PECKINPAH’S WEST VS MANN’S METROPOLIS
Why Michael Mann’s epic crime saga, Heat, is in many ways a modern day Wild Bunch.
Sam Peckinpah was a maverick of his time, a visionary who had a primitive take on man, viewing him as instinctual, primal and violent. Drawing heavily from the work of Robert Ardrey, controversial sociologist and author of ‘African Genesis’ and ‘The Territorial Imperative’ Peckinpah ascribed to the belief that man is by nature territorial, brutal and elementally animal.
Indeed for a director who was by turns mean, vicious and unpredictable it comes as little surprise that his screen incarnations should be seen to so strikingly personify this side of man. Yet, it is only when these base qualities merge with the lustier, more romantic ones of loyalty, honour and courage that we see the more complete version of Peckinpah’s outsider/anti-hero emerge, magnificently realised in his seminal classic The Wild Bunch.
The Wild Bunch showcases Peckinpah at the pinnacle of his powers, well before the drugs and alcohol sunk their hooks too far into him. It is an at times contemplative and elegiac film, with moments of humour and sad reflection. It is also supremely visceral and spectacularly violent- containing two of the most electrifying gunfights in movie history, delivered through ground breaking montage style editing and multi camera filming.
As an allegory of American life, culture and social mores The Wild Bunch continues to resonate. Beginning with the opening shot of scorpions in a bucket slowly being devoured by colonies of ants mirroring America's then plight in the jungles of Vietnam, right up to the death of the American dream/ idealism as witnessed in the film’s finale and the brutal use of the Machine Gun. The presence of a new epoch looms, one that foreshadows advances in technology and a way of life that is both unappealing and untranslatable to Peckinpah’s men.
Peckinpah’s work also contains a contemplative self awareness. As the first shootout unfolds we observe children standing still, their faces scrunched up in the dusty chaos. They witness death, depravity and horrors yet appear detached and remote as if acknowledging these acts from some inviolate prism. Violence, Peckinpah seems to be saying, is as much inherited as it is innate, and innocence is extinguished quickly- snuffed out without remorse or thought.
It is not surprising to learn that Michael Mann considered becoming an Academic upon his completion of an English Literature Major at Wisconsin University. His films ooze a thematic depth and intelligence, stylishly examining the intricacies of human relationships and the affects the modern epoch has had/is having on the individual.
Aesthetically, Heat emphasises concrete, bleak surfaces, steel, machinery and a maze like urban milieu. It is alienating to observe and Mann deliberately renders his L.A as a cold, harsh, impenetrable jungle. Grounded against this universe of steel, refineries, grey monoliths and the machinations of a fevered suburbia Mann’s characters flourish and not infrequently flounder. In Heat they reveal themselves to be men of honour in a dishonourable and treacherous criminal underworld. Mann never offers easy answers to the questions and problems that are unveiled through his characters, masterly blurring good/bad and right/wrong, in the process eschewing moral certitude.
He is an acutely self conscious director, whose style may be characterised as extremely post modern in nature. Technology, progress and urban expansion threaten to overwhelm his characters to the point where man is almost bleached out. Rendering many of the scenes in icy blue hues, akin almost to an imperceptible layer of frost, Mann skilfully imbues a sense of isolation and loneliness.
Both Mann and Peckinpah are/were meticulous, obsessive even, and both have set ideas about the man/ men they give life to. Just as Peckinpah’s men are ruthless, recklessly alive and primal, Mann’s are more thoughtful, introspective.
Both male leads, Pike Bishop and Neal Mc McCauley, as played by Robert De Niro and William Holden are driven by loyalty to their clan and an almost narcissistic sense of individualism and separateness. These are men on the frontiers of society, fringe dwellers, who are either unable or unwilling to habituate themselves to normal life- “what the fuck is that? Barbecues and baseball?” asks McCauley. When Pike says he wishes to retire after one more score, Dutch (Ernest Borgnine) quite scornfully asks him- “and do what?” The point is that these men are what they’re doing, defined by their actions and their words. Indeed there is almost something Sir Thomas Moore like in the way these men stick to their guns (or AK47’s.)
They are men on the edge of extinction and indeed their extinction is assured almost from the outset. In both cases the legacy of the slain anti-hero lives on, left to endure in the tormented souls of their pursuers. Both filmmakers place their heroes in direct opposition to something, be it a deep desire to assert ones sense of worth in the face of a harsh world eager to see it bled out and rinsed away, or to pay homage to time honoured codes of conduct that have been all but extinguished by greed and power.
Just as Pike’s ‘Bunch’ unflinchingly uphold their word and commitment to one another ("When you side with a man you stay with him") Mc Cauley’s crew remain bound by the code of the street, but even more significantly, a deep loyalty to each other, despite Mc Cauley's credo which celebrates the disposability of relationships- " Do not allow yourself to have any commitments in your life that you are not willing to walk away from in 30 seconds flat if you spot the heat round the corner."
In some ways it feels as if Mann has lifted the Peckinpah template straight out of 1969, made a few changes, given it his trademark stylistic sheen, whilst staying true to the time honoured themes of betrayal, honour, fate and loyalty. It could further be argued he has used Peckinpah's western model of masculinity, adding the modern complexities and dilemmas of work, relationships and the harried existence that is life in a big city, all delicately stitched together with the unifying thread of loss.
Pike and McCauley both dream of a better life yet life for them living can only be defined by commitment to their clan. For them “the action is the juice.” There will be no idyllic retirement in warm climates, the irony being that such a spot would be an equivalent death sentence for both men.
On a purely visceral level both films contain utterly terrifying gun battles- Heat a master class in military like precision and execution, The Wild Bunch just as thrilling for its infamous OTT blood spatters and montage style editing. Both showcase the brutality of man and the inherent ruthlessness of all concerned.
Mann is as renowned for his meticulousness as Peckinpah was for his outbursts and unpredictability, yet both share/shared a passion for cinema. Both men cut their cinematic teeth working in television, serving apprenticeships on a variety of shows and each seem/seemed possessed of the same unyielding need for perfection.
Comparing William Holden's character of Pike Bishop with Robert De Niro’s Neal McCauley may seem an odd comparison. Holden’s Pike is gnarled, world weary and vicious- a leader on the cusp of being obsolete, indeed he knows his time is up (observe moment when he is unable to mount his horse.)
Both men carry haunted memories of the past, determined not to relive them, yet each are fatalistically and ineluctably forced to deal with them at the end, neither one hesitating when called into action. Both are uncompromisingly cold natured, McCauley being the more calculated and strategic of the two and each of them meet their end with a sense of dead end honour intact.
Over 25 years separate The Wild Bunch and Heat yet one only need imagine a reversal of roles, whereon the characters of Heat try to live out their destiny in Peckinpah’s west and vice versa. It may make for an incongruous reversal at first and certainly the thought of De Niro’s suave master thief riding a horse at the head of his crew is an anomalous image, but one that for all the variations in mood, costume, setting and even genre feel more than vaguely related, like twins that were separated at birth, one of whom has grown up to be a seasoned city-goer, the other a hardened country man.