by Nathaniel Cowper
The Wild Bunch has one of the most appropriate opening sequences in film history. It frames the entire movie. It’s the gallery wall on which the action of the movie hangs. Within the first 5 minutes we get a crucial metaphor in the form of some kids and a breakneck action sequence in the form of a bank shootout. We’ll get to this in a minute.
Sam Peckinpah was notorious for his blood splatter and his sportscar-quick editing. This is all well and good. I don’t think he gets enough credit for story, though. The Wild Bunch was rewritten by Peckinpah from a previously existing screenplay by Walon Green and Roy Sickner. I don’t know for certain who came up with what, so let’s assume Peckinpah, with his directorial tendencies, is responsible for tweaking the screenplay’s framework into something that would look great on screen.
Side note: before I say too much I should add that, much like the aforementioned sportscar, this review contains big spoilers. Rent it from Scarecrow (hint hint) and then continue reading.
The first thing we see on screen are the soon-to-be protagonists riding by on horseback. As each character canters by, the frame freezes on a closeup of his face and takes on a newspaper-esque sepia tint, implying notoriety. These are famous outlaws, after all, and we’re shown this before a single line of dialogue has been spoken.
As the group rides past they stir up the curiosity of a gaggle of youngsters. The kids are busy with a game of Good Ol’ Fashioned Ants vs. Scorpions, which I have to assume is the wild west version of Beyblade. Once the outlaws are gone, the kids resume their game, which involves poking the bugs with sticks in a miniature arena. Grotesque closeups of the bugs fill the screen. Hundreds of red ants swarms over the writing scorpions, who are larger but hugely outnumbered. We’re talking two scorpions against maybe 700 ants. It seems appropriate to give them gangstery names, so let’s call them Dutch and Pike.
Dutch and Pike fight valiantly. After all, they have claws and stingers and size on their side. They thrash around, throwing ants left and right. But the sheer size of the ant army overcomes them. Major casualties occur on both sides, but the army wins. The ant soldiers even carry Pike’s corpse away on their tiny backs. Exultant in victory.
Here’s where things get interesting. This seconds-long sequence parallels the entire plot of the movie. Dutch and Pike are the names of the protagonists, played by Ernest Borgnine and William Holden, respectively. Their wild gang (the titular bunch) are pursued throughout the movie by enemies on all sides. They’re the scorpions of the film — crafty and well-armed but hopelessly outnumbered.
The bank shootout puts a band of bounty hunters on their trail. On top of that, they later make an enemy of a corrupt Mexican general. That’s two dangerous factions, each after the wild bunch for their own reasons. They’re the ants — not quite as sharp-witted, but sizable.
The movie ends with a patented Peckinpah Bloody Shootout ™ in which the protagonists fight ferociously but die horribly outnumbered. Sound familiar? Plus, the bounty hunters arrive after the fight to loot guns and gold fillings from the dead, like ants whisking a scorpion corpse off to their tunnels.
Suddenly the opening sequence makes sense. The kids are harbingers of what is to come. They’re like the witches in Macbeth – huddled in a circle, watching the future. The only difference here is that Ernest Borgnine never becomes king. That would be an incredible twist.
When the shootout winds down and the opening sequence comes to a close, the kids have one more role to play. They calmly, as if they’ve done it many times before, set the bugs on fire. Flaming kindling is thrown on the ants and scorpions alike, dooming both. Neither side is immune to flame. As the insects burn, a slow crossfade into the body-strewn town square hammers the metaphor home — both sides lose. Ants, scorpions, outlaws, Mexican soldiers, even townspeople. They all lose out in the end.
It’s the kind of downer ending that’s to be expected when 95% of the cast has their guts shot out. But that’s Sam Peckinpah for you. At first glance, he may seem like a man fixated on brutality. That’s probably true. But simultaneously he’s quite the opposite — he uses that brutality to both send a message and tell a spectacular tale.
Plus it’s one of those movies I’d really love to see on the big screen. Local cinema owners, take note!