March 30, 2017

THE WILD BUNCH vs. Metallica

Starring William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O'Brien, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Jaime Sanchez. Directed by Sam Peckinpah. (1969, 143 min).

Essay D.M. Anderson

I've been a loyal Metallica fan ever since they first came riding into my hometown, guns blazing, to blow my face off back way back in 1984. At the time, nobody suspected they'd someday become the biggest heavy metal band on the planet. Metallica didn't invent heavy metal, of course, but along with Black Sabbath, arguably did more to shape and influence its direction (and public perception) than any other band in the genre's history.

Always an album-oriented genre, heavy metal itself is no longer as viable as it was in its glory years (roughly the 80s through the mid-90s), retreating back to the underground once the world began embracing instant pop stars belting out downloadable dance tunes with 'rap sections' replacing heroic guitar solos.

But with the exception of the dreary Load years, Metallica have kicked-ass unabated for over three decades now, indifferent to would-be successors to their crown, oblivious to changing trends and unphased by tidal changes in the music industry. Metal bands have come and gone (mostly gone), but Metallica soldiers on, still relevant, still selling out stadiums worldwide. Of all the heavy metal albums released in 2016, Metallica's Hardwired...To Self-Destruct was the only one to top the Billboard charts.

While they're still the biggest band in the world, what was once fresh and cutting-edge is now what my daughters impatiently refer to as "Dad's Music" whenever I crank-up my Ride the Lightning CD in the car. For all intents and purposes, Metallica is the last of a dying breed. Whenever they inevitably decide to hang up their guns or simply drop dead on the road, once they're gone, it will effectively be the end of an era that's already been on life support for a long time: the reign of the authentic, uncompromising heavy metal rock star.

Tector Gorch, Dutch Engstrom, Lyle Gorch, Pike Bishop.
Metallica's final chapter hasn't yet been written, but I suspect it probably will be sooner rather than later. If life truly imitates art, however, maybe I have already seen that final chapter in The Wild Bunch, one of the all-time great epic westerns and the only Sam Peckinpah movie I ever thought was any good.

Like the members of Metallica, the film depicts a band of notorious-but-aging outlaws whose days are numbered. Not necessarily because of their age, but a changing world where living by the gun is fast becoming a thing of the past. Their leader, Pike Bishop (William Holden) knows the end of the trail is inevitable. He's older and wiser - a bit less reckless - yet still has the intestinal fortitude to mastermind one last big score before riding off into the sunset, the robbery of a railroad office.

Rhythm guitarist/lead singer James Hetfield can be seen as Metallica's Pike Bishop: the primary creative force and defacto leader of the band. Hardened by 30+ years of writing and playing some of the most physically demanding music there is, he remains a master of the vicious metal riff, though his lyrics are a far cry from the hair-whipping days of Master of Puppets, often more personal & introspective, with an acute awareness of the world around him and the wisdom that comes with age.

If Hetfield is Metallica's Bishop, then drummer/co-founder Lars Ulrich is the band's Dutch Engstorm (played in the film by Ernest Borgnine). The two have ridden together the longest, establishing a nearly unbreakable bond of trust and respect over the years that isn't quite shared with the other gang members. Despite the considerable contributions and talents of bassist Robert Trujillo & lead guitarist Kirk Hammett (who's been with Metallica almost from the beginning), they're essentially the band's Gorch Brothers. Played by Warren Oates & Ben Johnson in the film, the Gorch Brothers certainly carry their weight in the gang, but are content to leave the thinking to Bishop & Dutch.

The initial railroad office job turns out to be a trap, set-up by Bishop's former partner Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), the head of a posse deputized by the railroad. After a bloody shoot-out in the streets, Bishop's gang manages to escape, leaving behind one of their own, 'Crazy' Lee (Bo Hopkins), with instructions to keep the office workers as hostage. But the truth is they abandon him to take the fall because Lee is a crazy, trigger-happy liability. This mirrors an early incident in Metallica's career, when original lead guitarist Dave Mustaine was unceremoniously kicked out of the band because he was often violent & crazy as well (mostly when he drank). How they dumped Mustaine was nearly as cruel as what Bishop does to Lee: On the eve of recording their debut album in a New York studio, the other three band members woke Mustaine and dropped him off at the bus station with a one-way ticket back to L.A.

Though Lee died in a hail of gunfire, Mustaine survived and rebounded with a major chip on his shoulder, putting together his own posse in the form of Megadeth, consisting mostly of hired guns only slightly more reliable than Thornton's scuzzy batch of bounty hunters, with the single-minded intent of chasing down Metallica and beating them at their own game. Though he inauspiciously began his career as 'Crazy' Lee, Dave Mustaine definitely became Metallica's Deke Thornton.

Empty handed after the botched railroad office job, the Bishop gang flees to a Mexican village where their youngest member, Angel (Jaime Sanchez), was born. The village is ruled by Mapache, a corrupt general in the Mexican Army. Though Angel runs afoul of Mapache, Bishop strikes a deal with the general in exchange for a massive cache of gold: rob a train of several cases of U.S. weapons destined for Pancho Villa's revolutionaries. It's the gang's second chance for a big score that'll enable them to hang up their guns for good.

But after Angel is caught smuggling one case of rifles for his village to defend themselves, Mapache insists on keeping him and lets his thugs do their worst. Bishop, Dutch and the others ride away with their gold, apparently willing to sacrifice Angel. Meanwhile, Thornton's posse is drawing closer.

Kirk Hammett, Robert Trujillo, James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich.
I suppose one-time bassist Jason Newsted can be seen as Metallica's Angel. Newsted was hired by Metallica after the death of beloved bassist Cliff Burton. The band was already becoming a major success, and though Newsted was a nice fit and well liked by fans, Metallica - rather infamously - never treated him as an equal. Despite his unwavering dedication to the band for 15 years, Newsted remained an relative outsider, was seldom allowed any creative input and mostly treated like a hired hand (hell, you could hardly even hear his bass on the albums). When he finally quit, the rest of the band appeared almost carelessly dismissive of his relevance.

Unlike Bishop, Dutch and the Gorch Brothers, Angel was never part of the gang's core, and seemingly the most expendable. Still, to see them leave Angel behind as nonchalantly as Metallica moved on without Newsted is a distressing moment in the film. Like Newsted, Angel often came across as the most likable, down-to-Earth guy in the bunch (as cold-blooded killers go, anyway).

It's at this this point The Wild Bunch may most accurately foretell the end of Metallica's reign (and heavy metal in general). Not only does Bishop realize he's too old and set in his ways to be anything other than a bandit, he can't bring himself to leave Angel like this. The four agree to turn back, try to rescue Angel and kill as many Mapache soldiers as they can. While they'll all likely die, their only shot at anything resembling redemption means going out in a hail of gunfire. This final shoot-out - still one of the greatest ever filmed - marks the end of the most romanticized era in American history, the reign of the outlaw gunfighter.

Metallica was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. Newsted, who'd been out of the band for eight years, was inducted along with them and welcomed onto the stage to play with them once again. Publicly anyway, it was the first time the rest of Metallica ever really acknowledged his importance to them. It may have taken awhile, but at least they finally made things right with their own Angel and paid him the respect he was due.

Mustaine, however, wasn't afforded the same opportunity. He's still plugging away in Megadeth, and though they achieved considerable success in their own right, Mustaine's bitter obsession with beating his former bandmates at their own game never came to pass. He's mellowed out a lot over the years and now acknowledges his respect for everything Metallica's accomplished, though you can still detect a considerable - and understandable - amount of envy. After all, Metallica's won a slew of Grammys, sold tens-of-millions of albums and still sell-out every show they play with no signs of abating. One has the impression that, even three decades after his ouster, Mustaine would rejoin the band in a heartbeat if asked.

Similarly, Deke Thornton never did catch up with the Bishop gang, despite occasionally coming close while chasing them across Mexico. Like Mustaine, Thornton may have fallen out with his old gang, but as the film plays on, it's obvious he still has tremendous respect for them. And though he's working on the right side of the law, given the opportunity, he'd hook back up with Bishop & Dutch without giving it a second thought, which is more-or-less confirmed in the film's poignant final scene.

However Metallica decides to go out - walking away quietly or in a blaze of glory - they're probably going to take the very idea of heavy metal superstardom with them. Nearly every true metal band - from the legends to the flavors-of-the-month - have either broken up, faded away, retired or become nostalgia acts, and none (not even the mighty Black Sabbath) ever achieved the same consistent level of popularity and longevity as Metallica has. They are essentially the last relevant bastion of what was once the most popular music genre in the world. When they're gone, that's it. Metal as a lucrative, viable genre will be dead. The true rock star will be a thing of the past, to be romanticized by pop culture historians the same way Zane Grey mythologized the old west.

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