Visualizing the Ethics of Violence in Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch”

Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch."

My previous post concerning Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds, violence, and the Italian Western generated an excellent discussion that revolved around what film, or a film, should or should not do with regard to a larger ethical responsibility.  As I noted in one of the comments of the post, I would not pass any decree making it necessary that every film be “ethical.”  Yet I do feel that we should become more aware of how film can do ethical work and make us, as viewers, confront an ethical dilemma rather than anesthetizing us to the spectacle on the celluloid.

Sam Peckinpah’s films have always been lauded and condemned for their copious amounts of bloodshed and gunfire.  Even by today’s standards, The Wild Bunch and its attendant gruesomeness can still churn a stomach or two.  And while Peckinpah does share with Tarantino a visionary talent for technical perfection and directorial expertise, his films do not reflect the aura of a giddy thrill ride, a roller coaster of cinematic sexy, violent fun.  Films such as The Wild Bunch operate in way that makes us question exactly why we enjoy the ride and the consequences of our enjoyment.

In its opening scene, The Wild Bunch centers on a group of young children, five to ten years old, who collectively enjoy watching red fire ants devour scorpions.  Not only are these children enjoying the savage spectacle, they are in fact engineering it as they use sticks to pick up the scorpions and feed them to the ants.  The children later set fire to the insects, destroying them all.  In essence, they are directing this scene of entomological violent crime as Peckinpah directs his scene of humanistic depravity.

We are directed to be disturbed and troubled by the children as William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, and the rest of the bunch ride by.  This group of hardened men, who have perpetrated their fair share of killing, gaze upon the children with a mixture of amazement and horror.  It might be one thing for these men to arm themselves, rob railroad banks, and shoot those who may oppose them, but it is another to witness supposedly innocent children engage in crafting theatrical torture, even if invertebrates are the tortured.  Holden seems to silently ask himself why these children would enjoy such a scene.

As the bunch rides into town and robs the bank, they are cornered by the railroads’ hired hands and bounty hunters, many of whom are more depraved than the bunch.  The ensuing gunfight, which engulfs children, a marching band, and the local temperance union, is one of the most brilliant and thrilling scenes in the history of cinema.  I cannot recall another scene in film that is edited as expertly and artistically as this one.  The confusion amongst the characters in the film and the quick fire of the guns is mimetically represented through the dizzying array of viewpoints and the rapidity of the editing.  Watchers of The Wild Bunch are assaulted and stunned in much the same manner that the people in the scene are.

Unlike those in the film, however, we can experience the assault from some safe location, and as we experience it, it does become a thrill ride.  Like a roller coaster, the technology of the cinema allows us to experience and witness things that we cannot experience and witness without it; and it seems impossible not to become engrossed in this spectacular moment.  Yet Peckinpah constantly reigns in the thrill ride that he has so expertly constructed to remind us of the consequences of the ride itself.  Innocent men and women are shot and trampled, and children huddle together in the midst of the carnage and watch it, just like us.  We then see these children becoming traumatized by the brutal deaths of family members, loved ones, and friends and recognize that what is damaging them is thrilling to us.  The scene then forces us to ask ourselves how we can enjoy something that can inflict so much harm.

As the surviving members of the bunch ride out of town, leaving ungodly destruction in their wake, they once again pass the same children who were torturing the scorpions (but not involved in the shootout).  The bunch and the film’s viewers have already judged these children for what they created and watched, and Peckinpah, it seems is asking us to judge him, his film, and ourselves for what he has created and what we have just watched.  Are we the children who have so gleefully indulged in creating a scene of pain and violence?  Should we disapprove of these children’s actions, and if we do, how can we not disapprove of ourselves?  After all, the children watched insects die while we enjoyed a rendering of massive human death.

For me, Peckinpah’s filmmaking allows for such questions to be asked, and in that sense I would call it ethical.  It opens up a space that makes us wonder if what we are doing, or viewing, is actually good.  It doesn’t offer many, if any, answers, which is alright.  Often times, one of the more ethical things we can do is reflect on what we have done and witnessed and ponder if it is good.


About Todd Hunter Starkweather

Todd Starkweather is an Assistant Professor of English at South University-Richmond. He has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Illinois-Chicago; his interests include film, Victorian studies, sport, and post-colonialism.
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