VANISHING OF THE WEST. NOSTALGY IN THE FILMS BY SAM PECKINPAH
The author analyses six films directed by Sam Peckinpah — Ride the High Country (1962), Major Dundee (1965), The Wild Bunch (1969), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), Junior Bonner (1972), and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) — which compose a series of the laments in honour of the bygone Old West and its way of life. Plesnar comes to the conclusion that Peckinpah, contrary to John Ford, Howard Hawks or Budd Boetticher, did not mythicize the frontier, nor did he tell the allegorical stories about the conflict between civilization and wilderness or the building of American nation. The director did not paint the portraits of the idealized “larger than life” folk heroes: sheriffs, cowboys, ranchers, avengers, gunfighters and troopers. He presented the psychically injured men, who — celebrating the individualism in the corrupt world — were living according to their own rules. His characters were rebels and outcasts, badly adapted to their times, as well as the solitary men without homes, love, and acceptance. They constantly made their way towards self-destruction and death to expiate their guilts and sins.
The plot of almost all of Peckinpah’s westerns is in the turning-point, when the Old West is moving away and instead the new West is coming. It is not the West of respectable, brave, and honest men any more, but the West of corrupt politicians, bankers, and corporations. The characters created by the director do not fit into the new West. They have the tragic consciousness of being out of history, nevertheless they are not able and even do not want to adapt to the social, economic, and moral transitions. They hanker after the recent past and are determined to keep the traditional way of life.
The opposition of the Old West vs. the new West (or the past vs. the present) is fundamental for Peckinpah and is expressed on both the level of plot and iconography. The images of wilderness (forests, deserts, and mountains) are the basic iconographic symbols of the Old West. Then the automobiles and other machines (bicycles, motorcycles, machine guns, bulldozers, and even aeroplanes, which are the subject of the discussion in The Wild Bunch) are the symbols of the new West and, at the same time, of evil, threat, and destruction.
Plesnar notices the fact that the plots of most of the movies directed by Peckinpah include two themes: betrayal by a friend and wandering. Betrayal needs redemption (by death or at least by the act of repentance and self-sacrifice). Then the wandering is not only the translocation of the characters in space but also their journey into their own souls in search of integrity and self-awareness.