Column: The View From Here: The Wild Bunch, Circa 2005 By P.M. Price

Friday August 12, 2005

Since my last column concerning the tragic death of Meleia Willis-Starbuck, I have been feeling a heaviness in my heart as I make my way around Berkeley watching teenagers on street corners laughing, loud talking, play fighting—wondering who might be next. I worry about my teenage daughter walking around at night with her friends. “We’re just going to Anna’s house/to Mel’s/to the movies/up on Telegraph/to the “Y”/to the park/around the corner—Chill out, Mom! You worry too much. I can take care of myself. Besides, it’s my life, not yours.” 

What parent hasn’t heard such proclamations coming back to haunt them after defiantly tossing similar words in our own parents’ faces a generation ago? I remember too well using Kahlil Gibran’s poetry to justify my own teenage rebellion: “Your children come through you, they’re not of you—in other words, you don’t own me. You were just a vessel. Thanks for the ride but I’m outta here.” And I hear all too well my parents’ retort leaping out of my own throat: “As long as you’re living in my house, under 18 and not paying rent...” You know the rest, fill in the blank.  

In need of comfort and advice I decided to visit a church—the East Bay Church of Religious Science— which embraces all religions and focuses on positive thinking. I often count on Reverend Elouise Oliver to deliver a timely message with humor and wisdom and she did not disappoint. Reverend E spoke compassionately about an acquaintance who recently approached her with a dilemma. The woman has two sons. One is well-behaved and hard-working, putting himself through school. The other is a drug dealer who regularly attacks his brother and steals his money. The distraught mother did not know what to do. She asked Reverend E: “How can I protect one son while still loving the other?”  

While driving home I turned the radio to NPR and listened to host Sedge Thompson and film critic Roger Ebert discuss the film The Wild Bunch, a breakout Western co-written and directed by Sam Peckinpah in 1969. The film, arriving near the end of the peace-and-love era, shocked audiences with its graphic depictions of brutal violence callously exacted by two warring groups of aging gunslingers. It deals with the issue of loyalty and honor among thieves living by a code that allows the incessant slaughter of innocent bystanders while self-righteously claiming nobility by sticking to one’s word, no matter the consequences. “It was against their code to walk away—to go to Amarillo and get a job,” noted Ebert. I immediately thought of the young man mentioned in the sermon. I decided to rent the movie and give it a closer look.  

It is 1913 and a posse of bounty hunters is hired by a south Texas railroad company to protect its trains from robbers. Their leader, Thornton, has exchanged prison time for leading a rag-tag group in the relentless pursuit of his former partner in crime, Pike, and his band of outlaws. With the onset of the industrial revolution, the rival leaders (superbly portrayed by Robert Ryan and William Holden) see their way of life coming to an end. “I want to make one good score and back off,” Pike says to his buddy, Dutch (played by the wonderful Ernest Borgnine). “Back off to what?” Dutch rejoins. The only cowboy in the bunch who has any family ties is the lone Mexican, Angel. “I care only about my people!” he proclaims. Ironically, it is in a doomed effort to save Angel’s life that the “wild bunch” is eventually brought down.  

Two notable exchanges occur that bring me back to present day conflicts. When one of the outlaws wants to oust another from the group, Pike angrily denounces the complainer: “When you side with a man you stay with him and if you can’t do that you’re like some animal! You’re finished!” Later, Pike reacts to Dutch’s put-down of Thornton’s commitment to hunt them down with the defense that “He gave his word!” “To a railroad!” Dutch protests. “It’s his word!” Pike insists. “That ain’t what counts!” counters Dutch. “It’s who you give your word to!” 

Up until this point, their respective loyalties have not been questioned. The code was the code. But Dutch is asking Pike to dig a little deeper. There’s no time for that, however. It is their blind loyalty and misplaced sense of honor that eventually gets them all killed.  

When I think of the multitudes of young men committing violent crimes, particularly those associated with gangs and drugs, I wonder if they aren’t living—like the wild bunch—in a kind of parallel universe with a set of values and ethics that render mere mortals like me not only inconsequential but nonexistent. Of course, there are so-called white collar criminals who also have no empathy for their victims, e.g. the “innocent bystanders” who lost their life savings, caught in the cross-fires of big-money gangs like Enron and Lincoln Savings and Loan. But it’s the violent crimes that seem to hit us in our collective gut. 

Throughout the film we see groups of indigenous children unfazed by the surrounding violence who move from stoic observation to gleefully initiating some violence of their own. Compassionate disconnect begins at an early age. During the same sermon, Reverend E described a young boy of 11 living near the woman mentioned earlier. He crossed the street to speak to a man he had never seen before, a man hired to do some gardening. “Need anything?” the boy asked the stranger. “I’ve got what you need,” he went on. “What can I get you?”  

In The Wild Bunch, Angel objects to the selling of guns to renegades who have harmed his village: “Would you give guns to someone to kill your family?” he asks. “Ten thousand [dollars ]cuts an awful lot of family ties,” Pike responds. 

So, what do we do with the “bad” son? Give up on him? Lock him up? Or focus on rehabilitation, on helping him to view himself and his surroundings in ways he’s never seen before? 

“How wonderful it would be,” Reverend E preached, “if we were to approach a stranger in our midst with the same words—“Do you need anything? What can I get for you? How can I help?”—that the young drug dealer used so expertly, so easily rolling off his tongue like water.