1969: It was the year mankind took a giant step forward with the lunar landing, and it marked the inauguration of Nixon (which, some may argue, constituted a giant step backwards.) It was the last year in a decade of significant change.
1969 was also a significant year in the history of the Western film genre. Two movies were released that year which stretched the boundaries of the Western as they had rarely been stretched before—and in two completely different directions.
The films in question are The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. They were ranked #6 and #7, respectively, in the American Film Institute’s top-ten list of the greatest Western movies ever made. On the surface, they hardly seem to go together; one is a grim bloodbath, after all, while the other is a light-hearted buddy movie. Both, however, set the genre’s conventions on their collective ear.
In fact, the two films are more similar than you might think. The plots are basically the same. A group of turn-of-the-century bank and train robbers are pursued by a determined posse; they go south of the border, where they end up in a Latin American village and a showdown with a small army. In real life Butch’s Hole-in-the-Wall gang was also called the Wild Bunch (a sobriquet used earlier by Oklahoma’s Doolin-Dalton Gang.)
The protagonists of both movies are robbers—and, unlike the outlaw-heroes of previous Westerns, were not the least bit apologetic about it. At the same time, they were not amoral “anti-heroes” like Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name. These gangs had their own set of morals, which they adhered to faithfully. Both sets of characters had depth—especially those in The Wild Bunch—without being complicated. They had simple moral dilemmas. “A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.” “Stick with your partners no matter what.” They also had the same theme: something special is passing away forever. The outlaws are trapped in their profession, and in their time, and are destined to disappear with it.
While plot and theme may have been similar, the film’s executions were as different as night and day. In The Wild Bunch we watch the unique era of the outlaw pass away with stark realism and a sense of impending, pre-ordained doom. In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid we sit back and enjoy it while it lasts. The former is dark and violent, whereas the latter is playful, charming and funny. In one scene, Butch tricks payroll guard by imitating an old lady’s voice; in another the gang uses too much dynamite and blows up the money. The Wild Bunch gang is fatalistic but meets a noble end—Butch and the Kid are noble throughout, and meet a grim end. That statement may seem incongruous; both gangs get shot to pieces by a small army, which should meet anyone’s definition of “grim.” The difference lies in how each group got there. Both gangs rob a government supply train (in the case of Butch and Sundance, a mule train.) The Wild Bunch is hired by a Mexican general to steal U.S. arms with which he plans to resupply his army. The gang is drawn into their fatal conflict because one of their members supplied some of the arms to a group of idealistic rebels who oppose the brutal general. Butch and Sundance, on the other hand, are identified as the robbers who stole a Bolivian payroll—there was no altruism involved. It is interesting to note that, while The Wild Bunch’s demise is graphically portrayed, the deaths of Butch and Sundance are not shown—the camera freezes as they rush out of their concealment with guns blazing, leaving the two rogues suspended forever in that instant of time.
A woman plays an important part in the story of Butch and Sundance—the Kid’s lover, Etta Place, portrayed by Katherine Ross (in 1984 Ross would marry Sam Elliott, who had appeared in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as “Card Player #2.) Etta is the outlaw pair’s sentimental focus, the world of warmth and security they would like to enjoy but cannot go straight for.
The Wild Bunch, on the other hand, is a man’s world. The only significant female role in the film is the young outlaw Angel’s two-timing girlfriend, who helps set the bloody events in motion. There is no sentimental focus here. Angel murders the girl, and his partners (played by William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates) are obliged to rescue him from the vengeful general that the girl had taken up with.
The common people love Butch and Sundance, sometimes hiding them from the law. Common people distrust and even hate the Wild Bunch, with good reason.
Both gangs are pursued by posses, but the posses are very different. The one pursuing Butch and Sundance is nameless, faceless, implacable, and apparently unstoppable. Butch and Sundance are forced to flee, on the edge of panic—“Who are these guys?” they keep asking. The Wild Bunch’s posse is led by an ex-member of the gang (played by Robert Ryan), who had been released from Yuma prison and promised a pardon for his cooperation. He does so against his better judgment, and is disgusted by the immoral, incompetent scum he must work with. Keeping in mind the films’ 1969 release, one can speculate that the posses represent different aspects of “the establishment.” Butch and Sundance mock and defy their faceless, unyielding establishment figures, while the Wild Bunch simply ignores theirs (who are ineffective, and far more immoral than the outlaws.)
Butch and Sundance are a little disdainful of their own gang, although they are loyal to one another, whereas Pike (Holden) is loyal to all in his band. Both groups have trouble with insubordination. Pike glares at his men and holds them together with the sheer force of his will. Butch sucker-punches the ringleader of his mutineers, and then charms the rest.
The Wild Bunch—a movie about violent, cruel men—actually has a solid moral, as articulated by Pike: “When you ride with a man, you stay with him. Otherwise you’re an animal.” Butch and Sundance make no attempt to moralize, unless you count Butch singing—while bicycling to the musical accompaniment of B. J. Thomas—“Never hit your mother in the face with a shovel, for you’ll leave a dull impression on her mind.”
Both these films took an approach that few, if any, Westerns had taken before, and spawned many imitators. They gave the audience new glimpses of the outlaw—one of them more realistic than any of its predecessors, and the other more idealized than most which came previously. They made it impossible to look at the Western in the same way we had before.