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