"the wrath of god lies sleeping. it was hid a million years before men were and only men have the power to wake it. hell aint half full. hear me. ye carry war of a man's making onto a foreign land. ye'll wake more than the dogs."
while reading blood meridian it occurred to me in the back of my mind that the violence and brutality of the american frontier as described by cormac mccarthy had a familiar ring to it. as i thought about it more i realized that perhaps sam peckinpah's wild bunch was the cinematic counterpoint to mccarthy's literary wild west. on the surface it seems obvious. a group of marauding opportunist outlaws make their way across the american west killing with impunity. an irrational body count lies in their wake, resulting in a bleak unsentimental survey of the american myth. it seems however, that the movie and the book do not arrive at the same conclusion.
there is certainly a connection between mccarthy's biblical evocation of language and peckinpah's visual blood ballet. i will not contest the visceral success of peckinpah's style in evoking both disgust and horror through the use of violence. i did however find that any attempt at realism and critique the film offers is completely undermined by it's sentimental stance towards the western hero.
in mccarthy's west there are men who deliberately seek out evil and those that go along with it. both are culpable but he does not present any sentiment about it. the dispassionate violence daws us to this conclusion, rendering it more palpable. peckinpah's heroes however, operate within the confines of the hollywood western and even as they attempt to explode the myth, they are in fact over determined by it. they operate within the romanticized notion of a "code" and yet they abandon it at will. when they die by that code is it meaningless and nihilistic. this tension is what makes the movie thoughtful and interesting and ultimately modern. but it also makes it a less searing indictment of the west because the feeling we are left with is that time passed these men by. they were noble and the land around them had become amoral and so they had to die. in mccarthy's west it is the amorality of the men that in fact molds the landscape. they do not die nobly. they just pass into the evil that exists and will continue to exist- it's part of the landscape and the people. it's part of us. this is much more depressing, but perhaps more truthful.
stills from sam peckinpah's the wild bunch, 1969