Two landmark motion pictures have hit the 45th anniversary milestone this year, and both of them were instrumental in helping usher in the kind of norms, sensibilities, and somewhat radical attitudes that were beginning to burgeon in Tinseltown as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s.
One of them, The Wild Bunch, took screen violence and the western narrative to an entirely different level; the other, Midnight Cowboy, not only became the first X-rated motion picture to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, but it also exemplified a kind of realistic film in which the narrative doused its characters in strife, pain, and struggle, and didn’t offer a seamless resolution at its denouement, but rather the contrary. Its kind of downer tale also became a style and staple for many of the films which followed it into the mid 1970s such as Scarecrow, The Last Detail, etc.
Both pictures were definitely in parlance to what was coined in hindsight “The New Hollywood,” in which prior conventions of how studios and films were run and made were smashed and shattered. After decades prior in which films were enforced by a strict iron clad Hayes Code, taboo subjects were suddenly right on the silver screen for all to gawk at: nudity, sexuality, profanity, and violence, right at the forefront. Suddenly, the aw shucks roses and puppies kind of metaphor that permeated films for so many decades (even ones with adult themes) were starting to erode, and gave way to a tidal wave of more realistic, tougher world exterior points of view in screenwriter’s narratives and directors’ visions.
And two of those directors, who gave The Wild Bunch and Midnight Cowboy such gravitas of the highest order, alpha male to the max Sam Peckinpah and stuffed shirt British lens helmsman John Schlesinger respectively (both of who had been somewhat veterans of Tinseltown and were working when it was still in its sort of social bondages). For them, their respective films would be their finest works, master strokes of classmanship and jaw dropping fortitude, boundless creativity, and confidence, and it shows in every frame of these two productions.
And while The Wild Bunch is not set in a contemporary setting like Midnight Cowboy is (it’s in the Old West at the turn of the century, unlike Midnight Cowboy’s very urban, yet equally challenging landscape of a New York City that’s as cold and distant as the Old West), both films have a lot more in common than one would think. They both contain narratives about survival of men, men who are not in their regular elements, misunderstood, almost on the borderline of desperation, and both films have tragic endings which still has senses of hope for its remaining characters.
Midnight Cowboy follows the tale of Joe Buck, a naïve, yet earnest wannabe Cowboy and male hustler, whose visions of making it in the Big Apple via all the “available rich lonely women” suddenly flash into cold reality when he realizes that it’s a backbone and toughness needed to survive in such a metropolis, something that Joe doesn’t innately have. He befriends a derelict named Enrico “Ratzo” Rizzo, who is ill with what appears to be a terminal disease and together, the two form a bizarre bond of first insecurity, doubt, and then finally companionship and togetherness. Just like we need Joe and Enrico to give us purpose watching the film, the two need each other for said purpose as well. Jon Voight as Joe (in one of his earliest roles) shimmers with a constant pseudo-John Wayne stance, but adds layers to the character that the Duke could never have mustered up, even if Wayne in real life beat out Voight (and Dustin Hoffman’s perfectly seedy characterization of Rizzo) for the Best Actor Academy Award (for True Grit).
To watch Voight and Hoffman together is like watching a destitute buddy team or a comedy duo that lived in a dumpster for a year and then came out and expressed their chemistry, personality, and virility and lack of it. They don’t inspire each other, but in a weird way their ultimate actions are strangely inspiring to us, and it’s the combination of the superb acting, concrete direction by Schlesinger (who appears to actually hate New York City — something which, strangely enough, sears and solidifies the story even further in terms of its tragic plight), and a powerhouse script by Waldo Salt (who based it from the 1965 novel by James Leo Herlihy and won an Oscar for his work) that keeps Midnight Cowboy high on the shelf as one of the greatest pictures ever to come out of a studio in Hollywood. That vivid, almost blinding reach is as strong as ever, 45 years on.
For The Wild Bunch, the viewer is equally as riveted as watching Midnight Cowboy, but even in more of an aesthetic, visual sense. A crackerjack cast of some of Hollywood’s great earlier era A-list, creeping into their 50s and 60s at the time (Oscar winners William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson, and Edmund O’Brien, along with great Hollywood character actors like Albert Dekker, Robert Ryan, and Warren Oates), trudge their way into a new world (the 20th century) that’s fast advancing in its ways, and pretty much leaving them behind as obsolete. The men, who were a bunch of successful bandits and thieves in their time, are shown, by the film’s opening, to be at the end of their “career rope” as a planned heist goes awry with bounty hunters closing in.
Bucking the grave odds, they decide to do one more haul before they retire, not realizing that they got more than they bargained for when they do it with a General from Mexico knee deep in Pancho Villa’s war. It all escalates into a culmination by the end that has to stand as one of the most bloody, balletic forms of fight and ambush sequences ever committed to celluloid or digital. As staged by Peckinpah’s direction and edited by the superb Louis Lombardo, who mixes seamless and flawless slow and regular motion together with other sequences which blend to other further ones, it creates a sort of dreamy form of violence not seen on the screen before (even in films like Bonnie and Clyde, released two years earlier in 1967 at that point, which was more about the shock of the violence than the sort of “artistic” flair it could present on screen) or arguably since.
The music, cinematography, aforementioned editing, and acting by the stellar ensemble cast, created a western that transcended a western, a tale of revenge and torn man aggression that contains themes that poked fingers right into the pressures and fallacies of the current at the time Vietnam War and even the American Government, to simply presenting scenes that have the sheer power of being shot and lit exceptionally, and unexpectedly for our first glance impression of Peckinpah, in extremely delicate and sensitive ways (witness the sequence in which Holden is at odds in a brothel in Mexico about making a key decision near the film’s end).
The film works above all, not because of the violence or gritty toughness, or endlessly quotable dialogue (in a way, it’s a Scorsese film before the term “Scorsese film” even existed), but because of its quiet, yet with equal weight and intensity scenes and sequences. Not apt to spoil anything here, one simply has to watch to glimpse and grasp the wondrous sense of timing and pace Peckinpah applied to The Wild Bunch.
Both films are readily available to be viewed in Blu-ray formats (The Wild Bunch l Midnight Cowboy). For those that have never seen them, they are both the rare films that improve with each viewing; there’s so much to absorb in the underlying themes that both pictures present, and the way in which the characters and the narrative dictate those eclectic directions. Simply put and in short, The Wild Bunch and Midnight Cowboy are two world class American films that have their own presentments of Americana: human nature, foibles, fallacies, and triumphs and tragedies of the robust and broken human spirit.
45 years later, in a contemporary world that has had its share and then some of the robust and broken human spirit, The Wild Bunch and Midnight Cowboy both remain more urgent viewing than ever.