Crossing Another River: Border and Transgression in the Films of Sam Peckinpah

Excerpt: […] In narratives of the Western, Mexico often serves as an alternative to the United States: a place of exotic pleasures and new opportunities (DellʼAgnese 2005: 206).

Mexico is thus repeatedly presented as what Michel Foucault has called “heterotopia”: those “real places […] which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.” (Foucault 1986: 24)

To the outlaw, for whom the United States had become too restrictive, Mexico promises to be a heterotopic counter-site where they will escape rebuke (or reprimand)t for their break with the norms of their culture. Here he seeks the very freedom that (an earlier) America had once promised but can no longer provide.

Accordingly, critic and future director Paul Schrader was effectively describing a heterotopia while opening his review of The Wild Bunch with the claim that Mexico for Peckinpah serves as “a spiritual country similar to Ernest Hemingway’s Spain, Jack London’s Alaska, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s South Seas. It is a place where you go ‘to get yourself straightened out.’” (Schrader 1994: 17)

However, Peckinpah’s film will make it exceedingly clear that such escapist fantasies are soon to be undercut by a harsh reality. Other than a short interlude in an idyllic Mexican village, the bunch will soon find out that, in Mexico, there is no way out, but just more and worse of the same they hoped to leave behind.

Once a heterotopic place itself, the United States, with its frontier now closed – as William Jackson Turner famously stated at the turn of the century – no longer provided the open space necessary for an unhindered pursuit of oneʼs personal dream. Rather, the country, with its increasing population demands of its subjects that they consider themselves as part of a society and, consequently, obey its orders. There is literally no room left for the radically autonomous and anti-social individualism, which the outlaw had once embodied. This is the predicament of almost all of Peckinpahʼs characters: representing rugged frontier mentality in a time, when the frontier is gone. As Jim Kitses has argued, this “insistence on the closing frontier” was in fact always the “basic narrative strategy” of this filmmaker (Kitses 1998: 237).

Yet, and this is the bitter irony of The Wild Bunch, not only has the United States ceased to be a land of opportunity, but the space beyond the American border is also no longer open, but rather has long been taken, and not just by one, but by several parties. “Letʼs go!” may be the credo of the bunch, shouted continuously in the midst of battle. But where to? In the words of Richard Slotkin: “It has now become clear that the members of the Bunch can no longer find any open space – any ‘frontier’ – in which to maneuver” (Slotkin [1992] 1998: 605).

How futile the escape to Mexico will eventually turn out to be is in fact foreshadowed during a discussion amongst the outlaws once they reach the Rio Bravo. This natural border between the USA and Mexico, a mythic place so often fantasized about by characters in Westerns, here becomes the scene of disappointment. “Ah, Mexico lindo!” one member of the bunch, the Mexican Angel, says dreamily, while looking to the other side of the river. But Lyle Gorch, another member of the group, replies: “I don’t see nothing so lindo about it.” And his brother Trector adds: “Just looks like more of Texas for what I’m concerned.” Although presented for the most part of the movie as rather dumb and brutish, the Gorch brothers prove to be remarkably clear sighted in their dismissal. They seem to anticipate, albeit unknowingly, what the future will bring: no new opportunities, just more and worse of the same they had experienced in Texas. What they hoped to get out of, they will sink into even more deeply.

Angel, however, not willing to accept the Gorch brother’s mocking of his beloved country answers: “You have no eyes.” Within the narrative, Angel’s words are meant to point out that there is a beauty to Mexico, which may not be easily seen by a foreigner. However, and in light of what is yet to come, one could understand Angel’s words also as a meta-textual comment to the audience: Granted the crossing of the concrete geographical Texan-Mexican border no lnger seems very promising, but there is something more to this movement than meets the eye. We, too, – the movie’s audience – can neither yet foresee which borders Peckinpah will ultimately cross in his film nor how radically he will do so. We, too, have yet to see how far beyond the familiar this film will lead us. What is waiting across the border, for which our eyes are not prepared, is not so much a new country but a new form of cinema. My claim is, thus, that it is not the geographical transgression that is at stake in The Wild Bunch, but rather the transgression of cinematic form. […]

complete chapter as pdf

in: Marcus Stiglegger, Anton Escher (Hg.): Mediale Topographien. Beiträge zur Medienkulturgeographie, Wiesbaden: Springer VS 2019, S. 97-112.