“Bloody” Sam Peckinpah was to film what Hemingway was to the novel. Peckinpah used the editing room to change the literature of cinema. He slowed down time so a moment took an eternity. The spatter of blood from a wounded outlaw looked like the making of a Jackson Pollock painting. Yet, the violence often overshadowed the complex metaphysical qualities of his films. His magnum opus, The Wild Bunch (1969), came as the western genre was suffering a prolonged death. Peckinpah helped create the revisionist western, and he also reexamined heroism in westerns. He went to the extreme, using hero archetypes created by John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart in John Ford films. In Peckinpah’s westerns, heroes obey an unbreakable code first created by Ernest Hemingway in his 1929 novel, A Farewell to Arms. All of Peckinpah’s heroes, or anti-heroes, obey the code. The struggle to live by the code is a theme that runs throughout all his westerns.
The Ernest Hemingway hero consists of some of the following traits: the hero must first face a moment of truth where he confronts success or failure, he displays grace under pressure, and finally, he never backs down from a fight even in the face of death. Peckinpah pushed his characters to their physical and mental limits to examine how far they could go without breaking their principles.
His 1961, self-admittedly underwhelming directorial debut, Deadly Companions, was his first to explore the Hemingway hero code. A former army officer, Yellowleg (Brian Keith), accidentally kills a woman’s child during a shootout. To atone for his sin he helps protect the funeral procession through Indian territory. Yellowleg faces the moment of truth when he decides to escort the childless mother through Indian controlled land. He shows grace under pressure as he deals with outlaws, perilous landscapes, and a stalking arrow-slinging Indian. During the finale, the outlaws return to kill Yellowleg, who is shot, but through sheer will manages to kill one outlaw and capture the other, thus completing the Hemingway archetype.
The pattern continues in Peckinpah’s magnum opus, The Wild Bunch. Pike Bishop (William Holden) heads a gang of outlaws during the Mexican Revolution. They agree to steal a shipment of guns for a puppet-dictator in Mexico for one last score before they retire. Pike and his gang are constantly teetering on the edge of collapse. During one fight, Pike yells at his posse: “We’re gonna stick together, just like it used to be: 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! We’re finished! All of us.” This is the code that Pike stands by in the beginning of the film. But, the principle eventually gets muddled when he and the rest of the gang become greedy. Toward the end of the film, Angel (Jaime Sánchez), a member of the gang, is found out to be stealing from the gang, which in turn decides to leave him to be tortured by the dictator. As regret eats at Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), second in command, he reminds Pike what he seems to have forgotten throughout the journey:
Pike: What would you do in his place? He gave his word.
Dutch: He gave his word to a railroad.
Pike: It’s his word.
Dutch: That ain’t what counts! It’s who you give it to!
Pike decides to save Angel as he watches him being dragged on the desert ground behind a car driven by the dictator and his underlings. In essence the gang made a deal with the devil, and they must rescue Angel to save their souls. In an act of hubris, the dictator cuts Angel’s throat. Pike, Dutch and the rest of the “wild bunch” retaliate in a bloody finale resulting in their deaths. Pike strayed from the code, but ultimately honored it in the end.
Like the Hemingway code, a symbol appears throughout Peckinpah’s films: a broken mirror. It appears in Deadly Companions and The Wild Bunch as well as his other westerns: Ride the High Country, Major Dundee, and Pat Garret and Billy the Kid. What does it represent? It depends on who is watching the film. To this viewer it represents the price one must pay for adhering to the code: a broken life. Pike and the rest of the gang die in the final shootout. Yellowleg loses the riches that he was going to steal during the bank robbery in order to protect the funeral procession.
The transcendental quality of Peckinpah’s films is often dwarfed by his use of violence. The ultraviolence of Peckinpah’s films is only one part of a filmmaker delving into the meaning of heroism and manliness. Yellowleg and Pike Bishop are the unmovable forces that stick to their code, helping them to thrive in the frontier filled with despots, Indians, and outlaws.