Pike decides to die

William Holden plays Pike Bishop, the leader of the “Wild Bunch,” in the 1969 movie of the same name. He has one of the all-time great Private Moments toward the end of the final reel.

Remember we defined a Private Moment this way:

A private moment, in a movie or a book, is a scene where a character (usually the lead, but not always) is alone with his or her thoughts. It’s a contemplative moment. It’s in a minor key. Almost always there’s no dialogue. Everything is communicated by facial expression, body language, or action. Often this is extremely subtle.

The Wild Bunch, directed by Sam Peckinpah from a screenplay by Peckinpah and Walon Green, is about a gang of American outlaws (based loosely on the real-life Hole in the Wall Gang, also mined for cinema in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) who get caught up in politics and war on the Mexican border in 1913. 

William Holden as Pike Bishop in “The Wild Bunch”

To cut directly to the finish. one member of the gang, Angel (Jaime Sanchez) has been captured and is being tortured by the evil generalissimo Mapache (Emilio Fernandez). The last four members of the Bunch—Pike, Dutch, and the Gorch brothers (Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson, Warren Oates)—have been helpless to save Angel in the face of the overwhelming numbers of Mapache’s troops. In fury and guilt, they spend the night with local prostitutes in the village where Mapache’s soldiers are garrisoned.

Morning comes. Heaven only knows if Angel is still alive or, if he is, if he can ever recover from the horrors that Mapache’s men have inflicted upon him.

Here’s Pike/William Holden’s Private Moment:

Pike’s woman of the night is a sweet young mother, not a hardened prostituteHer infant bawls in a basket beside her; she is clearly just trying to survive. Pike dresses and cinches up his gun belt. From his pocket he takes a few coins. We’ve seen, earlier in the film, that a single silver or gold piece can be worth a small fortune. Pike jiggles the money thoughtfully. He seems to be deciding how much he wants to leave for the young mother. Whatever amount he decides on (in the audience we can’t see precisely), it is apparently, judging by the woman’s reaction, extremely generous—not to say everything he’s got.  

Pike pauses thoughtfully, regarding the young mother and her baby. He seems to come to some grave decision. He tugs his hat on and turns toward the door.

That’s the scene. No dialogue. No further indication of Pike’s interior deliberations. Yet we in the audience know exactly what he is thinking and exactly what decision he has come to.

The next scene is equally powerful. Pike appears in the door of the room next door, where the Gorch brothers, Lyle and Tector, are arguing over payment with the woman they have together spent the night with. All haggling ceases when Pike appears. He meets his comrades’ eyes.

                                    PIKE

                        Let’s go.

Lyle peers hard at Pike. Can his jefe really mean what Lyle thinks he means?

                                    LYLE

                        Why not?

In the bloodbath that follows, all four of our guys are cut down, though not before they put an end to Mapache (who slits Angel’s throat for fun before their eyes) and scores of his soldados.

But the movie has one more private moment for us.

Robert Ryan plays another gunfighter named Deke Thornton. Deke had once been a member of the Bunch but has been compromised (by the imminence of being sent back to Yuma prison, apparently a real hellhole) into leading the pack of miscreants and saddle tramps who have been hired to pursue Pike and his men across the border. 

Deke has always admired and respected Pike. He hates the rotten job he has been forced to take. Now he rides in, late and alone, to come upon the grisly aftermath of the massacre in the village. Deke dismounts. He passes slowly on foot among the bodies until he comes to Pike’s corpse, contorted in death but still partially upright. Pike’s right hand clutches the pistol-type grip of the M2 Browning machine gun that he had been firing when he was killed.

Deke lingers for a long moment. His eyes settle on the Colt single-action revolver in Pike’s holster.

Deke takes it. A gesture of respect. And more. A resolution to live his life as uncompromisingly as Pike has lived his, come what may.

What’s interesting to me about these moments is that each is the culmination of a movie-long process of evolution for the characters who make them. 

When we in the audience see these moments, we can’t help but flash back through the entire film to the various other moments that have set these Private Moments up. It’s a rush to do this. We feel aesthetic pleasure … and even gratitude toward the artists for structuring their story in such a way as to allow us to participate in these emotions. 

This is a work of art delivering the goods.

It’s a private moment for us too.

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29 Comments

  1. Joe Jansen on March 10, 2021 at 4:14 am

    Two good lines:

    “…pack of miscreants and saddle tramps…”

    “…each [of these moments] is the culmination of a movie-long process of evolution for the characters…”

    I think part of why these private moments work so well is that they leave room for “the beholder’s share”: “the idea that humans respond well to art that forces them to be involved in making sense of the image.”

    https://aeon.co/videos/on-the-beholders-share-how-past-experience-influences-our-perception-of-art

    • Peter Brockwell on March 10, 2021 at 5:41 am

      Joe you’ re dead right. The idea that the reader/viewer wants to do some of the work, but they don’t know, and don’t want to know, that they need to do some work.

      These private moments reflect the fact that perhaps most of the communication and negotiation that takes place in and around every person is the internal dialogue and emotions, far more than between people. So it seems to me. And we welcome and resonate with that.

      I really like Steve’s final line indicating the meta-level, that our seeing a private moment is itself a private moment.

      • Joe on March 10, 2021 at 6:30 am

        Oh, yeah! Good points, Peter. I’m also fascinated by the discussions of how everything we “perceive of as ‘out there'” is, at a certain level happening only in our minds. Donald Hoffman and Anil Seth talk/write about this. Is there any objective “color red out there”? Versus the perception of wavelengths of energy, converted into electrical signals, which our brains/minds interpret as “red.”

        If everything is at its core being experienced internally, then the most intimate connection we can have is to have a window into somebody else’s internal experience. A private moment.

  2. cheryl on March 10, 2021 at 7:28 am

    I love these comments, some very smart folks here, Thank you, I learn from theses.

  3. Carl Blackburn on March 10, 2021 at 7:52 am

    I ordered and am reading my copy of A Mam At Arms. It is great…thank you for writing such an interesting and exciting story. I also want to thank you for your discussion with Jim Gant. I’ve never listened to a more moving beautiful and inspirational talk between two warriors. Thank you for sharing it.

    • Peter Brockwell on March 10, 2021 at 1:40 pm

      Guys, apologies, where is the discussion between Steve and Jim Gant available? Somehow I’ve missed that.
      Peter

      • Brian Nelson on March 10, 2021 at 2:16 pm

        Peter,
        Me too! I got an audible version, so I might purchase another via Black Irish Books to see the video.
        bsn

        • Peter Brockwell on March 10, 2021 at 2:34 pm

          Cheers Brian. Gotcha. I’m being lazy. I’ll source it from BIB.

  4. Andrew+Lubin on March 10, 2021 at 7:58 am

    An especially poignant moment is when in that same scene Ernest Borgnine (Dutch) saw Pike, Lyle, Tector coming, he smiled, stood, and without a word, joined them. Especially when you think of the arguments he and Pike had prior over ‘siding with a man,’ we watched the two answer the question by dying together. A private moment shared by all us.

  5. Brian Nelson on March 10, 2021 at 9:34 am

    I’m a bit of a Hollywood/cultural Luddite—haven’t seen any of the movies mentioned in these ‘private moments’ theme.

    Ironically, I have been moved by the description of the private moments each time—which must speak to the power they have in art.

    Are the private moments when we as consumers/readers feel the closest connection with the protagonist? Are they the most honest ‘human expression’ of the narrative?

    I don’t know, but I do want to watch all these movies now. Just have to get them past the Household 6 censor…

    If I purchased the book via Audible, is the video of Jim and Steve available? If not then I’ll buy a hard copy.
    bsn

    • Maureen Anderson on March 10, 2021 at 12:00 pm

      My favorite private moment is from a TV program, Brian. It’s the last scene in the final episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. After the rest of the gang has inched out the door in a tear-filled group hug, Mary turns around to shut the lights off. As she takes one last look at the newsroom, she smiles. And that was it. So sweet, so simple — and oddly satisfying.

      Darrell and I sold our house in Minnesota last fall to move closer to our Brooklyn-based daughter. I wanted to be by myself in the house for that final goodbye. I looked around at the place we’d become a family, decided it had been a magical 26 years, and smiled.

      Weeks later I realized I’d lived into a vision of the perfect goodbye. I’ll never forget it.

      • Brian Nelson on March 10, 2021 at 3:00 pm

        Maureen,
        That is beautiful! Eyes glistening…

        I can picture both in my head very clearly. As a younger man, I didn’t spend much time in reflection. Go, go, go, onto the next. Don’t have an ‘I Love Me’ Wall, no shadowbox with coins, medals, etc.

        Your ‘private moment’ makes me recognize that even a small reflection on the goodness, the memories, the good/bad/ugly–and, like you said, “..it had been a magical 26 years..” is worthy of emulation. Thank you.
        bsn

    • Andrew+Lubin on March 10, 2021 at 12:16 pm

      Brian – get a DVD of Wild Bunch and watch it at work; worth your while!
      Andrew

      • Brian Nelson on March 10, 2021 at 3:01 pm

        Andrew,
        Wilco! I have actually thought about scheduling in some time to watch some ‘professional development’ art during the duty day. You’ve convinced me. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy…
        bsn

  6. Zinc Pederson Screenwriter and Cartoonist on March 10, 2021 at 11:47 am

    Just finished your autographed copy of A MAN AT ARMS. What an incredible journey you take the reader on. Amazing subject matter. Already my go-to gift for all my mates. Cool that you mention The Wild Bunch. Less is often more. That iconic walk to Mapache wasn’t scripted. Peckinpah thought it up on the spot and kept adding to it as the actors walked towards through the ruins. I’ve always thought as The Wild Bunch as one long funeral dirge, even from the beginning with the Temperance Union march.

    Thank you for all your work.
    Zinc Pederson

    • Steven Pressfield on March 10, 2021 at 12:44 pm

      Is that true, Zinc? I did not know that. Wow. Why are all the greatest moments unscripted?

    • Gerry Lantz on March 11, 2021 at 3:30 pm

      What a beautiful thought re Wild Bunch.: “one long funeral dirge”–it is. I am committed to watching it again with a wider (deeper) appreciation. Saw it while taking courses from the wonderful film. critic Anthony Macklin–who opened my eyes to myth, symbol, and archetype in films and literature. While studying with him in college, I came to appreciate Bonnie & Clyde, Easy Rider, and Cool Hand Luke (to a lesser degree) as “one long funeral dirge.” Brilliant stuff.

  7. Mike on March 10, 2021 at 1:08 pm

    Pretty sure that was an M1917 rather than an M2.

    Regardless, a great read. I’m sad to have only just discovered this site.

    • Brian Nelson on March 10, 2021 at 2:15 pm

      Mike,
      Welcome! This blog has become one of my ‘screening criteria’ (criterion for the grammar Nazis out there) for people I want to meet/chat/engage.

      Well intentioned piece of unsolicited advice: Check out the Warrior Archetype series here:
      https://stevenpressfield.com/category/the-warrior-archetype/

      In short, you’ll love it. 50 short (3-8 min) videos by Steve discussing the Warrior Archetype from Spartans, to Alexander, to us…this series helped me keep my chin up during this pandemic.
      bsn

      • Mike on March 11, 2021 at 10:59 am

        Brian,

        Thank you. I’ve been reviewing a lot of the Warrior Archetype posts. They are quite compelling. I usually do so at the bar, so I read the transcripts (another feature that makes this site so much better than most); I’m sure, from the comments, that I’m missing out on a lot by not watching the videos. The tribalism debate also makes me wish I’d discovered this site a decade earlier.

        I’ve always admired Mr. Pressfield’s novels. The Profession really made an impact, as I’d just returned from northern Iraq – the connection between the future mercenary and his ancient brother at Gaugamela was poignant (it’s been a while, I think it was Gaugamela? – at least, that’s what I pictured in my mind).

        With 24 years of service, I’m starting to turn toward writing. I imagine those fans that bridge the divide between his military novels and his other works will grow considerably as more vets become aware of this site.

        • Brian Nelson on March 11, 2021 at 3:31 pm

          Mike,
          You’re absolutely correct. If I were back in command, I’d add most of Pressfield’s work and the blog as mandatory reading. Then I’d quiz them…

          Please get “Warrior Ethos” as well. Steve wrote that for us. Hey man, I’m actually in the biz of helping Veterans transition (mostly find work–but I know a shitload (doctrinal term) of people in this space). If you need anything, shoot me a note: [email protected]
          Good luck and again, welcome aboard. I love it here.
          bsn

          • Mike on March 11, 2021 at 4:51 pm

            I’ve ordered it. It’s probably at my parents’ place, waiting for me to visit.

            I’ll definitely be reaching out to you; I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m at a bit of a crossroads as far as what to do next, and the idea of what comes after being a soldier is one I’ve been asking myself for a while…. which brings up a writing question I’d like to address to Mr. Pressfield:

            Mr. Pressfield,

            I’ve not heard this from anyone else, it’s just something that occurred to me over the last couple days. Now, I’m no Trekkie, but…

            Is Telamon a Mary Sue? If so, is that necessarily a bad thing, given his role within your works (I’ve yet to read A Man At Arms)?

            Generally, a Mary Sue character is largely (and legitimately) derided for being flawless in relation to the story arch and for having little real character arch of his/her own -a deus ex machina, minus the surprise ending.

            As part of this, it is a character that is relatable to the reader through their sheer lack of character; they are entirely open to that reader’s headcanon.

            I can see a phantom of this in my own affection for Telamon. The big difference between he and Mary Sue is that Telamon isn’t the hero of the story (so far).

            He’s seemingly ageless. He’s the consummate warrior – his skills are unquestioned….

            The big difference is that it’s not his song the bards are singing; he’s like Diomedes to Achilles – able to wound War, himself, but just a distraction while the hero pouts. He’s far from lacking in brazen courage, yet he’s driven by the fight over the glory of its aftermath.

            In many ways, he’s the lionized version of many of us in our own minds. If you can stoop yourself to the level of Star Trek fanfic tropes, I would love to hear your thoughts.



          • Mike on March 12, 2021 at 6:07 pm

            Please disregard my last spiel. The fact that he’s a supporting character makes him more Mentor than Mary Sue.



    • Joe on March 10, 2021 at 4:20 pm

      Welcome aboard, Mike.

  8. Mike on March 11, 2021 at 11:32 am

    Thanks, Joe. I’ve enjoyed reading your comments and I hope to return the favor.

    Aside from the occasional spam selling term papers and oversees brides, the commenting community here is also a big draw.

    • Mike on March 11, 2021 at 5:27 pm

      overseas*

      Autocorrect is digital tyranny.

  9. usa map on May 10, 2021 at 1:09 am

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