire as planned. As Pike tells the gang when Dutch asks him what their next move is, “Well, I figure Agua Verde’s the closest. Three days maybe. Then get the news and drift back to the border. Maybe a payroll maybe a bank,” and later, “It’s our last go around, Dutch. This time we do it right” (The Wild Bunch).

After crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico, the Bunch spend the night in Angel’s idyllic village which has seen the negative effects of the Revolution. During this night, Angel learns of his father’s death at the hands of Mapache, a general in the Mexican Federal Army, and his girlfriend’s decision to willingly accompany Mapache after he and his troops came by and pillaged the village. Pike also learns of the devastating effects the Federal Army have had on the village by the local townsman, Don Jose, who wishes longingly for the weapons the Bunch are carrying, insisting that with weapons they would be able to protect themselves from further attacks.

The next day, the Wild Bunch enters Agua Verde, the town where Mapache and the Federal Army along with local residents are staying. When Angel sees his joyous and seemingly carefree former girlfriend with Mapache, he shoots and kills her in a bout of rage and jealousy, creating a tense and highly dangerous situation in which the Federal Army assumes that Angel had meant to kill Mapache. Once Pike explains that Angel had only intended to kill his girlfriend out of jealousy, Mapache and the Federal Army laugh heartily and all is seemingly forgiven.

It is at this point when Mohr, a German military advisor to Mapache, inquires about the guns the Wild Bunch have, citing that these guns are given only to the American Army and no other man may acquire these guns legally. After establishing that they are indeed not part of the American Army, Mapache hires the Wild Bunch for $10,000 in gold to rob a U.S. Army train passing near the Mexican border of 16 cases of weapons and ammunition. The Wild Bunch agree to this task, with Angel agreeing amongst the Bunch to give up his share of the gold for one case of weapons that he can supply his village with.

After stealing the weapons and ammunition and a subsequent encounter with Deke and the bounty hunters, resulting in some of the bounty hunters dead after the Bunch explode a bridge Deke and his men were on, they return to Agua Verde to make the exchange. Pike presents Mapache with a machine gun that was not in their contract, and Mapache gives them their share of the gold, but also captures, and subsequently, tortures, Angel as he realizes that he stole a crate of weapons for his village. Another encounter with the bounty hunters ensues, leaving Sykes wounded and in hiding, as the remaining Bunch return to Agua Verde in order to try and save Angel’s life. After agreeing to return the barely alive Angel to the Bunch, Mapache slits his throat instead, and reacting to this, Pike shoots and kill Mapache in anger, causing shock and inaction in the Federal Army. After Pike shoots Mohr in the head, a bloody and deadly shootout ensues, leaving the four members of the Wild Bunch and most of the Mexican Federal Army in Agua Verde dead. With the town completely devastated, Deke and his bounty hunters finally arrive. Deke separates from the bounty hunters who leave with the dead members of the Wild Bunch. The bounty hunters are shot and killed by Sykes and several Mexican rebels, who after doing so, return to Agua Verde to find Deke. The film ends with Sykes and Deke joining forces once again and riding off with the Mexican rebels to join the Revolution.

As The Wild Bunch progresses and the characters traverse throughout Mexico, they also move through the different parts of mythic Mexico that Slotkin has laid out above. Peckinpah, however, combines the four representations of this Mexico into two distinct parts. That is, he presents Agua Verde as both the city which houses the ruthless wealthy and the destitute poor as well as the wilderness camp where no law exists save for guns. While it appears that Mapache and his troops are feeding everyone in the camp, Peckinpah makes it increasingly clear that those that do not make up the Mexican Federal Army with Mapache are treated the same way the corrupt wealthy treats the poor in the stereotypical mythic Mexican city. This is really brought to light when Angel shoots and kills his former girlfriend and Mapache’s current lover, the entire city laughs it off once they realize Angel was acting out of jealousy. Although this girl is part of Mapache’s higher group, her death is irrelevant and she is treated as completely replaceable. Rather, she is treated as insignificant as an impoverished person would be to a fraudulent wealthy person. Continually, while Mapache actually controls and governs Agua Verde, his power is based solely on the quantity of weapons he has in his possession. After all, he contracts the Wild Bunch to steal weapons. Don Jose, the leader symbol of Angel’s village, confirms this notion when he tells Pike as he trails off, “In Mexico, señor, these are the years of sadness, but if we had rifles like these” (00:49:19). Angel, too, proves that he understands the way of Mapache when he trades in his share of gold in exchange for one case of weapons. When Pike tries to convince Angel to accompany them on their mission for Mapache, Angel reasons, “My people have no guns. But with guns my people could fight! If I could take guns…I would go with you” (The Wild Bunch).

Opposingly, Peckinpah paints Angel’s village as both a paradise reminiscent of the Garden of Eden and a primitive pueblo where simple justice exists under one person. Once the Bunch arrive at Angel’s village, Peckinpah not only includes a party in which Angel’s village throws in honor of the Wild Bunch upon their arrival, but he also includes a scene of small, laughing children happily running and jumping into an idyllic green pond. Both these scenes signify Angel’s village as being the paradise representation in this mythic Mexico. During the party, the members of the Wild Bunch are smiling and laughing as they dance with women and drink alcohol. The scene of the children jumping into a pond, too, not only shows another depiction of happiness, but also a lush garden, reminiscent of the Garden of Eden. Continually, while Peckinpah never explicitly explains what Don Jose’s role is to Angel’s village, the viewer can assume that he serves as a sort of governor or leader to the village, one who is responsible for the village as he is the man Pike, the leader of his gang, speaks to about the town’s welfare. This scene, the one in which Pike and Don Jose speak of Mapache’s pillaging of the village, makes it clear that Don Jose is more than just another villager as he is portrayed as the most reliable source for information regarding not only their village but the Mexican Revolution as a whole. After Pike asks Don Jose how badly their village was attacked, Don Jose says, “Seven of the villagers were killed, two of them hung. Our horses, cattle and corn stolen!” (00:43:10). Pike then naively asks if the Federal army offered them any assistance, to which Don Jose responds with, “They were the Federal troops! Permission by the great Huerta” (00:43:47)! This dialogue not only serves to paint Mapache and the Federal Army as the evil doers and alternatively Don Jose and Angel’s village as the simple paradise who are unable to defend themselves, but the dialogue also points to the fact that Don Jose seems to be in charge of the village. Peckinpah makes it clear, then, through the representations of the two places the Wild Bunch inhabit in Mexico that he is relying on a similar portrayal to the mythic Mexico traditionally portrayed in the Western.

American Approach to The Mexican Revolution in The Wild Bunch

Before focusing on the role of the Mexican Revolution within The Wild Bunch, it is first necessary to realize whom the viewer aligns with throughout the film and those protagonists’ roles in Peckinpah’s mythic presentation of Mexico, especially because Peckinpah does not present easily deciphered Western heroes in the classical sense. While the film is indeed entitled The Wild Bunch, from the very beginning, Peckinpah attempts to complicate the viewer’s association with the protagonists. It is only after the uniformed Wild Bunch ride their horses into town paired with a drum roll that traditionally accompanies an army’s march that the viewer learns what they are really in town to do. What ensues is a very bloody and deadly bank heist, in which both the Wild Bunch and the bounty hunters hired to kill the Bunch are portrayed as killing unreasonably and excessively.

As the film opens, the viewer is led to believe that the Wild Bunch are a part of the American Army not only because of their dress but also because of the music Peckinpah chooses to accompany their walk into town. The men even help a woman with a heavy load cross the street. All of the Bunch’s characteristics and actions up until they enter the bank signify traditional heroic standings. Once inside the bank, however, the image of classical heroism that Peckinpah has given these men is completely reversed as they not only are presented as robbing the bank, but doing so ruthlessly and maliciously, emphasized by Pike shouting, “If they move…kill em” (The Wild Bunch) regarding the Bunch’s hostages. This image of heroism is immediately replaced by one of unlawful villainy. While the bounty hunters led by Deke become the next logical characters in line for the role of Western heroes, Peckinpah completely debunks this notion as soon as the bloodshed starts. In showing both parties participating in and enjoying these ruthless and extravagant killings, Peckinpah problematizes not only the role of the Western hero, but also the role of whose perspective the viewer associates with and trusts.

As the film continues, however Peckinpah not only shows fleeting glimpses of the humanity behind the Wild Bunch, but he also incorporates a familiar trope found in many complicated Western heroes—that of the aging hero. Throughout the film, the viewer is continually reminded of the Wild Bunch’s matured ages through their expressions of nostalgia for the past, through both Pike’s and Deke’s flashbacks, and possibly most notably, when Sykes, tells the Bunch, “You boys ain’t getting any younger” (00:29:26). Additionally, their aging faces and Pike’s difficulty in mounting his horse due to a leg injury in his youth also point to their old age. A feeling of sympathy, therefore, pervades the film for the Bunch due to their aging status.

Additionally, Peckinpah also presents the Bunch itself containing a code of masculinity and male bonding, demonstrated most noticeably in Pike and Dutch’s relationship, which are traditional tropes found in the Western used to identify the hero. These traits are also clearly missing in Deke and the bounty hunters, the Bunch’s counterpart, made especially clear when Deke rebukes his men by saying, “We’re after men, and I wish to God I was with them” (01:36:13). That Peckinpah stresses the Bunch’s humanity, especially in an age seemingly devoid of such humanity as made clear in his portrayal of the bounty hunters hired to kill the Wild Bunch, the Bunch’s aging status, their masculinity and closeness of the Bunch, he points out heroic characteristics in the Wild Bunch, even despite their outlaw and murderous ways. These two characteristics combined with the facts that the Wild Bunch are the most central characters and do the most important actions throughout the film lead most viewers to align themselves with the Wild Bunch.

If the viewer does align himself with the Wild Bunch, however, it is a problematized alignment, as they remain outlaws throughout the film. Moreover, these are not the romanticized outlaws that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid represent in George Roy Hill’s so-titled film. Peckinpah does not hide their ruthless and unsympathetic ways, which he makes especially clear in their willingness to steal guns on behalf of Mapache despite seeing and understanding the devastation he has caused. Moreover, until a change of mind comes over Pike, the Wild Bunch were all but ready to leave Angel in the throws of Mapache and his people. Therefore, while the viewer aligns himself with the Wild Bunch, it, nevertheless, remains a complicated alignment and one that works to place the viewer in the Bunch’s questionable moral mindset. Even despite this complicated alignment, it is through the Wild Bunch’s association with Mexico, then, that the viewer also associates with Mexico.

Continually, in The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah’s mythic portrayal of Mexico translates into a romantic heroic association with Mexico and its Revolution. In doing so, Peckinpah links the Revolution to being of pure benefit to the utopic ideal of Angel’s village. That is, throughout the film, the idea that with the success of the Revolution, Angel’s entire village and, thus all the other small Mexican towns that Angel’s village stands for, would be able to remain small pockets of paradise is promulgated throughout the film. This idea is made especially clear in the conversation Pike and Dutch have just after arriving in Agua Verde. After Pike jokes that Mapache will have a lot of silver to spare seeing as he has stolen it from all of Mexico, Dutch says, “Ah, the Generallissimo, hell. He’s just another bandit grabbing all he can for himself,” to which Pike laughingly responds, “Like others I can mention.” Dutch growing angry then says, “Not so you’d know it, Mr. Bishop. We ain’t nothing like him. We don’t hang nobody. I hope some day these people here kick him and the rest of that scum like him right into their graves.” Finally, Angel jumps in and says, “We will, if it takes forever” (00:54:17). Even though this conversation takes place before the Wild Bunch agree to help Mapache, it serves to demonstrate Dutch’s, arguably the moral conscious of the film, and thus, the Wild Bunch’s real opinions of the Mexican Revolution and whom it is really helping.

Therefore, even after they accept Mapache’s offer and Angel asks Pike, “Would you give guns to someone to kill your father or your mother or you brother?” To which Pike responds with, “Ten thousand cuts an awful lot of family ties,” (The Wild Bunch), the viewer is not completely surprised when the remaining members of the Bunch decide to partake in the final shootout scene which leaves Mapache and most of the his army and followers in Agua Verde dead. Because Peckinpah has already demonstrated the Wild Bunch’s heroism, the viewer’s only question of the final shootout scene seems to be why it took this long for them to turn on Mapache? Rather, this deadly and, again, extravagant shootout is deemed as necessary for the Wild Bunch to prove their ultimate heroism. Had they left Agua Verde and returned to America with their ten thousand dollars in gold without taking such action, the viewer would have been left wondering why they would not avenge Angel’s death and, moreover, why they would leave an evil commander such as Mapache in power to continue his raiding and pillaging of innocent and defenseless villages?

It is not sufficient, however, to completely associate the Bunch’s eventual participation in the Mexican Revolution with their intrinsic goodness. First, Peckinpah has already depicted the many flaws in morality that the Wild Bunch maintain. While the Bunch’s final attack on Mapache and his army can be seen as an act of redemption, it would be difficult to completely redeem them due in part to the extent of their immoral ways thus far and in part to the way they carried out their attack; that is, without any care as to who they were killing, women and children not only included, but also sometimes specifically targeted.

The Bunch’s eventual attack on Mapache, then, may indeed have to do with redemption, but if looked at more closely it can be seen that the attack also has to do with the Bunch’s association with America. From the beginning of the film, Peckinpah has gone to lengths to present the fallen aspects of American society at this point. The opening scene not only shows the Bunch mocking the American army, but it also shows American children terrorizing two scorpions with a red ant farm, only to light the whole thing completely on fire, leading the viewer to question the entire society’s morality as children’s values are associated with the adults and their upbringing. When the Wild Bunch steal the guns for Mapache, they relish in the fact that they are stealing from the American army, and moreover, that they use the railroad, an emblem of America and its progress, against the army.

It is not only the Wild Bunch, either, who ostensibly dislike the American army, and thus American society, as during the confrontation between the Wild Bunch and the Deke and the bounty hunters on the bridge, the bounty hunters turn and shoot at the American army despite having been alerted to their presence. The Bunch’s relationship with America, therefore, must be considered in their decision to turn on Mapache, as Peckinpah not only aligns Agua Verde’s corruptness with that of America, as seen in the parallel images of the Mexican children torturing Angel by fire with those of the torture and fire obsessed American children, but also demonstrates the Wild Bunch’s brazen disassociation with America.

Furthermore, as has been discussed, the viewer’s alignment with the Wild Bunch is a complicated one mainly because they are degraded outlaws. Peckinpah, however, continues to stress the viewer’s alignment with the Bunch, perhaps pointing to the fact that the Wild Bunch, with their masculine bonding reminiscent of older times, and aged status, present the most moral characters in what Slotkin refers to as an “amoral apocalypse” taking place in America (598).

If the viewer accepts, then, that The Wild Bunch takes a stance of intervention, it is necessary to understand that the Wild Bunch do not intervene as proud patriots stepping in to help Mexico achieve the supposed paradise that America had become, but rather as crestfallen Americans, who do so in order to protect the Eden-like villages of Mexico from the danger Mapache and the Federal army pose in turning all of Mexico into another corrupt America. The film’s stance on the Mexican Revolution, therefore, points to the benefits of intervention, yet it is a complicated stance due to the Bunch’s disenchanted view of America. The intervention the film seems to be calling for is not from America, but instead from ex-patriots of sorts determined to protect Mexico from turning into another version of America.

The Wild Bunch’s Mexican Revolution as an Allegory for American Culture

When taking the film’s stance on the Mexican Revolution and intervention into consideration with American politics of 1969, the year The Wild Bunch was made, the film’s complicated take on the Revolution and intervention seems to stem directly from the social and cultural turmoil taking place in America during that time. In 1969 America was deeply involved in the Vietnam War, with the My Lai Massacre occurring just the year before, in which an American military infantry staged an offensive attack in South Vietnam, “deliberately [wiping] out nearly an entire village, including old men, women, children, and infants” (Slotkin 581). Initially, the American army was praised for their successful attack on the Viet Cong, but slowly information leaked to the public resulting in the realization of the mass civilian deaths that actually occurred (Slotkin 581-82). That Peckinpah made The Wild Bunch during this tumultuous time politically and socially in which America was not only being questioned in terms of their intervention policy and role in Vietnam but also in terms of its moral character as a country, the film can then be seen as a direct reaction to the perceived America at that time.

Because of the Wild Bunch’s disenchantment and outright disgust with America, their intervention in the Mexican Revolution, while deemed necessary, comes about in large part due to the fact that they are not only trying to protect the Eden-like parts of Mexico from turning into a corrupt version of America, as Agua Verde had already made that transformation, but also due to the fact that they would rather die in Mexico, taking on their cause, rather than return to the morally degraded America as Americans. While Peckinpah does present the benefits of intervention, the Wild Bunch intervene united not with America, but with Mexico. Because the viewer is aligned with the Wild Bunch, Peckinpah also puts the viewer in this same position, allied with Mexico over America. Once this theme is realized, it becomes clear that Peckinpah is not entirely pointing to the benefits or even the necessity of intervention, but instead to the fallibility of America, again referring directly back to the social state of America during the making of The Wild Bunch.

Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) contains traditionally mythic views of Mexico as presented in the Western. It is through this classical portrayal of Mexico that Peckinpah presents his take on the Mexican Revolution, depicting a revolution that is completely beneficial to the poor, Eden-like villages of Mexico, while also critiquing America’s role not only in the Revolution, but also America’s overall character. Despite the film’s traditional portrayal of mythic Mexico, its varied stance on the Mexican Revolution can be traced back to the social state of America during the time of filmmaking. If The Wild Bunch is seen in this light, then, it is clear that the film allegorizes the Revolution in order to make a larger cultural critique.

 

Works cited

  • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Dir. George Roy Hill. Perf. Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Katharine Ross. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. 24 October 1969. DVD.
  • Duck, You Sucker. Dir. Sergio Leone. Perf. Rob Steiger, James Coburn and Romolo Valli. Rafran Cinematografica. 20 October 1971. DVD.
  • Frayling, Christopher. 1998. Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone. London: I.B. Tauris & Co.
  • Slotkin, Richard.1998. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. Norman: Oklahoma Press.
  • The Magnificent Seven. Dir. John Sturges. Perf. Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson. MGM. 23October 1960. DVD.
  • The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Dir. John Huston. Perf. Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston and Tim Holt. Warner Bros. Pictures. 24 January 1948. DVD.
  • The Wild Bunch. Dir. Sam Peckinpah. Perf. William Holden, Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan. Warner Brothers. 18 June 1969. DVD.